Archive | April, 2014

Thinking About the Case Against Imitative Art, Part One

20 Apr

I’m seventy-one. I have a Ph. D. in  English. I’ve taught for over thirty years at the university level. I’ve done many years of hands-on research with children and teenagers in public schools who struggle in school, or who are just not happy there. I’ve “adopted” several hundred students, worked with them in their homes, visited their school classes, met with parents and teachers, and written two books about the kinds of kids I work with and the way I work with them. I’ve also managed to weave art into the way I teach English, and to “do art” myself, and now I “teach art” to people of all ages as well. I don’t teach “the product.”  I teach “the process”  that usually leads to some kind of product.

What I do and why I do it is the subject of my next book. But, for now, I want to focus on some of the teaching/learning lessons that moved me to think in some fresh ways about my own creative abilities.

I began to think of myself as an artist in second grade, thanks to our second-grade teacher at McDermoth Elementary in Aberdeen, Washington, my home town. I don’t remember anything about this woman, or about her class, except this: She came in one day with tiny little newspaper clippings of what she said were famous portraits and handed a different one to each of us. “Please take this home,” she said, “And ask your mother or someone else in the family to create a costume for you that will make you look as much like this portrait as possible. Then we will all take turns climbing a few steps into a “frame” on the stage of the auditorium. You will stand there a couple minutes posed in the way the person in your picture is standing or sitting, and then you will walk slowly down the steps on the opposite side of the frame. In this way, you will all become a gallery of famous art, and we will introduce the entire student body to great art.”

I don’t know why she chose the clippings she did, or why she gave each of us the one she did, but my friend, Diane, had the honor of being “Pinkie,” –a pretty girl dressed in a long pink dress with a pink satin ruffle, carrying a ruffled pink parasol, and wearing a pink bonnet with long pink ribbons. Oh, my heart ached to be “Pinkie.” How beautiful I thought she was, and how lucky my friend was.

The picture she gave me was called “The Lark.” It was a portrait of a young, barefoot  peasant girl, standing with a sickle in a field at dawn, looking up at a bird in a tree. She wore a brown ankle-length peasant skirt, a white apron, and a white blouse, and her hair was tied back with a kerchief. What a disappointment! What could this mean?

I thought it meant that I was to grow up poor and work on a farm all my life. I thought it meant that I would never be happy and pretty; I would just work hard and long,outdoors, and struggle to get by. I thought, “No prince will ever come looking for me out there!” Oh, I felt so disappointed. But my Swedish grandmother made me a skirt, a blouse, an apron, and a matching kerchief, and my father lent me his sickle, and I stood on the stage for the art assembly, looking up at an imaginary bird in an imaginary tree, at an imaginary dawn, and, actually, felt very blessed that my grandmother had made all those things for me. They fit me perfectly, and it was kind of nice to stand barefoot on the stage, and think about standing outside in a field somewhere. It was a pleasure to be part of the art show, and I was proud to be a member of such an unusual class.

From then on, I thought of myself as an outdoors sort of person.

At about the same time, I was allowed to spend a weekend at the farm of another classmate’s grandparents. We spent two wonderful days exploring the barn, playing in the fields, breathing in all the wonderfully pungent farm smells, measuring ourselves against cows and horses, and, tired and happy, gathering around the dinner table at night, talking and laughing about our day. “Gosh,” I thought, “Being a farmer isn’t so bad! It’s really wonderful! It’s really free! It’s really outdoorsy! It’s really an adventure!”  I was ready to stay there for the rest of my life, and was truly disappointed to learn that I had to go back home and live in town.

Fast-forward to freshman registration at Grays Harbor College in 1960. “So what do you want to major in?” the woman at the desk asked me. “Well, I said, not knowing how things were done there, “I’d like to major in art, music, poetry, drama, science, psychology, French, debate, sales, and applied philosophy.”

“You’d better see the Dean,” the woman said sternly.

