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    Dilemmas of Learning and Teaching

    In an essay written in 1982, Shoshana Felman described some paradoxical statements made by Socrates and Freud on education and learning. In the context of a discussion on pedagogy, they both talked at different times about the "radical impossibility of teaching." (Felman, 1982: 21) I would like to argue, in some agreement with Felman’s conclusions, that a recognition of the "impossibility" of teaching, enables and encourages the development of new and innovative approaches to pedagogy and learning. (Most of the discussion which follows deals with undergraduate education.) I will also link my discussion of teaching and learning with some comments on the creation of technologically mediated environments for education. My ultimate goal is to enrich the debate on technology and learning by linking innovation in education with the history and theory of classroom practice.

    At the root of the claim about the impossibility of teaching is my feeling that learning never progresses along a "simple one-way road from ignorance to knowledge." (Felman, 1982: 27) In addition, teachers cannot fully anticipate the outcome of the processes of communication and interaction with their students unless the learning process is framed by a set of very narrow concerns. The balance between where students have come from and where they are headed is rarely linear and is often not clear. There is a legitimate desire on the part of teachers to structure ideas and values, as well as knowledge and content, for the purposes of presentation and discussion. What must be recognised is the role of "desire" in communication and teaching, as well as the gap between what teachers know and how well they have come to grips with what they don’t know. This profoundly affects the teacher’s capacity to create a site of learning for students. The same problems and potential solutions apply to learners.

    As Felman herself suggests, "Ignorance is thus no longer simply opposed to knowledge: it is itself a radical condition, an integral part of the very structure of knowledge." (Felman, 1982: 29) For Freud, and for Socrates, knowledge is only gained through struggle and as a result of the recognition that ideas have an impact because of the dynamic interplay of words and spoken language, interpersonal communications and public discourse. It is their recognition of the importance of speech and of the balancing act between knowing and not knowing that opens up new possibilities for discussion and learning.

    Ignorance is about resistance. It is about the desire to think and act in certain ways, most of which are rooted in a conscious refusal to engage with processes of inner reflection. The problem is that some pedagogical strategies try to anticipate what students need to know, as if teachers have already solved their own contradictory relationship with learning. The result is that teachers create (if not imagine) an ideal student and then make judgements about the students who are unable to attain the standards set by their instructional methods. If there is to be some equality of exchange here, then the teacher has to be learning nearly all of the time. This can then set the stage for some linkage and visibility between the foundational assumptions of the instructor and her own past, as well as her own history of learning. This may then return the teacher to a closer understanding of what it means to be a student.

    The underlying presumption of most teachers is that students need to learn. There is a moral imperative to this assumption that is often linked to the overall values of a society, even if those values are themselves the site of intense struggle. Ironically, as the age of students at the undergraduate level increases, the question of who knows what drives teachers into using more and more specialised knowledge constructs.

    The difficulty is that the need to learn cannot be understood in isolation from actual classroom practice. And the classroom is not necessarily a site of communication and exchange. The more specialised the teacher is, the more likely that the teaching will orient itself towards a power relationship that is results-oriented. But why should students learn in the first place? It seems almost heretical to ask that question. I ask it in the context of institutionalised forms of education that are driven by a complex set of motives, where the student is often not the primary focus. The culture of education has bred a tree of contradictions. Many of the supposed beneficiaries of the educational experience participate because they have to, not because they want to. This combination of resistance and acquiescence is framed by an increasingly complex system of assessment and evaluation. In order to fill the obvious gaps here, institutions rely on survey strategies to find out what is working and what isn’t. If the students are ambivalent about their learning experiences, their capacity, even their need to respond to survey-type questions, will be influenced by a set of impulses that are unlikely to appear in the results. This only further amplifies the difficulties in getting to know what students know.

    Reader Comments (7)

    I am going to have to revisit this page again soon because I think it may be connected to where I am heading for my grad project. For now, here is a little stream of consciousness. I'll expand/sort this later.

    I am starting to understand that teaching and learning are almost the same thing. It's more of a joint process of discovery.

    I have never quite been so able to learn as when I've been both at ease with my own ignorance and happy to help others with the knowledge I do have. Learning by doing... was that Piaget? Pappert, Resnick...

    There is an important connection between play and learning, and this is true for adults as well as children.

    I didn't like university because it felt like I had to spend four years learning what other people wanted me to learn before I could work on my own self-directed research. And by then the disciplined corridors of academy would have drained all my enthusiasm.

    I think in a scattered way that is inherently multidisciplinary. But a bit of pressure to perform and the freedom to output ideas is exactly what I need in order not to become bored. In the last three weeks of my exchange to the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris I've been learning about language, history, horticulture, performance, humour, diplomacy, eroticism, communication, religion, cooking, technology, philosophy, politics, advertising, animation, sculpture, music, economics and family (a word that I'm keen to coopt from its current political associations).

    Once I am able to infuse meaning into my art, and meaning into my questions, my ability and desire to learn increases tremendously.

