ADDENDUM: Notes on Goddard
14 August 2000: PLAINFIELD, VERMONT, FROM JOURNAL
It's day two of Goddard College. And I'm sitting through a workshop on learning styles and "mind mapping" (whatever that is). While I understand the value of these exercises, I feel condescended to. There seems to be a schism between those who value process for process sake and those who see process as enabling discovery. It's hard to discern between those who have serious concerns about work and those who are floating because this place is rife with codes. It's especially true around questions of religion and the spirit. The "new age" is just starting at Goddard, it seems, and there's no apparent critique of flimsy theology. Let's hope that a critique of flimsy pedagogy might yet emerge.
I don't know whether I'm being a crumudeon or if I am trying to articulate deep doubts about this program that I can only now intuit. I see bright spots, but on balance there seems little for me in this program. Perhaps, I am being impatient? It is just the second day. I wonder whether my impatience is a reflection of my elitism? I am full of critique, sounding very much like a Brown student.
I think that my critique is based on pedagogy of process. Yes, it works over time, but it also needs to progress and be flexible to meet students where they are, not at a lowest common denominator. More than that, I can't be afraid to make definitive statements. I come here with a history, too. I can't be afraid of the castigating looks and comments that attempt to isolate me, define me as patriarchal. Definitive statements about my identity, experience are valid.
I can't believe the ways that feminist ideas are butchered here. They're used like weapons in extremely patriarchal ways. It's funny how people formed by patriarchy can't see beyond it even when they are trying to see beyond it! It's jarring to be told that I'm sexist over and over, when I only see sexism in their critiques. I guess Ill need to start talking about homophobia soon. Jar these entitled straight women (who position themselves as victims, savor vistimhood) to see that there are many lenses through which oppression occurs. Sigh.
I don't know whether this is the new beginning for which I am hoping. I may just be articulating that disappointment, the dissolution of my own expectation. I don't have the sense of a new future here.
Too much complaining!! I can make something of this.
Summer 2001 (before 11 September "changed everything.")
While writing, I took a break. Stepping outside I watched the Goddard campus, the various undulations of the night. The co-ed social dorm is quiet, with only the most assiduous partiers holding court, looking for connection under a cloudy night. The path to the library is seemingly bereft of human activity. Then, curiously, the security guard walks past. His name is "Animal," which is certainly an act of will rather than a parental act of naming. Yet, what strikes me isn't his particularity, his humanity, rather it's his attire. My impulse is to call out and ask him if he has a gun. The theory of Goddard allows me the chutzpah to construct this thought; the reality of our society gives me pause. The impulse passes. I'm left with a contradiction. For, here, on the campus that is committed to democracy, inclusion and progressive, even radial, thought is a security guard wearing the emblems of fear and containment.
Rationally, I know Animal does not have a gun and in human terms I know he would be amused by my question. I've spoken with him and understand that he's a part of the Goddard culture. It's his symbolism that interests me -- its intentional reproduction of patriarchal containment and control. At the moment of our encounter, I know that I have done nothing wrong. I have broken no law. Yet, I am reminded that the institution has a vested interest in invoking within me a consideration of right and wrong. The institution has subscribed to a set of containments and reminders of the limits of our freedom. The institution has agreed to compromise its declared values in service to the state. It reminds me that everything is ideological. For a moment I am stunned.
I shouldn't be. I recall that this place has not been safe and open for me in the way that I'd imagined it could be. I remember that it has been a struggle to find my voice here. For a moment I am angry, an impulse that is familiar, for living in a police state is something to which I have become inured. And, I think, why should I expect Goddard to be different. Surely the discourse of this campus has been nothing but a reflection of the society both in being an exemplar of its highest hopes and basest transgressions. The security guard, in epaulets, badge and boots is no less insidious than those colleagues who contain ideas with projections of assumed oppression and the vagaries of inclusion. For their liberalism, I've yet to see people of color in any numbers in any of the programs I've seen. It's a white colony; racism disguised as a shrug of the shoulders and a vague invocation that it's a pity that people of color don't come here. These are simply different uniforms intended to colonize the human spirit.
Suddenly this seems like a diatribe, or, worse, a didactic essay. "Sophomoric" seems too harsh a word and, in speaking it, I am aware of a certain rhetorical dodge. These reflections do seem to speak the obvious, reproduce knowledge that is already widely known. It strikes me that I may be writing a book report to validate what I already know, to gather some status for myself. I have been colonized. Perhaps, I colonize myself.
