So, What is it You Do? | Alison Holland

Earlier this year when it became clear my heart ached for a new career focus, and my temporary position would end sooner than originally anticipated, I began testing the waters as a Teaching Artist with a little vacation time here and there. My heart knew I’d found it. But when the last day of my full-time job came, it wasn’t easy to explain why my newly “unemployed” status was only half-true.

I live in rural Minnesota, so I knew my only opportunity to become a Teaching Artist would require a freelance lifestyle with endless networking, grant writing, and finger crossing (and I had a few projects in the finger crossing stage at the time). My work is self-directed and project-based, so no one has knighted me a Teaching Artist but me.  I “sell” my ideas to potential “partners,” write my grants, and put myself out there. But it’s scary. Especially, I think, scary when it comes to small talk.

You see, next to my friends and family who are classroom teachers, medical professionals, and traditional 9 to 5-ers, I felt, well, weird. So when I stumbled across a December 2011 article on Forbes “Why Weird is Wonderful (and Bankable) by Jessica Hagy, I felt a little boost. Hagy explains that weirdness is valuable because it has less competition, is less painful (than fitting into a cookie cutter), fosters community, creates automatic notoriety, means more freedom, calls for premium pricing, and is nontransferable. She concludes by asserting that weirdness is great for parties because “It’s not small talk when you bring up your big weird thing.  Weird done right (that is honestly and positively) is captivating and attractive.”

I was recently at a young professionals networking-based conference at which most of those I met quickly asked “So, what is it you do?” I gave a slightly different answer each time to test out the best way to keep the conversation from stalling out. Teaching Artist Page McBrier on her website admits her best shot at an “elevator speech” (when someone thinks she’s an “art teacher”) involves providing a simple explanation of a recent residency. This was basically the route I took and, overall, I was surprised how interested those I met seemed to be by my “big weird thing.” That is until I explained to an old college friend that one of my current projects involved teaching math through dance. He, someone who teaches improv techniques to CEOs and created an improv show about public policy, said that idea will give him nightmares. Surely he would dream about being required to solve complex math equations while performing elaborate choreography, which, by the way, is not what what my residencies involve.

Oh geeze, I thought, if an improv artist thinks I’m weird he must be right. After a moment of intense insecurity (palms sweating), I remembered that’s what’s great about this whole “Teaching Artist” thing anyway. If we weren’t unorthodox, if we didn’t look at things differently than classroom teachers, civic leaders, and even other Teaching Artists, there’d be no work for us. Still, it was a wakeup call that I needed a more polished, or at least more confident, elevator speech. So when I got home that night, I quickly went online to see what I should have said. Gigi Rosenberg, a writer and an artist coach, suggests that because many of us do many so many things, it can be difficult to claim a title. She recommends whittling your title down to a maximum of two titles, then preparing two “add-ons” depending on who you’re talking to. (I wish I’d read her advice sooner!) Here’s what I have so far:

Hi! My name is Alison Holland. I’m an interdisciplinary artist and educator working to connect the dots across disciplines for audiences and learners of all ages. I help teachers integrate the arts into core curriculum areas, collaborate with other artists to create community performances, and write about my experiences on the Teaching Artist Journal’s Alt/Space blog.

Add-on #1: In my next residency, I’ll use Merce Cunningham’s Chance Dance theory to teach fractions to third graders. Do you know any teachers who might be interested in having help integrating the arts into a core area curriculum area like math, English, social studies, or science?

Add-on #2: For my next performance, I will choreograph a Cunningham-inspired dance and collaborate with a visual artist and a composer. The evening will include a moderated Q&A between the audience and artists, as the goal of the performance is to increase the acceptance of contemporary art forms through exposure and education. I hope to see you there!

What do you think?  What’s your elevator speech? How do you embrace the “weirdness” of your work and communicate what it is you do to others?

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