Lucas Ihlein – Philosophy of Teaching

The following text was written up for two reasons. First, I was invited to be an external “Artist-Teacher” for Carrie Ramig, an MFA student from Vermont College of Art in USA. The college required me to submit a “philosophy of teaching” statement. (A what?)

And second, I’ve been enrolled in a “University Learning and Teaching” (ULT) subject at University of Wollongong – theory and activities to help improve my teaching practices at tertiary level. This ULT subject also required me to write up a rudimentary “Statement of my Conception of Teaching”.

I’ve tried to put it as clearly as possible – and it doesn’t have much in the way of contemporary educational theory. You could look at this as “where I was at before I read a whole lot about tertiary classroom education and spoiled my innocence” …

Lucas Ihlein – Philosophy of Teaching.

This statement is structured into three sections: in the first section I outline a pedagogical philosophy which has emerged through my own creative practice; the second section looks at my practice of teaching within institutions (museums and universities); and the final section touches on a few influential texts which have proved useful for my work in this area.

1. Pedagogy Through Art Practice
My own art practice often involves an “auto-pedagogical” method. Collaborative works by artist groups SquatSpace (such as Redfern Waterloo Tour of Beauty, 2005-9) and Teaching and Learning Cinema (such as (Wo)man with Mirror, 2009) have at their hearts the desire of the artist to learn something.

Rather than hoping to teach anybody else anything, these artworks are tools to satisfy the artist’s own desire to learn. They do, however, involve a very public “opening-up” of the learning process, so that an audience may also be present as knowledge production unfolds (in it’s shaky, fumbling way) – rather than simply being subjected to a monolithic product of research which has taken place at some point in the past.

To facilitate this, since 2005 I’ve been developing a practice of “blogging as art” which allows fragmentary experiences to accumulate and live online, not necessarily needing immediate resolution or “boiling down”. (This practice is analysed in detail in my 2009 PhD thesis Framing Everyday Experience: Blogging as Art.)

Fragmentary knowledge production of this sort can be hard to stomach in an academic environment, which often requires firm and visible outcomes. However, as an artist, I feel that it’s important to make a case for the unique ways of learning which art makes possible.

Compared to, say, traditional social science research (with its formal interviews and survey-based methods), the method of artmaking I have developed directs attention to the unspectacular ordinary spaces and rhythms of everyday events. It helps us to find value in the specific moments of ordinary life, without needing to resolve the fragmentation, banality and contradictions, which are essential to the everyday, nor transforming them into a fetishised or “aestheticised” form. Failure is OK – able to be reflected upon – and can sometimes be considered a useful outcome in itself.

In this sense, the role of the artist is not to perform “the expert” but rather to dramatise the process of learning. This is shown most clearly in two artworks which I began as an utter novice. In one, Bon Scott Blog (2008) I was invited to produce a blog for 6 months about the cultural phenomenon of deceased AC/DC singer Bon Scott. I knew practically nothing about him, but this put me in a good position to listen deeply to what hundreds of devoted fans had to say about their love for his life and work. However, I did not remain a detached and distanced researcher – my work required embodied, immersive experiences, which dramatically transformed by relationship to my subject (in short, over time I became an obsessed AC/DC fan myself). Importantly, this process of transformation – which every fan has gone through at some point in the past – was made visible (and legible) through the blog artwork.

In another key “novice project”, Environmental Audit (2010), I was commissioned to conduct an environmental audit of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney. I had had no training in this trade, and largely my method comprised “muddling through”. Rather than being a handicap, however, I discovered that (especially in the world of environmental consulting), experts are seen as very intimidating, and can tend to close off individuals’ own resourcefulness. My role as a struggling “everyman” on a public journey through very complex issues (what I characterised as cultural value-vs-resource use) was often empowering to those who got involved in the project or watched from the sidelines.

2. Formalised Pedagogy in Museums and Universities
I’ve been teaching at the University of Wollongong since 2010. I supervise postgraduate students and honours students, and co-ordinate two undergraduate Media Arts subjects. Before I began at the University, I worked part time at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, running education workshops for highschool and primary school children. These workshops were always based around particular exhibitions currently on show at the Museum.

I have no formal teaching qualifications.

Into these formalised educational contexts I tend to import my “enthusiastic and intelligent novice” persona. One of the dangers of teaching Media Arts at university is that students can become very focused on the minute details of particular proprietary software packages, rather than on the “big-picture” issues of concept and contextual placement of their developing artworks. I therefore make a point not to include teaching software in the curriculum. I will, of course, point students in the right direction so they can learn to use particular software for themselves.

