“Objects represent our ritual,” says Karen Roop. “A lot of objects are ritual.”
The former director of English composition is sitting in the lounge of the UNLV Marjorie Barrick Museum of Art next to English instructor Jenessa Kenway and myself, the Barrick's research and educational engagement representative.
We discuss the malleability of definitions.
Kenway mentions a series of sculptures in the Barrick’s exhibit hall. They were made by the artist Nicolas Shake. He takes car tires and pieces of debris from the desert and molds semi-liquid plastic onto them to create textured forms Fragments of the objects stick to the plastic. Oils from the tires become a kind of paint or dye on the material. The rubber tire is filling the role of a paintbrush.
His work is a good example of a principle she wants students to understand: Fluidity.
Both she and Roop are concerned for the future.
They believe their incoming students are becoming less adept at identifying the types of ambiguous situations that reward an exploratory response. They encounter an increasing number of undergraduates who react with discomfort when they can’t see clear yes-or-no answers.
This problem has always existed — the desire for shortcuts is part of human nature — but Roop and Kenway believe that current technological trends are causing it to escalate. People assume they will be able to type a question into a search engine and retrieve an answer quickly. The potential for sparking curiosity and contemplation around that question is being clipped short.
Without mentioning names, Kenway tells us the story of an undergraduate who fills her essays with the beginnings of good ideas but doesn’t know how to develop them. “Each idea is a suitcase,” she says. You need to know how to unpack it.
Articulation is an act of unpacking.
I think of the late art writer John Berger, whose essays exist in an indefinable territory around storytelling, opinion, and research. His work is characterized by a willingness to define his subjects through unconventional means. He might try to approach an artwork obliquely by describing one of his own dreams. At times he tells anecdotes or switches from prose to poetry. Throughout everything, however, he always appears alert and intelligent: a searcher.
Discussing Berger, the reviewer Adam Lambirth said: “In an age of snap judgments and shallow knowledge, Berger is an exceptionally thinking man. He broods and considers, then he reconsiders, and the fruit of all this mental and emotional activity is these remarkable writings.”
Imagine the future filled with intelligent people like that. Everything could be vitalized by the frames of thought we put in place now. How do we encourage people to be flexible? How does UNLV continue to give its students the resilience and curiosity they need to lead rich lives? Programmers, scientists, teachers — everyone will benefit from a philosophy of thinking that helps them establish an inquisitive overview of multiple identities and situations.
An object should trigger a ritual of observation and articulation.
Civilization gains by encouraging people who can look at a car tire and see that it is also a texture mold and a paintbrush. The culture that has made students rigid will not reward rigidity.
“It always comes back to material objects,” Roop says. “We locate ourselves through objects.”
Material objects confront the observer with an exteriorized set of facts that can be discussed with some equality. Everyone who looks at one of Shake’s sculptures is seeing the same surfaces. This means they start the process of evaluation on a relatively level playing field. They can’t argue that the white sculpture is red, for example. They all know whether it is or is not resting on the floor.
I have noticed that it is often hardest to get students to tell me the obvious things about a work of art. It is difficult for them to articulate simple observations: “It is square.” They are more likely to begin with a hazy thought: “It’s about passion.”
We must go to the concrete reality, I say. We must begin with, “The painting is square,” and work forward. Then we will see if we reach, “The artist is telling me about passion” or not.
A museum is a place where the expectation is observation. Artworks are objects that exist to be contemplated. They are tools for looking.
Kenway says the museum setting is important in another way too. It is not a classroom. “You put [undergraduates] in a classroom and that’s a thing they’re so used to they’ve already shut down.” An unfamiliar room is fruitful. Suddenly you are not taking your space for granted.
They both bring up an essay from UNLV’s English 101 course, Look at your Fish! (or Agassiz and the Fish) by Samuel Scudder. Born in 1837, Scudder wanted to study entomology but the first creature his instructor gave him to look at was a fish. Told to examine the fish over a period of days, he was impatient at first but kept obediently staring and thinking until he had surprised himself by discovering a substantial network of observations.
The process of realizing his abilities was so significant to him that he contemplated it for 15 years before writing Fish.
He ends the piece by stating that, “This was the best entomological lesson I ever had — a lesson whose influence has extended to the details of every subsequent study… What I had gained by this outside experience has been of greater value than years of later investigation in my favorite group.”
“You can do that better with something you’re not familiar with,” says Kenway.
“Ignorance is a great teacher,” agrees Roop.
I wonder if our role as an educational institution is to promote ignorance — knowledgeable ignorance, ignorance filled with inquisitiveness — until the people in our care can go fearlessly into ambiguous situations, not worried by them, not reaching for the quick answer, but roaming in the fluid confluence of unfamiliar things.
The ritual we need is one of curiosity. We should continue to talk to students about the experience of working forward from a basic observation: How do we select the most useful details? How do we connect them to one another?
This is we can do at UNLV, now and in the future. This is what we need to teach or model.