Pedagogy and Praxis with Michelle Illuminato

By Emma Duehr

M. Michelle Illuminato creates events, public exchanges, and artworks to help reveal the complicated and often contradictory relationship between people, their culture and the land
they live on. She often works with the collective next question and counts her Key to the City of Aliquippa Pennsylvania as her most treasured public award. Illuminato was honored by Americans for the Arts, Public Art Network for her project The Lost & Found Factory. She has been an artist in residence at the
Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris and at Internationales Waldkunst Zentrum in Darmstadt, Germany. A long-time art educator, she was recently honored with the 2017 Master Teacher
Award from the Foundations: Art, Theory, and Education national teaching association. Originally from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, she now lives and teaches in another city with many bridges, Portland, Oregon.

During Spring 2019, I was a student in Michelle Illuminato’s Pedagogy + Praxis course at Portland State University. Throughout the duration of the class, we were given time for deep reflection on what we know about learning and how we will choose to implement our knowledge into our pedagogical approach. We created a syllabus, an assignment and its supporting materials, and wrote our first teaching philosophy. We examined issues related to alternative pedagogy approaches, creating inclusive classrooms, and art school structures, models, and methods. 

During the discussion on building a teaching philosophy, Michelle discussed her work 13 Radical Whispers, A few whispers before the revolution. The philosophy behind her writing was many years in the making and continues to expand with unceasing life experiences. 

She begins by asking, “How do we make that first year meaningful and provide not just a bridge to the future but a true, life-changing experience?” This question is vital to ask in every stage of education; learning occurs when in discourse with the real-life experiences. She suggests activities such as collaboration, physical learning, interaction with the public, play, and personal research though acknowledging that these activities must be taken a step further. 

In the writing she states, “We need a quiet revolution that upsets this particular viewpoint, not just for our students, but for our institutions as a whole. We need to start by asking who we are teaching? And what do they really need to learn? We need to rethink, redesign, and not just tinker with our structures to make being present in the experience of learning our first goal. We need to dive off that metaphorical bridge with our students and savor the learning that happens together in deep waters. We need to search for ways to make ourselves and our students live in the presence, and avoid yearning for the future at the expense of the moment.” The writing is intended for educators as “quiet whispers” that one can adapt into their own learning environments.

I had one full term experience as a teaching assistant before taking Illuminato’s class and I am currently teaching my own course. As I reflect on the incredible complexities of being a graduate student and a professor simultaneously, I am grateful for the steps and reflections that helped define my pedagogical discoveries. 

 I invited Michelle Illuminato to discuss 13 Radical Whispers and how the ideas surface within her classes. Michelle Illuminato is an Assistant Professor and Head of the CORE Program at Portland State University in Portland, Oregon. The following interview took place on Friday, May 2nd, 2019 over a virtual meeting. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity and has been reviewed for content and accuracy by Michelle Illuminato. 

EMMA: I’d like to start by defining multiple terms that we will be discussing throughout this conversation. How would you define Pedagogy, teaching, learning, and praxis? How do they compare?

MICHELLE: Pedagogy is the system of thoughts and methods that thinkers and teachers have created and their ways of going about it. Praxis is really about the action. How do you put those thoughts into practice? What do you do with that information? As for learning and teaching, I think learning is really something that we can only do for ourselves. It’s about being receptive to what is there, noticing, and paying attention. I don’t think we can just ‘teach people things’. I see our job as more creative situations where people can learn. Those situations can be super complex or very simple. They can draw on inspirational philosophies or systems of thoughts or they can draw on our everyday experiences. 

E: I have been thinking a lot about the title of your class, Pedagogy + Praxis. I’m really interested in the double sided narrative. You’re guiding us for our own future in teaching. What is the main goal of the class? How do you respond to the double narrative going on in the classroom?

M: The main goal of the class is to give you space and time to dream big about your own philosophies and classrooms. Later, when you are in the ‘action’ of teaching, it is harder to dream big. You’ll need to refer to a sound set of guidelines that you set out for yourself. We start the class by asking you to collect everything you know about teaching and learning into a bucket of ideas. Throughout the term you draw from this bucket to create your philosophy of teaching and your dream class. So the class starts with you. It provides a structure to help build your teaching ideas and practice on something that is solid and true to you. It also gives you the chance to understand what other people, seminal teachers and idea-formers think about the complexities of teaching and learning, ideas and praxis.

So maybe the real dichotomy is actually between the student and their ideas and the great thinkers and theirs. We read and are inspired by bell hooks, we unpack Freire, and we listen to Sir Ken Robinson speak about how schools are killing creativity. We discuss best practices, the different ways people learn from Howard Gardner, and explore hands-on activities to make the class more inclusive. All the time, you are adding to your bucket of ideas. Outside the class, many of you are also gaining practical experience by being embedded in classes, as teaching assistants to seasoned faculty in the School of Art + Design.

