Practical Theory: A Creative Approach to
Design-Arts Education in Melbourne, Australia
A Pedagogical Backdrop
The Academy of Design, located in Collingwood, an inner-city suburb of Melbourne, Australia, offers Bachelor of Design degrees in Communication Design, Fashion & Costume Design, Filmmaking & Photography, Graphic & Digital Design, Interior Design, and Visual Arts. These areas alone denote an institution that holds visuality as the most important context of creative communication, and there are a range of industry-driven reasons why this is so. While students display a broad spectrum of academic abilities, for the most part, they are hands-on, visual learners and not academics, and so share common challenges when it comes to interpreting theoretical readings and making meaningful contributions to subsequent group conversations. It is important to remain mindful of this when introducing students to art-historical and art-theoretical topics, tailor-making theory-based activities to help ensure that students nevertheless draw benefit from the critical dynamism known as praxis—a mode of activity whereby practice is “informed by theory and also, though less emphatically, theory informed by practice” (Richard Williams qtd. in Johnson et al. 90). Williams further describes praxis as “a whole mode of activity in which, by analysis but only by analysis, theoretical and practical elements can be distinguished, but which is always a whole activity, to be judged as such” (qtd. Johnson et al. 90). Walking the talk, and vice versa: the pursuit of praxis stems from the understanding that without theory, practice is poor and that without practice, theory is poor. For students in the design-arts, praxis can be understood as an umbrella term under which exist a range of opportunities to use theory to enrich comprehension of the material contexts in which creative activity takes place in educational and extra-educational spaces.
Given this initial attention to 'praxis', a term that has been used for over two millennia, additional detail would help us observe the present in the light of the past. Present in Aristotle's Poetics (Kenny) and Nicomachean Ethics (Broadie and Rowe), praxis (πρᾶξις) was used by the ancient Greeks to refer to an activity engaged in by free men and meant, in particular, the political activity of men who were part of the aristocracy and were therefore free from labour" (Kress and Lake 149). There are two important, historical details to acknowledge here, both of which inform a working definition of praxis for use today. First of all, we now suitably rephrase Aristotle's insight, recognising praxis as an activity engaged in by free individuals; this is a particularly important update given that, as a standard, 80-90% of the design-arts students with which I come into pedagogical contact are creative young women. The second detail to acknowledge pertains to the social class of individuals being educated or, rather, the irrelevance of the notion of social class in the pedagogical context. Historically, "[a]s it applied to the education of a citizenry, in Ancient Greece education was (at least for aristocrats) not simply about utility (H. B. Gold qtd. in Kress and Lake 149). Education was about culture, reason, and virtue, which 'was opposed to a kind of education that was merely technical training." My students do not belong to an ancient and aristocratic society divided along feudal lines. They enter the institution from various socio-economic and cultural backgrounds, and are all being trained for future participation in a so-called democratic, advanced capitalist society where social class distinctions are now, for better or for worse, less rigid. This said, an education not wholly defined by technical training, for these students, remains entirely relevant. It is reassuring, as Tricia Kress and Robert Lake put it, that "[t]his division between thinkers (scholars) and laborers (practitioners) was not necessarily foundational to the concept of praxis itself, but it was implied via the existing class divisions of Ancient Greek society" (149).
Praxis is not simply about providing the motivation from which action arises. Kress and Lake speak clearly of Brazilian educator Paulo Friere's conception of praxis as that which "aims to remedy rather than reinforce social inequalities" (151). In other words, praxis aims to address the divisions of power present in hierarchies of knowledge, in as much as bearers of knowledge are bearers of power. Their discussion is focussed on praxis in a pedagogical context: "Embracing this kind of praxis means a radial reorientation of who we are as teachers, a reorientation that is rooted in our becoming as social beings in relationship with other and the world around us…The very practice of teaching, then, can be tough of as teaching-learning" (Kress and Lake 152). If praxis actively and sustainably blurs the lines between teaching and learning, any empowerment of social becoming made available to teachers through praxis must be available through learning. I am thinking specifically about learners of design-arts theory who, in a critical thinking course, for example, are encouraged to think in critical and cultural ways and, in turn, to exercise their self-teaching abilities. Just as design-arts education includes training in technical skills for professional survival in post-graduation life (years far greater in number, we certainly hope, than those fleeting semesters spent enrolled in an accredited degree stream), engagement in theory promotes the awareness and the intellectual resourceful applicable to social experience inside and outside of labour activity—intellectual spaces are not inhibited by the industrialised employment conditions within which technical skills somewhere sit. Politics is about power relationships and we are all implicated in these, professionally, pedagogically, and interpersonally. Thus, aside from any non-institutional way that critical thinking may benefit an emerging professional, the intellectual growth of design-arts students remains crucial to their sustainable empowerment as creative and resilient cultural communicators.
