We Believe You are Powerful

I suspect that my posts to this journal will be recursive as I think about (and rethink) pedagogy.  Personal truth is evolutionary, growing as we grow. Meaning is also contingent and dependent upon context. Since my context is currently shifting, I fully expect some turns in the road. Undoubtedly this means that I will return to topics, write and rewrite some of the same things, shifting slightly and radically as required.

After making my first post last night, I realized that I didn’t concisely define pedagogy. Then I realized that defining pedagogy is precisely the work of this journal; and that the definition will not come through concise summations. Yet, having a sense of things at the start might be useful. Thinking about this further, I realized that there are some principles that ground my thinking about teaching and learning and that, last summer, I had the opportunity to share some of these in a brief graduation address for the graduate program in which I teach. In a sense, the title of the remarks — We Believe You are Powerful — provide a starting place for exploring my principles, reflecting my belief that learners are already powerful, no more or less than their teachers, at the beginning of the learning process .

It’s a start.

I suspect I might find a few other recent writings to post as a means of grounding my thinking in experience.

MFA-Interdisciplinary Arts Commencement, Goddard College, 24 July 2011 | Peter Hocking

1.     Thank you for the invitation to speak today. As sometimes these things do, the invitation came somewhat last minute. For me, this isn’t such a problem. As those of you who’ve worked with me know, I have some experience with pushing against deadlines. I’ve learned to trust that, within reason, I can accomplish what I need to do in the time available to me. The variable in this approach, as parents, teachers, and coworkers have repeatedly reminded me, is the unanticipated demands of the world. So it wasn’t surprising that when I sat down to draft some ideas, my horoscope would announce:

You may find yourself turning inward as the intuitive Moon encourages inner reflection. Memories long forgotten may begin to surface during the next two days, which may be startling for some of you. Bring fresh flowers to add beauty to your environment.

I very much hope that my long-forgotten inner reflection isn’t starling to some of you. At the very least, we have flowers.

2.     Nearly a decade ago, I sat where you, my graduating friends, sit today. The United States was at the precipice of war and the residency was full of resistance to the impending militarism. We, however, were not disconnected from the cultural gestalt, and adopted the language of war. Our discourse turned to the metaphor of resistance and “fighting against” an impending atrocity.

As I was introduced, and approached this podium, to act as my own valedictorian, as you will do in a few short minutes, I spoke of my discomfort in the shifting metaphor. I spoke then, as I still believe today, that it is vitally important to spend one’s life working for what you value rather than getting stuck in fighting against another’s agenda.

A decade later, Western culture is subsumed by an ethos of fighting against “the other.” I invite you to help us counter that tide, and urge you to share with us, as you approach this podium, a glimpse of your aspirations, a sense of what you’re working toward in your life and your practice.

3.    I recently ended a star-crossed affair with another institution of higher education. It didn’t end well or easily, but as we get older we learn take what we can and to move on from such affairs. There are stories, of course, which will fuel my writing – both academic and fictive – for years to come. It’s still too fresh, and hardly the occasion, to get into that today. Yet, I can’t get one experience out of my mind.

Last spring, the president of that other institution published a book on leadership. The book highlighted his two-year college presidency, extolling his skills and insights as a leader and offering his success as a case study for effective executive and community leadership. Synchronous to the publication, the faculty of the college, by more than an 80 percent margin, voted no confidence in him, citing his lack of relational and executive leadership skills.  The author’s representation of experience and the community’s perception of his presence in their lives proved to be radically disoriented from each other. Indeed the author’s representation of the community he has been hired to lead is unrecognizable to many who live and work in it.

Whether one can ever discern “truth” from such complex institutional or community politics is a debate for another time.  What sticks with me is the juxtaposition of deeply contradictory representations, the manipulation of perception in service to promoting a personal brand, and the way in which our presence in the world is being replaced by representations of how we want to be perceived.  This experience sticks with me because it feels emblematic of what we currently confront in over-mediated lives. Culturally we accept narcissistic self-interest as a legitimate, even valorized, life choice. Economically, we enable a system that allows superficial thinking to be published, broadcasted, and disseminated as knowledge. Personally, we are embracing the mediation of human experience – of life — and are in danger of becoming avatars instead of actors.

