Conspiracy Theories at the “Normal” School | Laura Reeder

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Art and human development students at Massachusetts College of Art & Design (MassArt), 2013

When I am not on the road engaged in professional development with teachers and teaching artists, I am at a state-funded art school in Boston, Massachusetts working with graduate and undergraduate students who aspire to careers as artists who teach. Our program is called “Art Education” in alignment with traditional art school nomenclature. But, like many art schools, we have multiple pathways for preparing artists to apply their learning as teaching artists, art teachers, community artists, museum educators, artist-educators, engaged artists, artist/researcher/teachers, and artist-activists. There is no regular label for what they will be called when they leave our program. This broad menu of possibilities is intentional because our department encourages students to explore their options and define their work in an always changing world.

Yet, sometimes the students do not find these open-ended options to be helpful. Last semester, after an especially inventive series of workshops on teaching strategies where we studied literacy development[1] through playacting elements in a story, and we studied collaborative learning[2] through choreography and dance, some of my students expressed concern that these playful methods might be too weird to convince parents and administrators that this was effective teaching. This led to a conversation about their identities as artists who teach.

They were frustrated with what they perceived as a resistance on the part of our program, to labels and titles for the work they were hoping to do. They wanted to know when it was right to legally call themselves artists, or teachers. They were hoping that a degree in art education could help them to be valued in the world with greater clarity. I told them that after years of living and studying the career lives of artists who teach, I was still undecided about the effectiveness of standard titles that we apply to what we do. But, sharing my own comfort with the ambiguity of teaching artistry was not very helpful. We studied theories and ideas from leaders in the fields of arts education. This quote from Eric Booth, had a similar effect:

“The TA takes on a variety of roles in leading a group, including facilitator of group process, as well as the roles of designer, leader, colleague, teacher, and witness. Good TAs are nimble in changing their role relationships to learners, enjoying each role, and modeling the multiplicity of roles that artistry requires” (Booth, 2012).

To them, it just sounded like more academic justification for the fuzziness and open-ended difficulties of the arts. Fortunately, we study at a school with some history in this area. So we turned to our own foundations for some insight.

Our college is Massachusetts College of Art & Design (aka MassArt). But, it was founded as the Massachusetts Normal Art School in 1873. Normal, at that time, indicated that this school would establish standards or norms for teaching art to working class students.

At the time it was an extraordinary organization, because it also proposed to teach not-so-normal folks to use artistic concepts in their everyday work and lives. It was not normal for working class, female, immigrant, or brown-skinned people to be included in the privilege of artistic activity. It was not normal for people who had little money or privilege and who had few choices about career paths to be invited into the exclusive world of art. But, even then, the students must have held similar questions about their future lives. Even then, they must have hoped that there was some guidebook or standard label for sharing their unique work with the real world.

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Students at Massachusetts Normal Art School, circa 1890[3]

When I shared a photograph of Normal School students from 1890 engaged in some wacky airplane-angle-exercise it was impossible to ignore the similarities to the methods we were studying in our own class in 2013. My students were amused to imagine that it was some sort of not-so-normal conspiracy theory against standardization of teaching artist careers. Since the word conspiracy comes from the Latin conspirare which means “to breath [the spirit] together”, it was completely fitting that they should be suspicious.

I really hoped that the teacher of that class did conspire with us, and that this was not a photo of a physical education class that was filed incorrectly in the archives. I imagined that teacher (daringly) saying: Let’s just do this thing together and figure out the important ideas from the combined spirit we are breathing today. Gratefully, it did the trick. My students expressed pride in coming from a legacy of resisting normalcy. While we had not solved any identity crises of teaching artistry, we did gain a greater degree of comfort with the truly unique practices that empowered us.


[1] Wootton, K., & Landay, E. (2012). A Reason to Read: Linking Literacy and the Arts. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.
[2] Vygotsky, L.S. (1978). Mind and society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
[3] Courtesy of the University Archives & Special Collections Department, Joseph P. Healey Library, University of Massachusetts Boston: Boston State College photograph collection, ca. 1876-1975.Booth, E. (2012). The universal elements of teaching artistry: takeaways from the world’s first international teaching artist conference. Teaching Artist Journal blog, November 6, 2012: http://tajournal.com/2012/11/06/take-aways-from-the-worlds-first-international-teaching-artist-conference/ .

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