Friday, September 24, 2010
He suggested that we stay curious. This is actually a pretty revolutionary (not to say incendiary) statement, when you think about it.
Most of the teachers that I have had have not encouraged this at all. The really good ones, the ones that I still remember, the ones whose work still inspires me, are the ones that encouraged me to be curious. Unfortunately, they are few. The bulk of the teachers that I had as a child (and in college, actually), though well-intentioned I am sure, were only interested in information transfer. They did not inspire me to learn on my own, or indeed to learn anything at all.
I am not the first person to say this at all. The general hue and cry against public education that is the subject of so much of my reading these days is full of people who are saying the same thing. At the end of the day, though, it is not about information at all; it is about curiosity.
I am lucky to have two parents who are naturally curious, and who encouraged me to be growing up. We used to talk about how things were made, and about why plants are the way they are. Walking through the woods, my mother would name the trees and flowers for me. My father made furniture and toys for me, and encouraged me to be a part of the process, instilling early in my life the idea that everything comes from somewhere, everything starts as raw material that is manipulated in some way to become a finished product. I always used to love on Mr. Rogers' when he would go to a factory that made crayons and we would see how that happened.
The result is that I have continued to be interested in all of that. I continue to want to know what things have been, and what they could be. I continue to ask how we can make change for the better, how our decision making processes can be healthier, how our making can be more responsible. I blithely assume that everyone else feels the same. This is often an erroneous assumption.
As I talk to my students, I am often caught off guard by how little they have an interest in questioning. They have been specifically trained not to be curious, to accept decisions made by external sources about what their opinions should be, what their aesthetics should be, what their desires should be. It is really arresting.
Our seniors are in the process of doing what we call their "thesis." This is a semester and a half long project that begins with self-guided research, which they are in the middle of now. The "self-guided" part of that is a real sticking point for them, and my colleague and I are trying to gently empower them to make their own decisions and to draw their own charts. It is harder than I thought it would be. Of course, this is really just a process to inspire curiosity, and the hope is that it is a curiosity that continues.
We are really getting somewhere with some of them, which is heartening. Some of them are really laying into this process of critical questioning and are directing their own research. The steps in many cases are tentative, and require a lot of encouragement, but they are happening. I have had several conversations in which I had to calmly reassure students that it is okay to deviate from the original thrust of their research when they find an interesting fact that inspires them, or when they realise that the question they are asking is actually parallel to the question they thought they were asking.
So one by one we are beginning the training that will lead (we hope) to an interest in life long learning. My question is this: How can we reach more people faster? How can we inspire more people to ask questions about their daily lives? And I am talking about hard questions, ones like "where did the plastic in this water bottle come from? What are the working conditions of the person who made it?" Or maybe "what is the effect that my buying this ninety-nine cent water bottle at Wal-mart? Does it have a better or worse effect than if I drink water out of the tap?" These are hard questions for many people, and as such they are often glossed over or ignored. Most people, I think, would not say that they want to oppress workers in foreign countries or engage in acts that specifically make our planet less habitable, but so many people are so used to not asking questions, to not being curious, to not making connections, that they do not even know that there might be another way to approach life.
Lest this get too preachy, I should hasten to point out that sometimes I do not ask these questions either. I sure as hell am not perfect. But I am often curious. And I wish more people were. And I would like to try to find a way to encourage more people to be.
Saturday, July 24, 2010
the main library at SU is called the Bird Library (named after benefactor E.S.Bird). It is facing a problem that many libraries across the country are facing, apparently: Storage. No matter how big you build your library, eventually it will be filled to the brim with books, periodicals, sound media, films, et cetera, and decisions will have to be made about which books are stored and how they are stored.
