Fostering Community in the Classroom

The current shifts in the cultural sector toward social and racial equity have resulted in policy changes, developments in institutional language, funding structures, and a social momentum aimed at addressing inequality and systems of oppression. But these changes are not happening in a vacuum. We are in a moment of the resurgence of activism in the United States through groups like #Blacklivesmatter, DREAMERs, and the renaissance of activism happening on college campuses.

I am reminded of Kara Walker’s Sugar Sphinx “Subtlety”, this work that was so brilliantly critiquing racism. It was literally a monument —a giant sphinx with the head of “mammy,” naked and exposed, made entirely of sugar and molasses in the old Domino sugar factory in gentrifying Brooklyn. It was pushing the needle of commentary on the history of slavery as it related to the sugar trade and the vulnerability of black women’s bodies and on and on. Yet, I found myself in a room full of people with art history degrees who said it was perfectly valid for people to pose in sexually suggestive poses with it, lick it, and post it to Instagram. It was like they had no idea of the racist history Walker was engaging or how contemporary audiences were complicit in it.

As an arts administrator, I have sought out a variety of frameworks for thinking across cultural differences in order to foster a community of inclusion and engagement. While much of this research has been aimed at audience development and I feel in no-way that I have yet grasped an expertise in these areas. I have aimed to create a practice of approaching this work with an incisive mind, open heart and fearless gratitude when thinking of the challenges and extreme polarities we as a society are facing today. In the readings for this week I realized to what degree this research can also have impact in the classroom and I hope to bring these practices with me into the classroom.

A reading which was particularly inspiring was From Safe to Brave Spaces by Brian Arao and Kristi Clemens for the ways it helped foster dialogue through reframing ground rules I have read and often felt put more onus on long time silenced and marginalized voices had to continue to interpret what was being expressed by those that herald more privilege. It provided me with language tools I can instill into classrooms that continue to focus on finding and expressing authenticity through respect, civility, and owning your intentions, as well as your impact.

John C Maxwell notes that “Leaders must be close enough to relate to others, but far enough ahead to motivate them.” Statements uplifted such as these too often place unrealistic expectations on instructors and leaders to offer “answers”.  Instead I seek to offer complications, make gestures, and pose questions that lead to a more complex understanding of how inclusion should be carried out in cultural institutions and classrooms. This dialogue is rooted in the belief that this conversation is part of a continuum, and we are merely presenting a moment in that continuum.

We make better decisions when we approach our problems and challenges with questions (“What if we…?”) and curiosity. When we allow space for play, curiosity, and creative thinking; it’s imperative to also value listening to, and holding each other up, particularly the voices of those who are affected by systems of oppression. We can then take comfort in the fact that no single one of us knows everything, but together we hold immense knowledge, immense creativity, and immense potential.

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9 Responses to Fostering Community in the Classroom

  1. Dami says:

    Nice post, Corrie! I like the way you phrased this, “When we allow space for play, curiosity, and creative thinking; it’s imperative to also value listening to, and holding each other up, particularly the voices of those who are affected by systems of oppression. ” A teacher doesn’t always have all the answers. Sometimes (or many times) we need to listen and learn from our students. It is in listening to them that we would learn how to better serve and accommodate their needs.

  2. vibhav nanda says:

    Hi!
    Thanks for your amazing post. I always wondered why people come up with more creative solutions when I pose questions as opposed to giving them “advice”. Your blog post has certainly provided me with some insights to this “phenomenon”. Also love this quote that you used — “Leaders must be close enough to relate to others, but far enough ahead to motivate them.”

  3. A. Nelson says:

    Plus one on Heather’s and Sara’s comments…AND…thanks so much for reflecting on how “Brave Spaces” can inform your efforts to make classrooms (and arts administration) more inclusive and vibrant. I loved this post, Corrie.

    • corrie says:

      Thanks for your feedback. I still feel like such a newbie when it comes to unpacking these complex issues, so I’m really looking forward to our discussions this evening.

  4. A. Nelson says:

    Plus one on Heather’s and Sara’s comments…AND…thanks so much for reflecting on how “Brave Spaces” can inform your efforts to make classrooms (and arts administration) more inclusive and vibrant. I loved this post, Corrie.

  5. Sara says:

    Hi Corrie,

    First, I wanted to comment on your citation of Kara Walker’s installation “Subtlety.” I had never heard of it before and was completely blown away when I followed the link to the Brooklyn Street Art website. Thank you for that and for your critique; it’s smart, edgy and no doubt challenges everyone who casts their gaze upon her image.

    Second, I found myself drawn to the second to last and last paragraphs of your post. I like the Maxwell quote and like even better your take on it. I agree: educators should be as guides and facilitators, asking the probing questions that help students take that next mental leap.

  6. Heather Kissel says:

    Corrie, I love this post and have so many different thoughts about it–hopefully I can make a cohesive comment! First, I just want to note that I found this passage “John C Maxwell notes that ‘Leaders must be close enough to relate to others, but far enough ahead to motivate them.’ Statements uplifted such as these too often place unrealistic expectations on instructors and leaders to offer “answers”. Instead I seek to offer complications, make gestures, and pose questions that lead to a more complex understanding of how inclusion should be carried out in cultural institutions and classrooms.” particularly insightful. There are so many different ways to conceptualize leadership, and sometimes, the best way is just to be a hand to hold or devil’s advocate. Second, I appreciate your reflection on “Subtlety” and your chastisement of the disrespect shown to it and validated by others with arts degrees. I think their acceptance of the disrespectful interactions with the piece is a reflection of their own privilege (their art degree perhaps makes them feel they can be “objective” about the piece, but art is important because of the subjective interpretations and truth it represents). And those interacting so disrespectfully–they just don’t “get it.” And how sad is it that we as a society have made it so there are people don’t “get it” by whitewashing history and silencing minority voices (both directly and by lack of representation among what art and literature is considered important/the best)? Lastly, because I could rant about the aforementioned things forever, I do want to know how you work to improve interpretation of works of art from artists of different backgrounds. I took several art classes throughout my schooling, but I feel like teachers (at least those I had) focused only on Western art, and if Eastern or African art was given any attention, the interpretations were much less developed. How can we work to give this underrepresented (and often underappreciated) art better presentation and understanding?

    • corrie says:

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts Heather! Thus far, my focus has been on ways to foster discussion, and need to reflect and dive deeper into exploring the types of material being presented because you are right, it’s incredibly valuable. The bulk of my arts training and background is in the performing arts, so when I had an opportunity to teach a course I tried to choose theaters that were representative of a cross -section of the types of spaces as well as those that had strong mission/ vision/ values for the students to be exposed too. We visited a array of budget sizes, union and non, brick + mortar and itinerant. My hope is that the next time I teach that type of class I can also add in organizations that are doing some fantastic community engagement and social justice work.

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