At least once in your teaching career, you’ve probably walked into your classroom and seen a scene like one of these:
Our students are distracted. There have been plenty of studies of the dangerous impact of distraction and its effect on everything from our driving to our work to our friends and family. In a study completed by Alessandro Acquisti and Eyal Peer at Carnegie Mellon University’s Human Computer Interaction lab, participants scored 20 percent lower on a standard cognition test when they are interrupted by technology. Another study by Larry Rosen, a professor at California State University-Dominguez Hills observed that students had difficulty concentrating on their homework for more than two minutes without distracting themselves by technology such as e-mail as social media. Few people would question the impact that these distractions can have on our students and our classrooms. The famous 1960s “marshmallow” experiment by Walter Mischel of Stanford University showed children who were able to delay gratification by approximately 15 minutes had higher SAT scores, higher college grade-point averages, and made more money. To top it off, they also had a lower body mass index.
Students can be unaware of the impact that their distraction is having not just on the instructor or the classroom, but also on their learning and development. In my experience as an illustrator and designer, I have gradually learned the strong connection between good process and good work. Allowing oneself to become aware of feelings, environment, and challenges throughout the design and art making process results in a more satisfying design experience. This mindful experience allows the designer or artist to form not just a product to be proud of, but also a learning experience that he or she has grown from. The word “distract” comes from the Latin word to “draw apart.” When students are distracted they are literally drawn apart from their work. But how can we introduce the importance of this experiential component of art making to our students?
In my Art Appreciation classes, I conduct my students through a number of hands-on design and art activities, often inspired by a period of art history. While we cover a number of topics in a short period of time, I devote one class to drawing and the process of drawing. Many of the students have not drawn in a long time, and we begin the class by talking about why teenagers and adults tend to draw less after childhood. In our discussion, we talk about a number of different possibilities for this: self and peer judgment, art and visual thinking skills not being required or valued in schools, and also just “who has time for drawing?”
The idea of “having” time has always been something that resonates falsely with me.
We all have the same amount of time. In my personal experience, drawing is the activity that makes me most present where I am and with who I am. It’s not just drawing that we don’t “have” time for, it’s being present.
I start my students off with teaching them blind contour line drawing, where once they place their pencil on the paper, it is magneted to the paper and they cannot pick it up again, and they are not allowed to look at the paper, but must keep their eyes affixed to the object itself. This simple drawing exercise removes self-judgment from the equation. If you cannot see your drawing, you cannot judge the product, but must become fully immersed in the process.
But it’s hard. It’s so tempting to look down at the piece of paper, so easy to distract yourself from being immersed in what you’re observing by your temptation of self-judgment. So I tell my students I’m going to give them “referees” and ask them to pair up with a partner. I announce that we will be doing another blind contour line drawing, but this time, your partner is going to ensure that you don’t distract yourself by sneaking a peak at your paper… because you’ll be drawing your partner and your partner will be drawing you. The results are awesome, and not just that, but for what may be even just a brief second, every student is entirely engaged in what they are doing at the present moment.
In my Art History class, I took another approach to more fully engaging students in the classroom as we began studying performance and process art, an art form where the process IS the product. In the late 70s, Marina Abramovic and Ulay (Uwe Laysiepen) began creating performance art pieces that explored a variety of topics such as ego, artistic identity, trust, and time. In one piece, entitled “Rest Energy” from 1980, Marina holds and arrow in a quiver held by Ulay, this video capturing the tension and trust between the couple.
In “AAA AAA” from 1978, the two face each other, beginning to yell, growing louder, louder, and louder, until their voices are so hoarse, they cannot go on any longer.
The entire video lasts for nine minutes and fifty-one seconds and, yes, I had my students watch the entire thing. (I’m a monster.) Finally, in one of my favorite pieces the couple did, they stood in a doorway between two rooms at an exhibition, and people visiting the exhibition would have to awkwardly squeeze from one room into another. The catch being… they were completely naked.
But what do these performances have to do with our topic? In every single performance, each person involved is completely, entirely, 100% immersed in the moment. There are no distractions, there are no calls to take, there is nothing more important to do. The two are entirely present.
In 1988, the two artists felt that their relationship and partnership was coming to a close, and their final performance art piece together was the two walking along the Great Wall of China, one from each end, and saying goodbye to each other when they met in the middle. (Skip to 59:30 for the juicy dramatic part.)
They reemerged in the cultural consciousness in 2010 when Marina Ambramovic performed her art piece “The Artist is Present” at the MoMA in New York City. Ambramovic took one moment of silent shared time with anyone who came to the exhibition, one moment of being present together.
(That was Ulay, if you didn’t catch that. Sometimes my students don’t.)
According to the curator of the exhibition, the two had actually contacted each other periodically over the years and had spoken the morning of the opening, but the emotional weight of the moment is nevertheless there. And afterwards, Marina wipes away her tears…
closes her eyes…
and moves into the next moment. Into the present.
After watching this video, I paired my students up with partner, and they shared three minutes of silence together. The first minute was awkwardness, the second was giggles, and, finally, in that third moment, the pairs relaxed into a complete present-ness with one another. The students had shared this intimate experience with someone who was mostly a stranger. Anyone could be that potential lover, a potential friend, or, mostly importantly, a soul that empathy could be found in.
But what is it that brings us fully into these moments of being present? Is it accountability, like in the contour line drawing exercise or when you are taking a test with a moderator staring down your shoulder? Is it simply social awkwardness or awareness? Is it when your fight or flight response is triggered by fear? Or is it love?
I won’t offer a solution to this question, but by studying the work of performance and process art, students, designers, and artists can explore this importance of being completely present in the process of creation, as well as the reward of it. The by-product, the art and design itself, is not just simply a thing, but an avenue to draw the future into that same process, presentness and mindfulness that the designer learned to discover through their work.