As early as 1869, a fellow named John Dancer was able to photographically reduce printed text with a ratio of 160:1 using daguerreotype, which was the first step to what eventually became know as microfiche. Microfiche always seemed so magical to me when I was young. There were WHOLE BOOKS printed on these tiny tiny rectangles of plastic, and when I put them into the machine I could read them to my heart’s content. It seemed like such an efficient way to store knowledge. No need for all of this heavy paper and cardboard covers! Just print the book once and photograph it, and the entire collected works of Shakespeare can fit into a box the size of a small paperback.
When was the last time you looked at a microfiche machine? I was in the bowels of Bird library with some students and explained what one was and not one of them had ever even seen the machine, let alone used one. They laughed at the antiquated technology, which is their right, of course. The future belongs to the young. And in their world, all of this information is stored digitally somewhere in the tubes of the internet, where there is unlimited storage. For them, the idea that they would have to go to an actual building to find information is tiresome.
In talking to the librarians it came out that all the microfilm and microfiche is being “deacquisitioned,” recycled to harvest the silver that is part of the developing process. Hundreds of 50 gallon drums of microfilm were packed up and carted off to the recycling facility, in order to make room. The same is happening to hundreds of thousands of slides in the slide library.
Apparently all of the faculty are up in arms about the slides being gotten rid of, but when they are told that they can take whatever slides they consider too useful or important to throw away, they seem to never be able to find the time to come and claim them. They seem to like the idea of having those slides there, but not to have a real use for them, like that tie-dyed shirt you wore to the first Dead show you ever went to, the one where you kissed that really smelly hippy girl and you had eaten a pile of mushrooms and her patchouli made you think of dirt and you thought you were being buried alive, remember that show? Not much, but you remember the hippy chick and there is no way you are getting rid of that t shirt, just like there is no way you will ever wear it again.
Same with the slides. And the microfiche.
Libraries in general are in the midst of an existential crisis since they are no longer the main repositories of information. The number of students who visit Bird Library has dropped sharply in the last fifteen years, as more and more are doing their research on line in their dorm rooms. I myself, a lover of books and libraries, go much more rarely than I used to. Even I do a lot of research on line and a lot of my reading digitally.
The intent of this post is not to write eulogy for libraries and books. I had started out to relate a pretty small moment from today, but of course providing the context for the moment takes some doing. And writing up this context stimulates some philosophical flights of fancy: As we separate the information from the storage method, interesting things can happen. We don’t get nostalgic, particularly, about computers, for example, in the same way that we get nostalgic for, say, that tie-dyed t shirt. Items like that shirt, or my great-grandfather’s handsaw are the totemic objects that (Bachelard would tell us) store information in a more abstract way than a record or a book or a piece of microfiche. For some reason, we hang on to the shirt in a way that I did not hang on to the computer that I used to write love emails to my wife when we were first dating and she was overseas for Christmas. I have objects from that time that are very important to me, but the computer is not one of them, which I find intriguing.
Why do we feel that some storage methods are important while others are not? Why can I not bear to throw out the journals that I wrote terrible poetry in in college, when I had no desire to keep the computer that I wrote terrible poetry on in my early adult-hood? Why did I keep the dictionary that I was given when I graduated high school but not the (much bigger) dictionary that came as a CD with my last laptop? Hard to say.
Today we were in the basement of the Bird Library, talking to the person who is in charge of “deacquisitioning” books and other media to make room for new books, a diminutive woman in her early fifties, friendly, obviously kind. We were talking about the microfiche (much of which is being saved for now) and how it is getting moved, and about the microfilm, all of which got sent off for recycling. This nice woman started to weep, standing there on the vinyl tile floor, telling us about how big bins of books were getting sent to the landfill when she first got here, and how the fact is that her job is to throw away (she tries to recycle as much of it as she can) books. Throw away BOOKS.
I was nonplussed to say the least. I wanted to give her a hug, to tell her it is okay, that the information will live on, that all will be well. But it does seem like a hard job. And it is a job that requires a constant awareness that time “creeps in its petty pace from day to day…” as Macbeth reminds us. The inexorable-ness of that is pretty intimidating.