E: I think this all really relates to when the class is taught, spring term of the first year in graduate school. I had two terms of school and one Teaching Assistant opportunity prior to the class. I think that’s pretty consistent with everybody. I enjoyed having one term of teaching before I started diving into formalizing my teaching and learning approach. I’m wondering if that is intentional.

M: It’s interesting because I really didn’t have any control over that, but I do think that the class is perfectly placed and I wouldn’t opt for changing it. Placed in the first year, you all are experiencing teaching and learning about teaching at the same time. It is like a perfect in-between space that allows you access to all the perspectives. I think that is incredibly important. That experience of teaching with someone allows you to see different styles and gives you the chance to listen-in on those quiet conversations between student and teacher. Those are such valuable gems of knowledge. To see how someone presents an assignment, paces a crit or handles a problem. Those are such valuable gems of knowledge. At the same time, the teacher benefits greatly by having the teaching assistant in the classroom. Graduate students are incredibly good at connecting with students. After years of saying something over and over, I almost assume everyone already knows it. I forget a little about what it might be like to be at the beginning of my learning. The really beautiful thing about having a graduate student in the room is that they’re closer to that learning, they help me see the gaps. They are easily able to relate their own experience and mentor younger students. I believe in the strength of collaboration, and especially the teaming up of a teacher and a graduate student. It benefits all the people in the class community.

E: I agree. I am now teaching my full first class by myself this term. 

M: Oh, that’s so awesome. Sculpture? That sounds challenging, especially with the new constraints of the pandemic.

E: Yeah! Online Introduction to Sculpture! We began the term understanding the confusion of taking Sculpture online and I asked my students individually what they were looking for in the class, what techniques, and what felt most important for them. I was honest by mentioning the portions of sculpture that are seemingly impossible given the circumstances of COVID-19, so I really wanted to create a class that really fulfilled what they wanted to learn. It’s going really great. I had three TA opportunities before teaching my own class, though a whole new door opened up when it became just me and the students. I dove deeper into my teaching approach and my own learning experiences than I had before. The Pedagogy and Praxis class really helped me ground the prelude and outlook to the term. It’s very different from being a TA. 

M: It’s wonderful because there is something really private about the conversations with you and your students and knowing what they think, which is very important. Being in class with someone who maybe has more experience teaching allows a relationship to build based on looking and observing. Once you can freely make decisions and evaluate how it’s working for yourself and respond, that requires a certain amount of freedom as a teacher. You should always feel that sense of freedom with your students. Sometimes the first thing that we really have to recognize is that a good teacher is a constant learner. There has never been one class in my 25 years of teaching that has been the same. Being a responsive teacher and building a class in the process is very important. Institutions work against that when they require very detailed or locked-in syllabi or ask us to share every experience on paper before the class even starts. We resist by making space within our structures for change, for students to be in the moment, or for us to be responsive to the class needs. Students are often more comfortable with a tight rubric, with knowing exactly what is coming. But there is value in not-knowing. It requires us to be present. One of the biggest things I try to do as a teacher is get students to really notice. As artists we are excellent noticers. Noticing is the first step in knowledge-making. Being present allows students to be active in their own education. We want to leave room in the plan for what we think is important and for students to be able to ‘claim’ their own education.

E: In the 13 Radical Whispers, you wrote a section titled “Quit the Long Syllabus.” I wrote a very detailed syllabus to prepare for my class, I wanted my students to know what was in store. After getting to know them that first week, I changed a project, timeline, and meeting methods. The syllabus became overwhelming by feeling like changes were bad. 

M: You shouldn’t feel bad for being a responsive teacher. Changing things, making them better, acknowledging that you are learning, is a strength. I am sure those changes and your instinct improved learning. As for the syllabus, there are layers. The first being, what the university requires as a legal contract between you and the student. Getting that framework down is important. But including the day-to-day activities or every reading is not. I usually design overarching charts that lay out the term, but I don’t share it all with students. It helps me see the big picture to make sure I fit in everything I promised to teach. One of the 13 Whispers, “Surprise your Students” may sound a little odd, but that idea behind it is not. Learning is enhanced when we are in the moment and aware of what we are experiencing. When we are asked to do something unusual, fun, unexpected. Or if we need to get out of our seats and move fast, or slow down and write, or collaborate with another person. I love building these fruitful structures. They are built on things I want to experience, too. Like for the Ideation class, we’ve boarded a ship on the river to understand more about what is above, below and at the edges of the water. We kicked it off by singing ‘Row, row, row your boat” and then played noticing games, looked through binoculars, did drawings, collected water, and had a tour of the bridges as we sailed under them. This allowed us to develop our own understanding and first-hand knowledge. It centered the students in the learning and in the experience. The surprise and fun helped build the excitement for learning and the class community.   