To her credit, the Dean did not snicker when she asked what I thought I might DO with all those majors. I told her that I didn’t think life came in all those little boxes, and what I really wanted to do was major in LIFE, but it was not in the catalog.  I said I’d like to teach LIFE at the college level, because I knew LIFE is what everyone in the world is truly interested in, whereas I knew many students were not interested in school at all, and were used to just sitting there daydreaming until their classes were over. I said no one could ever learn enough about LIFE, including me, the teacher, so students would see right away that I myself was still a real student, just like they were, and they would see how exciting and meaningful learning about life WAS!”

The Dean said calmly that I would probably want to change the SYSTEM once I became a college professor. She cautioned me to be sure I majored in Liberal Arts English–because that was the broadest major she knew. But, she said, I should stay out of the college of Education, because they would try to tell me HOW to teach. “Don’t let anyone tell you how,” she said. Use all those interests you have to design your OWN way of teaching.” I thanked her–cheerfully–pleased that the system could be so flexible, and wondered what she thought was the matter with it. It sounded GREAT to me, so far!

In college, I hasten to add, all teachers  in those days, except the Music, Drama, Debate, and Physical Education teachers, used the lecture method and/or question  / answer / recitation method.  There were no discussion classes, and there were no experimental classes of other kinds, as far as I knew.

At the end of my sophomore year, I transferred to Washington State University, and, that fall, walked into my first English class in College Hall. It was eight o’clock in the morning, and I was the first one there. I reached to turn on the light, and, to my amazement, there on the wall next to the light switch, was a LARGE framed print of “The Lark!”  I was eye to eye with the peasant girl I had tried to be in second grade, AND I saw CLEARLY that her MOUTH was open, and she was SINGING! “Oh, my gosh!” I thought. SHE’s the lark! WOW!” I stood there, alone in the room feeling instantly transformed: I, Nancy, was THE LARK! I was out in that field singing the sun up, singing the new day into being, singing with the life that was IN ME!

It was an incredible moment. I was part of nature! I was just as much a part of nature as the bird in tree, as the wheat in the field, as the dirt under my feet, as the air around me, as everything. It brings tears to my eyes, still, just remembering  what a wonderful feeling that was.

Well, I’ve refined my career choices somewhat, over the years. I have lived on several farms, and in houses in the country, and I’ve loved  the freshness and openness of it, but, although, officially, I was referred to as an English professor for over thirty years, I always thought of myself as an artist, and I used art to teach English–took my composition and literature students to art openings on campus, to  galleries in New York –to New York sometimes just to walk up and down the streets and look at everything, and listen to everything, and encounter everything. I encouraged them to draw their responses to literature, to write poems, stories, plays–anything–of their own, as their way of showing me what they were learning. My classes performed at nursing homes, retirement homes, a prison, and in a community, once, that had a mine fire burning under it. Our assignments were as unconventional as I could make them. Each semester was different from the previous one–because WE were different, because we might have learned something over the summer that changed our way of thinking and feeling and of viewing the world. All my classes were discussion, and hands-on classes. Students worked in groups to share what they were learning and thinking about–groups of four or five, groups of two. We became writing tutors that way, in classes outside the English Department, so that my students could help other students get over the same sort of dread of writing that they themselves first came to class with–that fear that they were not good enough, not clever enough, not smart enough, not something enough to BE THEMSELVES  in their writing. They could now pass on the idea that those other students could be whatever they were at the time, whatever felt most real to them, and most important–as long as what resulted was a DIALOGUE that involved  mutual listening, mutual reflection, mutual realness, mutual effort to make that dialogue  meaningful, focused, and understandable.

As a society, this is not where we are yet. There is a lot of talk that is not real. There is a lot of talk that is not meaningful, that is not dialogical, that is not sincere, that is not  concerned with what the truth is or might be, that is not exploring anything freshly, that is not open to learning and growing and changing, that is not breathing, that is not open to life. Our institutions are still, too often, mechanical,  impersonal, indifferent, even hostile. They stifle us, they kill our hope, they ignore or trample on our basic human dignity. We have much to learn before we can make our society into something human and humane. I think we will go forward. Maybe, in many ways, we are moving forward. But forward is not a direction we can go in–unless individuality is valued, treasured, nurtured, and encouraged. And we will never move forward if all we do is clone ourselves, if we expect others to be or become only what we ourselves are, or what we ourselves believe they should be.