So I have been thinking about books a lot today, and about other ways that we store information, and about how hard it is to let go of the object at hand. And I have been thinking about that nice woman who is trying to get the objects to go gently into that good night, and about how raw and powerful it was to see her overcome with love for these objects, these things, these books.
Saturday, July 10, 2010
Thursday, June 10, 2010
Two blocks from the building in which the Design department is housed is a little cinder block building that used to be a woodworking shop. It is an uninteresting square of masonry that used to house a one-man shop that did what apparently was high end marquetry and inlay work. The remnants of ongoing projects were still in the building when I went in there, and the work that the owner was doing was at a pretty high level of craft.
What happened to the owner remains fuzzy. The roof collapsed in the building and the owner seems to have just walked away from the building leaving everything behind. I have inquired a couple of times as to where he is now, and each time the answer is non-committal and unclear. I am still trying to get to the bottom of that mystery.
The new owners of the space are a pair of local entrepreneurs that have an ethic and a world-view that are right in line with my own. Since the roof collapsed, they are the owners now of a concrete slab surrounded by cinder block wall that gets a lot of sun so they are turning it into a community garden. They contacted me, and I got a couple of students involved. For the planters we got our hands on about forty old tires, which the students and I arranged in a pleasing manner. It may seem a little low-rent as a solution for planters, but there a lot of old tires in Syracuse. They are not the kind of thing that biodegrades particularly easily and they are waterproof, so from a materials-usage standpoint, it seemed like a pretty responsible choice.
The owners also wanted some seating, and offered as material a pile of mostly Phillippine mahogany that had been left behind by the previous owner. Regular readers of this blog probably know how I feel about using tropical hardwoods and why I feel that way, but this is another of those situations in which my set of ethics has to remain flexible. Looking at that pile of wood sitting there, covered in dirt and getting rained on, I had to really rethink my feelings about what I knew was the provenance of that material.
Yes, it was cut down halfway around the world, very likely in a way that would lead to erosion of arable land, yes the person on whose land it stood probably got pennies on the dollar for cutting down and selling that tree. Yes, global shipping accounts for about 4.5% annually of greenhouse gas emissions. But it was here already. And if I did not use it, no one else would, either, and it would have been cut down completely in vain, and it would rot away into dirt over here. No matter what I think about what the material is or what its history is or the practice that this material represents, in that moment there was a pile of wood lying there in front of us, and I had to react to that. Once a tree has been made into lumber, once we have killed the living being that it was and made it into a commodity, we have a responsibility to be as thoughtful and as responsible as possible about what we do with that material. Leaving it to rot in a puddle is neither responsible nor respectful. So I agreed, and we picked up the slimy, dirty planks and brought them to the shop.
Tropical hardwoods tend to be a great choice for exterior applications. Teak and greenheart are two common examples. These dense woods are often made into boat hulls and decks as well as decks and outdoor furniture for houses. Mahogany is another one that is good for these types of uses. They tend to be rot-resistant and pretty stable, even when wet, and they tend to oxidize over time to that silky grey that cedar shakes do when left unpainted on the outside of a house or barn (This is why “Shingle Style” houses are what they are, after all, because the cedar shingles oxidize and stabilize and don’t have to be painted. Of course, culturally we have forgotten that, so everyone paints shingle houses these days, which I think is pretty weird, given that the paint has to be scraped and repainted every few years, where an unpainted shingle can last for decades. This has nothing to do with the garden, though).
So one of the students and I measured all of the lumber, and she worked up some drawings of ideas for benches, ideas that refer to the rounded top of the tires. This is her sketch. She had pretty good ideas.
I refined her ideas a little, based mostly on structural considerations, and came up with this:
Unfortunately the year had ended by the time I was able to start the build process, so the student was not able to be a part of the fabrication process, which would have been ideal. As it was, I did the fabrication alone. It was nice to move through a limited production run again, lately I have been working on one-offs, when I have worked on projects at all since I shut down my studio.