No, this isnt a book report or a tantrum; it is a thesis. The above is intended to remind me of the dangers of the path on which I've embarked. I come from a specific history, one that intended me to be someone I can not be. You may have believed that this was to be a coming out story and that the ending would be somehow transcendent. Such narratives are irresistible. Like the stories made for children that end with "happily ever after," or, as Mark Doty eloquently relates, the impulse children have to end stories with "it was a dream." The impulse is palliative, reassuring, yet, hollow. It explains away the complexity of the world. It contains and controls meaning, making the world more safe, yet somehow less satisfying. This story intends to be satisfying. It's a plan, a map, a statement of desire.
Being at Goddard has been frustrating. I came with dreams that, after years of attending to the educational process of others, I might be able to indulge in a nurturing discourse that would always push me and challenge me to embrace more than I am. Often, I've found myself thrust into a position of teaching here, having to set aside my desires for engagement in service to my community. Insidiously, I have felt that such a role has distanced me from people, connoting too much intensity on my part, making others fearful, engaging in a project of colonization of my own.
One the other hand, I wouldn't be a teacher if I didn't seek the connection and reciprocity of the exchange. Still, I have had to grieve the loss of my desires. I have had to re-align myself and find a voice that is authentic. This is complicated in that I have not easily accepted my unfulfilled expectations and has been the architect of my self-censorship.
Yet this is all too easy. How can a white man whine about invisibility and loss of voice? I have the ability to pass, to trade on my privilege and God knows I do. So the question I'm asking isn't about oppression it's about courage.
24 October 2001: Practicum Documentation
Peter Hocking, Director
Howard R. Swearer Center for Public Service
Providence, Rhode Island
To the faculty, MFA-IA program:
Practical education provides a bridge between the constraints of liberal and technical traditions of education, making one more rooted in the world and the other more complicated by the multiple possibilities of approaching a given problem. Having worked in a liberal arts college for 14 years, directing a program in public service, I've come to see the ways that practical education can be transformational for learners and the communities in which such education happens. Practical education allows learners to experience Dewey's idea of learning by doing, but more than that it contextualizes learning into the material concerns of the world in which students, indeed, we all live. I have committed myself to practical education and my own practice of living is based on the principles of engaged citizenship.
I am fortunate in my career to be situated in an institution that values and supports practical education. The center I direct is well supported by Brown University and our work isn't subject to the whims of educational fad or fancy. Indeed, this has been the bane of practical education in many settings -- an intellectual commitment to its power and a practical disregard for the real resources -- both monetary and moral -- that it requires. The result of this institutional indifference is often devastating for the communities on which practical education is wrought.
This may sound like a tough assessment of the practice of practical education and it's intended to be. Those institutions that rhetorically embrace practical education without providing the moral, ethical and institutional support it requires are re-inscribing the history of class privilege and abuse that has defined higher education's relationship with the communities in which such institutions reside. They assume the inherent "goodness" of the work that will be done without accepting accountability for the outcomes of the work.
At its best, practical education creates a reciprocal, symbiotic relationship between an institution of higher education and the community in which the practical work is completed. The higher education institution assumes responsibility for the supervision, moral and ethical training of the student as well as assuring some standard of quality for the outcomes of the work. The community, reciprocally, agrees to share its experience and practical knowledge of the subject at hand. In addition, the community defines the issues of pressing need and the assets it has to bring to bear on the problem. When this sort of relationship is well established the possibility for transformational learning is manifest.
Unfortunately, the more likely scenario of practical education pivots between, at best, the "workshop" model, which uses the community for the college's ends, and the "work on the community" model, which can result in deeply destructive practices that serve to disempower communities. In either case, higher education institutes these programs from a position of profound arrogance and the belief that communities can be used for the ends of their students education.
This preface may seem like a peculiar way to open the documentation of a Goddard MFA-IA practicum. Perhaps it is so because the MFA-IA practicum is both peculiar and deeply troubling. Mostly, though, it's here to remind me of my doubts about the ethics of the Goddard MFA-IA practicum and to remind myself of the perils involved in presuming to do this sort of work.
