Wednesday, 28 December 2011

A Show of Hands

Last March I decided to begin each blog post with a specially made image. Here's a selection of hands to wave out the year.

Thursday, 22 December 2011

The Moral Dimension of Privacy

A conversation with a friend the other evening left me thinking about the difference between privacy and secrecy. In particular it left me ruminating over the silent burden of guilt that some people carry around with them when keeping secrets from friends and family.

Aside from the secrets we keep from loved ones about gifts and surprises, secrecy almost always brings with it an implicit assumption of deceit, of something concealed, illicit or hidden from view in order to maintain or gain power, influence or social standing. Whilst other people’s secrets are invariably regarded with distrust, privacy is regarded as an inalienable right of all. Both are things that we’d prefer to keep to ourselves (or at most a limited entourage of close acquaintances) but only secrecy brings with it a moral dimension, in fact, secrecy can be thought of as the moral face of privacy, a sub-classification of it, tinged with moral responsibility. But what constitutes this moral dimension? And, since these are conceptual abstractions formed and informed by social mores, what might be the purpose of such a distinction?

Morality, social taboos and religions in particular perpetuate the distinction between the secret and the private. How better to police the mind and actions of others than by compelling them to preside over their own thoughts and to determine if any particular action, memory or impulse should be categorized as either private or secret? It would seem to be this very tendency to categorize our thoughts according to differing moral standards that may, on occasion, lead to feelings of guilt and responsibility. Morals, of course, are a construct of social consensus, but they are rarely, if ever, universally shared across a culture.

If you have done something that is deemed as lawful by society as a whole but which is felt by some subgroup to be immoral - a sin even - then from their perspective it would be true to say that you are keeping a secret. But in actuality it is only a secret if you subscribe to their moral stance. Otherwise it is simply a matter of privacy, and what is private is nobodies business but your own and certainly no reason for either shame or guilt.

Friday, 16 December 2011

A Doubtful Show of Hands

Each year university students are requested to fill out questionnaires about the ‘student experience’ - questions relating to their satisfaction with a range of areas from staff approachability or the resources of the courses they take, to their overall satisfaction. Last year the course I run received an embarrassingly low percentage for “organisation”. Overall we received a satisfaction rating of 91% so it wasn’t entirely bad news but, despite the fact that it is almost taken for granted that fine art courses are poorly organised, this year I’ve been determined to keep a better eye on things.

A few weeks ago I asked a group of students how they felt about the organisation of a recent project. I was met by a wall of screwed up faces and wobbling hands clearly meant to communicate uneasiness with the question. Shocked that I could have made such a universal hash of timetabling the workshops, the online resources and tutorials etc. I asked for a little more clarification about what aspects of organisation were least satisfactory. It turned out that every last student had thought I’d meant their own organisation.

Monday, 12 December 2011

Transformation (the unspoken Learning Outcome)

In response to the previous post on the subject of Threshold Concepts in fine art, AF made a comment questioning whether the “need for students to put the expectations of friends and family behind them” could be considered as a “maturation process” - as Lesley and I described it. This is an important question that deserves a more thorough reply than would ordinarily be available via the comments box.

“There are a series of transitions that art and design students must negotiate as they move between the compulsory and post compulsory education sector and between higher education and employment within the creative industries sector. These transitions are key points where gaps in expectations become evident and where we as educators need to undertake further work to support our students as they enter and exit further and higher education.” Vaughan et al: Mind the gap : expectations, ambiguity and pedagogy within art and design higher education” (2008) [my emphasis]

Whilst Vaughan et al.’s paper makes no direct reference to Threshold Concepts, there are several parallels that can be drawn, especially where shifts in ontological status are involved. In order to explore these implications it might be useful to look a little closer at both the real and perceived sources of expectation that play a role for students as they move through higher education.

This diagram outlines some of the major overlapping expectations that have a bearing both on the perceptions and aspirations of students. Every journey through education is obviously unique, and the influences and demands upon each student shift and change in relation to a multitude of complex factors. Some students begin higher education with far greater support from friends and family than others and therefore they find it much easier to settle-in than students who’s friends and family ignore or, worse still, resist their decision to pursue further study. For this reason there is often a vast disparity in terms of the background support (both financial and psychological) provided to students as they enter and continue through education. Many students from poorer backgrounds (and increasing numbers of students in general) often have to work to be able to afford their education, thereby creating further demands on their time that remove them from their studies. Local students often continue to live with their parents and whilst such preexistent social networks may provide a familiarity, immediacy and perspective that non-local students lack, it is equally likely that the consequent social demands distract from a more sustained focus on the subject of study. Responsibilities of work and family also make it much more difficult to commit to the social life that their peers take for granted that is often so vital to cultivating and reinforcing the social bonds that comprise any particular cohort of students.