E: In the syllabus for Pedagogy + Praxis course, your first objective is to design an approach to teaching. I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of “approach” and the language behind it. Considering all the work that goes into designing this approach based on multiple small experiences. How long would you say it took you to articulate? 

M: That’s a really interesting question, because I think it has taken me up until I wrote it. I think some of what I wrote about has been happening within my teaching for a really long time and it took me everyday of being with students to develop them. My thoughts on how to approach teaching also draw on my own experiences as a learner and kid who was laid up in the hospital for long periods of time. Over my career, I’ve mostly worked at the two ends of the spectrum—with those entering school as a freshman and with graduate students who are moving toward the completion of their education and getting ready to enter the workforce. So thinking about approaches or beginnings comes naturally to me. But your question was about how long it took me to articulate. That took years of trying things out in the classroom, sharing wild ideas with friends, and slowly speaking in public about ideas until I felt I had something to add to the wider conversation. I developed a little courage, a bit of belief that I had something to contribute. Over the years I’ve tried to share with students that knowledge doesn’t just come from books or reading; it comes from our own experiences. We need to slow down, notice and trust that we have something to say. We all need to grab some courage to say what we think out loud. As a teacher my goal is to create structures that help students take risks and develop courage.

E: I think that’s really important, and especially when you are focused on first year students, in which 13 Radical Whispers focuses on. Pedagogy + Praxis is in the first year of the graduate program. In both situations, learning is focused on building off of the moment and previous experiences to define one’s focus and goals while entering into a new chapter. 

M: Yeah that’s interesting. Sometimes new students come into the first year having experienced what Freire calls the banking system, basically just receiving what a teacher ‘gives’ them. They may have never been asked what they think, what they care about, and even what they really learned within the class context. One way I start my class is with a first day activity called, A Class Is Like An Island. Students quickly create clay sculptures that represent themselves and place them on a large island drawing at the front of the class. We then do speed-getting to know you exercises, work pairs create the one thing you’d bring to the island and make banners and flags for the island. At each stage it is all placed on the map. Then we have a big discussion about the class, who we are, what we want from this experience, and what rules will help us all survive the island. At the end of the term, we gather for another conversation to access what we achieved. Sometimes I have them respond to questions such as: What do you know right now? Where do you want to be in 5 years? They put their responses in an envelope that I sent to them two, three or five years later. It creates a milepost. 

E: Another section of the 13 Radical Whispers is “Let Life Enter the Classroom,” I think that story relates to that. All you did was hold onto their writing and timed out when to send it to them. You didn’t write anything, you just listened and provided space. 

M: When we talk about surprising students, sometimes I give students assignments that they think they will never be able to complete. Like the time at Alfred University when students were asked to create a series of 28 puppet shows based on local stories and perform them for the public at the Alfred Village Town Hall. When Brett Hunter, Trevor Bennett, myself introduced the project students had no idea how they were going to do this! In the end they were stellar and outrageous! It was important for students to inch their way into this grand project. They interviewed local people, wrote plays based on these stories, created all sorts of puppets from shadow to life-sized puppets, built a studio-theatre the same size as the town hall stage, practiced over and over, worked on the sound, created backdrops, video-taped segments, gave each other feedback and promoted the event. They played to packed houses with huge success!

In the end, it’s not just what they learned by making or writing or performing; it was the collaboration and the ability to see the importance and relevance of their work within a wider community outside of a classroom. 

E: I agree, I think it’s definitely an interesting time because of COVID-19, I had 5 students drop before the term even started. How are you responding to that now?

M: We’ve all said it. We are living in unprecedented times. I am right in there learning and relearning, trying to make the best of this time I have with these particular students. Some of what I thought was tried and true, may need to shift, to change, to evolve. A good teacher is always learning. I keep thinking of myself as a bridge. A bridge to learning, a bridge to comfort or understanding, or even a bridge to the fall term. The truth of the matter is that it might be harder for students to return in the fall if they drop out now. If they’re in class, they are involved in creative activity and have support from people in addition to their family. Students right now have so much on their plates. They cannot have the same capacity. They often are taking care of family or siblings, working outside the home, don’t have their own workspace or access to materials or tools that they do when they are at school. All this on top of the grief we all feel in this moment. I found myself shifting my approach to asking “What can I do to help you?” Don’t get me wrong, it is not all doom and gloom. Many of my students have expressed gratitude, have had deep moments of learning, and fun… even if it was on the screen.

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