The process of doing a short run of furniture (which simply means building the same object several times by hand) has a component of dance to it. When you are doing the same operation to all four legs of a bench, and making ten benches, you do the same operation forty times. You start to look for the most efficient way to move the material through the machines, and simply moving the parts around the shop from one machine to another requires some thought. Here are the parts at one stage in the process:
Like most furniture, the front end of this project required a significant amount of work in terms of rough-milling, cutting to length and cutting the joints. For the first two days I really felt like I had not gotten very far at all, and was just moving piles of wood around the shop. But then there is the magical assembly day when after just a couple of hours there are ten (nearly) finished benches sitting on the table:
There will be no finish applied, they will just be left to weather. In all, it was a success, I think, and I am looking forward to seeing them in the garden. This project reminded me how important it is to keep making, even though the bulk of my endeavors now are in the classroom. The making of objects out of wood for people to use is near the top of my list of emotional needs, though it is easy for me to forget that and shuffle it aside. This summer is already proving restorative.
Monday, May 31, 2010
One annual ritual that I will perform today is brushing out and putting away my fur felt hats and wool caps and taking out my straw hats and linen and cotton caps. This is always a ritual of relief, for me, acknowledging that yes, spring is FINALLY here, that days are warm and long, and that the snow is behind us for a few months. I follow the rule set out by Truman, who though not a particularly good person to emulate in general had a pretty good idea about hats: Fur felt Labor Day to Memorial Day, straw or linen from Memorial Day to Labor Day. This annual changing of the sartorial guard makes me indulge in my other ritual.
Another ritual that I will observe is to acknowledge all of those Americans who have served or are serving in the military. Memorial Day, as you probably know, was created initially to honor Civil War vets, and has since been expanded to include all American vets and soldiers. Pretty good idea.
Which also makes me think about another kid, who joined up and went off to war. Found himself landing on a formerly insignificant beach in France that was literally strewn with the bodies of dead kids that were about his age. He drove his half-track from that beach in Normandy across Europe with the 796th Anti Aircraft Battalion and came home alive, luckily, or else he and his new wife would never have had Janet, who never would have given birth to my long-suffering wife. Which would mean no Thomas, of course. These accidents of history seem so inevitable from the remove of many decades, but really one stray bullet would have had me married to someone else, with a different child and a (probably) different life. Tech Sgt Charles G Simonson was more fortunate than many of his peers, he lived to a good old age, though he died before Karen and I met, and took care of his family well. We are extremely thankful that his wife is still alive and has had a chance to hold her great grandson, and will again in just a couple of weeks.
Now, I'm a pacifist. I think war is a stupid stupid stupid way to resolve conflict. I truly believe what Machiavelli wrote in The Prince about the effectiveness of brute force and violence, and I further believe that violence only ever begets violence. But regardless of politics, regardless of what you personally may think about the many conflicts in which we are engaged, think today about the actual soldiers with their boots on the ground wherever they are. They’re the ones who really make the history. Not the fat old white dudes that sit safely a thousand miles away, signing the orders to send American kids off to die with one hand while accepting corporate bribes with the other, but the kids like the kids from my high school, that are freezing, or sweating bullets, that are hunkered down getting shot at, that are wondering if that car coming this way is loaded with explosives. The history we get in school is the history of the rich and powerful, we so seldom hear the voice of the poor and disenfranchised. We seldom are taught in school about the terror, the misery, the true bravery, the real but small triumphs that make up life in a battle field for a Private First Class, nineteen years old and away from home for the first time in his or her short life, clutching a rifle and trying to believe the reasons their C.O. told them they were where they are. Remember those folks today.
