Getting Artfully Attuned to Higher Learning

Preface: I had started writing this post prior to the great wave of uncertainty and major changes in educational policy, teaching and learning due to the coronavirus. In light of educators, education administrators and students adapting to the new routines of remote learning (see: Art Education in an Age of Social Distancing), it has become clear that some facets of prior educational models are worth assessing when schools reopen their physical classrooms. For example, many standardized tests have been cancelled. Do we need them going forward? Can something else be implemented as a more beneficial and engaging form of student assessment and reflecting? Perhaps some kind of cumulative learning project with a strong focus on independent and collaborative research and activity? The following post takes a look at some ideas and methods that could be incorporated into educational environments in order to make learning more purposeful and interconnected with our experiential realities.

Artists and educators may often feel like a they are cog in the traditional education system. We are typically valued upon the level of formal academic training we receive in college and university programs and the degrees that we earn. It is difficult to teach in schools, curate in museums or exhibit in major galleries without an M.A./M.F.A. at the very least. Whether an employer states it in the job description or not, it is largely expected that their candidates possess an advanced degree from an accredited institution.

As someone whose career narrative applies to much of the aforementioned criteria (no PhD, although it has been strongly considered), I have often pondered the value of traditional schooling. It has been a productive and beneficial experience for me, but I understand and have witnessed that the model doesn’t work for everyone. Not everybody has the option to contribute time, energy and finances to attend four to eight years of school. There are plenty of qualified and passionate people who would be great contributors to the fields of art and education, but are relegated to the sidelines and ignored, because they can’t afford to ‘play the game.’ In addition to the amount of time and money spent on college degrees, we are also expected to intern at institutions, schools and galleries, for little or no compensation. This internship to employment pipeline is detrimental to individuals with economic hardships.

Does the conventional educational system actually make us better at our jobs or more qualified than others with similar skills and interests but who have less traditional schooling? Does the traditional paradigm of higher education inspire lifelong learning (or is it just a means to reach a professional plateau)? Does climbing the academic ladder increase our happiness and well-being? These are questions that overwhelm anyone who has considered them. From an arts and educational standpoint, we are told about the benefits of schooling and how it can increase our professional development and standing. This is somewhat true (having a Master’s allows for more diverse teaching opportunities), but it is a myth that better paying jobs always follow a higher degree. Adjunct professors, for example, have advanced degrees, but suffer from poor compensation and very little job security while teaching at for-profit Universities and colleges.

The issue regarding making higher education more holistic and equitable is a necessary element in fixing the broken parts of our society.  We don’t need to throw the baby out with the bathwater, but there are many significant changes that should be taken to ensure that everyone (who wants to) can afford to benefit from earning their degrees. In late-January, I attended a workshop organized by the art and pedagogical collective BFAMFAPhD. Two of BFAMFAPhD’s core members, Caroline Woolard and Susan Jahoda, coached a group of educators and artists on how we can make our classrooms contemplative, collaborative and purposeful. They recently published an interactive multidisciplinary pedagogical guide called Making and Being, which provides teaching strategies that they have adapted to a wide range of learning environments. Making and Being is book, a series of videos, a deck of cards and an interactive website with resources that can be downloaded for free. The activities that we embarked on as a group reflected an overview of the Making and Being curriculum.

We started the afternoon with an attunement session with Susan leading us through a somatic process, where we focused our consciousness throughout the space, in order become emotionally, cognitively and socially aware of ourselves, each other and the space we shared. We envisioned ourselves as a rhizome, with each of our core stems sending out roots and sprouts that connect and support one another.  This is a great activity to perform in any environment where people assemble together as a unit (classrooms, offices, public parks etc.), as it sets the tone for the rest of the period. The steps for enacting the practice of attunement is as follows:

“1. Stand in a circle. Feet hip width apart. Keep your knees soft. Close your eyes.

2. Inhale deeply through your nose. Hold your breath for a count of four, and then exhale slowly through your mouth, to a count of eight.

3. Breathing normally, become aware of the connection between your feet and the floor, the earth beneath you.

4. Gently correct your posture and slowly lift your chin so that the top of your head feels energetically connected to the sky. Sense that connection.