    Coming to the realization that art can be anything is incredibly freeing and incredibly daunting. It makes art school something like kindergarten and grad school combined.

    Environment is key.

    What are classrooms for?

    What do you want to learn and why are you learning?

    What are you doing here? Why are you in school?

    What would you be learning if no one was grading you and no one was taking attendance?

    What's your input/output ratio?

    When we have the incredible resources of the internet (books, research, lectures), of email and almost free long-distance phone calls to any number of important and interesting living thinkers, of libraries and museums, what's the point of going to school?

    Perhaps to create some kind of social pressure on oneself to be productive?

    Perhaps for some real life learning? The importance of conversation, of high-bandwidth tactile and olafactory communication...

    I'm completely rambling here, but I have many many thoughts on the topic of education, as I'm sure many other ECI students do.

    I've found a few surprising things about my time at art school so far. First of all I love writing. Strange that I had to come to a school for visual communication to discover this. I've also discovered that doing a one semester co-op where I worked with practicing artists has been invaluable to my understanding of art, and who I am as an artist and how I fit into the community at large.

    I've also discovered that I wished I could take classes in engineering, writing, visual media, foreign languages, and philosophy. ECI almost fits the bill with the exception of languages, but I guess that's were this exchange to France fits in.

    Okay, once again, I'm sorry about the rambling nature of this post. It's more of a reminder to myself to write something more coherant about education soon.
    October 8, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterIan Wojtowicz
    Dear Ron,

    You say: "Many of the supposed beneficiaries of the educational experience participate because they have to, not because they want to."

    Yes, indeed; and more so than ever. For a large proportion of students today, particularly at the undergraduate level, their prime motivation to subject themselves to the ritual of institutionalized education is the perceived need to acquire a degree or diploma without which – they are being told – they will not make it in life. Educational institutions thrive on this perceived need – and perpetuate the perception – because there is a lot of money to be made off it. The discovery that such is the case has led universities to turn themselves more and more into commercial enterprises that specialize in the trade of a commodity called education. Both students and faculty are affected by this tendency. To the extent that students and faculty still learn, it’s a byproduct of the system and it happens thanks to the fact that so much in what and how we learn is not linearly related to our starting conditions in the educational environment.

    Coincidentally, I was writing on these same issues last week and, if you read what I wrote ( I guess you will find a couple of thoughts that resonate with your own.

    October 8, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterJan Visser
    I was struck recently by a call for participation in a conference to be hosted by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in November 2005. The title of the conference, “Respecting Boundaries: Teaching the Disciplines within an Interdisciplinary World��?, seems to take the position of reaffirming disciplinary teaching despite acknowledging awareness of changing conditions outside art school. Although the call for participation is purportedly framed in response to the advent of relatively new forms of production such as installation work, video, computer based art and design work, these are considered as ‘additions’ to more traditional forms which have been in place since the European academies.

    While sculpture, painting, printmaking, etc. may be referred as subjects in art school in some circles, I consider them to be disciplines, not only because of the specific body of knowledge they each represent, but more importantly because as such they constitutes systems of micro-power (Foucault, 1979). In most schools, students must choose to pursue a major sometimes after a brief period of multidisciplinary exploration. The movement from the general to the specific thus allows for a convenient way of controlling resources and pedagogy which largely relies on a linear progression of skills acquisition. Framed as logical development, introductory, intermediate and advanced courses are presented in hierarchical sequence and in segments that are organized as such by the teacher [master].

    From my experience as a teacher and as an administrator in art school, I see students transgressing disciplinary boundaries like outlaws surreptitiously breaking the rules. They navigate through the walls we put in place to access the range of form making we judiciously keep apart. While they may be successful at getting what they want, they/we may never know what they/we lack.

    By ignoring the increasing web of connections reflected in contemporary art practice which contrasts with the disciplinary pedagogical models of earlier times still in effect in most art schools, we are prevented from developing the theoretical knowledge specific to teaching and learning for interdisciplinary practice. And because the knowledge that disciplinary models perpetuate is subjugated by what Foucault called, “a functionalist coherence or formal systemization��? (Foucault, 1980, p.81), it cannot account for the ambiguity brought about by working in the interspaces of disciplines. So while the conference may ask, how can we do what we do better, it fails to recognize the increasing gap between the premises onto which disciplinary based pedagogy rests and the realities of contemporary practice.

    Left unexamined, the enclosed disciplines have for effect that of a social quarantine (Foucault, 1979) despite which the unfolding of art practices continues to evolve increasingly distant from narrowly based pedagogical models.

    At Emily Carr, there are a number of faculty, staff, students, and administrators who want to take-up the challenge of developing new pedagogical models to sustain and nurture new forms of practice and I think that we have made some progress in that direction. For sure there are administrative and managerial issues to be considered, but I think that the biggest challenge that we, and other art schools face is grounded in epistemological difference. It seems to me that to insist in a disciplinary approach to teaching, and learning as the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts conference suggests amounts to putting one’s head in the sand. After all, an interdisciplinary world surely is not simply made up of an ever-increasing number of unrelated things but rather an ever-increasing network of connections between things.
    October 9, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterMonique Fouquet
    Monique, this Pennsylvanian conference sounds like it might not be worth your while.

