Experimental lesson

I've always tried to make my teaching like an art, but as I've grown more successful, have I become a hack?

By David Alford

Published November 19, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

I was mired in doubt about the fossilized repetitivenss haunting my teaching strategies a couple of years ago, intellectually and spiritually exhausted, drooping home after what seemed like the thousandth discussion of the meaning of "free will." Students don't have this ennui; they rise to each dialogical occasion like epicures to the well-stocked table. But I was gone, spent, ready for the broom to sweep my remains away, when I saw a quote by William Jay Smith.

"The artist should find out what he can do and then do something else."

All the artists I had known or studied raced through my brain: the potter Rod Hanchett, my friends Jeffrey and Dale, mad Mernie, my ex-sister-in-law Gloria, all those celebrated geniuses in the 55 museums throughout the world I visited three years ago.

Rod used to swear at me, "Goddammit, if I have to make one more fucking coffee cup, I'll puke." He wanted to make huge platters with streaking glazes and burnished emblems, objects of unique desire and obsession the breaking of which would end a particular presence in world history forever. But sustenance required coffee cups endlessly repeated, flying off the assembly line like pies in a Monty Python sketch, nobody caring if they piled up in broken heaps of indistinguishable rubble.

Dale saved himself from such oblivion by creating what he called "weird series," such as the "smashed pigs," ceramic swine sculpted to look like they had fallen from airplanes and hit the ground with great force, or "ancient sites," grand pots two or three feet tall with little Anazazi pueblos carved into the walls. Gloria never seemed to repeat herself, one day making her own paper, another welding together computer chips to form a modern mummy. And what to make of Monet, whose numerous lilly ponds look like slight variations on a theme, or Matisse, with all of his doorways beckoning to the sea? Did they feel like they were still "finding out what they could do," or were they stuck in some painterly equivalent of writer's block?

My pal Jeffrey is always doing "something else." For a while he was trying to hang a giant rock he hauled home from the side of the highway, spending half a day levering it onto his trailer, then a week sketching schemas for suspending it in his front yard, "like a Magritte object," he said, grinning. A legendary madman, Jeffrey could incubate for a year waiting for inspiration to strike, and then in frenzied activity take off in unpredictable directions, like particles in linear accelerators, seemingly never to be rounded up.

Last time I visited he was swooping around with a bucket of black paint doing funky calligraphy on huge sheets of paper with frightening ferocity. Another time he stuck his omnipresent video camera in the face of the bartender at a tough, working-class local pub and, with several hulking timber workers watching, asked the barkeep to explain to him "what a redneck is." I almost hit the deck. But the bartender rose to Jeffrey's occasion and began a startlingly serious answer, "Well, a 'redneck' is a man who has a red neck because he works outside ..." Jeffrey kept his finger on the trigger and took it all in without a smile.

The divine madness all good artists possess requires nonconformity, the violation of expectations regularly achieved. The great performers add nuances to classical compositions, no two concerts ever being the same. Maybe it's arrogant to think of teaching as an art form -- after all, I'm always dealing with a very particular audience -- my students who are coming to me for something not quite akin to entertainment or pure aesthetic enlightenment.

On the other hand, every artist -- though in the end they may reach the masses -- begins with a smaller real or imagined audience. Being a teacher means committing a lifetime to engaging this small, intimate group. It may not be art, exactly, but it has to be creative. In fact, the stakes are higher, the damage greater if a teacher falls into banal routine. After all, their students cannot walk out on them as one might from a bad movie or a lackluster painting in a gallery. They must stay and listen carefully, even when the teacher is as riveting as an automated telephone directory.

My aspiration to treat my vocation as a kind of performing art has made me a better teacher. I've never really taught the same class twice. The discussions of "free will" are never exactly alike.

But I haven't taken the big risks. I've erred on the side of safety and respectability. I knew exactly what I could do and did it reasonably well. I experimented with "something else" in small ways: giving no exams, sitting out in the classroom rather than in front of the room, holding classes in bars, restaurants, homes, parks and beaches, allowing students to grade themselves, giving no lectures, having no textbooks, abolishing attendance, wearing T-shirts and boots, cooking food in the classroom, having pizza delivered, serving tea and bagels, deliberately not showing up for class, arranging for various deceptions such as pretending to be somebody else, being paged during class and having beautiful women come in and kiss me. I even staged a standing ovation for myself during an evaluation, wowing the college president in the bargain. But most of the time I felt like Gordon Liddy playing tricks rather than an artist expanding the possible.

The problem with "experience" is that is becomes the foundation on which a potential formula is built, the "things to avoid" and the "things to do" crystallizing into a repeatable structure. I know, for example, that I will not assign readings of more than a certain length, will ask questions on only a certain level of abstraction, will create personal chemistry of a certain mix of bonhomie and seriousness, will punctuate lectures with a certain degree of sarcasm.

I even meditate or go for short walks before classes in order to obtain the exact amount of detachment that I know enables me to walk the thin line between excess zeal and excess indifference. Walking the line for years is the formula for success in the classroom ... and a slow deadening in the soul.

What did the true "artists" have in common? Bakunin, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Miles Davis, Thelonius Monk, Pablo Picasso, Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, John Cage, Orson Wells and the Marquis de Sade -- these folks just plain ol' didn't give a damn about public opinion and sustained their disregard for a lifetime.

How can I walk into my next class carrying the personnas of all these rebels? Maybe it is not necessary to do or say anything, just manifest the spirit of the artist in my face, the tone of my voice, the refinement of movements, the way I treat people. Maybe there is a kind of grace, like Paul Robeson or Lena Horne had, that defies objective description, the "something else" being so lilting and luminous that it transcends behavior, leaves the body behind and fastens faint traces in the air like humanistic perfume.

After all these years, sometimes it feels like I'm on the right track, trying to focus on "being" rather than "doing," as they say. The "something else" that the artist does in order to remain fresh may be nothing other than what the Zen folks call "beginner's mind," a way of seeing, eyes wide open. If I can only become an old master, with the constant gleam of Joseph Campbell, or the twinkle of Huston Smith, then the next time a student tells me about her struggle with the Old Testament God it will not be like I've heard the complaint a hundred times before. I can smile at the "something else" in her voice, in our evanescent interaction, and wait for inspiration -- genuinely not knowing what will happen next.

David Alford

David Alford lives and works on a ranch in the Sierras, near the town of Avery, CA.

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