Similarly, at the MCA, the highschool students I led on tours were always hungry for “background information” to bridge the anxious gaps that contemporary art often creates for its audiences. The way I saw it, as their guide, my best option was to know as little as possible about the biography or back-story of the artists on show. In this way, the students and I were in the same boat – navigating through the cultural institution armed only with our wits, our set of previous experiences, and the visible or textual evidence we were presented with on the day. I found this “ignorant schoolmaster” approach to be a much more empowering than if I had been able to fill their heads with art historical facts and figures (which the students, if they are so inspired, can easily seek out and accumulate for themselves).1

There will always be an exhibition that you know nothing about. My pedagogical method in the museum was setting up students to be able to fruitfully experience any situation, rather than to become connoisseurs of a very narrow cultural data-set.

3. Some Influential Texts
There are a number of key texts which have resonated with me over the years in relation to art and pedagogy. Here I’ll concentrate on just a few: Ivan Illich, Ian Burn, Paolo Freire, and Donald Schoen.

The earliest one I can remember (I read it in highschool) is a small green book by Ivan Illich called Deschooling Society (1971).2 My mother had come across Illich while studying to become a teacher, and she enjoyed its radical argument that institutionalised education leads to the institutionalisation of every aspect of social life. Particularly prescient was Illich’s proposal of “learning webs” (utilising computer technology to connect interested individuals with each other in a mutual exchange of know-how) to replace formal school learning. These webs would be based on the desire of individuals or groups to learn, rather than students being subjected to prescribed curricula of essential standardised material.

While an undergraduate student in the mid 1990s, I discovered the art and writings of Australian conceptual artist Ian Burn. A few of his ideas stuck out for me at the time. In his essay “Art Theory and Perception”, Burn makes reference to a document he wrote in the early 1970s with his collaborator Mel Ramsden, in which he had proposed that teachers in art schools should operate as “dithering devices”:

A device like this is analogous to those sometimes seem on laboratory apparatus while in operation and ensures against the sticking of mechanical parts that are supposed to articulate freely.

He adds:

Such shaking can, of course, also be applied to bring out potential “flaws” and to cause trouble, and not just to preserve institutional serenity.3

The notion of a teacher as a dithering device – whose role is to shift and change in order to keep things running smoothly (or to shake them up if necessary) is clearly in contrast to the notion of teaching as a process of information transmission. Burn’s provocation is not worlds apart from Brazilian educational theorist Paolo Freire’s searing critique of what he called the “banking” concept of education. In this model of traditional classroom education, students are empty vessels primed to receive “deposits” of knowledge. For Freire, this banking model was a key way in which social oppression was perpetuated:

The more students work at storing the deposits entrusted to them, the less they develop the critical consciousness which would result from their intervention in the world as transformers of that world. The more completely they accept the passive role imposed on them, the more they tend simply to adapt to the world as it is and to the fragmented view of reality deposited in them.4

Conversely, Freire writes, when educational curricula emerge from the interests of students in collaboration with their teacher, the pedagogical process is more empowering and liberatory. Education then becomes a tool for enriching and improving the lives of students wherever they are, in the here-and-now, rather than a means for creating model citizens. In fact, in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire renames the partners in pedagogy as ‘teacher-student’ and ‘students-teachers’ – indicating this collaborative relationship.

Clearly, for art education in the 21st century, a banking model would not work. Art schools in Australian universities are set up to encourage the pursuit of each student’s own projects, rather than the rote-learning of particular skills or information. Much more essential in the “training” of artists is the development of the capacity for “problem-setting”. Donald Schoen (famous for his notion of “Reflective Practice”) argues that problem solving is an over-emphasised skill:

[W]ith this emphasis on problem solving, we ignore problem setting, the process by which we define the decision to be made, the ends to be achieved, the means which may be chosen. In real-world practice, problems do not present themselves to the practitioner as givens. They must be constructed from the materials of problem situations which are puzzling, troubling, and uncertain. Problem setting is a process in which, interactively, we name the things to which we will attend and frame the context in which we will attend to them.5

Problem-setting is the ability to establish one’s own frameworks of development, posing provisional questions, hypotheses, goals, and methods of measurement and appraisal. It is, in essence, the beginning of the art student’s future lifetime project: independent (or at least, inter-dependent) practice. Fostering this kind of practice should be the goal of university art teachers.

  1. Although I had been working in Museum education long before I came across his book, I have been invigorated and emboldened by recently coming across Jacques Ranciere’s book The Ignorant Schoolmaster, which proposes something similar to this practice of “deliberate not-knowing”. See Jacques Ranciere, The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation, Stanford University Press, California, 1991. []
  2. Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society, Marian Boyars, London/New York. []
  3. Ian Burn, “Art Theory and Perception”, in Noel Sheridan (ed), National Graduate Show and Symposium Papers, PICApress, Perth, 1992. []
  4. Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1968; New York:Continuum Press, 2005), p.54. []
  5. Donald A. Schön, The reflective practitioner – how professionals think in action, Basic Books, 1983, p. 40. []

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