    "After all, an interdisciplinary world surely is not simply made up of an ever-increasing number of unrelated things but rather an ever-increasing network of connections between things."

    You've hit it. Keyword: connections.

    There are a few very annoying boundaries inside Emily Carr that probably have reasons for being there, but I think that energy would be better spent elsewhere.

    I would replace the swipe-card security system on the computer lab and the photo lab with a security system based on Rousseau's "social contract". Divert security to the entrances of campus if necessary. Photography and computers are essential tools for all artists and designers regardless of what courses they are taking.

    There are also disciplinary course registration boundaries that are quite annoying. The reasoning I keep hearing is that ECI needs to give preference to students who are working in a disciplinary way so they can finish their degrees, but I have yet to meet one of these mythical disciplined students. Painters needs to take photographs, and designers needs to do figure drawings. Animation is a kind of sculpture and all media are time-based media. When inspiration strikes, the school should be ready to catch it.

    Another topic for conversation is the art/design divide at the school. It is quite wide and seems to be a cultural difference in the approach to production (planning versus process/emergence), expected drawing quality, style of criticism, and relationship to capital and mass production. Although the way some artist/professors teach new media art in the school, you'd think you were working for a large corporation. Wonderful things happen in the turbulence of these two meta-disciplines which deserve both/neither terms, like custom-designed Hot Rod coffins or imperialist/utopian critiques of the Massive Change exhibit in Industrial Design classes vs. the praise of its ecological messages in an Art History class.

    But back to reality: please please please get rid of limits on the number of studio courses per semester. Some students have finished all their theory and want to take loads of studios. The reverse too would be nice: letting students take more theory classes and less studio classes if they want to. Surely writing more and painting less can't mean that someone is less deserving of a BFA?

    ECI needs to become a space where intelligence can be distributed. Complex adaptive systems, Society of Mind and all that. We need to remove the culture of quarantines and Cathedrals and replace them with active cultures. Make ECI more Bazaar (I'm hoping you get my drift).
    October 11, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterIan Wojtowicz
    Hi Ian,

    No, I wont be going to the Pennsylvania conference because I already have a pretty good idea of what it will be about. To be blunt, I see the conference as a desperate attempt to build support for a pedagogy which refuses to face its redundancy vis-à-vis the complexity of contemporary art practice. I suspect that it will seek to strengthen the rationale for keeping the disciplines distinct and separate from each other because as they say, “there is so much to learn��?. This kind of thinking relies largely on the notion that the role of art school is to develop ‘mastery’. While that might have been the purpose of the academies of the 18th and the 19th centuries, I am not sure that it should be that of today's art schools.

    I am going to look into the limitations that you are referring to see if these can be addressed without causing undue stress to those who work so hard to make ECI work for the students, but I do get your drift about the ‘Bazaar’ idea. However I don’t think that interdisciplinarity is solely about letting students choose whatever they want to do, be it theory or studio courses as you put it, but perhaps more importantly it is about having an open discourse informed by a debate that seeks to find new meaning in the connections that arise from crossing boundaries.

    October 12, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterMonique Fouquet
    Hi Monique,

    Thanks for replying and thanks for looking into my thoughts about potential changes at the school. I don't really know what I'm talking about, but I believe in my own nonsense.

    "However I don’t think that interdisciplinarity is solely about letting students choose whatever they want to do"

    Of course it's not solely about students. They exist in an ecology with teachers, staff, and many different external communities. But if the environment for change is right, the students, teachers and staff (let's call them the "Three Estates" of the school) can come up with ways of making the internal boundaries of the school easier to cross and make the school an even more fertile ground for many different kinds of artists: disciplinary ones who love labels and those who don't make a big deal about the differences between painting, sculpture, design, performance, music, writing, science, engineering, philosophy and cooking.

    Another thing I feel is important is the ability for artists and non-artists to collaborate well and find common languages. And I know I'm not alone in this. It would be fun to think about how the school could fascilitate these kind of external links as well.

    Of course, if you let students do whatever they want (even for one semester) they probably wouldn't know what to do differently. Most of them will probably just keep on doing the same thing. But maybe if the environment for change is right, maybe we can collectively come up with some good ideas for change.

    "open discourse informed by a debate"

    Definitely. I think if we're talking about crossing boundaries and creating links where none existed before (apophenia) then expanding this discussion should look something like this:

    "Architecture is politics" and so the design of the framework for change is critical.

    "Bazaar" is a reference "The Cathedral and the Bazaar," a critical text in open source thinking.

    The subject of change has been a theme in my work for years. I witnessed first-hand some incredible architectures of change at the MIT Media Lab in 1998 that I shold write about soon. Social structures reorganizing themselves on the fly. Contained revolution.
    October 15, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterIan Wojtowicz
    If Wikipedia was an art school, what would it look like?
    October 16, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterIan Wojtowicz

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