Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Date: Tue 11/4/2003 5:13 AM
Random Thought: On Teaching, Part VIII

This stuff is pouring out fast and furious. Maybe it's the fact that I'm going into a preparatory, meditative mode as I ready myself to present a series of workshops on creating a classroom learning community at the Lilly conference on collegiate teaching at Miami University in a few weeks. Well, no maybe about it. I'm slowly getting in the groove.

On this heavy, heated, windy morning, I thinking about a a small sculpture I recently completed called "Life's Twists and Turns." The more I thought about it, the more I saw how that sculpture is in many ways is a metaphor for teaching.

It started out a piece of ordinary damp kelp ripped up from the ocean's floor by a storm lying limp on a debris strewn beach in California's Half Moon Bay. Something extraordinary in that piece of ordinary seeweed jumped out at me and caught my eye. I began to see something. I couldn't tell you what it was. I picked it up, carried it back to my son's house, put it in a plastic bag, and threw it into my suitcase. As I flew back to the East Coast, that piece of kelp in the plane's hold held a tight grip on me. I started sketching an idea on paper, balled up the paper and tossed it, resketched a different idea, ripped that up. After a while, it looked like I had had a snowball fight in the plane. I saw the sculpture. And, then, it disappeared. It reappeared slightly altered, and then once again it disappeared, appeared, disappear. Never was it the same. When I got home I still had a sense of the whole sculpture although I couldn't put my finger on it and couldn't explain it in words. And if I told you what it was, it would have been a hesitant unsatisfying "it's's's a..."

Not knowing what potential was there, I touched, stepped back, put aside, distanced, twisted, played with, kinked, stared, untwisted, stepped back, opened up the kink, listened, stopped thinking, curled, snipped off, wish I hadn't snipped, accepted, and shaped. I learned and unlearned. I abandoned and innovated. I had to be ready for unexpected opportunity. I had to be ready to accept a new and fresh perspective. It was not all that important how I had finally sketched out the sculpture before I stared sculpting. What was important was that I recognized and dealt with the inevitable surprise.

Yesterday, the students in one class were working on the "Salvador Dali" project. Each community had to grasp the spirt of the Depression in the 1930's and prepared to teach it to the others in the class in the form of an abstract painting. After about an hour, one community got up from the floor, approached me, said they were finished and asked if they could leave. The paper was blank! I look at it. They looked at me with a smile. Then, I got it and I smiled. One of the students asked, "You get it?" Before I could answer, she went on to explain the blank paper was not blank. It was the blinding white out of a snow storm that was a metaphor for both the blinding dust storms in the drought-ridden mid-west and the Depression that obliterated the old ways and made people grope their way to finding new ways for personal and social safety. "This is about the Okies looking to save themselves with a new life in California and Roosevelt looking to save the country with a new life with the New Deal." These are first semester students!

The week before one community in another class presented its "Hollywood Project," a six minute film about some important aspect of American life in the 1920's. There was no sound. They had turned off the sound. In response to shouts of "can't hear anything" and "Turn up the sound," one of the members of the community explained, "They only had silents back then until the Jazz Singer came along in 1927."

So, as with these projects, with this sculpture I had to have an appreciation of the unexpected rather than ignore it or be unprepared for it or scared of it. I couldn't say "that's not the way things should be" or "that's not the way I want things to be." I had to say, "This an opportunity to...." It wasn't as simple as it sounds. At times, that piece of kelp drove me nuts. There's was a kind of organic interplay and reverberation throughout the piece. Every little twist and kink here had an effect there. A slight curl there changed the whole piece everywhere. It was like taking a big bowl of yellow paint. Put in one red drop at the edge and the color throughout the bowl changes. And so, I was forced to learn how to look at the individual area and the whole of the sculpture at the same time. I continued. I absorbed, softened the curl, discarded, followed, modified, and reshaped. There's almost an arrogance for me to say that I created the sculpture. It reminded me of the saying from the BHAGAVAD GITA that is on the wall in my office: "The self, deluded by egoism, thinketh: 'I am the doer.'" In fact, I was influencing the kelp while reciprocally being influenced by it. I worked with and on the kelp; the kelp worked with and on me. We were cause and effect partners. We both were centers of the sculpturing. I "told" it what to do and it "told" me what to do. There was no right answer and wrong answer to what "we" were doing. There is only design, and design is governed by this collaborative and generative interplay of possibility and the bounds of constraint. I couldn't do anything I wanted. I had to accept the limitations of both the kelp and myself, take the limitations, use the limitations, and work inside the limitation. It's within the imposed limitations that creativity happened. And, everything just unfolded. Everything was done slowly, ever so slightly. No snap judgements. No instant opinions. No giant leap for mankind. No brilliant new insight. No breakthrough experience. Nothing in nature or art or teaching starts out big. No, this sculpture emerged from a process of learning and unlearning, abandonment and innovation, patience and commitment. Yeah, everything just unfolded, grew from a seed idea that was watered by freeing and stretching my mind and fed by unrestrained creative imagination. This wasn't just dumping instant coffee into hot water. This was a slow brew. The sculpture was a miracle of time.

The result was not what I had originally enivisioned. Now, as I look at that sculpture, standing on the glass shelf, I don't judge whether it was good or bad, successful or unsuccessful by whether it turned out exactly the way I planned. My achievement was not just in the sculpture. I judge that piece of sculpture by what I accomplished, by what I learned, and how I was altered along the way by way of accomplishing it. Each action I took, each decision I made was a learning process for me. And, I learned that I could not know art unless I did it. As I recently told an e-friend, in the doing is learning and learning is in doing.

You know I have come to realize even more vividly what I already knew: I, each student, everyone, do not have a shortage of creativity. The question is whether I and others are paying attention to, encouraging, being encouraged to experiment with ways to free it up and display the imaginative creativity we and others possess.

Yeah, that sculpture is in many ways a metaphor for teaching.

I am seriously now thinking about learning how to make my new sculpture into a bronze, that is, if I have the mettle.

         Make it a good day.


         Louis Schmier      
         Department of History
         Valdosta State University
         Valdosta, GA  31698                 /~\        /\ /\
         912-333-5947              /^\      /     \    /  /~\  \   /~\__/\
                                 /     \__/         \/  /  /\ /~\/         \
                          /\/\-/ /^\_____\____________/__/_______/^\
                        -_~    /  "If you want to climb mountains,   \ /^\
                         _ _ /      don't practice on mole hills" -    \____

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