maize 13545970.0001.001 in

    17. Seeing, Engaging, and (Re)building Culture


    This chapter examines the Reasonable Person Model (RPM) from the vantage point of the visual arts, building on my own experience teaching and doing photography and learning how to see in new ways. In the evolution of developing an undergraduate course called “Farmscape” and a traveling exhibition of my work called “Fine Grain,” I have come to see the aesthetic as a powerful way of knowing. Through art, I see great opportunities for building mental models, developing expertise, and participating viscerally in our own learning process—all important facets of RPM. While art may not always be “reasonable” by everyone’s definition, it offers a chance to generate meaning and to help each of us understand with greater holism and become something more than we otherwise might imagine.

    I think it was a Friday afternoon, and I was teaching my class “ES 101, People and the Environment,” at Denison University. ES 101 is an introductory course for our environmental studies program. My approach is to spend about three weeks each on three different Big Topics, and then we try to pull together various themes to do a culminating hands-on project. That Friday was somewhere in the middle of the Agriculture unit.

    That day, I was prepping the class for a field trip to an Amish farm. It’s a two-hour drive, and I’m always conflicted about devoting an entire afternoon of my students’ lives to a lot of fossil fuel consumption—for the sake of seeing what life is like without electricity. I drew the contrast between Amish and “English” and offered information about soil management, mechanization, and cost comparisons. Likely there was a photo of an Amish barn raising among the slides (another shudder-inducing moment, as the Amish are very selective about technology and generally abhor photographs of their people), but it was pretty much what you’d expect a survey course might cover. Like most professors, I too often fall into the “information transfer” mode of what we generously call “education.” My students looked about as engaged as we might expect under that teaching style. And it was Friday, after all.

    On Monday, two large vans of us drove to the farm. I’d known the farmer for years, and we greeted each other warmly. I asked him to describe his way of farming and to give the students a sense of his life. It’s likely he had given a similar response the other times I brought classes to visit, but for some reason, that day I heard it differently. He started by talking about birds. His family kept a list of birds on the back of the kitchen door, recording every species they saw each year, and he marveled at the array of songbirds he’d seen that spring. He explained how this rural landscape had evolved over centuries of Amish presence. His evident joy in living a pastoral life was contagious, and the way he delighted in the sights and smells and lack of noise began to seep into our pores, too. Until he mentioned it, my students hadn’t really noticed the quiet, but then they became calm, too.

    I slowly realized that I had drawn the wrong comparisons—the wrong way. I set up a dichotomy between us and them, admittedly finding much to appreciate about the Amish way of life but still drawing a clear line. And the line I drew was rooted in a scientific, postpositivist way of knowing, a statistically valid comparison between models of farm management. That way of knowing requires emotional distance and a certain reluctance to accept one’s lived experience as a basis for understanding. It is not a wrong way of knowing, but it is undoubtedly constrained.

    Here, by contrast, was a teacher from another paradigm, and for the first time I acknowledged—even accepted—the opportunity to be open, to feel, and to experience the environment I was attempting to study and share. The thought that our entire study of “people and the environment” could easily have been conducted in a windowless room struck me as a tragedy of education: when we are content to talk about a subject at arm’s length and without sensory integration, we have lost much indeed.

    Editors’ Comment: A nice example of the affective challenges of seeing things in a new way and how, given enough time and the proper circumstance, one can give up one’s existing mental models.

    It hit me hard that I had come to this experience thinking that I saw so much, but I could not really claim that I was seeing at all. I began to open my eyes. And that was one of the most significant risks I have taken.

    In this chapter, I will try to make the argument that we have lost our way because we have abandoned seeing as a way of knowing; that by shutting down our sensory experience we have become insular and unaware; that these tendencies have made us less reasonable, less resilient, less humble, and less—dare I say—observant; and that the result of this is a diminished shared culture. Simply, by engaging more fully in things that matter—the example I’ll use is our food and where it comes from—we have an opportunity to spur more interaction, more creativity, and more social integration. More specifically, seeing in an artful way has a special place in our social development. And the Reasonable Person Model (RPM) and this kind of seeing are intimately wrapped up in each other.

