The question I posed in the previous blog post was how might the way one prepares and engages a musical performance inform the way one prepares and engages the technology of a course? In this post, I want to begin with the students’ visual experience as part of a performative phenomenology.
The first move is to see the image as more than imparting information; instead, it is about creating an experience that, to some degree, is ineffable. I use this word carefully, this isn’t about turning one’s reason over to ‘how does this make you feel’. At the same time, we fail to teach rigorously when we limit all thinking to deduction—something arts academics can do all too easily. There is a middle ground, a space where the art lives, actually. James Elkins better captures my point in his Pictures and Tears (2004):
I want to know what happens when a painting suddenly means much more than the dry information on the museum label, or the intellectual symbols and stories in books of art history. When a painting is not a game, when it no longer matters who knows more about the painter, then painting can be an art that might actually deserve the high value we put on it. I am fascinated by that possibility, and by the unnatural vigor with which we have excluded any such experiences from our official textbooks and tours.
So let’s get specific. Who doesn’t use Caspar Friedrich’s Wander Above Sea and Fog discussing 19th century romanticism? And while an over-saturated image for many professors, it is usually new for students and can convey a meaningful punch. And so we power up our presentation software, find our Wanderer on Google Images, add some text, and pow:
This slide, however, is designed from an information-imparting perspective--not an aesthetic or performative one; it exists to pass along information to the students: associate this image with these facts. And in your notes. Please.
Yes, this is my slide. I had used it in a class on Romanticism, a period of music for which I felt a deep connection. Yet rather than sharing this connection with my students, the slide eschews aesthetic experience and presents the Wanderer as information. The Wanderer is under a microscope--something ‘out there, under observation’ rather than ‘in here, in me’. Ironically, this was the very type of reductionism the Romantics found abhorrent.1
Years ago there was a short-lived television series where Richard Dreyfus played a university professor. I remember a scene where Dreyfus’s character spoke about the United States turning away a boat of Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany. It was an effective performance: Dreyfus’s character spoke movingly as one image, with no words, displayed behind him: a picture of the passenger-filled ship awaiting approval to enter the US.
While the show lasted only one season (the professor-only demographic didn’t help), the scene stuck with me. Here was a fine actor delivering a moving performance as a teacher. There was nothing false about it as the character (and likely Drefuss himself) was emotionally connected to the historical event. Even more, the sole image left the viewers a space to explore their own emotional connection.
In the spirit of creating a connective experience for our students, why not wait for the room to quiet down, everyone to focus, and—with little to no introduction--show this:
Nice. But there’s more. What I say and do before, during, and after shapes the students’ experience of the painting. As in a concert, there is a special space in-and-around the music. The space is not a distancing, but a mode of being engaged and open—a mode of being different than, say, the type of energetic feel during a lively class discussion.
The 'during' is important as well. Do I speak and, if so, how do I do so without breaking potential connections the students are forming? All of these choices, including whether to have an image-only slide or some other configuration, depend on the context. A performative approach doesn't dictate best practices; instead, it expands how we think about teaching, asking us to consider ourselves curators of a type of aesthetic experience, and that this experience can create meaningful and powerful connections for students.
Back to my cumbersome slide. In fairness, the Powerpoint and Keynote interfaces really, really like us to convey information in a bulleted form. After all, the easiest way to construct a slide is with a template, and the templates in these programs are themes and variations on title, bullet points, and image. There are other difficulties in the Powerpoint/Keynote interface which require extra work to remedy. All of this raises another, bigger question, how much does software interface shape our teaching?
The next post will explore this question along with how a performative approach helps insure that we shape software to our ends, and not the other way around.
1Technology can make it too easy to confuse content and delivery. I once attended a conference on experiential learning that challenged the sage-on-the-stage Powerpoint model. All good stuff except the 2-day conference consisted of sitting passively in chairs watching various PowerPoint lectures telling us we rely too much on PowerPoints and lectures. The performative approach—which I am applying to presentation of something visual—integrates the ‘what’ and ‘how’ we are learning.