At its best, teaching in the university is about two different things:
The first is mentorship. Being a guide to students as they make their paths, being a cheerleader when things go at least a little bit right, being a believer in fact that – even though to everyone else it looks only like air-conditioned mouse clicking and pencil scribbling – saying something meaningful is really hard. I’ve learned from my mentors that, more than suggestions or techniques, the best mentorship is about listening and framing. In the art that I love, I get to understand in a deep, subverbal way the person who made it. And so when I mentor a young creative, I see my job as helping them to learn who they want to be and what they want to say, encouraging in them the emotional strength to say it, and, when the work is complete, being an honest reporter as to whether they were successful.
In my course Audiovisual, taught six times at UC San Diego, I engage with a small group of students on the analysis and creation of multimedia creative work. We begin by thinking analytically about music in the presence of visual art, dance, literature, and cinema by examining works by a diverse group of artists in lectures and detailed seminar discussions. Together, we study musicians Igor Stravinsky and Rahsaan Roland Kirk, author Lydia Davis, photographers Christina de Midell and Sally Mann, choreographers Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham, theater director Julie Taymor, and multimedia artists Mark Leckey and Robert Ashley. Students make analytical presentations about multimedia work which is important to them. In parallel, they complete short technical exercises in field recording, audio mixing and editing, audio transformation, photography and cinematography, video editing, and color grading (the creative manipulation of color in digital video). Finally, they use their developing analytical and technical skills to create their own work. Through private meetings and group critiques, I guide them as their drafts evolve into completed works (excerpts of student work, shared with permission, here: exceptionallydecent.com/studentexamples).
The second thing university teaching does, at its best, is disseminate new knowledge. Youtube tutorials on audio mixing techniques are great, I’ve learned a lot from them, but teaching someone how the move from discrete outboard audio processing hardware to functionally similar cpu algorithms changed the aesthetics of computer music is a topic so intricate and thorny that it requires a sustained personal connection between teacher and student. Michael Tilson Thomas has created admirable multimedia analyses of symphonic classics, but when you’re engaging a topic that doesn’t already have 200 years of scholarship behind it, when there isn’t already a basically agreed frame for the discussion, having incisive students in the classroom matters.
Leveraging my documentary work on Regional Mexican Music (discussed in my Creative Statement), I created a general education course on the Mexican musical genres of Banda and Norteño. In the lecture course, taught five times with an average of 110 students each time, I had two teaching goals: 1) To teach the students the rich history and cultural significance of the music and musicians and, 2) through analyses of different songs in the Banda and Norteño repertoire, teach foundational concepts of music to the nonmajor undergrads. Each lecture focuses on one artist that exemplifies a period of the music's history, using and includes a detailed analysis of one of their songs. Those analyses introduce concepts such as Meter, Form, Motive and Texture.
What surprised me most about teaching the course was the response from Mexican-American students. The course is about music and musicians that are in most senses wildly popular and important. But in Mexico, it’s the music of the poor and powerless. In America, it’s the music of immigrants at the margin. The students saw someone giving this music and its stories of resilience serious scholarly attention and felt validated. They saw that I had gone to considerable effort to track these artists down and ask them serious, even difficult, questions. Then, outside of the course, the students began their own documentary projects, on musicians they had grown up with in Tijuana, on their immigrant church in South Bay, San Diego. So, the new knowledge that I disseminated through the course was more than my first-person work with Mexican musicians, it was also the new to them (and, honestly, me) knowledge that you could take the subjects that you cared about, that mattered to you but seemingly no one else, and bring those stories to others for the benefit of a community.
WHY MAKE ART IN UNIVERSITIES?
I think of universities in our society as the institutions responsible for vigorous experimentation, for pushing against the edge of human knowledge, for trying to give to society something it didn't have before: a place to incubate difficult ideas whose profits aren't easily captured by an individual, instead, whose profits diffuse out across society. The best academic project, to my way of thinking, isn't a good idea that, if successful, you can sell or productize or found a company on. The best academic project is something that has lasting positive impact across a society. Gravitational Lensing probably didn't make anyone rich, but it does matter.
My view is that artists in our society are responsible for generating and defining our culture’s shared values. The point of art, to my way of thinking, is to figure out what's important to us, what we believe in, and who we want to be. I used to think of culture as a thing that builds, one brick always on top of the last, so that you end up every moment with something sturdier and more impressive. Inevitably better. But what I realize now is that those bricks also decay. That what we thought were shared values and ideals can break down and corrode and infect, that ours is more than the sexy work of building higher, its also the difficult but essential work of building stronger. Our job is to address values so fundamental that they elude explicit description, and to keep addressing these values over and over, forever, lest we all forget who we are.
That's the exact sort of important and impactful work that society needs universities to do now more than….well, more than any time in my lifetime at least.