    Seeing as a Way of Knowing

    The idea that seeing can be a figural part of knowing is not at all a new idea. The entire field of art history is perhaps one good source of evidence for that perspective. Dewey’s classic Art as Experience (1934/2005) bridged the experience of seeing with the material nature of artwork, creating a multisensory encounter between viewer and artist. Berger’s well-known BBC show and subsequent book, Ways of Seeing (1972), did much to galvanize attention for this notion, having us look more closely at art, visual culture, and the mind-set of artists in producing various works. The study of visual culture has contributed extensively to this conversation, arguing that culture evolves specifically from our sight (e.g., Jenks, 2003). Gardner’s Frames of Mind (2011) and the creation of Harvard’s Project Zero—which he headed for almost thirty years—signaled a profound shift in education to incorporate “artful thinking” into the way we perceive our world and express ideas. These themes were codified recently through the “Art as a Way of Knowing” conference sponsored by the National Science Foundation, with the intention to “explore and discuss the role of aesthetic inquiry in public interdisciplinary learning environments.”

    In a very different genre but with overlapping aspirations, cultural theorist bell hooks’s Outlaw Culture (1994) discusses the ways in which not seeing reinforces the worst of our cultural norms: as cultural critics sanitize and de-emphasize poverty and take people’s gaze away from the harsh realities of socioeconomic challenges, we know less, care less, and become habituated to our blinders. This phenomenon is reinforced by our penchant to assimilate information that matches our perceptions—that is, confirmation bias, which manifests in many settings, including those where visual cues are primary (e.g., Naylor, 2007). These patterns also appear in the “birds of a feather” associations we maintain with people who are similar to us—what is called homophily. This too, of course, can have a visual component, on racial, ethnic, and gender lines (e.g., Marsden, 1988; Kulkarni, 2012). So, seeing is a critical path on many levels. Here is the story of my path, my attempts to overcome considerable deficits in seeing for real.

    One Person’s Journey

    That eye-opening Amish experience was a transformative one. Soon thereafter, I found myself in a workshop on digital photography, and began a new phase of looking. My exploration of photography took me to farms, and when my art friends saw my images, they encouraged me to submit my work in local photo contests. Those led to state competitions that in turn introduced me to broader juried exhibitions, and I was hooked. Not having considered the artistic mode of photography since I was a teenager (a few decades ago), this was a very strange and even uncomfortable path to tread: I was not accustomed to being so completely untrained in a professional realm. But the dragon had a firm grip on me, and I realized that this was not a discovery I could abandon. So I went to my boss.

    I told the provost that I had these parts of my life that were not meshing well, and I wanted his advice about how to make them work. His advice: drop one, make it work. So, being the new teenager I was, I did the opposite of what he recommended. I asked my colleagues what they would think about a new environmental studies course called “Farmscape,” a look at the American food system through the lens of a camera. They thought that the idea sounded odd but interesting, and they gave me their blessing to teach it—once, as an experiment. (I’m not sure I knew much about small experiments then, but this struck me as a pretty large one.) My approach to “Farmscape” was—and has remained, through its five iterations thus far—to make my journey a shared and collaborative one with my students, not to act as all-knowing master of the field. We visit as many facets of the food system as we can access (and that will allow us in) with cameras, and each student produces a hard-bound book of his or her own artistic representation of the food system. We explore photographic history, questions of beauty, purposes of art, and perspectives on both the technique and the importance of our work. We engage in peer critiques and learn how to communicate effectively about art. We also talk a lot about the food system—what we know, what we can see and what we cannot, how we think about those parts differently, and what our eyes tell us differently from what our other senses communicate. At the end of the semester, the class curates a juried exhibition of their work in a public location. Many of the food system operators we visited come to our show, and each student donates a book copy to one of those people as a token of appreciation.

    That class has pushed my own artistic exploration further than it could go on its own. It has helped me understand better my own uneasiness with claiming an identity as an artist, with expressing myself in a public way that is markedly different from the scientific peer review model. To construct a story through my art—one that allows the work to mediate between my experience and that of the viewer—is a confounding challenge. To attend to new ways of knowing through a new lens when the smudges on the old lenses are too familiar for me to see adds tension to the perspective I bring to the medium.

