I’m Totally Past Representationalist Work Now

I’ve suggested sometimes that liberal arts professors should have to take a course from one of their colleagues every three or four years. Mostly I like that idea because it is a way to build in a commitment to generalism, to widening our horizons.

But I’m auditing my second course in studio arts now and the other thing that taking a class that’s well outside your existing knowledge and competencies reminds you is that it is really tough to sense that you’re a below-average student who simply doesn’t quite get it, tough to keep coming back and sticking with it. It’s especially tough when you can see that there are students who have an intuitive or highly developed sense for something you understand only dimly. It’s all the more difficult when you’re an old dog trying to learn new tricks, I’m sure, but I don’t think anybody likes that feeling of fumbling around in the dark. I think it’s especially frustrating when what’s involved is technical, when there are really some preliminary procedures that need to be done right in order to get to the layer where you are more in control of the results and more able to defend your choices as real choices instead of as mistakes that you’ve decided to relabel as purposeful.

I worry sometimes that here at Swarthmore and many similar institutions, we teach too much to the students who already get it, particularly when they get it the way that we ourselves get it. So the humbling reminder of what it’s like to be on the other side seems to me to be useful for refining our teaching as well as our knowledge.

This entry was posted in Academia. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to I’m Totally Past Representationalist Work Now

  1. Doug says:

    I think you may have a couple of years on me, but in the next few weeks I expect to start in on a new language. I’ll be dimmer than the four-year-olds.

  2. I agree very strongly! I love sitting in on classes or even taking them. I learned to ice skate in a P.E. class. Falling down in front of students reminded me that I didn’t always know everything about art history.

  3. evangoer says:

    The studio arts are particularly humbling. So many skills involved in just figuring out how to mix colors, or how the paint flows off the brush. I used to snicker at “Dogs Playing Poker”, but these days — man, what I wouldn’t give to be able to paint anything remotely resembling a dog.

  4. cmarkowitz says:

    This isn’t just true in higher education. I find that I’ve been working better with my 7th graders since I started attending classes in Zuni language with them. Most of them speak Zuni as a first language, and I struggle with every word. They laugh at my pronunciation, but it gives them an area in which they can help me and be good at something, and it reminds me how difficult it is to work in your second language.

  5. Carl says:

    Couldn’t agree more, although there’s something suspiciously Puritanical about this notion of self-chastening…. My version of it is to get out and do the things the students like to do. I’m always worse at it than them, which turns me into a regular guy and creates anthropological reciprocity by allowing them to exchange their expertise for mine.

    Btw, my wife is an artist and runs a community gallery for emerging artists, and despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, is convinced that what she does isn’t that special and anyone can do it. Which is probably some kind of funny/sad metaphor for the liberal academy.

  6. You all might want to watch the Sapolsky video at:


    It speaks to the issue of how you remain creative past, say, 30.

  7. cjlee1 says:

    A regrettably late post by me, but this is such a great idea, worthy of elaboration and greater circulation. It speaks to my earlier complaint on anti-intellectualism in the academia. As a grad of liberal arts college, I miss an environment that actively cultivated intelligent “amateurs”, as E. Said discusses the term in his short book “Representations of the Intellectual”. Why only be an expert? It can be so much more enriching and fun to be an amateur….

Comments are closed.