Saturday, February 19, 2011

Introspective-Retrospective-Perspective II

An interesting prompt for this particular mulling came about after chiming in on a great post, "Blogger Beware," via one of the better boots-on-the-(play)ground blogs about teaching that I follow, "It's Not All Flowers and Sausages." It got me thinking back over my experiences in teaching and how it conflated with blogging about it, and here's my comment in full from that particular post:

(More after the jump)

De-cloaking lurker here: great post and follow-up comments.

I agree that “bashing students” is counterproductive to teaching, and prudence dictates the content of posting about what goes on in a classroom. The role and responsibility of a teacher to provide a nurturing environment extends from the classroom to the internet, and there are higher standards for professional conduct to consider.

I had started a blog a couple years ago specifically to document my experiences from a teacher’s perspective, warts and all, and it was quite the learning curve. In retrospect I still stand behind everything I wrote, even if I apologized in retrospect, and still make it a point to never post anything I wouldn’t say in person.

Accountability and openness is a factor too: I always made full disclosure about publishing stuff on-line, along with displaying applicable disclaimers, and (most importantly) respecting the privacy of others – like getting signed releases, asking permission, and giving credit where credit was due. Judicious editing and appropriate timing (as in sitting on potentially controversial posts) were also crucial blogging skills that I learned on the fly, and it helped to bounce things off other people first – again, like a normal critique. Feedback is great, but the point for me was never to get fans or make friends, whether the job is making art, teaching it, or blogging about it.
It was rewarding to many other folks, peers and students alike, some of whom who gained empathy and insights that are relatively rare to read about. It’s one of the reasons I follow a handful of related blogs - like this one in particular - in part to counter the frustrating unicorn farts that gloss over or avoid pointing out the less attractive aspects of teaching.

All that said, maybe it’s because I’m also an artist (and an editorial cartoonist) that I appreciate honest, unvarnished opinions, and think self-censorship either stunts or completely kills off any creative growth. But that’s tempered by how long one’s academic leash is, and how far you want to push the envelope: ultimately it’s a personal call on individual styles of blogging, and like a lot of artwork, it’s all good. Unless it’s really bad.
So I tended to side with the observation you aren’t necessarily doing students any favors by candy-coating the reality of how one’s work is judged outside the classroom. I didn’t pull punches any more on-line than I would during a critique, or a meeting, which probably makes me exhibit A for being an “idiot.” I find it just as hard to humor slackers and cheerleaders for banality on either side of the desk, easel or keyboard.

In the end, I think most of my students appreciated, or at least recognized the fact that I was also coming across as a regular human being full of faults and frailties like everybody else. Sure, I made mistakes all the time, just hopefully not the same ones, and I wasn’t above pointing out my personal failures, especially if anyone else might learn from and avoid making them in their own work.
Plus I also made a follow-up comment after another reader pointed up the ethics of confidentiality:

That’s an important ethical (and legal) clarification; respecting privacy is part of providing a safe place. It’s tricky balancing that voyeuristic line of when going “behind the scenes,” versus gossipy tell-alls.

It made me revisit a swath of previous posts dealing specifically with teaching, this time wearing a different set of prescription frames: those more of a critic looking to cherry-pick examples of unethical and questionable conduct. So I'm basically screwed, but one of the enduring lessons from my father was something to the extent of not really worrying about what other people think too much, especially when it comes to matters of whether they will appreciate who you really are and what you're really like - like subsuming or buffing up one's image to accommodate the mold of a prospective employer: you really don't want to waste time working for assholes anyways. Still, in the timeless words of Dylan, "You do what you must do, and you do it well."

Above and beyond those observations, it all got me wondering about other teachers who aren't in the classroom anymore, for whatever reason - be it retirement, burnout or the currently constipated job market. How do they handle it, and how much of one's identity is wrapped up in the job defining who you are? For me personally, as much as I loved teaching about what I do, it still comes in a (close) second to doing it. Meaning, I don't feel particularly rudderless or bereft of anything without teaching being in my life at the moment - at least nowhere near as much as I would if I couldn't draw (meaning no more or less than I'm normally adrift in Life). So that gives lie to the adage "those who cannot do, teach," and also reinforces my priorities and reaffirms my point of entry into the academic arena, that of a practicing professional, versus the trajectory of someone with educational career-oriented background. Still, I do miss it, almost as much for the company of other like-minded individuals as for the constant challenges. To wit, there's a parallel with looking at one's work as being a "job" either in the classroom or in the studio, and the continuing balancing act to maintain freshness, vitality and interest, all the while certain elements conspire to leech the passion away and it turns into the walking undead artist or zombified teacher. Or both.

So I currently know of a handful of people who are actively trying to gain either certification to teach, or get a full-time gig while substituting, plus a few that are wonderful teachers who aren't even in the classroom but serve as default mentors instead. For all three perspectives there's a strong desire to share experiences and foster learning opportunities/"teachable moments, as well as the overarching employment aspect i.e. earning a paycheck. Which includes the decision to invest time and energy making good money elsewhere doing something different, which is not a prime motivator or serious option for many in the educational field. The same goes with many artists I know: there's also a corresponding highwire act that affects their personal choices about their respective pursuits. 
Keeping all your options open applies equally well in either, or any, situation.

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