    My own artistic work evolved from a passive viewer of two-dimensional pictures on the wall to generating the kind of art I was accustomed to seeing to a third stage of creating more immersive and interactive forms I call sculptural photography. The Fine Grain exhibition, a series of six installation pieces traveling to Midwest college campuses, provides a lived-in art experience for the community during its four- to six-week site presence. At the center (Figure 17.1) stands a silo fourteen feet tall and four feet in diameter that is made up of 168 shingles, each a curved steel-backed image of an individual tile on a decaying Ohio silo. The silo sits on a field of corn stubble—an assemblage of about two hundred photographs printed onto large sheets of pressboard extending sixteen feet on a side. Suspended above is a panoramic ring, also sixteen feet in diameter. This two-sided image displays a 360° photograph of cows in a dairy barn on its interior surface, and on the exterior is a full sweep of soybeans growing up through last year’s corn stubble. Furniture from the local building is set directly on the flooring, inviting patrons to experience the art in multiple ways. This extends the work’s exploration of “insiderness” and “outsiderness” and the juxtaposition of the mundane (corn, beans, furniture, food) with the sanctified status we often extend to the realm of the artistic.

    Figure 17.1. Fine Grain silo, panorama, and flooring.
    Figure 17.1. Fine Grain silo, panorama, and flooring.

    Nearby are three other independent installations. One is an acrylic greenhouse structure called “Four Season Room,” a nine-foot-square space with transparent walls (Figure 17.2). The work features translucent images applied to the interior surfaces and depicts the continuous production cycle of a high tunnel (unheated greenhouse) on an organic farm. The space invites people to enter and be enveloped by the environment within, to be surrounded by the cycle of attentive agriculture.

    Figure 17.2. Fine Grain “Four Seasons Room.”
    Figure 17.2. Fine Grain “Four Seasons Room.”

    “Trifocal” is a standalone installation with a dozen triangular photographic segments, each eight feet tall and one foot across (Figure 17.3).

    Figure 17.3. Fine Grain “Trifocal.”
    Figure 17.3. Fine Grain “Trifocal.”

    Together they make up three large fish-eye images—or any combination that participants wish to create by rotating the segments. One image presents dairy cows eating in their confined indoor setting, a second shows the cows in the milking parlor, and the third portrays the milk hauler trucks that transport the raw milk twice a day from the farm to the processing facility 120 miles away. The triangles turn independently.

    The final segment of the installation includes as many as twenty reclaimed barn windows that hang in neutral spaces where light is plentiful, highlighting various aspects of the food system (Figure 17.4). In what has been referred to as “perpetual conceit” (Latiolais, 2012), these images ask viewers to look into—and through—the origins of their nutrition and to wonder how much of their food’s provenance is truly visible.

    Editors’ Comment: This is another nice example of oblique, exploratory approaches. Viewers get to play around with art without anyone forcing any particular perspectives. This potentially allows a seed to be planted, as Ivancich describes in Chapter 5.

    This exhibition does not seek to change people’s eating habits, nor does it attempt to beat viewers over the head with guilt about their sensibilities regarding their current diet. My aspiration is to create opportunities—to explore, to question, to wonder, and to engage—both with the art and with other participants. One of my greatest surprises has been in observing people’s interactions. On a number of occasions, I have watched as one person arranges the triangular pylons into a personally appealing sequence and steps back to examine the result. A second person appears and rearranges the pieces into a new artwork, whereupon the first patron becomes grumpy—and in some cases downright territorial—with the interloper. Witnessing that kind of ownership and social interaction gives me hope about the potential for new insight, new relations, and, more broadly, new culture. My anecdotal sense is that without the opportunity to see and participate, these interactions do not readily occur.

    Figure 17.4. Fine Grain barn windows.
    Figure 17.4. Fine Grain barn windows.

    I sometimes imagine the Fine Grain exhibition as “art for people who eat,” with the grandiose idea that anyone can relate to the themes embedded in the work in his or her own way. The point of this chapter is to explore the facets of RPM and, in my case, to contemplate artistic ways of knowing under the RPM umbrella. So, what characterizes that connection? There are four facets—perhaps building blocks—of RPM that I feel are emblematic in this artistic exploration: mental model building; clarity and developing expertise; participating, exploring, and experimenting; and finding and generating meaning.

