I wrote last January about sitting in on an “Intro to the Arts”-type class in order to learn how to teach it myself, and now I’m actually doing the teaching. So far it has gone well. I wasn’t particularly pleased when a student I’ve taught in several classes and who is taking my Intro to the Arts class now figured out that I’m teaching it for the first time; I prefer to act as though I’ve got experience in the classroom even when I don’t. It’s not that I need to be an expert all the time — I have no problem telling students when I don’t know something or acknowledging that in some fields they know more than I do — but it’s easier to feel like an experienced authority when the students think I am one, so the pretence helps. And this particular class requires that I teach fields I’m not an expert in, so I need all the help projecting authority that I can get.
The class starts off with discussions about creativity (what it is and why we need it) and the creative process — how we go about fostering creativity and trying to find moments of inspiration. Those discussions were fun, if a little abstract, but now we’re getting into the nuts and bolts of various art forms: visual art, music, dance, literature, and film. We spend a few days (such a short time!) on each area, breaking it down into its elements (line, color, shape, space, and texture in the visual arts, for example) and learning how to use those elements to analyze various works of art. Here is where I have to work hardest to know what I’m talking about because in some cases the students will know more about areas such as music or painting than I do. But all those piano lessons I took as a kid are paying off, as, thank God!, I have some idea about things like 4/4 time and what a quarter note is.
The first major assigment the students complete is to look at one example of each of the five types of art we study and to write a response to it where they discuss their first impressions and their sense of the work’s meaning. I’m reading through their papers now and am pleased. The papers are fairly informal, which means they have the chance to respond personally, discussing emotions the work conjures up or memories it evokes. The students who produced the best papers take this seriously, using their personal experiences to say interesting, new things about the art.
I’m also pleased at the way some of the students are trying their hardest to keep an open mind about the art. I’ve asked them to watch a dance that they find challenging, mostly because it doesn’t have a clear narrative to it and so is hard to interpret. They have to look closely at the dancers’ movements and use their imaginations to figure out what they think it means. Several students described the process they went through while watching it — surprise, bewilderment, and frustration at first, and then after another viewing or two the inkling of an idea, and finally some confirmation after they came to class and figured out other students were thinking along the same lines they were.
It’s hugely satisfying to watch them go through this process and realize that some art takes time and patience to understand, and that the more they understand it, the more likely they are to enjoy it. I don’t kid myself that all students are responding this way, but teaching is always like that — you reach some and consider that a success, and then you try to reach more. The class scares me a little bit, I’ll admit, but it’s a good kind of scared. It’s probably not so different from what the students themselves feel.