Let’s begin with some background about teaching and privilege and then move on to two online forays: Project Implicit, and, most importantly, the blog.
Informed by the thinking of Jacques Rancière, I stage teaching as an entry point rather than a delivery system for my knowledge. I wish to open up possibilities for how we receive images and the terms we apply to ourselves. The questions I often ask relate to such issues as how images or styles become overly determined (such as the use of handheld cameras to signify a more authentic take on reality), as well to bring to consciousness questions about audience—for whom is a work made? I screen art, either online or in analog format, that reflects on the nature of media through its formal structure. Even in a production class, I assign readings in critical theory and contemporary art criticism. This is, in part, to signal to students that the development of a style is not the aim of the course. For instance, I assign Martha Rosler’s prescient article “Video: Shedding the Utopian Moment,” which debunks the conventional wisdom about essential properties of a medium and marshals an analysis rooted in cultural studies to think hard about medium specificity (259).
I always show works that directly address biases. We look at a range of art and artists, such as Adrian Piper, Kara Walker, Marlon Riggs, Kerry James Marshall and Kevin Everson. Lawrence Andrews’s brilliant An I for an I is one of the pieces that most successfully invokes an awareness of unconscious discrimination. I foreground questions of gender when I teach digital media because I think, in general, the medium as it is taught is still gendered male. Although the situation has changed dramatically, I nevertheless feel obliged to observe the differences in the way men and women students enter into their work in electronic forms of media.
Working with images requires us to address assumptions about the nature of identity, such as which groups of people occupy central narratives in media (mainstream or not), whose story deserves recognition, and how those stories are told. One could argue that crucial to the discussion of representation are the hidden biases that students themselves bring into the classroom situation. To give an example, a student with a South Asian name complained that others said his art works (portraits of people and characters sketched in white on a black background) were “sinister;” it seemed that these comments were not about the work but something else. I interpreted his peers as saying that they were uncomfortable with difference and felt I had to interrupt a mostly unconscious moment in which tension about difference was being acted out, as compared with being discussed. To this end, for the past couple of years, I’ve been experimenting with Project Implicit. I first read about the online tests during the run-up to the 2004 US election, when Barack Obama’s racial background was foregrounded to such an intense degree. Project Implicit provides a series of questionnaires, ranging from attitudes about gays and straights, skin color, age, to name a few, that are done in a matter of minutes. You’re meant to take the tests quickly so as not to have too much time to think about what the politically correct answers might be, thus rendering the process a viable gauge of hidden bias. But after assigning the test and participating in the ensuing discussion, I address students’ reactions because they felt embarrassed and guilty and didn’t want to reveal what they found out about themselves. By framing Project Implicit with screenings of such works as Adrian Piper’s Funk Lessons, I’m experimenting with ways to help people feel comfortable about discussing something that’s ubiquitous—hidden bias—but not desirable.
Rehearsing the Identity of Being an Equal
Without a doubt, the blog has become the single most peculiar and life-enhancing tool in my teaching. If you Google the words “democracy” and “blog,” it’s amazing how many entries appear (I netted around 22 million). In addition to the claims one sees while scrolling down the pages, there are claims related to the potential for democracy and blogging. I don’t wish to engage in technoromanticism here, but rather to argue that the blog might offer some opportunities—at the moment, at least—for nonhierarchical learning, or a more democratic environment.
As a collaborative medium, the blog requires that students relate differently to one another and to the work they are considering. This can complicate their understanding of both the workings of the internet, and of digital media in general. The blog can challenge students’ biases about each other and allow expression and interaction beyond the individual “artist’s” production or the hierarchies of classroom discourse. Using the blog also changes my relationship to the students as teacher and representative of the academic institution.
The academic reward structure in higher education still tends to reward individual achievement, even though collaborative projects are currently being funded. Grading collaborative work is ambiguous enough to allow unconscious bias to operate. For example, I’ve observed women students who, in the process of a collaborating, take on the role of administrators and who are then penalized because their contributions weren’t considered as creative as others in the group. Art is a form of social energy—a credo that I first saw articulated in a now forgotten article for Block, a highly influential journal that contributed to the birth of the field of visual and cultural studies—and the role of administrative work within a collaboration is something that deserves to be considered within the frame of art-making. A correlative would be to assume that software artists aren’t artists because they program. Such contradictions are difficult, though necessary, to speak to. Within the contained and visible space of the blog, I wonder if the dynamic interface between seemingly disparate modes of work, administrative and creative, might merge just a little bit more?
