The Story of D.

“Arts education is a seriously funny business. We demand that students conform to the formalities of the university and yet we secretly hope they will practise wild, if subtle rebellion. We require them to be versed in inherited theoretical vocabularies, but need them to energise us with some previously unseen thing. Besides, these days their lecturers are generally up to something even more weird, spending day after day away from the studios in interminable admin meetings. The very fact that so many students survive the contradictions is in itself wonderfully encouraging.”

(Robert Clark,  The Guardian 1998)

Some years ago I was in central Europe interviewing applicants for the performance design degree course that I ran at one of the UK’s arts-based higher education institutions. Amongst those interviewed was a young woman, D., who immediately struck me and my co-interviewers as a real ‘creative spark’. It was also obvious that she possessed many of the qualities and attributes that are characteristic of highly creative people (see table, below). We also recognised that if she were to accept the offer of the place that we made, her relationship with the course, the institution and the system would not be unproblematic.


Characteristics of highly creative individuals
 High curiosity
 High idea generation
 High risk-taker
 Lots of questions
 Openness to experience
 Self-confidence
 Broad range of interests
 Collector of the Unusual
 Lateral thinking and responses
 Uninhibited
 Radical
 Tenacious, determination to succeed
 Intellectual playfulness
 Preference for complexity
 Concerned with conceptual frameworks
 Keen sense of humour (often bizarre, irreverent, inappropriate)
 Highly self-aware and open to the irrational within themselves
 Heightened emotional sensitivity
 Non-conforming, accepting of chaos, not interested in details
 Described as ‘individualistic’ but not afraid of being classified as ‘different’
 Unwilling to accept authoritarian pronouncements without overly critical self-examination
(compiled, adopted & adapted from several sources including Craft, 2000; Simonton, 2010, Martinsen, 2013 and others)

Our assumptions proved correct as D. challenged, often in a very creative way, the course work and assignments that were set. We would set an assignment that we felt best met the needs and aspirations of the students and also met the learning outcomes of the programme. Inevitably there would be a knock on the office door, and there would be D., always polite – within bounds – but fiercely determined.

“Hello D. Can I help you?”

“Yes. You know this assignment that you have set us?”

“Yes, of course. What about it?”

“I’m sorry, but it is shit. I have a much better idea.”

And usually it was. Leaving us – the course team – to wonder why we hadn’t thought of that!

To  give you some sense of the sort of mind we were dealing with……

It is early in the first semester of the first year. I am standing in an alcove, half way up the institution’s rather grand staircase, that leads from the pillared and porticoed foyer. I am having a heated discussion with D. about the importance – in the visual arts – of labelling one’s work. D. is having none of it.

LIPASTAIRCASE

‘I just want people to experience my work’.

And I’m trying to explain that giving a piece a title – even if it’s called ‘Untitled’ – accompanied by some form of description is part of the discourse and practices of the visual arts disciplines.

A day or so later I am walking up the same staircase, and on reaching the alcove I see that someone has dropped a crumpled up piece of A4 paper. I bend down to pick up the litter, and can’t – well not easily. It’s heavy. And it’s not paper. It’s a perfectly formed piece of crumpled A4 paper made of some form of plaster. Then I notice a pair of small binoculars attached to the cast-iron banisters of the staircase, and an arrow pointing upwards. The foyer wall goes up the entire height of the building. Taking hold of the binoculars and training them upwards in the direction of the arrow, I spot – high up on the foyer wall –  a little white label which says, in clear printed lettering: ‘Little Rubbish Thing No. 1′ by D.’  with its dimensions and the material it was made of.

But it didn’t stop there. Every week for the rest of the year a ‘little rubbish thing’  – different every time – would appear somewhere around the building, with an appropriate label located nearby.

We were caught in a dilemma. We had in D. someone was clearly an exceptional, highly creative person. Moreover, and importantly, she was generally recognised across the institution, which prided itself on its fostering of creativity and innovation, as one of the most creative individuals in the building. Many students (and some staff) wanted to work with her. Yet her refusal to comply with and conform to the regulations and procedures of the university put her at severe risk of failure.

There was a consensus amongst the course team, supported by the external examiner, that we would do all we could to keep D. on the course, even if it meant bending (but not breaking) the regulations. Our reasoning went as follows: The institution was dedicated to excellence in the creative and performing arts. The institution and its courses were designed to attract the most talented and able students. We taught a subject that placed a high priority on creativity and creative solutions within an institution that espoused the same values. If we could not keep someone like D. on the course, then we had to seriously question ‘what are we doing?’ and ‘why are we doing it?’. Or, as our external examiner put it: “If, in an institution like this, you can’t keep someone like D. on the programme, then you might as well go and work in a cake shop!”

In the end there was a compromise. D. agreed to undertake those parts of the course that were essential to her staying, and we would endeavour – with the encouragement of the external examiner – to ensure that we could fit her work (and her!) into the assessment system of the validating university.

Until the end, D. remained politely but fiercely determined to follow her own vision, producing sometimes exceptional work – which frequently didn’t fit comfortably into the assessment expectations.

D. graduated, with a reasonable but not exceptional  grade.

She is now a successful artist/designer/maker, based in her home country.

*  *  *  *  *  *

“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and will be lost.”
Martha Graham
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Author: Paul Kleiman

Academic, researcher, writer, musician, gardner, narrowboat owner, dog owner, cat servant

8 thoughts on “The Story of D.”

  1. I really liked reading this, and have come back to it several times over the past week. It reminded me of so many things- of myself as a student, of some of the students I have had the pleasure to teach, and of a great book: ‘Orbiting the giant hairball’. I aspire to being a creative paradox (from that book) and having people like D in the world and in our classes is such a challenge, but so very refreshing. Who of us really wants status quo? Growth takes that awareness and it often is a challenge, but it is so worth it. Thank you for taking the time to share D’s story.

  2. Very good to read a story that turned out so well. Two things struck me…firstly, I was surprised that D wasn’t offered a lectureship straight after graduating, it sounds as if she would have been a great asset to the course team. And secondly, do you think the story would have ended so well if D had not been so polite? I’m guessing that if she had been as rude as some students are judged to be by staff then she wouldn’t have lasted the course. Ohh…and another thing. Was there any feedback from the other students on D’s course in terms of favouritism and ‘getting away with it again’? Did other students try to act contrary to college norms in a similar fashion to D?

    1. Hello Simon, interesting questions!
      Some answers:
      1. I don’t think D. would have been interested in teaching in the UK system, or any system that placed a high value on compliance, conformity, normative behaviours, etc.
      2. You’re right, in that we underestimate the importance and impact of the affective / relational aspects of staff-student transactions. If D. had been a total and constant pain in the arse I suspect the outcome might have been very different.
      3. A critical factor, which I mention, was that D. had the respect of her peers who could see and empathise with her creative struggles within and against the ‘boundaries’ of the course. We, as staff, also struggled to ensure that creativity was encouraged and enabled, and I believe D.’s approach and work (and possibly attitude) encouraged others to be a bit braver. Her marks certainly didn’t reflect any favouritism, and I suspect there would have been protests if we’d booted her off the course.

    1. Hello Jolyon! How lovely to hear from you, and thank you for the kind words. You, of course, know who I’m writing about. They were, indeed, quite extraordinary times. Hope all is good with you.
      Kindest regards
      Paul

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