I am tempted to infer that praxis humanises an educational experience; students enter an institution as whole people and thus deserve an education that treats them as such. While the sentiment might ring true, some specificity is still required. I shall now provide it, starting with the following observation: as a Design/Arts theory teacher, I took stock of the educational material at hand and the student demographic in front of me, and it was clear to me that I needed to think creatively about how theory could be packaged for, thus taught to, non-academics. I'm certainly not the only one who has had this thought. Nevertheless, it was what prompted me to design an excursion for my contextual studies students that would help foster their creative negotiation of theory in a material/social reality, building upon classroom discussions. What I came up with, I called the 'CBD: Theory in Practice Excursion,' an excursion that has now had three consecutive years of delivery and which is expected to continue as a small but valuable part of the 2nd year contextual studies curriculum. For the purpose of this presentation, having so far provided a sketch as to the conceptual/historical backdrop, I should like to offer a description of this excursion and outline the key aims and procedures (reflective of how they have been communicated to my students in a handout provided on the day of the excursion). I shall conclude by discussing student reflections upon the excursion, provided to me in an explicitly voluntary and non-assessable capacity, by those who had been in attendance to experience it first-hand and who knew of my wish to develop my own writing on it.
Treasure Hunting for Theory in Practice, Part 1
As was explained it to my students, the CBD Excursion is a student-centred activity that aims to give design-arts students an opportunity to experience some of the visual/material contexts of the critical ideas that they have been introduced to, and that we have collectively discussed, in the classroom. These ideas include Fetishism, Post-colonialism, Feminism, and Ideology. During the excursion, students are sent off in small groups with a work sheet containing quotes and questions pertaining to the above mentioned themes, and they are asked to take photos of visual artefacts that articulate these themes in some way (e.g., posters, window displays, pamphlets, objects, packaging and other signage). In short, they are sent on a kind of treasure hunt for evidence of theory in practice (praxis), after which they recollect and share findings. The students would embark on this urban adventure in self-arranged small groups for an hour. Prior to their departure, each student was given a handout that includes a non-exhaustive set of questions and prompts relating to each of the key theories we had been discussing in class up to that point—included below, and comprising the rest of this section, under the sub-heading Theory Toolkit. The toolkit was prefaced with reference (included below) to the Situationist notion of the dérive, which can be described as a detour-centric tactic for experiencing the built environment in a disruptive/creative way, i.e. in a way that disrupts habituated and routinised consumer/social practices. The term comes from the post-WWII French writings of Situationist figure Guy Debord. This additional detail was offered to the students as a way of giving them historical insight into the idea of critical walking in the built environment. For Debord (62):
One of the basic situationist practices is the dérive, a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiences. Dérives involve playful-constructive behavior and awareness of psychogeographical effects, and are thus quite different from the classic notions of journey or stroll. In a dérive one or more persons during a certain period drop their relations, their work and leisure activities, and all their other usual motives for movement and action, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there.
Commodity Fetish - Commodities are fetishised when goods are divorced from the relations of production and invested with other meanings.
Find some examples. What are these 'other' meanings?
Psychoanalytic Fetish - According to Freud, the fetish is a phallic substitute that disavows the threat of castration (325).
Can you find any examples? Consider the fashions worn on the street and sold in shops.
How are sexuality and the body represented/communicated in public?
Simone de Beauvoir: "Women must recognize their own freedom, define their own being, and free themselves from the enslavement of a society whose rules and values are defined only by men" (301).