Ivan Illich, the great theologian and activist, wrote a remarkable essay in the late nineteen-sixties titled "To Hell with Good Intentions." Primarily a critique of the Peace Corps and other international voluntary aid programs, Illich draws upon the Irish proverb "The road to Hell is paved with good intentions," drawing a line between the personal morality of one's intentions and one's responsibilities to larger communities and causes. Illich's critique is not based on the impulse toward good work, rather to the questions of sustainability, solidarity between rich and poor, and the willingness of those with privilege to work toward real change rather than placating themselves with the balm of having done something nice for others. The questions, plainly spoken, are where will you be, how will you be affected, and what will you do for the cause after your requirement is completed? It's a powerful metaphor for the difficult work of ethically developing a practice for living within the world.
Unfortunately, the MFA-IA practicum, because of its lack of articulation and presumption that students can use communities on a short-term basis does not ask similar questions. More troubling is that, although I suspect that these questions might be asked within the advising relationship, they are not transparent values for the community to embrace. Such is fertile ground for small, cumulative transgressions. Finally, the MFA-IA practicum refuses to acknowledge Goddard's debt to the communities in which practica are completed or consider the ways that the College might work toward building sustainable, long term efforts within communities that could, cumulatively, result in more resources entering rather than being withdrawn from our partner communities.
To confirm these critiques one need only look at the way that the MFA-IA program characterizes the practicum experience:
"Your practicum is also an experiment, one which involves the participation of a group of other people. There is no set requirement for the practicum, other than the possibility it gives you to reflect, through practical experience, on your role as an artist within a community and on your ability to make a meaningful contribution to the society, through a given group of persons. Please, see this practicum as an opportunity to try something new. The success of the practicum resides in your ability to articulate the nature of your project and to understand the issues involved in its actualization the actual success of your project with the group or the possibility to "prove" your original hypotheses are not so important. What matters is your process and the experience that you gained." (Goddard College: MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts Program Handbook Addendum. No date. P.8)
The first sentence seems to say that the practicum is an experiment involving other people. While not outlandish, by any means, Goddard provides students with no guidance regarding the ethical standards for human subject research. I suspect this is the case because the intention of the program is not experimentation, rather it is innovation that the author seeks to inspire. Yet it remains troubling that the implication is that such work might be foisted upon an unsuspecting group which is implied in the phrase "through a given group of persons."
The guidelines further implore students to "Please, see this practicum as an opportunity to try something new," implying that students are not to continue work within their current community or areas of experience. While reinforcing the "experimental" nature of the practicum, this statement deepens the real possibility of cultural voyeurism, colonial exploitation, and reinscription of the hegemonic privilege of the University.
The final point of the guidelines that "the actual success of your project[is] not so important" -- can also be read in two ways. The first reading is soothing to the neophyte student, ensuring that such forays into the unknown will not be counted against them should they prove unequal to the task. The implication being that the quality of the work done "through a given group of persons" neednt be especially high. Outcome and success for the subject of this practical work is clearly not Goddards concern. Our subjects are simply resources to be used for the purpose of what, shockingly, is stated in the last sentence: "your process and the experience that you gained."
Partnership is hard, it requires that we set aside our own needs in service to the needs, desires and wants of others. It requires that we pay our dues, do some work, and consider our relationship to a community in a significant way. It requires that we be accountable for the philosophy that we espouse and be present to those we implicate in our work. Partnership, accountability and coherent ethics are clearly not the intention of this degree requirement.
On the basis of this critique, I have resisted fulfilling the requirement, although I have done practical work in each of my semesters at Goddard. In my first semester I attempted to organize a mid-semester symposium of Goddard students and local artist activists in Providence, RI. There was considerable enthusiasm for the event that led me to proceed with the organizing. When push came to shove, the community with whom I was trying to organize this did not view it as a priority and the event didnt occur.
I had never attempted to organize such a conference and I learned a lot by doing it. I learned that organizing is hard, that peoples impulses toward collaborative work need to be nurtured, and I learned that working outside ones community requires one to lower expectations.
I learned a lot about my process, too. I learned that I could have pulled off the event successfully had I not committed myself to working with a community of people. I learned that sometimes force of will and autocracy can result in good things and that group process and collaboration can suffocate good ideas. I learned that stepping outside of my process, my life, and my community to try something new is a sure way for me to fail.
Given the description of the practicum in the handbook, this should be enough to fulfill the degree criteria. I was experimental, my project involved a group of people, I was able to reflect on my experience as an artist and organizer, it was a new kind of project for me, and although I was not able to prove my original hypothesis or succeed, in a traditional sense, I gained experience.