    Mental Model Building

    In our global society, we are shaken and stirred with overwhelming flows of information. Through cable, Internet, e-mail, text message, Skype, Instagram, Facebook, and the hordes of other electronic tools we have at our fingertips, stimuli of a textual and visual nature are not difficult to experience. In fact, avoiding them may well be the more challenging endeavor. So, the claim that we are somehow losing our visual identity would seem to be an outdated one at best.

    But what is the nature of the information we see all the time? I contend that it is exactly of the variety that characterized my pre-art sensibility: we see but we don’t. Back in the day, debates raged about TV, whether it was “junk” or “educational”—an argument directly addressed by Mander’s Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television (1978). That debate is sharpened now over the Internet, and YouTube offers a case study: what we see there are videos of cats, right? We have many chances to view montages of largely random, disconnected, and often meaningless content—certainly not in sync with the RPM definition of meaningful goals. It has to be mental overload to sort out the information we receive nonstop, and the more it lacks context, is bereft of conceptual value, and/or disjoins visual information from layers of meaning, the more difficult it is for our brains to make any sense of it and put it to good use. Brumberger’s (2011) study on so-called digital natives is a fascinating examination of this problem: her empirical research shows a troubling disjunction between the use of visually oriented technologies and visual literacy.

    It is not surprising that nine of the top ten YouTube clips of all time are popular music videos. It is somewhat more surprising—but not insignificant—that number six on the list is fifty-six seconds of “Charlie bit my finger,” the epitome of, well, nothing. That video has been viewed almost 525 million times. (I confess to be one of the viewers, in writing this chapter.) And isn’t there something recursive when the fifteenth most-followed Twitter account is Twitter’s twitter feed, and more than 18 million people are following it? (Twitter’s Spanish twitter feed has an additional 12 million followers.)

    So yes, we use our eyes, and we take in something. What that something is, what it does to our brain, and how it relates to all the other somethings we experience without inhaling is a mystery and a worry. Sullivan’s (Chapter 4) vignette about “Stan” epitomizes this kind of challenge as something we all struggle with, and the more clutter we take in visually and otherwise, the more difficulty we’ll have with clearheadedness.

    Clarity and Developing Expertise

    Part of the downfall that comes with too much information (TMI) is the muddling effect it has. Instead of strong neurological pathways forming in our brain as we learn more about a single connection, we generate millions of fragile and disconnected routes that have little or no bearing on each other. As such, they could be understood as random bits of clutter. The RPM model contends that clutter and clearheadedness coexist poorly. And when we operate with significant clutter, it is more challenging to swim through the extra information and develop any expertise about a subject—expertise being characterized by strong neurological pathways. Ivancich (Chapter 5) builds on the Sullivan example in his look at the forms and manifestations of clarity, itemizing the likes of “clarity of task” and “clarity of self” as ways of focusing one’s aspirations. R. Kaplan (Chapter 2) addresses the need to structure information in order to facilitate better understanding and usefulness of ideas we process.

    Editors’ Comment: Regularity and persistence characterize the artistic efforts made by Kaplan’s students over the course of a term. Likewise, a photograph hanging on a wall can evolve in meaning to its owner as time passes. Both suggest that art might engage audiences long enough to create new mental models.

    If this logic is somewhat valid, then we are in great need of information that comes in neater packages, where we can wrap our minds around it, see it from different perspectives, and have the opportunity to work with the information in a calm and uncluttered environment. Art can offer a rather unique chance to bring these elements together—through observation, discussion, and action. In many genres, I think it is fair to say that to understand art is to develop a level of discernment that is not natural for most of us—it requires practice (e.g., Sturken & Cartwright, 2001). And effective practice does not come with TMI. (See, for instance, Basu, Chapter 6, on the notion of “purposeful effort” and “working a little bit every day” as a means to developing these skills without TMI.) It is altogether too easy for art to become little more than another jumble of pixels in our endless stream of visual overload. When we do not have the opportunity to engage with it carefully, the chance to build our capacity for visual discernment is severely compromised. Learning anything new has this inherent challenge, but seeing anew is perhaps uniquely difficult to develop. As Block notes in his book The Answer to How Is Yes, “the artists’s way” is one that is very different from that of nonartists, being driven by feeling and experience (Block, 2003, p. 161), which is regularly conditioned out of many of us through school and socialization. So, we have an additional adult education challenge to rebuild these instincts and to value creative explorations. It begs the question, what really matters in our pursuits? I would argue that we can enhance our clarity if we open ourselves up to new possibilities and new ways of knowing.