These are just a few of the complex expectations and responsibilities that face students especially within their first few months of higher education. Very similar stresses and conflicting expectations also confront graduates when they leave education where they must negotiate their position within the world of work.

Presumably there are no Assessment Criteria or Learning Outcomes in any university that explicitly state that students should be prepared to reconstruct their social circle. But, as can be seen over and over again, students who struggle to fit-in socially, or to develop their own social circle, rarely make it to the end of a course without difficulty.

Universities are frequently perceived by prospective students as opportunities for self improvement and transformative experience. But it is not always the case that the transformations effected by education are universally welcome. The question then, is whether it is possible to achieve anything of significance in education without such transformation. If it is, then the institution presumably has a duty to support students to be able to achieve as much as possible without expecting transformation. If it isn’t, and transformation is indeed a necessary part of higher education, then universities should acknowledge this and make the expectation explicit whilst simultaneously ensuring that the process is made as painless and inclusive of each student’s existing social and professional commitments as possible.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Ten Threshold Concepts in Fine Art

When Lesley and I were studying for the PGCert HE in different institutions a couple of years ago we put together a list of Threshold Concepts in fine art. The intention was to work this up into a research output. Until that happens perhaps this can be of use to anybody who might take the unlikely step of searching for “threshold concepts in fine art” on Google, as we did without success.

Threshold Concepts in Fine Art

The idea of ‘threshold concepts’, as outlined by Meyer and Land, proposes that there are areas which students repeatedly have difficulty with, but unlike core concepts specific to a discipline, these threshold concepts are characterized as having the power to radically alter a student’s subsequent perception and understanding of their given discipline. Once ‘mastered’, the student is unlikely to be able to return to previous perceptions and understandings; indeed, return could well be impossible. Also, the new knowledge may open a route to new understandings unattainable without having crossed this threshold. Threshold concepts are often thought of as requiring the student to pass through a liminal stage, where this passage may be troublesome. Indeed, this idea of “troublesome knowledge”, where there is a degree of difficulty involved, often questioning the very identity of the student, is seen as being characteristic, and this knowledge is often “conceptually difficult, counter-intuitive, or ‘alien’”

1: Leaving “Home”
This is not, strictly speaking, a discipline specific Threshold Concept (but definitely a threshold) though it is certainly crucial (for many students) for the development of full engagement with fine art education. Often thought of as simply “growing up” this threshold concerns the need for students to put the expectations of friends and family behind them (in many ways like the Rita Character in Educating Rita). This maturation process is a vital part of adopting the new context of study and creative exploration/learning. (More info on this Threshold here)

2: The shift from aesthetic to conceptual awareness
From school education where the emphasis is on skills: hand eye coordination, the ability to draw well, the ability to perceive things accurately and the ability to translate this, to some extent imaginatively, onto paper or into form - to an understanding of the creative process as one which requires critical thinking and idea development through research and reflection conducted using a variety of approaches, methods and materials. Most students experience this threshold as a sudden drop in the way that their work is evaluated by the people teaching them. No longer can they impress their teachers through producing skillful work alone. Now the emphasis is much more upon the quality and depth of the ideas which their work articulates or explores. Conversely the ability to carry out processes in a skillful manner is almost taken for granted.

3: Understanding ideas surrounding authorship & appropriation

With the acceptance of this, a huge barrier in the understanding of and the willingness to engage in key ideas of 20th century art is opened up. …Duchamp’s readymades, the death of the author etc.. Once again, this comes from a realisation that contemporary art is just as much an intellectual process as a technical one.

4: Understanding how research influences and informs practice
Being strategic and relevant in one’s research rather than randomly filling sketchbooks and study journals with everything looked at in an attempt to prove that research is happening. This echoes Ray Land’s point that when students don’t quite grasp threshold concepts, in their liminal phase, they seem to go through the motions, imitating what they see others doing, and which they think they ought to be doing rather than comprehending the connectedness between things. Inevitably students who are new to the discipline may need to cast their net wide in the initial stages of study so as to build their foundational knowledge but as they become more familiar with the context they also become more discerning, selective and strategic.

