learning and dialogue

[I teach in Goddard College’s MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts program. As part of my advising practice, I regularly send my advising group a preface letter — in preface to a second letter that speaks directly to a student’s individual work — in which I speak to some element of pedagogy, art theory, art practice, or the program’s degree criteria. From time to time I will share the letters here.]

8 March 2012

Dear friends,

It’s exciting to begin this dialogue with you!  I hope that this packet period has been a generative time for you and that you feel excited about the trajectory you are on.

Before I respond to your packet, as I explained in my earlier email (“Packet Zero”), I want to share a preface letter with everyone in our group. In particular, I want to build on a theme in “Packet Zero” and speak to the nature of dialogue in our process.  Even more, I want to speak to the nature of dialogue as an element of this learning process, art making, and teaching. You will recall that I shared with you a few resources about dialogue at the residency – specifically the discourse continuum and the essays by David Bohm, et al.  These resources certainly inform my thinking, but I also want to acknowledge that there are a number of ways to think about these matters.

Before I start, I should begin with a definition.  I believe that dialogue is a process of engaging with others – and the world – without a predetermined goal other than being open to learning.  I see it as different from conversation, debate, or argument, but I’m not so much of a purist to exclude those modes of expression from the larger sphere of dialogue.  Sometimes it’s important to state where we are, to establish positions, and to converse in the process of dialogue. However, on the meta-level, I understand dialogue to be a free exchange that’s entered into because all parties are interested in discovering something new.

In my experience, dialogue is a way of awakening myself from thinking that that holds me in place and limits me. As David Bohm and his colleagues express it:

“In Dialogue a group of people can explore the individual and collective presuppositions, ideas, beliefs, and feelings that subtly control their interactions. It provides an opportunity for them to participate in a process that displays their successes and failures of communication and it can reveal the often puzzling patterns of incoherence that often leads them to avoid certain issues or, on the other hand, to insist, against all reason, on standing and defending their opinions about them.” (Bohm, et al; “Dialogue: A Proposal,” p. 2.)

This process helps me to consider the internal and external expectations that hold me to beliefs and ideas, or that keep me from exploring certain ideas or modes of creativity more fully. Sometimes these limitations can be mundane and act as excuses – like when I tell myself that I don’t have rhythm (thus excusing myself from participating in dance or music). Other times they can be truly debilitating – like when I invoke my parent’s fears about a career in the arts and I question my authenticity, veracity, or ability as a creative practitioner. In this second case, I may avoid dialogue about these feelings because it opens a can of worms regarding my familial relationships and calls me to do certain kinds of internal sorting of feelings and experience – even when I rationally know that this work will propel me toward my goals.

Bohm goes on in his essay to define many qualities of dialogue, many of which emphasize various modes of openness.  If you’re interested in considering these more, I refer you back to the opening of the article.  However, I do want to quote Bohm one more time in relationship to his thoughts about beginning a dialogue:

“Suspension of thoughts, impulses, judgments, etc., lies at the heart of Dialogue. It is one of its most important new aspects. It is not easily grasped because the activity is both unfamiliar and subtle. Suspension involves attention, listening and looking and is essential to exploration. Speaking is necessary, of course, for without it there would be little in the Dialogue to explore. But the actual process of exploration takes place during listening – not only to others but also to oneself. Suspension involves exposing your reactions impulses, feelings and opinions in such a way that they can be seen and felt within your own psyche and also be reflected back by others in the group. It does not mean repressing or suppressing or, even, postponing them. It means, simply, giving them your serious attention so that their structures can be noticed while they are actually taking place.” (Ibid, p. 6.)

I will admit that suspending judgments is a hard thing for me to do. But I also know that it’s at the heart of learning – and of knowledge production.  For me, this makes dialogue – or my participation in dialogue – a critical part of my creative practice, if for no other reason than because I believe that art, at its most vital, is a process of discovering, creating, and disseminating knowledge.

