In studio art, students enter into production, creation and making as ways to activate inquiry, to construct knowledge, and to process their own learning, analyses, critiques, and transformations of understanding. That my students learn by making is a basic principle of my discipline, and it informs the priorities in my philosophy of pedagogy. The University of British Columbia Visual Art degree has a reputation for going beyond traditional art instruction, beyond the observation of art objects, beyond the premise of aesthetic value inherent in formal properties, and instead towards the negotiation of artistic practice as a research method for critical inquiry. The signature pedagogies of Visual Art include critiques, workshops, demonstrations, screenings, lectures, and art historical narratives that illustrate examples. While I understand the value of and employ these signature pedagogies in my teaching, I constantly innovate in my use of these techniques. I make space for reinvention—an orientation towards innovation is a defining feature of my discipline: it is what I model as an instructor, and what I cultivate in my students.
Teaching Art as Research
As Barbara Bolt notes in The Magic is in the Handling, artists—and indeed all people—come to know the world theoretically only after we have come to understand it through handling. In my teaching I engage with both theory and practice in order to position my students to work at the point where they interpenetrate, inform and influence one another, making abstractions test concrete forms, and vice versa. I model this through my use of active and experiential learning strategies, as well as in studio assessment methods that place perceiving, experiencing, and being in a conscious mediation. It is called a ‘practice’ because it is an iterative process of continual experimentation, exploration, action and consequence, chance, play, transformation, chaos, intuition, interaction, and even the contentious but all-important failure, which informs accountability and progression to new understandings. I work to translate pedagogical aims and curriculum objectives into live events that happen in the classroom, enabling me to facilitate innovative ways of thinking in the minds and, ultimately, the artworks of my students. I teach students how to engage in artistic practice as a research method so that they can access new knowledge informed by social, poetic and theoretical contexts.
As emerging artists, my students come to understand that art is not only creation. Rather it is a valid process of inquiry that is “situated in the in-between, where theory-as-practice-as-process-as-complication, intentionally unsettled perception and knowing though living inquiry” mesh, as described by Rita Irwin in A/r/tography (Springgay xxi). This unsettled region results in “a leap into a new ontological space, where the event of learning precipitates a new order of becoming” (Atkinson 139-140). I teach students how to embrace not-yet-known spaces as ones that are full of new potential, rather than abiding to comfortable conformity. The unsettled and actively evolving potential of art practice as research needs to be open-ended and this is one of the most important aspects of my philosophy.
Teaching for Critical Creativity and Innovation
My courses incorporate active learning strategies and experiential learning activities as a part of a learner-centered model of teaching (Brown), so that I am able to cultivate an inventive, critically engaged spirit in my students. In my classrooms and seminars, I facilitate but students take the lead: they direct the development of new knowledges in any one project, discussion, unit or course. To support students in considering their role in directing learning, my own scholarly reservoir must contain an expanse of references and resources as I work with each student’s changing and diverse desires. At every step, they work towards a meta-cognitive understanding of how they are directing their learning, and what is at stake in taking on new avenues of meaning. In The Conflict of the Faculties, Henk Borgdorff explains, “In the context of artistic research, artworks are epistemic things and events that have not yet been ‘understood’ or ‘known’—or, to be sure, that resist any such epistemological grip … artistic facts are necessarily epistemologically vague—the very reason why they are productive” (204). In line with Borgdorff, I believe that the most insightful learning comes from the ability to be inquisitive and ask important questions that creatively navigate new critical terrain. Positioning myself as ‘the expert’ who can lead my students into intellectual spaces would undermine my claim that the terrain they are crossing—the knowledge they are creating—is in any way new and would be to the detriment of students learning how to be creative, independent thinkers who can forge new pathways. To be truly creative, truly creating, they must foster their own learning practices.
In the critical space that is artistic practice, my students must pose new questions to avoid becoming stagnant, derivative, or cliché. In the introduction to Paulo Freire’s seminal Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1993), Richard Shaull argues “education either functions as an instrument that is used to facilitate the integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity to it, or it becomes ‘the practice of freedom,’ by the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world” (16). Art is privileged to exist in a space where the allowances are unrestricted and one can focus on just about any gesture or object in a bonded trust, as a way to deconstruct concepts that have been avoided or taken for granted. I understand that there is a fine line between cultivating a free space of discovery from a cumbersome space that overwhelms. In provoking a pedagogical space of unknowing, I am able teach students how to work productively within the unsettling towards motivating new solutions and evolve ideas. In line with Freire’s conception of higher education, I see my role in activating my students’ critical thinking, where students become empowered to decenter claims of truth, transforming such claims, and re-reorienting them toward emancipatory ideals. As Henry Giroux notes, “higher education is one of the few public spaces left in which unconditional resistance can be both produced and subjected to critical analysis” (335). My classrooms are thus simultaneously a place to question the power of institutional knowledge and also a powerful space in which students may cultivate socially responsible and critically engaged citizenry.