5: Understanding the professional context in which artists work
Being able to relate and identify with or “inhabit” the title “artist”. This is a difficult one, and perhaps not strictly speaking, “key”. Some students use it from day 1 – to the dismay of some staff ! – and some have to leave art school before they use it – if they ever do. This is further complicated in discipline areas within fine art (eg. photography) where the term “photographer” often seems a more acceptable label because of it’s vocational interpretation by self, family, friends, etc. It may also be a threshold for staff to be able to accept that not all students studying fine art actually want to become artists…

6: Being able to differentiate symbolism from metaphor
Once a student grasps this difference, they are often more able to take advantage of the more subtle ways in which metaphor might be employed, rather than through the more heavy handed and closed use of symbols. The student’s use of symbolism is often predictable to the point of cliché eg Red = passion etc, or, conversely, almost entirely unintelligible. Metaphor tends to offer a more open ended method of creating associations and forming meanings. This is what we mean when we talk about forming a personal language (as opposed to a language that is personal).

7: The private to the personal
Students often wish to explore very private subject matter and in the process they often encounter difficulties with the boundary between what they wish to explore and what they wish to discuss. This is frequently experienced as a significant struggle one effective solution for which is to recognise that it is possible to explore all kinds of private concerns in work which is intentionally layered and therefore able to be interpreted in a number of ways which protect the more private aspects of the work and therefore the individual.

8: Creation as an ideological process
The realisation that all creative practice is in some way ideological in content and effect. As with any politicized subject, this can lead to tensions and disagreement (even amongst staff) and as such it is often avoided. For similar reasons few undergraduate students ever encounter this threshold as a taught component. It is often encountered as troublesome area which causes students to reconsider their responsibility to their audience, the materials they use, and their own position within society. This can often lead to students adopting a more politicized direction within their work and even - in more extreme cases - to become disillusioned with art as a means to bring about social change.

9: Accepting authorship for unintended or intuitive successes
Students often encounter successful outcomes (and therefore recognition from staff and peers) through mistakes or unintended spontaneity or good fortune. In such situations it is often difficult for these students to reconcile intention and achievement. Learning to accept – and even to cultivate – these serendipitous or intuitive outcomes is a threshold which demands a new and more expansive conception of creativity as a process of inviting, perceiving and accepting the unexpected, chance and discovery, etc.

“Failure-prone individuals do not accept credit for their successes because they are afraid that they will be unable to repeat them later. But if these students exercise proper task analysis and set realistic goals, then success is repeatable. Hopefully, the students will not only accept credit for their successes – and not just partial credit – but will also become increasingly confident about their future chances.” Martin V. Covington “The will to learn: a guide for motivating young people”. P.147

10: Discoveries as opposed to messages
A common tendency among new students to Fine Art is the belief that you need to convey or express an idea or message which you intended at the start of the project. This notion can severely restrict one of the most important aspects of all art forms: the process has the potential to reveal things which never could have been imagined beforehand. This is such a vitally important thing to understand about art. If students end up where they expect to be, they will have only confirmed what they already knew and they will have discovered nothing.

“Whether they are photographs involving a great deal of preconception or not, I think there is something in the way that I try to do it that does involve things that I don’t even understand.” INTERVIEW: “Philip-Lorca diCorcia on Hustlers & Thousand” (2006)

So, whilst it is often necessary to have some kind of initial idea it is also important to give this breathing space and allow it to evolve – even if this means that initial idea becomes completely lost. The measure of a great work is not what was intended but what was created; not its origin but its destination. This is one of the biggest challenges when working with emotive subject matter (as is often the case with art) because there’s such a tendency to feel beholden to the original intention. As artists become more confident and familiar with this subtle process they become more able to loosen their grip in the certain knowledge that things which run deep come through whether you like it or not and the worst thing you can do is attempt to force them into existence.

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Excess Knowledges

In order to understand the nature of knowledge is it really necessary to carve it up into ever more finely divided fragments? Consider the following list: objective knowledge, subjective knowledge, tacit knowledge, implicit knowledge, explicit knowledge, inert knowledge, carnal knowledge, declarative knowledge, propositional knowledge, procedural knowledge, possessive knowledge, performative knowledge, proactive knowledge, embodied knowledge, extended knowledge and situated knowledge.

The other day I came across a couple of new contenders to add to this list: “paranoid knowing” and “reparative knowing”, coined by Eve Sedgwick in her book “Touching Feeling”. But where should we draw the line between valid subdivisions of knowledge and fanciful nonsense? It seems that not only do we know woefully little about the machinations of our cognitive faculties but that this very lack of understanding creates opportunities for all kinds of false assertions and far-fetched speculation that simply mischaracterize what’s happening and may even divert clear insight into the genuine workings of the mind.