Germaine Greer: Greer has defined her goal of women's liberation as distinct from equality with men. She asserts that women's liberation meant embracing gender differences in a positive fashion, a struggle for the freedom for women to define their own values, order their own priorities and determine their own fates. In contrast, Greer sees equality as mere assimilation and "settling" to live the lives of "unfree men" (3).
Locate and compare different representations of female and/or identity in the city. Are they the same or conflicting? Do you think that they are empowering/liberating or enslaving/limiting?
Who is being represented? Who is being left out of the picture?
Postcolonialists problematise the encounter between Europe and the cultures it has colonised; as a general rule they seek to decentralise Eurocentrism. The imprint of European power is typically analysed in terms of dominations, oppressions, subjugations, silencings; but also hybrids, mixtures of East and West, first world and third world . . . An entire array of hybrid forms of culture has evolved with the spreading of capitalism into almost every corner of the world (Macey 304-5).
What hybrid forms of culture can you see in the city? What hybrid identities are represented?
4. Ideology and Propaganda
Ideology: an organized group of ideas that reflect the social needs and aspirations of an individual, group, class, or culture.
Propaganda: "the spreading of ideas, information, or rumour for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause, or a person; ideas, facts, or allegations spread deliberately to further one's cause or to damage an opposing cause; also: a public action having such an effect" (Merriam-Webster n.p.).
Anthony Giddens states that "Powerful groups are able to control the dominant ideas circulating in a society so as to justify their own position" (381).
What are the dominant ideas that you can see in the CBD? Whose position(s) do they seem to you to be justifying?
5. Visual Culture Studies
"Visual Culture is concerned with visual events in which information, meaning, or pleasure is sought by the consumer in an interface with visual technology. By visual technology, I mean any form of apparatus designed either to be looked at or to enhance natural vision, from oil painting to television and the internet" (Mirzoeff 3).
How is natural vision enhanced in the city, and what is the meaning of the 'vision' being foregrounded? What I being left out of the picture that might otherwise problematise it and/or undermine its credibility?
"One of the most striking features of the new visual culture is the growing tendency to visualize things that are not in themselves visual" (Mirzoeff p. 5).
What can you see that speaks to this quote in some way?
*Please Remember: This exercise is not about finding ways to take the fun out of the city. It is simply about accessing more critical, and, therefore, less superficial, levels of enjoyment, to help you advance your cultural communication skills. It is about treating the city as a space of play, instead of as a place for consumerism and capitalism.
Notes on Student Experiences In-Situ
The excursion aimed to show/remind the students that theory is not reserved for the dusty corners of reference libraries. Rather, it encouraged them to experience the CBD (their familiar built habitat) in an unfamiliar way, as if with the eyes of a curious alien. In doing so, it gave students the opportunity to experience theory in a way that they are not used to, by showing them that theory is a living, embodied thing that can be touched, smelled, tasted, seen and sometimes heard. It also encouraged them to think about the social role of creative activity. After all, the students are learning in a late modern and technologically driven society where humanity exists within spheres of digital and material representation—a context marked by an intensifying consciousness of being/creating in an image. It is in such a space that their future design-arts efforts will likely end up, as they will, as individual mobilities/motilities that are always somewhere to be found along the paths of negotiation between the physical streets and the theoretical/conceptual city streets. As Ulmer says, "[w]e are in an image, now, and should feel our way around this scene" (Ulmer n.p.).
The CBD excursion present a mode of feeling, a theoretically informed activity by way of which various modalities of creative activity can be touched, and sometimes the touch of media is reciprocated. When it was run last year, one of the small excursion groups gave permission for themselves to be photographed by representatives of an anti race-based discrimination project. This photo was published in a local newspaper (Hansen 2). It is worth elucidating the point that, within the parameters of their excursion, some of the students had ended up becoming the very kind of visual paraphernalia that they had set out to discover, making this final interaction appear like a sublimation between representation and reality, perhaps analogous to that which Ulmer alludes in his thoughts on the image. That is, the students produce, consume, investigate, and ultimately become representational entities and, so to, are invited to feel our way around unanticipated layers of interaction pertaining to the complex scenes of visuality.
