Teaching in the Margins: Jane Sprague
Whether by necessity, tradition or desire, it is a fact of our present situation that the arts have become intimately tied to education. With TEACHING IN THE MARGINS Full Stop seeks to further explore the implications of this reality, the ways the writing happening now is influenced and influences the teaching of reading and writing. Further, at a cultural and historical moment when funding for arts non-profits is increasingly being cut and University presidents are dethroned for not moving fast enough, the question is no longer should the way artists and educators operate change, but how?
With this in mind, we sent our questionnaire to writers and curators, academics and educators, with an eye open to the interface between innovative artistic practice and progressive pedagogies, taking stock of the untapped potential of these unconventional ways of knowing, discovering how art pushing borders creates new spaces for teaching and learning at the margins.
Jane Sprague’s books include The Port of Los Angeles and Imaginary Syllabi as well as several chapbooks. Her poetry, essays and reviews have been published in many print and online journals including How2, Rain Taxi, Columbia Review, Tarpaulin Sky, Ecopoetics and others. Recent poems are forthcoming in The Capilano Review and the anthologies The Arcadia Project and Kinder-Garde. Her current writing projects include My Appalachia, writings about the legacy of inter-generational poverty and mountain people in Upstate New York where she is from. She lives with her family on a manufactured island in Long Beach, California.
Why did you become an educator? How has your perspective on teaching changed as your career has developed?
I became an educator by chance. I was living on the margins — economically, artistically — in Upstate New York during the early 1990s. I had a toddler. I needed a job. I landed a job working as a “teaching artist” for the Institute for Arts in Education, a project inspired by the philosophy of Maxine Greene, begun by Lincoln Center in New York. My work was sporadic at first — brief residencies in public schools; after several years I was employed more or less full time until the funding was cut and 80,000 students and teachers lost access to truly innovative pedagogy. I have faith that many of the teachers are still working in the spirit of Institute practices, as one of the primary goals of that work was to collaborate with classroom teachers and re-think curriculum through the arts. Sadly, the students no longer have access to the performances that included seeing Merce Cunningham Dance Co., Paul Taylor Dance, visual art by Romare Beardon and other artists. My teaching included a lot of performance work twinned with writing practices. The overarching philosophy of this work was not to teach students how to make art but to investigate and experiment with the aesthetic elements artists in various disciplines were using, i.e. dance — time, space, energy; visual art — line, color, shape, etc.
We focused on dominant aspects in a given artist’s work in preparation for viewing the exhibit or seeing the performance under study. At the same time, discrete “Units of Study” were linked to curriculum that intersected with the impending art experience. One of the primary goals of aesthetic education is to work with students and teachers in tandem in order to develop the students’ skills of perception, to develop their abilities of seeing, of thinking like artists.
Why? I was invigorated by the work we did as colleagues — teachers, dancers, writers, visual artists, and students. I learned by doing. It’s an old cliché but but we learn best through experience. I like collaboration. I like working with kids. Solving problems. I did, however, put 20,000 miles on my car every year commuting to various sites as there isn’t much work in true Upstate New York.
Who or what has been the biggest influence in your approach to teaching?
Who? Gianni Rodari, Vivian Gussin Paley, Bev Bos, Mem Fox, Maxine Greene, Peter Elbow, bell hooks, Juliana Spahr and many of my other teachers, too numerous to mention. All of my colleagues at Bard College’s Institute for Writing and Thinking.
What? In terms of writing, the “process approach” as articulated by Peter Elbow (and Maxine Greene, though in very different ways). Writing as a way of re-seeing, re-thinking the world. I use Elbow’s practices in all my classes, even though I am sometimes met with great resistance. Students never fail to surprise me in the final writing of the course when they address these ways of writing and how important they’ve become to both their attitude toward the writing act and their ability to see their reading and writing differently. This alone was a big reason to keep teaching.
Sir Ken Robinson makes the claim that the current American education system constructs the boundaries of learning in a way that makes true creativity impossible. In your experience, what is the relationship between arts and the education system or the academy? Symbiotic? Parasitic? Ambivalent? From your perspective, how does the American education system constrain the potential for innovative creative modes of thinking, creating, and writing?
This is a very knotty question. We have to make distinctions between sites where people teach. For instance, what’s possible at an institution that values and encourages inquiry-driven education is very different than what is often possible at institutions where assessment-driven courses and proscribed curriculum really pushes the educator to be creative and inventive in order to push against those boundaries which both departments and students may cling to. What’s happening in California right now in the public sector is sickening so, yes, I’d have to agree that in some locations the potential for innovative modes are less and less possible. I’m speaking of the Composition classroom here, as well as classes for future educators, classes I used to teach in addition to Creative Writing. Obviously, there is room for creative play in the Creative Writing classroom but I can’t say I’ve always felt…at my most creative in these classes. The Composition and Teacher Education classes present more of a challenge and I welcome the opportunity to open classroom spaces where divergent thought, invention and inquiry are valued, encouraged, celebrated. To my mind, this is the work of creative minds. Constraints give us all kinds of chances to re-think our work in the classroom, re-think our relationship to our students.