Journals, in their various inky, scratched, molded and scrawled forms hark back to however long ago it was that people felt the need to describe lived life. One might consider, for example, Clarice Lispector’s observations, stories and essays written for a newspaper and later published as Selected Cronicas as a blog before blogging existed. Hunt around the words written about the original of the blog, or weblog, and the name “Pyra Labs” keeps appearing. Do some more sleuthing and the names of Evan Williams and Meg Hourihan circle around Pyra as co-founders of the company that made personal blogging user-friendly (Scott). You’ll find writers describing this moment in 1999 as the “big bang” in blogging history, but only because this is when providers made weblogs convenient by offering the capacity for post dates, for example, as well as syndication and comment features. In other words, this new openness was made possible (and could be made impossible) by commercial providers.
I created a blog for a first year art class in 2005 for the purposes of organizing a group show and reinforcing ideas and themes discussed in class. Blogging had the capacity to contain negotiations around tasks and, contrary to the flaming we all know so much about, to act as a platform for rehearsing leadership. Trying out suggestions and encouraging ways to collaborate seemed much less stressful online. The next year, I set up a blog for a curatorial practice module and the dynamic morphed dramatically, though with the same themes: people who had been shy in the analog class found that they could have a voice on the Web.
The power balance shifted and seemed to let loose a lot of energy. So much so that for the last half of the class, there were two weekly classes, each for two hours. I taught one of the classes at the usual time, and at the other, a byproduct of the blog, students met to discuss ideas and organize their show. I felt a little strange about this: What were the implications of a teacher not being at the class; was I being ejected? And, yet, this is exactly what good teaching should achieve: a class outside the class. I was always available and sometimes the students invited me to hear about what they were doing and give feedback.
Everything about teaching is fluid, as students and situations change, but I suppose my one caveat about setting up a blog is that what happens next is unpredictable. Often when someone emerges as a leader or catalyst, the blog spins faster into life and generates an oscillation of activities between the online and offline worlds. Other times the blog is simply a lateral device for underscoring the work in class, a good tool for organizing collaborations and keeping a type of continuity, whether gentle or aggressive. I’ve set up Facebook pages, but the blog has the potential to be a private container, and that is what seems to be the trigger for expansion. It feels safe to try things out, outside of one’s usual way of working. I interpret this as tricking the unconscious a little bit: displaying a self on a blog feels public, even if the blog is read only by invitation. The student rehearses a public self without the concomitant risk of a public self. Certain students, I observe, come to life in this environment.
It was so simple: the assignment I gave that initiated more activity both in the class and via the blog (ranging from creating hyperlinks to starting discussions, from posing questions to initiating reading groups, from passive acceptance of assignments to generating self-directed projects), as well as an atmosphere of “permission granted,” was simply to ask students to post a text explication—part description, part close reading—of an online art or artist-related website. With the texts accessible for all to see online, everyone became the teacher and everyone had to address the class as a whole when thinking about what was written. This is not new—it is, for example, a common technique in writers’ workshops—but the visibility of the screen has a different effect on group work. The text explications remained on the blog, along with links and suggestions and other course work. If students wanted to, they could go backwards and forwards throughout the class in a way that, usually, only the teacher can. Or if, as in writers’ workshops, one keeps the written pieces, they get filed or lost and don’t become a chronology of the class but artifacts of the individual students.
Perhaps this type of cyber panopticon is a good-enough object, referring to object relations theory (e.g., Winnicott and Klein) or a version of the art school’s transitional object. I mean to suggest in a crude way, but similar to Carolyn Kay Steedman’s memorable and creative use of fashion as a transitional object, that the blog may be a symbolic space between that of the safe containment provided by the teacher and that of the public sphere. Regardless of the reasons why, my experience indicates that for now, at least, the blog has the effect of helping students rehearse a different identity: the identity of an equal.
Lispector, Clarice. Selected Cronicas. Trans. Giovanni Pontiero. New York, New York: New Directions, 1996.
Rancière, Jacques. On the Shores of Politics. Trans. Liz Heron. London, UK, Verso,1995.
Rosler, Martha. “Video: Shedding the Utopian Moment.” The Block Reader in Visual Culture. Ed. George Robertson. London, New York: Routledge, 1996.
Scott, Travers D. “Tempests in the Blogosphere.” Digital Media and Democracy: Tactics in Hard Times. Ed. Megan Boler. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2008. 275-9.
Steedman, Carolyn Kay. Landscape for a Good Woman. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1987.
Winnicott. D. Playing and Reality. Great Britain: Routledge, 1982.
 In Rancière’s On the Shores of Politics, the chapter “The Community of Equals” addresses the oxymoronic nature of utopia, in which measurement, a very un-utopian activity, exists. But Rancière refuses to relinquish the hope for utopian forms of engagement. One of the ways he does this is by writing in a style that rejects the authoritative voice.
 See http://www.projectimplicit.net/generalinfo.php. It appealed to me, too, because I wanted to encourage my students to go past the perimeter of the university-sanctioned VLE (virtual learning environment) and the Blackboard version of distanced learning.