This example alerts us to a peculiar but powerful unification of theory and practice. Yet, there were other instances of anecdotal feedback that drew attention to a use-value between the CBD excursion and the other creative industry areas towards which the students' technical skills training is directed, i.e. instances that reinforce our mindfulness of the veracity of praxis. For example, upon their return at the excursion's conclusion, one group of students had, along their journey, wound up in an r-rated adult store. They were very fortunate that the shop attendant at that time offered to show them around, opening their eyes to all manner of artefacts that might be used in the pursuit of sexual pleasure. Now, it is very important put aside any squeamishness that we might have upon hearing this tale because, what is very interesting because is that, as these students reported, in the course of this unexpected tour of the sex shop, they saw fetish apparel that could inform their intended essays on fetishism, they saw representations of women that could be critiqued under feminist questions, and well as representations of gender difference, racial difference, and so forth. It's not an inappropriate time to refer to Fredric Jameson (1) complaint that
[t]he visual is essentially pornographic, which is to say that it has its end in rapt, mindless fascination....The mysterious thing reading [becomes] some superstitious and adult power, which the lowlier arts imagine uncomprehendingly, as animals might dream of the strangeness of human thinking.
This particular statement, with which Jameson's book Signatures of the Visible begins, won philosopher Denis Dutton's Bad Writing Prize in 1997, a publicity stunt held annually in the late 1990s (Pinker 35). In response to Jameson, however, and given that these R-rated artefacts could be approached as semiotics texts ready to be culturally read (just as any other), I can safely say that the tour led to this small group of students encountering a high level of opportunity to consider the meaningfulness of commodities in a visually saturated culture. But more than this, through treasuring hunting for theory, adopting a veritably playful-forensic approach, they also gained valuable industry insight that could be immediately applicable. They found, and brought back to the larger group, a range of advertising materials (with varying formats) that contained graphic ally designed layouts and, of course, industry-based demonstration of photographic techniques. It doesn't matter that it was an adult shop; everything they saw in the shop reflected a design effort, reminding us of the vastness of designer (might I say 'design graduate'?) activity in the real-world.
I have given feedback provide when the excursion concluded, i.e. when the students regathered with stories of their adventures. However, we may already ascertain that this kind of excursion, if treated seriously and energetically, is one that needn't conclude. It can be conducted outside of formal education, with friends, family, or strangers. One student spent time talking to a homeless person about their life and circumstance, and about how they viewed the city. As a third party, it is difficult to access the rich detail that would have been present in the private conversation, but the student said that this experience was something that, for her, the excursion enabled her to take the time to do, and this alone, I think, have positive educational value relating to learning about the city in a new way—a way that includes human bodies as among the broad spectrum of visuality, reminiscent of the newspaper example I have mentioned. Here, Gregory Ulmer's reflections on the evolution of his own teaching practice are relevant, as he says: "We continue to reproduce Aristotle (which is fine for literacy), when what our civilization needed was the equivalent of literacy for what is now called new media. Mediated images were becoming a predominant site of cultural life, and our citizens needed not just to consume media, but become 'literate' in media" (Kriss n.p.). We know Ulmer has the specificity of the virtual realm in mind, but the ground of his thoughts are similar to mine in their not unique recognition that much of our contemporary human experience involves the production and consumption of mediated information and that there is a resulting and necessary requirement to teach in a way that empowers student navigation of media, media on the computer, media witnessed on the street and, we may now include, instances in which the self is identified as inside the media, part of the media and, thus, mediated for the gaze of others who may or may not be wandering the streets treasure hunting for theory in practice, and so it proceeds an almost vertiginous ellipsis, a 'mise-en-abîme', or some other kind of quasi-babushka syndrome.
Seeking Student Feedback Post-Excursion
Some of the comments shared by students (qualitative, anecdotal evidence) have been raised in the above section, but there was a need to gather feedback in a more organised manner. I would like to address how I went about meeting this need. It relates to Ernest Boyer's model of scholarship as an investigative activity that aims "to improve student learning in a specific course or discipline" (Trigwell et al. 165).