5. Relax your forehead, relax your eyes, your jaw, your ears. Relax the muscles at the back of your neck.

6. Inhale, and stretch your arms over your head. On the exhale, lower your arms to your side.

7. Continue breathing normally. If you are right-handed, place your right hand approximately two inches just below your navel. If you are left-handed, place your left hand approximately two inches below your navel. Spread your fingers. This part of your body is where 72,000 nerve endings come together and where your physical and emotional bodies meet.

8. Visualize your navel as a root that travels up your spine to the top of your head and as a root that travels down your legs into your feet. Hold that image.

9. Bring your attention to the place of contact between your hand and the center of your body beneath it. Inhale deeply through your nose, and hold your breath for a count of four. Exhale slowly through your mouth to a count of eight. Do this once more. Inhale deeply through your nose, and hold your breath for a count of four. Exhale slowly through your mouth to a count of eight” (Jahoda and Woolard, 2019).

Following the attunement session, we discussed, shared and reflected upon our sense of belonging within a shared learning space. We learned more about each other through active listening exercises and asset mapping. The latter activity is a form of altering the political economy, by developing a rhizomatic system of bartering. We each jotted down one thing that we could offer the community (our group) and one thing that we were looking for. Within a classroom environment, this system of asset mapping could be a periodic action. Students and faculty could check in on each other’s needs and ensure that everyone is both personally and academically considered and cared for.

Caroline Woolard, Statements, 2013-2014, plexiglass, plaque, hardware, 11” x 23” x 1”. Courtesy of the artist.

BFAMFAPhD presents us with a good alternative art educational model that focuses on interpersonal and empathetic making, presenting and reflecting. Instead of conditioning artists to fulfill lofty and unobtainable goals in an economy that exploits their labor (and puts them in debt), educational settings have the opportunity to become thriving centers for activism and the democratic transfer of ideas, skills and support. Caroline Woolard sums up the need for this tangible transition in a statement about her plexiglass series of work called Statements (2013-2014):

“To avoid a century of creative debtors who owe $120,000 in student loans for art degrees, here is a framework for change: 1) raise consciousness together, 2) resist and reform bad systems, 3) support spaces of hope, and 4) create options for cooperation.

1. RAISE CONSCIOUSNESS: Adjunct Project (adjuncts), Carrot Workers (interns), How’s my Dealing (gallerists), Guerrilla Girls (women), LittleSis (power elites) and Arts and Labor (visual artists).

2. RESIST and REFORM, BAD SYSTEMS: StrikeDebt, ask for a living WAGE, refuse to participate or occupy your school.

3. SUPPORT SPACES OF HOPE: Attend free and low cost art schools and alternative institutions, radical histories of land reform and media making, gardening in empty lotscommunity-control of land, and coalitions of worker cooperatives and solidarity economy initiatives and place-based organizing for cultural policy.

4. CREATE OPTIONS FOR COOPERATION: barter, share your work in the commons, give your work away by adoption, create a rotating savings fund or pool funds to distribute and join a collective or group.” – Caroline Woolard’s statement on her series Statements.

The art world doesn’t need to find the next Picasso, it needs to shift its focus to interdisciplinary and socially engaged practices, and also be committed to supporting diversity through equitable and justice driven methods. A more inclusive field of artists means that more ideas are presented within the collective culture. During their formal education, artists should be prompted to break out of the introspective practices of studio art training and develop social and cognitive skills that can lead to a fulfilling life as participants in multidisciplinary endeavors. Finding novel ways to connect emotionally and lend creative occupational support is blatantly necessary in unprecedented times of global quarantining and social distancing. When we endure this current hardship, it will be in large part a result of us developing a sustainable framework where we harness the skills we possess in ways that have an impact on the community around us.

References, Notes, Suggested Reading: 

Jahoda, Susan and Woolard, Caroline. 2019. Making and Being: a Guide to Embodiment, Collaboration and Circulation in the Visual Arts, Pioneer Works: New York.

Simon, Nina. “How Can I Contribute? Four Steps I’m Taking to Figure it Out.” Art Museum Teaching, 29 March 2020.


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