This has gotten much longer than I meant for it to, all of this stuff gets me real pensive. All I really wanted to do was to share the poem below, one of my favorites. It is by Wilfred Owen, who himself was killed in the trenches in World War I very soon after he wrote the poem. This is one of those that has stuck with me ever since I first read it in 10th grade, and which still makes me cry when I read it. Seems appropriate for today.
DULCE ET DECORUM EST
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.
Friday, April 30, 2010
Saturday, April 3, 2010
Saturday, March 20, 2010
"Happiness lies not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort. The joy and moral stimulation of work must no longer be forgotten in the mad chase of evanescent profits. These dark days will be worth all they have cost us if they teach us that out true destiny is not to be ministered unto, but to minister to ourselves and our fellow men."
Tuesday, March 9, 2010
Dear RCers and ARCers,
Time brings changes in names and in directors. This
will be my last letter as such, and it is difficult to know
what to say. Keats closed his truly last letter with “I
always make an awkward bow,” but then he was John
Keats, dying at 25 with some magnificent poetry to keep
him alive forever. I seldom bow and have not curtsied
since I was in piano recitals as a child. But it is hard to
say good-bye with any grace.
You and this program have been a large part of my
and Murray’s lives, more perhaps than you can imagine.
The names of students and even faculty who were and
are friends often elude us, but the actual people are
always firmly imbedded in memory. Still, I am glad we are
all wearing nametags at the reunion. It has been a good
ride, and you have taught me more than I have you,
although I do hope that some of my favorite books and
films stay with you and are passed on to your children. I
have heard more than once that Grail Literature has
messed up someone’s ability to just see a movie or read a
book without always finding patterns. Sorry. But
sometimes some patterns are helpful. Some of them even
give us the faith and courage to endure.
I am now often reading with Virginia the books that
were once mine and then Emily’s. It is good to believe
that some experiences with literature are able to link
generations. Some of you earliest RCers may already
know this, and I really must leave before grandchildren
begin to apply. I do look forward to hearing from you,
seeing you sometimes at Valle Crucis or reunions.
In the last years I am starting to believe that nothing
ever really ends, it just changes form. Ashby Residential
College will change forms; it must to survive. But the
same truth and spirit that Warren, Dick, Murray, and I
have found so important will remain.
My love (when I bow or curtsy I fall down),
I hope that I have this kind of effect on my own students, this kind of deep effect that gets under the skin and stays there. The kind that manifests without thought. The process of inquiry that makes it possible to find joy in the support beam of an old mill, or in watching a leaf slowly change color in autumn in the way that makes the memory of an old poem resurface.
Teaching in the moment is hard. Teaching from a twenty year remove is genius.
Tuesday, February 16, 2010
Friday, February 5, 2010
the least pleasant part of being a teacher is the ritual of grading. I have always made jokes about colleges that don't give grades, but as an educator there is some merit to the philosophy. The students here seem to be really fixated on grades, some of them so much so that when and "unfair" grade is assigned, it can prompt angry emails, heated discussions, even tear-filled office visits.
This led me to do a little reading about grade inflation, and about what people think about it. One of the colleagues that I am teaching with this semester said that he has even noticed it in himself over the past five years, that at some point a "C+" became a "B-."
I absolutely understand this trend. Never having taught a class in which grades could be evaluated by raw data, I can't speak to the process for grading, say a 100 level math test, or a "names and dates" type history test (though I do not know if such things still exist). All of my teaching is done in a studio setting, and involves in-depth, exploratory conversation with each student. While I love this process, a side effect is that I tend to get emotionally entangled in each student's journey, which makes me more compassionate toward them than perhaps I should be.
One conversation that comes out of this line of observation is the one about "process over product." Is it more important that the students learn to apply a critical, thoughtful design process to each design challenge, or is it more important that the end product look good? Depending upon which side of the bed I get up, my answer to this changes. And this is not what I am writing about this morning.