Perhaps it is idealistic, but I invite my students to think of the theory classroom as a free space (intellectually) in which they are welcome to explore new ideas, make mistakes in articulating those ideas and, in turn, find ways of working imaginatively towards a more coherent grasp on whatever topic we happen to be discussing. Students have varying levels of ability and confidence so, of course, this is easier said than done. This said, I don't think it has to be easy in order to get done—in order for progress to be made in a student's critical navigation of cultural ideas and of the creative contexts in which these ideas are evidently at play. Following the CBD excursion, one of the conversations needed to be a reflection on that experience, to help students reinforce aspects of it in their long term memory, to promote deep learning. It is also an incredibly important opportunity for me to test the exercise on an annual basis so that I can be on top of any adjustments that might need to be made along the way to the best of my ability. The excursion promotes a culturally self-reflexive navigation of the built environment in which the students lives are predominantly based. Self-reflexivity is not confined to the student experience; my own actions, expectations, relating to my teaching practice, must also be reflexively navigated. In this instance, not least of all because the excursion is explicitly student-centred, feedback from student provides the richest source of insight into what is actually taking place.
I should acknowledge that the excursion forms the basis of a question requiring a short written answer in the end of semester exam. Each year, approximately 75% of students choose to answer this question from the 4 choices offered (they choose two on which to write). The content of their answers has indicated that their choice is based on genuine investment in the excursion, leading to a confidence and fluency in their reflection upon it. But there is clearly a problem here. The data cannot be used, because it has been provided in an examination condition; however insightful the feedback might be, we cannot rule out the possibility that a student while write what they think will receive the highest mark, which may mean embellishing or fabricating feedback that the student believes will please the teacher. This is not inevitable, and I think that the high incidence of students choosing the CBD-related exam question stems from a genuine interest and engagement in the process and not out of any sense that it might be an easier question to answer. Nevertheless, the issue raised above means that I must treat the exam feedback as if it were skewed data and, thus, adopt an alternative approach to gathering feedback.
The alternative approach was this: following the excursion, once the students had had a week to let the experience sink in, I asked them if they would mind spending ten minutes simply jotting down a few thoughts on their experience of it. I was very clear in stating that this individual exercise was not assessable, that they were free to opt out if they wished (some students exercised this right), and that both positive and negative feedback was welcome and would be valued. Students were informed that the handwritten sheets would not be handed-on, but that I wished to write about the excursion, with reference to their feedback and with a view to publishing this writing. I explained that their right to anonymity would be respected; it was an opportunity for the teacher to be a learner, to learn a lesson that could feed back into the classroom. In the end, I collected 43 pieces of feedback comprising an average of half a page of handwriting per person.
It seems sufficient to offer a sample of what students said about the excursion without embarking on a drawn-out and exhaustive analysis. There is always the risk run of over-analysing and staring at it for so long that one begins to join increasingly tenuous lines between the dots on the page. I am not a seasoned thematic analyst and so would prefer, for the purposes of this presentation, to remain respectfully restrained. The option of returning to the data for a more comprehensive undertaking in the future is something that remains possible.
Reading through written feedback, a range of observations were shared, depending on the pathway that any one group took, individual attentions, etc. For example, a student was intrigued by the women's only seating, now being sat on by men and women. The gendered public space is perhaps not so relevant in the industrialised Western as it is in other countries. Thus we can acknowledge such a sight and perhaps chuckle, or cringe, at the apparent naivety of the past. There are a few thoughts that were common among the students; I would like to spend the rest of this writing making comment on these, with some attention to less frequent response that, nevertheless, have value. After all, if we make the mistake of setting out in search of the 'good stories,' then we start from a position of bias, perhaps unwittingly ignoring a large part of the experiential spectrum.
Many of the students reported that they had been skeptical that wandering around the city could have any educational benefit; it wasn't until they were in-situ, amidst the process, that they became aware of how it might serve them in theory and in practice. One student reports: "It was beneficial to my learning as I became aware of how much these topics studied in class were in fact super applicable in today's society. This gave me a sharper edge, so to speak, on my own ability to apply these studies topics on a practical and accessible way in my own art." The surprise benefit gained from wandering around the city was also expressed by some of our international exchange students, who are currently a small but nevertheless important part of learning environment. I think that an excursion like this, though of course not only this, helps send a positive message to the international community about how invested we are in empowering our creative acts, present and future, through deepening the understanding we have of our place in the world. The ethic, evident here, is translatable to other geographical and socio-cultural spaces.