This is, of course, the cynical view, but I make it for a point: the practicum is presented cynically, without clarity of purpose, is easily dodged by students, and is agonized over by others who want to undertake it in good faith.
In good faith I will add that I have undertaken six other practical projects which tie my art practice to the various communities in which I live:
1. In the fall of 2000, I collaborated on a moderated a series of conversations between artists who work in community settings and the Rhode Island arts community. These conversations were intended to support the development of artist-teachers in community-based settings. They allowed experienced artist-teachers to share their experience and best practices with local artists who were considering entering schools, healthcare facilities, community centers and other "communities" for the purpose off teaching art. There were four evening sessions with four different groups of artists. I am currently working with a committee of people to continue this series in the spring. It will be slightly revised to be focused on the theme of "correspondence," looking at the relationship between people and the various ways that we can communicate through boundaries and obstacles within our community. (Publicity and some tapes of the conversations are available for documentary purposes should they be required.)
2. I coordinated, planned and implemented a series of five conversations among the community of museum educators, gallery owners, faculty, students and other community members on the concept of "community arts" in Rhode Island. These conversations investigated the various definitions off "community," "community arts," and the difficult matter of making the fine arts inclusive. These conversations were organized collaboratively with colleagues at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum. (transcripts of the discussions are available for documentary evidence should it be required)
3. I have designed and implemented two learning communities on the arts at the Swearer Center for Public Service, which I direct. The first of these learning communities explores the ways that artist volunteers can work within community based settings. The second investigates the connection between arts and healing. Both meet bi-weekly throughout the academic year. (Documentation of the existence of these learning communities is available through the Swearer Center web site.)
4. I have designed and taught a class at the Rhode Island School of Design titled "The Self in Society." This course looks at the relationship between the individual and systems of power. Taught to studio arts students, it connects contemporary philosophy, sociology and critical theory with studio practice. (A syllabus and course announcement are available as documentation of this work.)
5. As the chair of the board of directors, I have helped to build New Urban Arts, a community arts center for adolescents in providence, RI. New Urban Arts currently has 100 students engaged in photography, painting and drawing, poetry, printmaking, and three-dimensional design classes. We have, in the last three months, tripled the size of our facility. I am now leading the capital fund drive which intends to integrate the work of the center with our fund-raising by developing a broad based community of supporters from students and families to business people and members of the local arts community. (Written plans and meeting minutes are available as documentation of this work.)
6. I implemented and continue to supervise the development of a humanities and technology program in the Mt. Hope neighborhood of Providence. This program teaches technology by engaging community members in an exploration of the rich history of the Mt. Hope community. We are developing Power Point presentations about the history of the neighborhood, building web sites that organize the archival and oral history of the community, and a magazine that connects neighbors with each other and the educational programs. (A copy of a funding proposal and narrative reports to WorldCom can be provided as documentation of this work.)
The critique of my practica is that they do not push me past communities that I already know. They are not innovative and experimental given my past practice as an activist and artist. These observations are true to a point. Yet, with each commitment I have pushed myself to move beyond, if only slightly, my past experience. More than that, each commitment has endeavored to connect new communities of people and to support their connections by building sustainable structures through which they can flourish. In these points I believe that I have achieved in my art practice what the Goddard MFA-IA truly wishes to inspire in its students.
I dont offer this paper or my critiques in a spirit of opposition. I truly believe that the practicum is an essential part of the MFA-IA degree requirements. Indeed, it is because of my passionate commitment to such education that I am troubled so deeply by the superficiality of its current manifestation. The issues raised by this sort of educational approach are difficult but worthy of the programs attention. It is my hope that these words might inspire some reflection on the part of the faculty and that they might embrace the awesome responsibility that this requirement lays before them. To that end, I offer the following recommendations to the faculty:
1. The goals of the practicum be more clearly and particularly articulated to the student body.
2. Adopt a set of principles of ethical practice for the practicum that is presented in a workshop at each residency.
3. A faculty member with experience in community based work be assigned the supervision of practica. If no current faculty member is currently willing or able to serve in this capacity, this expertise should be of high priority in the next faculty hiring.
4. Documentation of student practica should be made available on Goddards web site. This will help students understand the range and diversity of practica that are possible.
Respectfully submitted in partial fulfillment of the Goddard College MFA-IA degree.
