47 Seeing the World Through the Eyes of Another | Priscilla Briggs

Although I have pursued art and teaching because I enjoy both disciplines immensely and try to approach both with humor, I take what I do very seriously.  It is my responsibility as a teacher to open the minds of students to new ideas and make them aware of how, and through what filters, they see the world.  I teach a rigorous class and challenge students on their ideas, regardless of content.  Students often bring up religious and ethical themes in their work and I encourage them to think about their topics with a sense of personal responsibility and a “mature understanding of their faith tradition”, rather than thinking of faith as a list of rules you follow without question.  For example, one student made a video in which the narrative followed the life of a young wayward man who steals beef jerky from the gas station and sneers at minorities before he finally walks into a church and is saved.  This narrative fell flat because there was no indication of why the young man did any these things, including why or how he found Jesus.  I encouraged the student to rethink the narrative to figure out how he could tell the same story in a way that would exhibit the critical thinking of the character that led him to being saved and, thus, engage the viewer in the transformation of the character.  In order for the student to do this, he needed to reflect on his own moral development.  This type of reflection evidenced in the work leads to a higher degree of overall excellence within the discipline.

My goal is to get students to understand themselves but to also look toward the outside world.  To do this I integrate assignments into my classes that direct the content of their work toward social or political issues about which they feel strongly (but also stressing that the personal can be political).  In the Video Art class, students are asked to create a “commercial” that addresses a social or political issue and is exactly 45 seconds in length.  The Interactive Media class is given an assignment in which they must address the same issues in a net.art format.  In my Digital Photography class, we address the ethics of photo manipulation, issues of war photography, and the moral issue of human cloning and stem cell research.  I feel these types of assignments and discussions help students to understand how art functions as a tool for both social inquiry and propaganda, providing a platform from which they can “integrate moral development with intellectual growth.”

During the summer of 2005, I participated in the Summer Workshop on Teaching Ethics because I wanted to figure out how to approach the subject in my classes.  The majority of participating faculty worked on designing classes that focused on a single ethical topic in depth.  I usually do not assign specific issues to the content of projects directed toward issues of social justice, but give a broad assignment asking them to address a topic about which they feel strongly.  During critiques of these projects, students tend to shy away from discussing the actual subject matter and focus on the formal elements.  I stress that the point of making art is to create a dialogue about the subject and that this dialogue promotes understanding of other points of view and, thus, tolerance.  Because art helps us to see the world though the eyes of another, the dialogue surrounding it can “encourage respect for others and sensitivity to community.”

Project ideation is the most difficult thing for my students to do.  I guide them by asking questions during individual conferences and teaching them how to brainstorm for ideas.  Their independent thinking is critical to their creative development as an artist.  The final project in each of my classes requires the student to design their own assignment by defining the technical and conceptual elements they will be tackling.  This is appropriately the most difficult assignment, but is also the one that propels each student into his or her own personal artistic direction.  The final project is where the student demonstrates their ability to think independently.  Their successes here help me to judge whether I have fulfilled my responsibility, as defined by Lev Vygotsky, to provide “unfamiliar content and the setting for learners to step from their current level to a higher level of understanding.”  It is my hope that this experience will resonate within the student as a sort of awakening that, as part of a “capacity and passion for life-long learning”, will inspire an enduring interest in the arts, even if it is simply as an art appreciator.