I think I was hired in the first place because my lecture to a group of graduating seniors described how art education works like a placebo effect. You are paying for someone to give you permission to be creative and try things out. I wasn’t saying this to launch into an institutional critique; instead, I wanted to put art education into perspective. If the placebo doesn’t work on you, it probably never will—like hypnotism, and for everyone else, including myself, the whole placebo effect is probably a blessing in disguise.
To prepare for my first ever college level class at XXXXX, I co-taught XXXXXXXX’s class. I remember him being mad at me when I figured out how to get paid for substitute teaching. … Anyway, I decided to do a performance art workshop that was modeled after one led by Guillermo Gómez-Peña which he later turned into a book. No one seemed to notice that I had no idea what I was doing.
To avoid anxiety, I would only teach things that I did not have “expertise” in. I would learn alongside the students, and more meaningful surprises would surely happen. For almost every class, I brought in a working artist from the city that would be the “expert”, and as often as possible we would have a field trip since I didn’t get a good vibe from the shared classroom.
The first day, we didn’t have time to go over the syllabus. Before the end of class, the students had to make a finished work of art with a tool that wasn’t on campus. Like a presentation on Iron Chef, I revealed that today’s outside tool/material would be … a vinyl plotter and blue or black material. I went on to explain what resources at XXXXX the students had paid for but might not know about and where to find other resources outside of the school such as the free vinyl plotter.
The artist Matt Eaton, that day’s “expert”, was a great co-teacher, helping the students wade through Illustrator without getting stuck. I should say that he also quickly corrected whatever misinformation I was giving. Actually, I was so completely unprepared and more concerned with remembering everyone’s name, that a student had to help us get access to one of the computer labs.
Later, Matt and I skipped our one hour lunch period—we needed to drive to a vinyl plotter and cut the students’ vinyl as quickly as possible. It became apparent that each file was not going to take an equal amount of time, but every student did get something cut.
I was about an hour late coming back to class. Not only was everyone patiently waiting and getting to know one another, but also there were two students who had completely missed the first half of class. These new students simply had to cut their vinyl by hand while everyone else was weeding theirs. The results were no less interesting.
By the end of class, one student had created a message for people to see when entering a bathroom, an act that unfortunately may have taken the janitors some time to scrape off. However, more than a couple of students’ work stayed up for the entire semester, practically unnoticed. Along with the vinyl, one student used silkscreen and some ink, materials that I had brought to class to expand on the students’ use of vinyl, to silkscreen a set of clothes for a photo shoot. It was interesting to hear from the students how much the finished projects really reflected each person’s current approach to art, regardless of the switch in media.
Other projects that semester involved learning to barter, using the writing center, writing proposals and grants, avoiding the purchase of expensive books, and building the students’ own white-walled exhibition space.
When we took on different “content,” it involved taking field trips to several places that we would compare in person. On the day we talked about community-based art, we not only looked at the school’s arm that facilitates public art and after-school art programs, but also visited Dabl’s MBAD African Bead Museum and a liquor store entirely filled with Polaroids of their customers. We finished by taking a walk along the Dequindre Cut, an area prepared for admiring graffiti.
On the last day of class, we finished talking about the latest work installed in the exhibition space that the students had built. Then, I gave everyone three items that were unique to each of them: a packet of seeds from a food they reminded me of, a copy of a movie, and a handwritten coupon. I only remember the coupons that were redeemed—one for an hour-long critique of a student’s work, another for a gallery crawl around the city driven by me. I let the students know that they could present the coupon to me at any point in our lives.
Now that I’m back in the city, I actually see my past students all the time. One opened an interesting alternative space and is giving a solo show to an artist that had once been invited to be my class’s guest “expert”. Another lets me know when she has successfully bartered for things like dental work.
I worry that I’ll never have as much fun teaching as I did in that first class, but I feel better when I think about how inconsequential I may have been. None of my students’ artwork or even their approach to making resembles my own.