Arts Education, Following your Dreams, and Higher Education (Part III)

Opening for Ben Folds on his current tour is the group Lady Danville (I’m pretty sure the “New Song” video was taken at the Chicago show I attended). They are, to me, amazing. Three young dudes making great music? Yes, please. I went up front to buy their CD and there was one of the members of the band, selling their stuff. Even though I’m pretty sure I have at least ten years on him, I gushed like a school girl: You guys were awesome. So great (giggle, blush – ugh). Funny thing was, he was as excited and giddy as I was: You really liked it? Thanks! That’s so great! Thanks! 

Art and academia are often seen as being very isolated and isolating professions. For many artists, you spend hours or days or years locked up in a room somewhere, by yourself, creating. Academics spend the same amount of time, apparently, in libraries, archives, offices, labs, out in the field, again, by themselves. But of course, that’s completely false. At one point or another, the artist emerges and shares their art. So, too, with the academic. 

But that art is often rarely created in complete isolation. That’s we have schools, movements, collectives, troupes, and other ways that artists support and work with each other. While in Chicago, I also met a young woman who had left her small town in rural West Virginia to pursue her dream of becoming an artist. She was working with a bunch of artists whom she had met in art school and they were working and supporting each other in order to create art and make a living. She was living her dream and loving it. 

I come home and I read about how reference letters in academia for women that talk about collaboration are held against the candidate. “We found that being communal is not valued in academia,” it read. When I told my husband about the findings, he was completely unsurprised. Communal, he said, isn’t as important as being independent and self-motivated. My fellow University of Venus bloggers (ok, she’s one of the founders), Mary Churchill, tweeted “grad training is currently creating insecurity, arrogance, and depression rather than collaboration.” Why are we recreating the worst stereotypes of the solitary, tortured artist, when the artists themselves long ago rejected that model?

If anything, academics should be learning from artists who look to collaborate and share their work with the widest possible audience. We should be open and honest about how challenging the life of the mind can be, but also how rewarding it can be, much like choosing to become an actor, musician, or painter. There are still academics out there who want to share with their students and colleagues. (For two examples, check out here and here). After reading these tributes to being a teacher and academic, can you imagine either of the two writers doing anything other than what they currently do? I can’t, and I can’t imagine it for myself, either.

We cannot give up hope in higher education, in some form or another. And to survive, we’re going to have to start working, and I mean really working, together. Things are going to have to change. 

Let’s go. Who is with me? 

Arts Education, Following your Dreams, and Higher Education (Part II)

As I said in my previous post, Almost Famous is one of my favorite movies; another would be The Muppet Movie. I grew up with Jim Henson. Sesame Street was my favorite show. The Muppet Show used to reduce me to hysterical laughing. Fraggle Rock was a Sunday night ritual (it aired on Sunday evenings in Canada on CBC). I was completely mystified and fascinated by The Storyteller. I still remember where I was where I heard that Jim Henson had died (in my friends’ ecology classroom in grade seven during lunch period; they were working on projects and their teacher had the radio on). When asked the questions, who would have lunch with, dead or alive, I always answer Jim Henson. 

When I found out that a special exhibit of Jim Henson’s works was going to be in Chicago at the same time I was there for a conference, I knew I had to go. The morning before my panels, I was on the bus heading out to the museum. Once again, tears welled up in my eyes the moment I saw Kermit sitting there to greet me. I was further overwhelmed with emotion as I watched parents and children, generations really, enjoy and interact with the exhibit, which included pieces and clips from as far back as Henson’s commercials produced for the Washington, D.C. market. 
I was struck by a number of things in the exhibit. One was how determined Jim Henson was to get into television. He would do whatever it took, including taking up puppetry. Contrary to popular belief, puppetry was not Henson’s first passion; it was one that he picked up out of necessity and then fell madly in love with. He was open; art, puppets, commercials, late-night tv, children’s shows, whatever it took. And once he had made it, he pushed himself and those around him to new creative heights. 
That is the other element that really struck me; how much collaboration took place within the Henson family. Henson was someone who had a very unique perspective, could be difficult to work with (what creative person isn’t?) but ultimately he inspired and helped everyone around him become more than they perhaps ever thought they could be. Without Jim Henson, Sesame Street may have only been an interesting footnote in the history of television. Instead, it has gone on to educate and entertain generations of children. 
I picked up the book Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street while at the museum. The book opens at Jim Henson’s funeral and it shows the impact that his life (and death) on the group of people who worked in their way to create Sesame Street. Time and time again, the people who were involved in the show had little to no interest in children’s television.  But, there they ended up, working together to create television history. For Jim Henson, it wasn’t just about being creative and innovative, it was about helping as many people as possible achieve their dreams, too.
I’m also reading Kermit Culture, an academic collection of essays that deal with The Muppet Show. In the first essay, Ben Underwood discusses how Henson manages to turn the viewer into a Muppet when they watch the show, bringing them in on the joke, in on the collective experience that was The Muppet Show. Television is a blend of a collective and solitary experience. When Henson was growing up, television was rare and so the entire neighborhood would gather in the living room of the one house that owned one, turned viewing into an experience similar to live theater or performance. Today, with hundreds of channels and multiple TVs per household, this is not a very common experience. But the performers and audience have always been cut off from each other. Jim Henson managed to bridge that gap. 
Jim Henson changed the face of TV with a bunch of puppets. His legacy isn’t just the people who worked most directly with him, but the millions of us whom he welcomed into his world, changing us into Muppets. The best dreams, Kermit once said, are the ones we share. Shouldn’t we, in higher education, be aspiring to the same things?