Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Conundrums and dialogues

It took me a while to realize how many of my classes are full of subjectivity. Since I am not a math or science student, most of my work involves writing papers and taking tests that are 90 percent essay format. And while this gives me freedom to express myself how I like, sometimes I find that even my ability to make sense through a coherent argument fluctuates. That's why I hate reading comments on graded homework. Truly, I hate it.

I was at a really interesting event yesterday for my journalism class. A group of theater runners and performance art enthusiasts gathered to participate in a panel on art as a vehicle for community engagement.

At some point during the panel, the conversation descended into a heated argument about the multiple interpretations of art and how the bringing together of a community around theater performance, visual art, music or whatever else shouldn't be contingent on that community's ability to maintain a singular perception of the collective artistic work. Instead, it should open up a dialogue.

It is through this perspective that I see fault in how the arts - specifically the written arts as evidenced through essay composition and its grading - are handled on an academic level. Instead of written work fostering a discussion between the students and professors, the dialogue only goes in one direction. We turn in a paper and eventually it's handed back to us. We're told how to improve, but we're not given the opportunity to use that advice. We just have to grin and bear the commentary.

I've never been able to handle teachers' commentary on my writing. Partially because constructing essays (like this one) is so organic for me and partially because I don't handle judgment or criticism all too well, I often avoid the comments on my papers like they're the bubonic plague. I leave a graded assignment sitting in my folder or my email inbox for days without looking at it. When I do eventually glance at the work again, I often write off the commentary as a speculative opinion.

But like the artists at the panel suggested, commentary, feedback and opinions can be an honest way to appraise and interpret work, maybe even improve it. And while I struggle with criticism, when it is forced on me insomuch that I'm required to revisit and repair an assignment, the subjectivity no longer bothers me.

Last year, every day for the whole of what I believe was spring quarter, I sat around in my Philosophy of Art class reeling with tension and boredom. In the class, students were encouraged to make broad assertions as to what constitutes art. We read essays upon essays to find answers, tedious tomes that talked about an audience being the decider of whether a work could be considered art or not and other similarly ridiculous arguments. It was in this class that I discovered how philosophizing makes me sick to my stomach - from nervousness and disdain.

I would sit in that class angry that so many of my fellow students could come up with meaningless arguments, only to be lauded or scolded by the professor on the truth or lack of truth contained in their statement. Then she would move onto the next raised hand and hear another pretentious rambling, allowing the cycle to continue with no growth.

I walked away from that class with no answer to the question "What is art?" because nothing was ever reiterated in my mind, nothing solidified as fact. Maybe that's okay for philosophy, but I believe real growth happens when we not just argue, but face conclusions. Subjectivity not for its own sake, but to locate answers.

Classes have been a struggle for me time and time again when a teacher's interpretation either secures me an "A" or dooms me to a strain of "B's." The few times I've been able to dig myself out of the inescapable hole have been due to one thing and one thing only: a dialogue.

Whether that means receiving a paper back with edits and being forced to read the instructor's opinions to rewrite it, or whether that's been facilitated through a classroom environment that encourages talking over and critiquing each other's work and opinions, anything but relying on the professor works.

I've come to truly hate the feeling of being pigeonholed as an average student by some of my professors. As this quarter ends, all I can hope is that once it is over I might have some right to revisit, revise and reflect. And then go home...that's what I want the most. But that's a whole different story.

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