These experiences of cultural narcissism have taken ideas from us, too. Our political mind is no longer bound to the idea that we – our generation, right now, you and me – can build a great society. We no longer believe that our efforts we will leave – or can leave – the world better for the next generation. We accept an assumption that apathy – even antipathy — toward the common good is normal.

4.     It’s easy to get caught in the culture of critique, in overly trusting the cult of expertise, in constantly feeling defensive in the face of “tough questions,” or worn down by the drum taps of ever-present conflict. We delude ourselves into thinking that these “serious” or “tough” ways of talking or being are getting us somewhere. But these are the tools used by those intent on keeping us in our place, the same place, or further tipping the balance of power toward those who are already powerful. These modes do not advance aspirations for justice, fairness, or a better world. These modes do not make the world more beautiful. These are the techniques of people and institutions that put a personal sense of security and need ahead of our collective experience. They are the tools of a dog-eat-dog world. They deflect our attention from the real issues. They are designed to keep us from naming our aspirations, exercising our power, and building a new vision for the world – a vision that will meet the needs of more of us, of all of us.

5.     The independent scholar and anthropologist, Ellen Dissanayake, defines art as “making special that which is important.”  I love this definition of art because it strips away the pretense of the contemporary art world and the convoluted theories of the current moment. Dissanayake asks us to consider our impulse to aesthetically arrange and make meaning from our experience of the physical and metaphysical.  She asks us to consider how all those things we now call “art” are connected to our experience of being human.

Importantly she also shows us the ways our impulse to use our hands and feet, our bodies in motion, and our capacity to arrange the physical as a means of making meaning is aligned, in parallel, to our impulse toward language. This impulse — perhaps shockingly to those intent on hording or excluding others from the realm of art — isn’t locked away in the mysterious purview of “talent.” Metaphorically, Dissanayake names our two hands for making meaning and crafting knowledge. Even more, she gives back to us our whole body!  We can speak our truth and we can make our truth; our truth can be embodied in how we navigate the world. This is our human inheritance.

6.     And yet “art” is under attack and artists spend much time, in my opinion too much time, lamenting the lack of social, political and authoritative sanction and support of the arts. Don’t get me wrong, the lack of official support for the arts is no illusion; my regret is for the lamentation. Our grief at having one hand removed from the making of our collective meaning is understandable. But this is not a personal tragedy. It is not about getting grants or selling the art we make. It is a culture tragedy marked by an erosion of our full humanity and, as the philosopher Maxine Greene has warned, with an agenda to transform us from human beings to human resources.

7.     So what are we to do?

Those of you graduating today – and those of you in the audience who will graduate soon – leave here two-handed. When your advisors have suggested that you write more or you make more, we are not being capricious. We are encouraging you to build muscles of articulation and skills for advancing your aspirations. We are reflecting our belief that you can embody what you know and enact your knowledge through action in the world. We believe that you are powerful.  We hope that your understanding of embodied knowledge might give you pause to consider the ethical use of your power, especially when abuses of power taunt and goad you toward ethical compromise. You leave here with the tools to make a better world. These tools have become unusual, rare, and a privilege — when they might rightly be encouraged and nurtured in us all. I hope you understand the obligation that comes with the privilege of these tools. I urge you to get to work.

To those of you who are visiting – family, friends, members of our extended community – I understand fully from my life that you may be ambivalent about your child, partner, or friend following a vocational call toward the economically uncertain path of the arts. If you’re like my mother, you might prefer that your loved one had a calling to be a lawyer. I understand that your concerns are grounded in love, but I hope you might leave today understanding that other forces inform your concerns, too. If you hold some feeling that you aren’t creatively talented, please also consider where your aesthetic hand is hiding or bound.  Without having met you, I’m quite sure that you’ve done much to make special those parts of the world that matter to you. There is joy in embracing the fullness of our human legacy.

To all of us, we are not the victims of the tide of history. Apathy and narcissism are not our inheritance. They are a cultural choice. We are the actors of this moment. We can create as beautiful a world as we can imagine.

Thank you for your attention.

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