Thursday, November 19, 2009

Guest entry by Nina Hien, Art Worlds

Serial Memories of Seminars
[part 1]

The word seminar comes from the term seminarium or “seed plot”. Add a “y” and you have “seminary”, which attaches a religious institutional connotation to it. Discipline, dissemination, and devotion are clearly written into the success of this process of the germination and cultivation of knowledge. Like gardening, it is a hands-on pursuit that ideally relies on communal efforts. Someone lays out the plot with the intention of inseminating and reproducing his ideas. I say “his” because this is the role of the professor, who, by no small note, has commonly been gendered as male through these seminal terms. But the growth of the patch also falls into the dutiful hands of the group, the students, who are supposed to reap the greatest amount of fruits from the harvest. Beyond the roots of patriarchy and agriculturing found at the bottom of the concept of the seminar, a utopian strain seems also to be grafted onto it. (But perhaps I am reading these qualities into the practice because I spent so many years at Cornell University—a land-grant institution in a rural upstate farming community that had been founded by a former Quaker.)

With all that in mind, even with all of the variations that a seminar can take due to diverse subject matter, disciplinary modes, institutional contexts, and individual pedagogical styles and professorial personalities, it seems that perhaps some tiny seedlings of insight about them can be culled from a private conservatory filled with snaps and shoots of memories from the more than two decades in which I was a participant and witness in university seminars (both as a student and as a teacher). With the following recollections, I have no intention of asserting any grand, generalized or scientific claims about the current state of “the seminar”. However, from these seminal fragments (and their contexts) perhaps this rarefied form of language and interaction and academic construct can be demystified a speck, which could then be particularly relevant to us here at the Draper, a program based on seminar learning and positioned on the ground and in the air between the more square plots of traditional disciplines.

The Seminar of the Confusion of Tongues (tied or babbling), circa late 1980s at The University of Missouri Journalism School—Columbia, MO

During this period, two earth-shattering shifts that would change our perception of the world as we knew it were underway. The first could be spotted through what turned out to be the tragic fate of an innovative professor at the J-School who had been formulating ideas about what he called, “The Knowledge Tablet”. Conceiving this to be the ultimate tool in which anyone could punch in a question and get spit out an answer, his research was likely blown to bits as soon as the World Wide Web and Google—the ultimate knowledge tablet—exploded onto the scene a few years later. The second shift could be marked when the multi-cultural management program at the school published its "Dictionary of Cautionary Words and Phrases"—a list of politically incorrect words. The student reporters working at the J-School newspaper—one of the two daily papers in the city—could no longer use terms like “Dutch-treat”, “illegal aliens” and “third-world countries” in their articles. “Black”, once an acceptable word to identify an “African-American” person, was also to be avoided for that objective. Needless to say, these constrictions resulted in much convoluted and repressed thought within an enterprise in which clarity and concision are major goals. They were also the cause of many daily practical blunders. But at play as well at this point when racial and ethnic categories were being reconfigured through a strong wave of identity politics, were the J-School’s own black-and-white categorical binaries and hierarchies that transcended skin color. People were either pegged as innate “word people” or “picture people”. I believed that the basic word-image distinction was ludicrous because in my experience as a writer, sights and visual senses informed the images that were used to produce good writing.

So in this technologically transforming, racially charged and dichotomizing environment, I enrolled in a seminar on cross-cultural mass media. The teacher, who had a doctorate in communication studies, was a new professor (and was, if not the first “black” female professor in the history of the program, definitely the first “African-American” woman faculty member). The course content included press systems in “developing countries” and interrogated the strategic power maneuvers and values that determine what becomes newsworthy in the United States. This was a loaded focus because it directly considered “racial” and “minority” injustices as well as “ethnic” and “cultural” “issues”. The discussions throughout the semester were pretty stilted and stifled with only certain students speaking up, and others remaining silent. Attempting to explain this awkward imbalance, the professor remarked that the class was comprised of two kinds of people—adding to the order a new set of binaries, which resonated with the word/picture one.

The broadcast journalists (the image people) were articulate, chatty, expressive, and could work magic with surfaces. The print journalists (the text people)—and I was in this print-concentration camp—were reticent, but better at writing papers and achieving depth. As much as I hated tags, there did seem to be some truth to these. I then started to think that what may have actually been squelching the speech of some students had a lot to do with their anxiety about using the wrong terms and language, especially when discussing these sensitive topics with an African-American professor in this awkward environment of political correctness. And perhaps the text folks were more easily susceptible because of their attachment to word craft, which clearly affected newspapers more than televisions. The broadcasters were not only more comfortable with different modes of self-presentation, but they were taught to speak in sound bytes and be led by the lines of teleprompters. They also dealt with a much more glossy and general form of news, much of which they hadn’t written themselves. Beyond that, some of them had been instructed in public speaking and had developed stellar verbal gate-keeping skills so they were more adept at thinking appropriately in public spheres.

But through these apparent differences, I began also to contemplate the diverse ways and speeds at which individual people acquire knowledge, process information and then articulate it. And also, how aptitude is largely conditioned by professional background and training, as well as the circulating political ideologies, the media technologies already on the table, and the new media impulses coursing throughout the air. At that point, I imagined being a teacher who would bring forms of visual media into active play in the seminar—on the one hand to create engaged discussions, and on the other, to observe the relationships between visual, verbal and textual content and communication. (I knew there would never be an answer to these questions on any old Knowledge Tablet.)

So, in this land located on the edge of the fertile Missouri River bottoms, the seeds of experimentation with vision, visuality, virtuality, textuality, verbality and verbosity were implanted. Here at the Draper Program, they have started to sprout as I plot my seminars, prod the students to really toil the soil, and cultivate courses, always with many more seeds in hand (and pocket).

[More to come…Part 2: “The Seminars of Striking Poses, Seminar Vogue-ing and Blush Exchanges". Part 3: "The Seminars of Artificial Insemination & Artificial Intelligence"]

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