A qualitative shift has taken place in my interactions with my students.
I think it began with a text on Facebook in which a colleague reposted an excellent treatise on why we (as post-secondary educators) should not be moving our courses wholesale online; how because we’re not trained to do this and, being tasked with having to figure this out in record time, we should resist the temptation to perfectly adhere and instead focus on how to simplify content/delivery and take as much pressure off ourselves (and our students) as needed. The original blog post concludes with the author, a specialist in online teaching, saying “Release yourself from high expectations right now, because that’s the best way to help your students learn.”
Further conversations with the coordinator of the program where I’m based supported this point of view (much to my relief) and encouraged us to be as honest as we need to be, to let our students know that while “we got this” we are also figuring it all out piecemeal, so there might be gaps and it will likely be far from ideal.
But these gaps are precisely where this “new territory” is emerging, and within it, a potential for another kind of space, perspective, and permission – offering room to behave, interact and manoeuvre differently than before.
Case in point: as instructors we were given full permission to move forward as we saw fit and this included giving students the option to bow out completely. Having no idea what their individual circumstances were, we were (are) in no position to impose deadlines for assignments that at this point might be completely irrelevant and distracting from potentially more important things like basic survival.
So with yet another by-product of our grey zone that is CoronaTimes, I found myself encouraging my students to work when and how they could but within the capacity they have – to only do what they could manage doing. And only do what would bring them nourishment and joy. This meant that final projects could take many forms, including being unfinished fragments of process: edited or unedited combinations of notes, videos, images, etc. Our grading would, accordingly, be much more relaxed as well.
This advice to “release oneself from high expectations” was passed on to them, being fully aware of all the ways in which this also harmonizes with my predisposition toward questioning notions of “achievement” and what “productivity” should look like.
So while all this was exciting to me, to be able to offer options of generous spaciousness (especially in seeing it sit so congenially with my already-established philosophy around carving out spaces of pause) it had me also feeling somewhat perplexed. …Why am I not always giving this advice and affording this space at all other times…?? How come this isn’t already the standard practice (my standard practice) – but instead only now being adopted as a core part of our “new normal?”
You see, having come from a background steeped in the philosophy of Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow (yes, I am a proud graduate of Dawson College’s New School) I absorbed their methods as a student and never shook the conviction that the classroom should be a space determined by the student’s needs and driven by a student’s intrinsic motivation (aided along by a passionate and invested facilitator). And that the construct of grading either needs to be completely overhauled, or eliminated altogether.
As a result, I’ve consistently had difficulty reconciling my disdain for grades while finding myself in the position of having to dole these out. Also in reconciling a need to produce finished work versus holding space for process. I am constantly trying to find the delicate balance between honouring the rules of the institution, my students’ needs to get those good marks in order to be potentially accepted into graduate programs, and wanting to reinvent the structure of the class such that this could become of place of co-teaching, co-learning, co-creating.
(SIDEBAR: Yes I understand that in preparing young artists to go out into the world we need to be having conversations about how to finish pieces and put these out into the world but art school is also a place where we challenge what the world expects of us. Art school itself is another kind of “in-between” zone where we could – and should – treat everything like the laboratory it is. A space for deep experimentation and for failure – in the process of trying new things that might not work. And finding new facets of our research – precisely because of some accidental occurrences (i.e.: our mistakes!)
So while that question will be the subject of another set of reflections (in a future time related to upcoming research; stay tuned), suffice it to say, within the current space/time framework of this “new normal” some of my students have begun to question core facets of their respective practices: what drives their interests and modes of making. Questioning what it means to make performance without an audience (i.e.: a live audience), to make objects that can’t go anywhere or be interacted with by others, we’ve been having incredible conversations around the function of practice, making, non-making, process… How making, right now, feels “out-of-place.”
And so within the emerging territory of this ever-present gap – and its inherent stretching of new permissions and dissolving of previously enforced boundaries – I’ve been inspired to “come clean” with my students about my specific preoccupations as an (un)artist and proponent of non-doing. This has been incredibly freeing…
…Temporarily reconciling a fundamental fissure between my in-class self versus my out-in-the-world self, I am reflecting on what it means for the classroom to be a true space of freedom. And what this potential space could look like on the other side of the “normal” we are experiencing now, in the discombobulating interval.