Outside Woodburn Hall, mostly sitting and mostly alone, students’ heads gesture down and into their devices and many ears are occupied by noise canceling headphones. As I biked by on my way to teach, I was struck by their complete stillness. At first glance I thought statues had been erected in the courtyard. Upon second glance, I witnessed the posture of learning throughout the pandemic—often alone, perhaps quarantined, and frequently from the palm of a hand.
As students entered the classroom where I teach a studio based ceramics course I wondered, How do I get them to lift their eyes, remove both Airpods, and come together again? Is it possible? Is it important? An emotional distance from each other seemed to exist among my students as they appeared less curious about one another, maybe this space a byproduct of social distancing. What I observed now felt different than what I experienced while teaching in-person throughout the 2020-21 academic year. At that time, I noticed a tenderness towards each other in our classroom as students seemed especially sensitive to the experiences of others and connected to support each other beyond our classroom. That willingness and interest in being together seemed absent this Fall 2021 semester.
In search of an invitation to bring all participants in my classroom, including myself, to a collective starting point I turned to 2019 MacArthur Genius Award recipient, Lynda Barry. Barry, who is also a cartoonist, writer, and professor generously shares their thoughtful syllabus and other course materials in the book, Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor. Through comics, examples of student work, and hand drawn and written assignments and lesson plans, Barry lays the groundwork for how and what they teach. At the beginning of each class period, Barry collects attendance by inviting students to “[write their] name, the date, and [draw] a two-minute self-portrait on an index card” (Barry, 58). Early in the Fall 2021 semester, I began implementing this practice within my classroom to begin addressing what I thought was a need for a shared experience with my students.
On the final day of the semester I returned the cards to each student. We laid them out for display—now as a visual record of our showing up together. Barry writes of returning students’ portraits, “There are usually about 30 drawings in all, most of them completely forgotten until our last day of class. My hope is that they keep them. My hope is that they see the extraordinary result of doing something as ordinary as drawing a 2-minutes self-portrait on an index card twice a week” (Barry, 57). In this coming together, students witnessed in each other and themselves something astonishing that can be made in one accumulative hour of devotion. Studying their 30 portraits, one of my students, Jackson Gardner, reflected, “I had a lot of classes before ceramics on those days, and focusing on a small project that only took a couple minutes and wasn’t being graded was a really nice mental break. I could really draw anything if I wanted to. I don’t free-draw like that outside of class a lot.”
By the conclusion of the courses I taught in the Fall 2021 semester, I recognized a new agenda in my curriculum. In this, I am learning how to facilitate being together again. Yes, we are learning processes and techniques specific to the medium but more importantly we are learning how to care for ourselves, each other, our materials, and our facilities. The reflective contents of the 3×5 inch note card serves as a quick but impactful practice in facilitating these objectives. In my world of Zoom classrooms I so often catch myself staring at my own image. When we start class with a self-portrait, we are studying ourselves, but this study is occurring unmediated by our own reflection. We start by drawing ourselves as we feel ourselves in that particular moment without a camera or mirror but exactly how we imagine ourselves.
If you are interested in how you could implement this exercise in your courses reach out to email@example.com for a consultation.
Barry, Lynda. Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor. Drawn and Quarterly, 2014.
Joan K Middendorf
How about having them draw a quick cartoon or sketch of someone else in the room? Drawing is a good way to focus, so focusing on someone else besides themselves.
I appreciate your perspective!
At various moments throughout the semester I will invited students to draw each other rather than themselves for the day. This deviation also appeared to impact their approach to their portraits moving forward. Especially for those who had drawn an almost identical portrait each class period-it seemed to give them pause and reconsider their approach.