Art Institute of Chicago

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Essay on the value of teaching outside your area of expertise

The Courage to Be Ignorant

December 3, 2013

This summer, the faculty of Shimer College held a discussion of Jacques Rancière's book The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation. In it, he discusses the educational theory and practice of Joseph Jacotot, who claimed that one could teach a subject one didn't even know in the first place. For Jacotot, teaching isn't a matter of expertise, but of determination. It isn't about transmitting knowledge to the student, but about holding students accountable to the material that they are working on.

Though the method Rancière described was more radical than anything we would actually try, the general approach resonates with what we try to do at Shimer, a small liberal arts college in the Great Books tradition. Our classes are all discussion-based, centered on important texts, artworks, and scientific experiments, and the professor serves not to instruct the students but to keep them on task and nudge them in the right direction. A handful of our faculty members have actually taught the whole curriculum, covering the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences, and all are required to teach in at least two areas.

All of this remained mostly theoretical for me until this semester, however, when I began teaching Humanities 1: Art and Music. I am knowledgeable about fine arts and am a passable classical pianist, but my Ph.D. is in theology and philosophy and the course is the first I've ever taught where the primary object of study was something other than texts. The challenge of the course is to find a way of talking about art that is neither purely impressionistic and personal nor overly technical and scholarly.

The problem is most pronounced with music, where students often express a need for something called “music theory” that will permit them to talk about the experience of music in an intelligent and informed way. For the visual arts, there’s a more immediate intelligibility, given that the majority of the works we discuss in the course are representational (or at least suggestive of representation) — yet even there, students can feel that they don’t know what to say beyond assessing whether the painting represents what it’s supposed to in a way that is somehow “realistic.”

Our approach is to give students a handful of “hooks” that allow them to point out certain aspects of a given artwork. We begin with the format of the class, which is centered on Ovid's Metamorphoses, a work that has inspired artists for generations. As a result of this framing, the majority of works that we study are somehow representative or narrative in form, giving the students a basic orientation. The ready availability of different works on the same subject also gives us the
opportunity to highlight the differences between different media and the types of choices that artists make within the same medium.

On the level of form, we try to give students a ready familiarity with a few basic concepts. In music, the most important goals include being able to hear consonance vs. dissonance (which is fairly intuitive once it’s pointed out), knowing how to talk about melody and harmony, and being broadly familiar with the distinction of major vs. minor. With painting, we focus on the use of perspective, the interaction of colors, and the composition of the piece as a whole. These tools give them enough to begin thinking about how the expressive content of the artwork can reinforce, compliment, or complicate the emotional content of the narrative being portrayed.

By halfway through the semester, I had developed a certain level of confidence on art and music. Yet the syllabus threw me a curve ball when I was required to introduce a new art form by taking the students on an architectural tour in downtown Chicago. Here I felt my ignorance much more acutely, and instead of trying to create my own tour, I asked a senior faculty member to demonstrate the tour he had given the previous year, which I simply repeated.

We had only a short time for the tour, and so I could only point out a handful of extremely basic points. I showed them a few buildings that were built before the skyscraper technique was developed (basically, the outer walls had to be load-bearing before the skyscraper technique allowed for an internal distribution of the weight) as well as some early skyscrapers. I talked about the ways that the architect can get us to “read” a building — how the eye is drawn upward, how a building can be “capped” with a different design on the top floors, how the base of the building can provide indications of where the entrances are and how the facade can reinforce that. We saw some buildings that were highly ornamented and some that were very stark. We also looked at lobbies in a similar variety of styles. Finally, I tried to point out to them the way buildings interact with each other.

None of this was very advanced, and indeed, I was most often simply pointing out to the students what my colleague had pointed out to me on our tour. Yet the students reported that they had benefited from simply being told to step back and actually look at the buildings and from being given certain rough-and-ready indications of what to look for. Some reported they had never really thought about architecture at all, that it had always faded into the background. Even a more knowledgeable student said that being asked to look at buildings in the context of the cityscape rather than in isolation was a step beyond what he’d done before.

None of this resulted from any special skill I brought to the table — even the mechanical execution of the tour was pretty inept, and I’m known to mumble. (My students strongly discouraged me from pursuing a career as a tour guide.) It was simply a matter of being told to look and being given a few specific things to look at. It made them want to look more closely in the future, as indeed preparing for the tour made me want to look more closely as well.

While it was most pronounced with architecture, I've been learning along with the students throughout the semester. During trips to the Art Institute of Chicago, I've found that my way of looking at paintings has changed. A recent visit to the symphony with my students revealed that I'm getting better at following and thinking about classical music — after the concert, I found that I really wanted to talk about it and even investigate it further, in a way that wouldn’t have been true before. I see similar progress in my students, as they become more and more comfortable with talking about the formal elements of the artworks and relate them in more sophisticated way to their representational or narrative content. In fact, one of my students who transferred from a local art school claims that she has had more and better discussion of art in our class than she did in art school.

At this point, my reader may be skeptical. Perhaps I am giving students an adequate introduction to the fine arts, making up for my ignorance with my enthusiasm — but wouldn't they be better off with a more knowledgeable professor? In some ways, I'm sure they would. Yet I would turn the tables and point out the disadvantages of having an accomplished expert teach an introductory course. Too often, such classes consist in the delivery of scholarly knowledge that only serves to exacerbate the distance that the students feel from the material itself. Instead of learning how to look at an artwork or listen to a piece of music, students learn how to categorize them: this is early Renaissance, this is Impressionist....

The two skills don't have to be mutually exclusive, but on a practical level, they most often are — and I would rather that my students begin by gaining the confidence to analyze and respond to a work and only then delve into the historical and scholarly background according to their interest. We live in a time where there's no shortage of access to facts, but college may be their one chance to develop a real understanding of how art and music work. From that perspective, my inability to supply “the right answer” or to indulge my students' curiosity about historical trivia that distracts our attention from the work before us counts as a positive advantage.

This isn't to say, of course, that I must never teach in my own area of expertise. Indeed, my experience as an “ignorant schoolmaster” has already changed the way I think about teaching things within my comfort zone as well. It has pushed me to think more about holding students accountable for the ways they reach their own answers than about how best to give them — or Socratically help them stumble upon — the “right answer.” Even in classes where I bring much more to the table, the focus is and must be the material we're working on together, not all the information I'm bringing from the outside. More than that, though, all that information must be put to the test of the material itself, so that I always have to be open to the possibility that the interpretation I brought to the table is wrong, or at least not the whole story.

The approach I'm describing here goes against many of the deeply engrained habits that academics develop in graduate school and carry over into their teaching. While Rancière and others would cast moral aspersions on the expertise-centered approach to education, I view it more as a failure of imagination. Robert Hutchins, the University of Chicago president whose approach forms the basis for Shimer's curriculum, once said that liberal arts colleges tend to imitate graduate programs because at least graduate programs have a clear idea of what they're doing — namely, producing experts. An undergraduate education, however, neither can nor should achieve that goal. The liberal arts approach in particular provides a unique opportunity to form broad-minded critical and creative thinkers who have the right combination of intellectual boldness and intellectual humility to enter a wide variety of professions and explore many bodies of knowledge. A crucial part of that formation is learning to have the courage to admit one's own ignorance, and I believe students would be better served if faculty members were more commonly called upon to display that same courage.

 

Bio

Adam Kotsko is assistant professor of humanities at Shimer College. He is the author, most recently, of Why We Love Sociopaths: A Guide to Late Capitalist Television. He blogs at An und für sich.

 

 

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