ADDENDUM: Further thoughts on the "practicum."
November 2002: Excerpted from packet response to Pam Hall:
This is the hardest thing that I have to write. I appreciate that you have forwarded me the addendum to the practicum description. Its a step in the right direction; however, it solidifies my concerns about this whole matter. While the background questions begin to address the existence of "other" in this process, it still smacks of colonialist intent and implications.
At the center of my concern is the voyeuristic tourism that undergirds the whole business. The new guidelines dont address the essential premise of the practicum which, as I see it, is to force students out of the security of their own experience into another context. The new guidelines ask some good questions, but without the context of doing such work I would guess that the questions only deepen the anxiety of the novice practitioner and can easily be glanced over.
Indeed, the questions dont get to the matter that the practicum can be easily faked. There is no accountability built into the guidelines or any acknowledgement that Goddard is assuming responsibility for the outcomes and consequences of this degree requirement. Indeed, the "community" (on which the practicum is unleashed) is never consulted in the construction or review of the work an easy requirement would be a letter of invitation being part of the planning process and an evaluation secured by the faculty at its conclusion. Indeed, that the faculty has no direct contact with the community in which the practicum is being done is deeply troubling. Not only does it communicate an indifference of the communitys concerns, it also telegraphs to students that this isnt a serious matter. The new guiding questions may ease the collective conscience of the faculty but they dont get to the pedagogical or ethical issues inherent in this requirement. Nor do they address the legal ones. Because this is a requirement, Goddard as an institution is liable for the quality and content of the work.
Practicum work of this sort needs to be grounded in a community with which either the student (in this model) or the faculty has an enduring relationship and commitment. It needs to be guided in a way that the community in which the work is being done has co-equal control over the shape and content of the work being done. This is not "interventionist," political or social change work (indeed, if it is, it should be structured in a different way). Its an EXERCISE in developing the skills to implement a community project. Indeed, it is a requirement that students step out of their own practice as artists to dabble in the community with the hope that it might result in an arguably art-after-modernism practice a la Suzi Gablik. It lacks intellectual grounding or, if the grounding is there, it lacks intelligible explication to the student body. Either way it requires students to be dilettantes in what I consider to be critical practice.
In short, before I started thinking about this I was only annoyed. Now, Im seriously concerned that this a requirement of the program. I believe it can be salvaged, but I believe that the suggestions I made last packet are still the best recourse. For something with the ethical implications of this work to stand in the program, real resources need to be committed by the College.
Thats a sour note on which to end this letter and I apologize if it seems directed. You know I feel passionately about these matters, indeed that I have committed fifteen years to thinking about them. There are choices that have been made in structuring this. If the resources arent available to do the practicum responsibly, then the faculty has the choice to remove it from the program. I dont make my statements lightly. I make them because the faculty must wrestle with this.
3 August 2002
I had a revelation as I was leaving Goddard. At the closing session there was a palpable sense of the importance of Goddard to many of my peers. It's articulated as a community acknowledgement of the value and importance of ones process and practice. It betrays the lack of support and community that some folks feel in their daily lives. For me, it underscored the privilege and fortune of my own life. Going to Goddard is, for me, a process of stepping out of one supportive context and into another.
The need for community, for a sense of connection at Goddard always gets under my skin. Mostly it's because its so individualistic and selfish. I'm over-generalizing, but I do always have a sense of concern about how aggressively people claim their space and how jealously they guard it. Of course, this approach creates conflicts and destabilizes the very support that people are seeking. The general disregard for others that is demonstrated is often shocking.
It's no secret that my first two semesters at Goddard were rough. I lashed out at the program and deconstructed its premises. As I was departing yesterday afternoon I realized that I had projected my concerns about students onto the structure of the program and the faculty. My anger was not focused on the program or the faculty, they just provided a safe place onto which I might project my anger. The source of my anger was my fellow students particularly a few of the more advanced students who jealously protected the space that theyd carved out at Goddard. My rage was focused on their inability or unwillingness to dig deeper, to embrace ambiguity, to seek new, destabilizing answers.
This realization came when the first semester students articulated a similar dissatisfaction with some of our more advanced peers. Some of them used me as a foil and thanked me for my attentiveness and interest in their experience. I didn't do anything more than offer the most basic sort of support and encouragement, certainly nothing worth praise. Yet, it underscores the simple truth that community isn't entered or granted, community is constructed.