Teaching is a kind of sculpting. Being on both sides is instructive. If the ends are the same the means are opposite. Much learning as a student comes from the impact of the teacher’s spirit, Jim Fallon’s enthusiasm, Rhodes Dunlap’s punctiliousness, Donald Justice’ perfectionism, Tom Cranfill’s savior faire. As a teacher though the specific events mean more.
I used to take heavy impasto portraits to composition classes to teach descriptive writing. Not only were they impastos they were sculptural, coming off the canvas, portraits where one part of the face was especially exaggerated, the eyes, the ears, the lips, the forehead. One of these, Cowboy, an eager appearing at the putative door of his girl, had hair slicked, bandanna around neck and prominent extended lips, to picture his naivete of himself. After class a young woman in this all black student body came up to the picture as it hung on the wall. She said, I guess he’s a black man, and went up to the portrait and kissed him!
Somewhat before this at UT Austin, saddled with teaching technical writing for engineers because I had a degree from a technical school, and after that saddled with technical writing for foreign students, both of which would be like teaching trees in a wood, I wanted some imagination to get the trees thinking. In one assignment for process writing the student was to describe the process of picking up a loaded .45 from the desk, putting it to their head and pulling the trigger. A number of them died in the exercise, a couple fired into the air. Nobody put in earplugs. Too extreme and offensive today, the point was to engage more than reason in the writing.
Describing these events in a studio recently, citing Peter Callas as someone whose work transcended form, the local expert (who is genuine) said he knew Callas and didn’t like some of his work, even though Callas is a world beyond this speaker. My response was, and it applies to teaching and learning, beauty must be judged with generosity not severity and that the best thing of a poet or artist is this measure, not something less. Eliot makes the point about poet and translator of Kafka, Edwin Muir. In the Preface to Muir’s Collected Poems Eliot singles out “The Horses” as an outstanding poem summarizing the conditions of Glasglow, London, Prague, industrialism and war all in one great poem. If only for that poem alone Muir must be admired and respected. This spirit of generosity, not criticism, brings close understanding in embracing beauty and wisdom.