This morning I am more interested in evaluation in general. A grade is an evaluation on a really comforting level. We understand where "B" stands next to "A" after all. We understand that "Average" is perceived as "Bad" while "Above Average" is perceived to be "Average." This all makes sense. But these are all external judgments, and though they may apply within certain constructs, they are all pretty arbitrary constructs. I was reminded recently of how I felt about "success" as a set designer when I first moved to New York, that the yardstick went from "anonymity" at the bottom end to rave reviews in the Times and the Voice at the top.
It is a construct for evaluation that is as valid as any other, I suppose, but it was so freeing when I decided that it no longer applied to me, that I would rather be evaluated based on whether a line that I spliced held, or, when I got to graduate school, whether a chair held the person sitting in it in a comfortable way. In some ways it is a shift to a system of evaluation in which complete anonymity is at the top of the yardstick: If the user does not notice that they are successfully using the object, if it functions so perfectly that there are no issues at all, then it is at its most successful.
Of course, it is a little disingenuous for me to imply that I don't have an interest in being published or recognised publicly (I only just now notices that "published" and "public" share a root. I will have to look in to that later). And there are external evaluation processes that matter to me a great deal: Karen's approval being one, my student's successes being another. But I think I am shifting as I get older toward processes of evaluation that value experiential success over opinions of observers, for the most part.
I have been talking to a couple of the students here about how little their grades will matter when they get out and are working. A client is not going to ask what grade they made in Sophomore Design. Or choose another designer because that grade was a “B.”
The other side of that, of course, is that as we have no other commonly accepted evaluation criteria, a great many other decisions are being made based on a student’s grade. The most important of these is financial aid: In a time and at a university in which the price tag for an education at the collegiate level is sneaking towards $200 000, financial aid is a necessity not just for students from working-class backgrounds. Even the very privileged students that we tend to have here often rely on some kind of financial aid, which is often heavily dependant on GPA.
Which comes back to being emotionally tied up in the process of our students. And to what an education is really for. As a Program, the Interior Design faculty got together and re-wrote our mission statement. We talked a lot about what kind of graduates we wanted to produce. Not once did the subject of GPA come up, not once did we even think of using that rubric as a useful yardstick. We came to the conclusion as a collective that we want to produce “curious and critical thinkers.”
I love the process of inquiry. Most of what I do as I stand at a student’s drawing table is ask them “why?” They are beginning to notice that, too, and some of them are asking it themselves, which makes me very proud. I feel like the most important thing that I can teach them is to look in the face of all of the dogma that bombards them (religious, retail, political, social) and to question question question to make sure that they think it is valid. That is the real success as far as I am concerned. And in the end, that is what I want to evaluate.
But it is not something that one can do once and then be finished and get a grade. This inquiry HAS to be an on-going process. When we stop asking questions we stop thinking for ourselves. And this is what I am confronting in my students: That they do a great deal of work until the deadline, but then they want to stop and move on, to put the project in their portfolio and never look at it again.
So this morning I have been thinking about how to evaluate them in such a way that they continue to question. What system can I use as an educator that encourages a continued critical inquiry while simultaneously providing a useful and compassionate comment on a student’s progress?
I am still working on this. I have a feeling I will be for some time to come.
Wednesday, January 27, 2010
Monday, January 4, 2010
Thirty or so years of being teachers and artists means that my parents have thousands (this is not an exaggeration) of books in their house. There is no subject that can not be researched here: gardening, Lincoln, the history of surgery, food, and, as it turns out, origami. Paper folding books were procured, old magazines were culled, and square paper was cut (see below).
Last night we sat in front of the fire and folded paper. I started with a fish, which looked nice folded from an advertisment for pasta, and a "sleeping dog," which was not particularly satisfying.
My sister (who is also here for a few days) started with a frog, which was a little advanced, and did not, initially, seem right:
So I tried my hand at one, which worked out a little better. The interesting thing about folding paper shapes is that, like so many other things, there is a set of steps that must be followed, in order, and a deviation from that proves vexing.