I was also interested in the idea, expressed in various ways throughout the student feedback, that the excursion "gives students the benefit to be able explore the city and what's out there in greater detail instead of always sitting in class." Or, "I really liked practically applying everything I had used in class and seeing its impact on the real world." I agree that putting theory out in to the streets poses a direct and strong challenge to the so-called divide between theory and practice. Socrates, a founder of Western Philosophy was well aware of the everydayness of critical thinking. It is a shame that, nearly two thousand years later, the divisive prejudice remains in many parts of life, with the upside being our access to figures like Alain de Botton (Status Anxiety, The Art of Travel), and the documentary film maker Astra Taylor (Examined Life) productively exposing a binary well past its expiry date.
If there was any one conceivable download, reported by students, it was the feeling that the excursion wasn't long enough. It is reassuring to learn that students would have appreciated more than an hour to treasure hunt for theory because there was so much to take in and because it took them a while to settle into the activity, to break down some of the conditioned behaviours associated with non-theory-based city perambulation; it was suggested that maybe two hours would be enough. Some people might be inclined to presume that lengthen the duration of the excursion would only give students an opportunity to 'wander wastefully' around shops for longer. In discrete instances, this may be the case. However, student feedback demonstrates they are thoughtfully participating in the exercise and so it is, for me, a positive attitude that I choose to maintain as I work to accommodate and respect the learning needs of my students. The matter of excursion duration will be considered as I prepare for future CBD excursions, keeping in mind that the weather, as it is on the day, may have an impact on how long an excursion can be practically run (this said, the city is filled with indoor spaces where the excursion can take place). It could also be set as class homework, with students reporting back to the class in an assessable capacity. There is existing scope for students to take information found during the excursion and use it as part of their arts-research essay development. I wonder whether making the excursion assessable (more than a surprise exam question) would take away some of the context of play that can lead to chance theory-discoveries in the first place. Looking too hard often means falling back on existing habits of seeing, for security in the process. This exercise is, after all, about experiencing the city in new ways, of embracing the vulnerability that comes with not knowing what might be around the next bend, that lends itself to intellectual and emotional awareness and growth.
Lastly, for now, it is also worth considering the student comment that it would be beneficial to explore locations outside of the CBD. I agree that there is no reason why the CBD space should be privileged over others (feeding back into my previous comment on the excursion's translatability), beyond its accessibility and super-abundance. Wherever the excursion is staged, students will take their respective abilities, challenges and cultural conditionings with them. A student put it clearly when they wrote that "it was hard to elaborate on the things we found." Just because a student found a picture of a women in radically revealing clothing, even with a paper handout containing Feminist-related prompts, this does not mean the student will automatically be able to stand and account for what is happening on the image in a critical and meaningful way. This all takes time, and for students to be able to acknowledge their limitations honestly is a key part of being able to push these limitations further outwards.
I would like to extend my sincere gratitude and thanks to all of the design-arts students who, over the past few years, have undertaken the 'CBD: Theory in Practice Excursion' as a serious educational opportunity and who, following this, have been generous enough to share their experiences with me. As a teacher, one of the greatest responsibilities I have is to keep learning. It is my great pleasure and privilege to be able to learn from such a dedicated and creative community of human beings.
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David Prescott-Steed is a sound artist, writer and urban explorer based in Melbourne. He is employed as an Academic Fellow at the Academy of Design Australia, teaching visual culture studies and art history to undergraduate design-arts students from a range of industry-led areas including graphic design, advertising, and photo-media. Recent publications include: "Intersections of Creative Praxis and Urban Exploration" (2015) in The Journal for Artistic Research (JAR), Issue 9, Bern, Switzerland, "Invitation to Reading: Tactical Music in the Design-Arts Theory Classroom" (2015) in The Atrium: A Journal of Academic Voices, and "David Bowie Metadata" in Textshop Experiments' Textshop (T)issue.