Bohmian dialogue is a very specific approach to developing new understanding of and approaches to significant human questions. It was developed in relationship to geopolitical questions of the late 20th century and has some rather ambitious aims. By quoting Bohm, I do not mean to imply that our exchange this semester has to reach toward the stars (although it can), but rather to open a space – a space where we can let go of, if not entirely suspend, our judgments — in which we can work together very seriously to advance your studies, creative practice, professional aspirations, and personal goals. With this in mind, I want to invite you to use our time together to ask hard questions – of the world, of yourself, and of me – about the nature of the degree criteria, your areas of inquiry, and the place of the arts at this historical moment. I want to ask you to think deeply about your intentions in pursuing this degree and to use our exchange as a place to consider what you want and need to know to achieve your intentions.

In our process, I want to both assure you that I see our packet exchange as a dialogue that’s in service to your learning and that my responses are always an invitation to dialogue with the ideas and perspectives that we share with each other. I understand that you have some specific aims, that you might want to approach our exchange in a more utilitarian way, and the kind of open exploration that dialogue represents may raise some apprehension. I respect those positions and truly want to be useful in supporting you in those ways, too. However, I really want to encourage you to consider how much space you keep open for unmediated exploration. In my own process, I often find it easier to reproduce what I already know or invest in the further development of skills that I already possess, rather than being open to discovering something profoundly new. So, as we begin our exchange, I mean to ask if you can set aside some space to be open to the process of discovery without anticipated or predetermined outcome?

To be transparent with you, I’m making this invitation because I believe that it will help you advance in your goals more quickly than any other form of exchange. I am also thinking about it in relation to your academic learning as well as in relation to your creative practice. While, in quoting Bohm, I am referring to a method that’s not specifically related to the arts, I believe that it is closely aligned with modes of creative problem solving that have guided my own education. In my own experience, Bohm’s method is superior to things like “design thinking” because it is holistic and doesn’t limit itself to one way of knowing or learning style.  In some ways, to my ear, it names what artists do more effectively than most practitioners in the arts do!

Although that might be a bit of an overstatement! J

I am writing you from an old choir loft in what was once a Methodist Church but has recently become the Provincetown Public Library. I am looking out windows toward the harbor, the fishing fleet, and into Cape Cod Bay on a warm, but foggy morning. Behind me is a 50% scale model of the fishing schooner, Rose Dorothea – a Provincetown fishing boat that won the 1907 Lipton Cup. The boat model sits in the center of a space that was originally built to serve the worship of hundreds of parishioners, but which now is home to the library’s children’s collection. It is a marvelous space to think and work; it has become my home away from home.

The space between residency and packet one has been full. I have continued to write and also spent some time making new paintings. I’ve been reading in preparation for the Peer Seminar that I’m facilitating and also trying to take long walks in the early spring. Things are very good.

It’s also been a humbling period from a creative standpoint. In the five weeks before residency I was deeply engaged in a writing project, developing a comprehensive first-draft of a book. Since returning, I have not been able to reenter the project. I realize now that I’d unearthed some significantly unexplored experiences regarding the power and influence of shame in my life. I’ve spent most of the past four weeks researching the psychological dynamics of shame in contemporary human development. It’s fascinating to learn about – and also enlightening to realize how much has happened in psychology and psychoanalysis since I last read in these fields. I don’t know about you, but I’m definitely at a point in my life where I get really excited when I stumble upon ideas and experiences that dislodge and disorient the ways I see the world!  While it’s absurd to admit this, I sometimes despair that I may never find another topic that excites my imagination enough to shift my worldview! Luckily this is not a problem at the moment!

As you know, I set up a Google group for our advising group. If anyone wants to prompt a conversation, it will be welcome. You can also use it to share resources you may find or to pose questions for our group. I have been posting resources to the MFA-IA group on Facebook. If you’d like to join that group, it’s easy to subscribe.

Okay, enough preface!  On to your work!

Cheers, Pete

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