Teaching Design and Methods
While it can be challenging, it is important to articulate to students how learning involves brave steps into what is not yet known, to accept the uncomfortable position that meaning is evolving, and to be flexible and open, yet rigorous and inquisitive upon entering that space. One method that my teaching practice depends on is frequent, timely feedback throughout the course. My feedback is more than just a numerical grade: I provide my students with formative feedback that can instigate growth and new potentials for the student.
My teaching activates students into a mode of discovery, transformation and criticality, to facilitate this space takes much pre-planning and strategic curriculum development. I spend time carefully constructing creatively challenging as well as practical and pointed assignments and discussion topics to promote critical discourse and reflection. Prior to introducing any particular technology, activity, project type or content inclusions, I must be able to justify how it will support learning. In order to be open, to be truly student-centred, -led, and –driven, my instructional planning must be rigorous.
A method I use in my initial course development is to start with a “big question” for the class that encompasses a key learning point I then thread through the class curriculum. This approach is informed by my participation in UBC’s Centre for Teaching and Learning Technology Course Design Intensive, and their use of the backward course design model developed by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe. Starting with outcomes, I work backwards to articulate the purpose of each assignment, project, activity, and scaffolded step, ensuring that I connect all aspects of my teaching and assessment to my curriculum goals. I am a firm believer in outcomes, assignments and assessments being linked, as this approach communicates, motivates, and gives guidance to a student as they engaging in new critical territories. Students want to know how they are being instigated and measured. I also consider the context of the class—year level, timing, logistics of class structure and size, student body—to identify appropriate instructional strategies, project types, and assessment methods for those outcomes.
Teaching for a Learning Community
In order to create a learner-centered, innovation-oriented classroom, I develop inclusive communities in which students can discover and learn through collaboration. I prescribe to Jeff Jawitz’s idea that, “by cultivating a sense of belonging in a large community of learners, one is feeding into each student’s need to be part of something significant. Our course can provide the vehicle for a journey of discovery, which might in fact produce a unique path for each student, as well as significant elements of shared experience” (141). In my large classes, I use technology or handouts that facilitate authentic connections, in order to create habits of collegiality. In my smaller upper-year classes, I curate groups that have common and divergent interest bases, enabling dialogic growth. Whatever the year level or group dynamic, it is vital that every class is active and engaging, and conveys a welcome and secure environment so that students can find the courage to be vulnerable and experimental with each other.
Moreover, I am careful to position learning communities as spaces that are not bound by the walls of the classroom or the limits of the campus. In my practice-led research, my students learn by doing, and so come to understand that there is knowledge held in spaces outside of the book. As bell hooks tells us, there is understanding in our bodily faculties, as education is performative and relational, and coming to know oneself through this activation of knowledge can be accessed through deep networks of human relationships (127). By extension, there is knowledge in the community outside the classroom as well, connecting to other ways of knowing and processing, as “enhancing perspectives involving human activities and making sense of experiences … seeks not just to discover, but also to add insight to perspectives and incorporate new ways to view phenomena” (Barone and Eisner 47). The habits and patterns that I set in motion during my students’ undergraduate careers thus set them up to come to understand learning as a life-long endeavor, an experience driven by critical, creative and collaborative artistic practice.
Teaching to Redefine Teaching
As this philosophy makes clear, I believe that commitments to hierarchies—teacher above student; college above town—perpetuate learning as knowledge retention rather than as a critical or inquisitive process. I am committed to stimulating students’ imagination by instilling the openness to discover potential knowledge in unconventional forms. As a result, my relationship to students is different from the relationship between a ‘sage on the stage’ and their students, as is my students’ relationships to each other.
In May 2018, I was awarded a Killam Teaching Prize, and this has validated my disciplinary habits—a shifting and evolving sense of practice, application and execution methods, which I develop in each and every iteration of a course, lesson plan, activity, project and assessment. I do not plan to rest on this success. I believe in constant shifts that propel my teaching to new heights, innovatively experimenting and working within an unsettled potential of what teaching and learning—knowing and discovering—can be. I am likewise proud of my emerging leadership position in UBC’s teaching community, and I support my peers in other disciplines as they begin the process of questioning and developing their own instructional practice. The following dossier provides selected examples of activities and structures that are representative of my practice, and that shows my students’ learning in practice in and out of the classroom, studio, and campus.