Monday, October 29, 2012

Third cup: Thinking about teaching....

I’m reading a biography about Leonardo da Vinci (Bramly, Serge. (1994) Leonardo, The Artist and the Man. London: Penguin Books). I’ve long been interested in him—who hasn’t—and decided that I wanted to know more, although apparently there is not a great deal to know for sure. Even though this book is 420 pages, excluding notes and index, for someone so well known and so widely recognized, most of his life is subject to serious, scholarly speculation. What is known for sure, however, is certainly justifiably the basis for describing him as genius.

This is not, however, what I want to write about. Read this from Bramly:

It may seem extraordinary to us that artists of dissimilar and often unequal talents should collaborate on a work. But in Leonardo’s time, a painting was sold in advance, and the painter was working not for himself but on commission. The artist was not yet inspired by an irresistible desire to express himself, his work was not the flesh of his flesh, however great the effort or the passion he put into it: it only have belonged to him (202).

Today, we attach a far more clean-cut—and therefore narrowly proprietorial—notion to the work of art. There was no such thing as artistic property in those days, and I do not think that Leonardo would have minded at all that his style and his ‘concepts’ were divulged to others.… I would say that Leonardo … was something like a famous dress designer in our day who designs for both haute couture and the ready-to-wear market; he may grant licenses to use his name but is not always protected against plagiarism. … At the end of the day, Leonardo would have been perfectly satisfied: his followers would be helping to make his vision known, promoting his reputation, even ‘advertising’ his work.… (203).

So not modern! Ownership of a work matters less than the collaboration that produces the work. Amazing.

This took me back to the olden days of the Culture of Western Man (CWM) program at WPC. (For those of you who don’t know about this: CWM was a two-year interdisciplinary general studies program designed around great questions—“Can man opt out?”—that integrated nearly all of the traditional liberal arts core courses into one focused combination of lectures, readings, and discussion groups.) Clearly the architecture of this brilliant and terribly unwieldy interdisciplinary general studies program clearly belongs to Marshall Christensen; this amazing complexity of important and life-changing questions would guide a lifetime of study. The actual building and then living inside that architecture, however, was one of the most shared and collaborative ventures of my life in academia—perhaps in my whole life. Several of us, sitting around the table, working together to build out the design, carefully assuring appropriate disciplinary contributions while assuring equally that a broader, “live the big questions” rubric was kept supreme.

Beyond that, I think for the first time for most of us "CWM profs" were together in the classroom. I am sure that it was the first time for such an extended period. When I lectured about myth, the whole faculty was present along with the student body; when Charles Nielsen lectured about economic materialism, the whole faculty was present along with the whole student body. We listened to each other and talked with each other and questioned and critiqued each other. It was, for me, a truly collaborative—and transforming—experience.

It was genius, I think. It was a distinctive, nearly unique program that might have survived in another setting. I think WPC lacked the reputation, the finances, the standing to pull it off in relationship to other schools, struggling always to explain to registrars and dean and advisors how this effort broke down into traditional academic credits. I think we lacked simply the number of faculty to sustain this two-year mega effort. While I think the humanities core currently offered at WPC is a strong and thriving program that clearly channels the spirit of CWM, I am sorry it didn’t survive; I am grateful to be part of a grand experiment. It was a transformational work for me—personally and professionally.

Collaborative education is something WPC still works at; I think, however, it needs more attention. Building silos is easier and requires less work than building barns, which always require collaborative conversation about how to make a barn achieve its whole function under one roof.

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