I would have to say that at this particular historical moment the public institutions are antagonistic toward creativity. Funding cuts, movement to the all-knowing god of science; how is a physicist not creative in his or her lab practice? And yet the dismantling of departments, majors, the trajectory of colleges throwing “the arts” per se right out the window. This has been happening for at least the last 20 years. I’m not accounting for the proliferation of MFA programs in various disciplines nationwide. That’s a whole different story.
Is it possible to teach creativity within these constraints? Is it possible to teach creativity at all?
Of course! Every single time we assign work to our students we are asking them to do so many things, the first one being risk. I’m not sure how often we think about risk in our classrooms. But isn’t that the same for artists? We make something. Maybe it’s crappy and we know it and it goes under the bed with the other bad writing we’ve produced. Maybe we make something that makes us fall in love with our words, we read it over and over and over. Our long practice (hopefully) as editors of our own work tells us this object is “good,” something we can share with confidence. I can’t think of a single class I’ve taught where risk has not been a crucial part of the equation. Risk is the fulcrum upon which creative endeavors hang.
For instance, the most radical examples of risk I can think of are when I taught at a maximum-security prison for women and an alternative high school for pregnant teenagers in South L.A. These are both stories too long to tell here but most of the women in each on these groups were extremely resistant to what I was asking them to do: they didn’t want to lose face, didn’t want to risk. There was a lot of suspicion. And fear. However, by the end of our work together (at each site) the women had written, designed and bound books of their own writing — for other readers. I’m not sure I was “teaching creativity” as much as working with these women collaboratively to establish a space where creativity was possible, supported, celebrated. Where risk paid off.
What, for you, constitutes a piece of writing as experimental or innovative? What, if anything, does this sort of experimental practice have to contribute to the classroom?
I’m not sure how to answer this. I don’t know what these terms mean anymore or if they’re useful. Though I guess those statements seem disingenuous in light of the book I edited, Imaginary Syllabi. There are all kinds of innovative practices — Bernadette Mayer’s List of Experiments gives students (and all writers) a whole menu of strategies to try out all in the spirit of innovation and experiment. Charles Bernstein’s Experiments also give us many options for invention, ways we might surprise ourselves and others. I always introduce these practices in the creative writing classroom, sometimes I ask students to choose one and bring it in to share. The Exquisite Corpse never fails to surprise and delight students and me.
But what constitutes experimental writing? Again, I have to go back to risk. If a group of writers are willing to risk writing cut-ups from some of Foucault’s writing and end up delighting themselves with the process, this establishes a strong sense of community and experimental thinking as well as confidence to re-think what might be possible in their own writing . . . (I did this a few years ago and the students were so into it that I had to ask them numerous times to stop so we could hear the work!)
What role do you see new technologies and non-academic spaces playing in transforming the way we learn in everyday life?
This is such a hard question! And my third attempt to answer it . . . The first time I addressed this question I was thinking about academia; the second time I got almost exclusively hung up on social media.
I have been thinking a lot about the Para-Olympics and what innovations in things like prosthetics now make possible for people living with disabilities. Or the many veterans returned to us with devastating injuries whose lives have been changed by rapidly advancing technologies in medicine and the use of prostheses. We will continue to see rapid and potentially ethically contentious advances in the fields of medicine and bioengineering.
Robotics. I heard a radio piece the other day about a recently designed robot that can run faster than the fastest runner alive, Usain Bolt. The commentator quipped, “Give it a laser and it’s all over for the human race.” I wonder about the things we develop because we can but without anticipating the consequences of new technologies.
I guess this question is too big for me to go beyond the obvious answers. Facebook will probably play itself out. Google will continue to grow in its Borg-like trajectory. Privacy will be further eroded. And students will be taking a LOT more classes online: cheaper for the institution and profitable since drop-out rates are so high for those classes.
I’d like to imagine some kind of conscious shift away from many of the technologies we rely on, kind of along the lines of the slow food movement or people returning to farmers’ markets, buying locally, etc. I’d like to live in a future where we pick the technologies we rely on very carefully and put more energy into actual human contact even as we will continue to use the internet to learn and connect with people we love and miss or are fascinated by for whatever reason — intellectual stimulation, passion for various endeavors, etc. I want both. But I want the real time with people more. I’m not convinced there is that same electric energy exchange between people when we meet online as when we make the time to gather for dinner, for lecture and debate and, of course, in the classrooms we share with our students, with each other.
Is literature (or art in general) inherently didactic? What do you hope to teach through your writing?
Didactic? I guess so. Sometimes but I’m not sure “inherently.” I am trying to know what to say about this yet I don’t have a lot to say. I keep getting tangled up in my thinking.
Through my writing? I am always concerned with lifting the unseen. In my book The Port of Los Angeles I wrote about the sort of awful paradox of living on the urban ocean near filthy cement rivers where osprey hunt and Great Blue herons glide again and again over strip malls and mansions, yachts and sick brown foam near the beach where swimmers pull their daily strokes. I’m interested in contradiction. And erasure. The book I’m working on now is about buried histories, invisible people. (My Appalachia). If I aim to “teach” through my writing, though this though has never occurred to me and I’m not sure it’s an impetus I have in mind when I write . . . I document. I examine. I collect what is there but somehow unseen. I try to re-see, again and again, so maybe if I’m teaching anything it’s: look.