Riffing on Books and Life – Arts & Sciences Literary Blog by interactive new media author & artist Terry Bailey

16May/11

I curate a digital art show: Digital Eclectic

Creation and installation of interactive sound and light boxes displayed with Terry Bailey's Digital Olympia

Sometimes one life lived by a multimedia/new media artist, me, casts a shadow over another of her lives. I don’t refer to a dark, negative cast. More like a temporary solar eclipse. In this case, my art is eclipsing my book riffing. But instead of disappearing from my literary blog until the eclipse passes, I thought I’d bring my art world into this space temporarily. I have, after all, been riffing a great deal lately about creativity and science. And my “whole” as a creative person plays a large role in my riffing on any subject.

A month ago some of the students in the WEB and interactive media design department I manage came to ask me to visit their sound design class. They wanted me to see the interactive sound boxes they were building with their instructor, Mike Winter.

About the same time, at one of those interminable and political staff meetings that one often sees played out in movies and novels about academia, one of the directors of another department at the college commented that we directors should not call students when they receive bad grades or have attendance problems, because the students perceive of a call from a director as a negative, authoritarian thing. He was making a case, instead, for peer or faculty mentoring, and believed the students would be more likely to answer and respond positively to a phone call from someone other than a director.

I did not speak up in response to his proclamation at the time because I was in one of those non-participatory moods. I was, rather, in an observational mood, and what I was observing was how he so easily convinced his audience of what I believed was faulty reasoning.

His comment was delivered as a proclamation of fact, not as an idea or suggestion. He is large, tall and working on a PhD. He asserts his premises as fact and I have noted that people tend to accept them as so without question. I make a great effort in the classes I teach to convince my students to avoid accepting any premise, from any person, without question. There is far too much acceptance of biased and non fact based thought in this world because we have been socialized to believe anything that comes out of the mouth of someone who is large, tall, academically credentialed and assertive.

I must add that these persuaders are, very often, male. I attended a lecture at Cal Tech last week by a woman scientist. I was astounded at how many times she peppered her lecture with such phrases as “In my opinion,” and “I think that . . .” I have noted that when the men scientists are giving lectures, even when presenting their own hypothesis, rather than scientific fact or accepted theory, they never offer their statements as “opinion.” They never say, “In my opinion.” They have learned that if they are going to be persuasive, they must express their opinion as fact, even if it comes under the heading of hypothesis.

I do plan to raise the issue of the directors call for peer mentoring at another staff meeting in the near future because I believe it so thoroughly misses the mark.

It will be interesting to see how that staff audience responds to a woman who presents her opinion as fact rather than opinion, in order to be persuasive. Will they believe me? Will they note, consciously or unconsciously, that I am not humbly offering my opinion, rather than asserting fact when I present my own hypothesis?

Although I have always been more confident of my opinions and right to express them than many women I know, it was actually a lesson I did not learn thoroughly until I attended graduate writing school. I was taught by three women mentor professors at Antioch University, Sharman Russell, Terry Wolverton and Bernadette Murphy, never to write, “In my opinion” in my nonfiction. Not because I was stating proven fact always but because women have a tendency to believe it is necessary to add that disclaimer whenever they speak or write. And I have caught myself and others doing just that many times since. I have weaned myself from the bad habit fairly well, yet I am sadly conscious of the frequency of it as I go about my life reading and listening to other women.

So this other director proposes that the students see us as authoritarian and that we, therefore cannot call them on their errors (like bad grades) because they need a peer or kindly mentor like a faculty member to do that. Unlike that director, I do not run my department in a hierarchical authoritarian manner like he apparently does. And I do not hold to students being afraid of me. The sound design students came running to fetch me to see their project because they were proud of it and knew that I would be, too. Plus they wanted the affirmations that they knew they would receive from me. And they were proud. They wanted to show me that they had lived up to my high expectations and respect of them.

I ooohed and ahhed over the students project. I really was excited and proud of them, too. My admiration was real. I told them that I was going to figure out some way we could hang and display their interactive sound installation. For what was the point in them making a user interactive sound and light work of art if no one were ever to interact with it?!

I also took photographs of them working on their circuit boards at the tables in the classroom. Partly because they looked so cool doing the work, and partly, full disclosure here, because it occurred to me that I could use the photography to continue my, thus far unsuccessful, campaign to get classrooms redesigned to contain work/art tables in addition to computers set-ups.

Then I went upstairs and asked if I could hang the students’ project in our art gallery and was told that I certainly could – if I would put together an entire art exhibit around their project, to fill the gallery. I could not let my students down. I had just promised them to hang their work and I saw the look of joy and pride on their faces when I suggested it. Thus, I began my first curatorial endeavor in life. And, boy has it been a learning experience!

To be continued.

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