    Participating, Exploring, and Experimenting

    The birthday party started twenty minutes ago, and we were late. Getting the kids in their proper outfits took way too long, and for some reason they were not very cooperative about getting dressed. Finally, though, we were out the door and piling into the car. Oh, but what now? One of the kids found a muddy rock in the driveway and was using his khaki pants as a cleaning cloth! Why do they have to get their special clothes dirty like this, and why now? How come they can’t just get in their seats so we can leave, for heaven’s sake? He said it’s a special rock that had pretty lines on it, but is that really important right now?

    Too often we have a glimmer of opportunity to try something, but the door never opens: the teacher who asks for questions but doesn’t give enough time for responses, the sales person who’s in a hurry to close the deal when we just wanted to try out the item before buying it, the parent who impatiently hurries his kids into the car when they’re “dawdling.” It’s the simple chance to try, to explore, that so very often brings us to the desire for more learning, and the denial of that chance can terminate our desire abruptly. For most of us, we experienced some version of that on a regular basis as kids. For many of us, we interfere in some version of that regularly as parents. As teachers, we impede the chances for exploration much more often than we’d like to admit.

    For me, it was when I recognized some big failings in my own teaching that I first became a teacher, and sadly, it took me almost a decade as a professor before I figured out even that much. Everything about my training held me up as the fount of knowledge for empty-minded students, and even when I was not teaching in my direct area of specialization, that image was the driving force for my mode of instruction. This is what Freire calls the “banking model” of education (Freire, 1993). When I started realizing that my job was not to transmit knowledge to my students but rather to create opportunities for them to learn, my classes changed. These ideas map nicely onto Gee’s (1992) “new literacies,” though at the time I was blindly reinventing my own wheels. My job was in some ways more difficult, because it is all too easy to fall back on information dump without concern for what the audience might gain from the recitation. The thought of opening up spaces for contemplation, attending to silence, and honoring pauses so people have a chance to process—these are frightening situations for the traditional teacher. And they provide the foundations of art, and artful thinking, just as they provide the beginnings of creativity more broadly, of exploration and inquiry and questioning. Duvall (Chapter 20) hits the nail on the head in his discussion of engagement, noting the importance of multisensory awareness and sensitivity to unanticipated—and perhaps unexpected—possibilities.

    According to William Benninger, a psychologist who specializes in ADHD, the crux of the problem for many attention-deficit kids is the ability to maintain attention when interest declines. A monotonous lecture may be something that the “normal” brain can deal with—we can stay awake, catch some of the worthwhile information, and more or less stick with it—but the ADHD brain simply shuts down when it’s no longer interesting (W. Benninger, personal communication, May 6, 2013) (Figure 17.5). My guess is that in information-overload mode, more and more of us operate with ADHD-like challenges more of the time.

    Figure 17.5. Attention-Interest (after Benninger, 2013).
    Figure 17.5. Attention-Interest (after Benninger, 2013).

    Editors’ Comment: These many examples suggest the important role that questions can play in fostering an exploratory and supportive environment.

    In my “Farmscape” class, and increasingly in my own art, I find that exploratory questions are the stuff of interest. Questions we might explore together in the class include the following: Why is it that so many of us don’t—or can’t—see important aspects of our food system? Is it simply that our food products travel too far—thirteen hundred miles of travel for the average processed food product (Hill, 2008)—and therefore is simply invisible by virtue of distance? Is it because of a grand conspiracy to keep us away from the real knowledge of what our menu ingredients go through before we see them on our plates? Is it a matter of complex science, trade secrets, intellectual property rights, and differences in governance that keeps us far afield? These are questions whose answers vary widely and require many kinds of thinking to address. In some cases there are no answers, and we rely on our imagination to come to terms with them: the critical step is to actually ask them. In “Farmscape,” art helps us convey our views and our feelings about the underlying issues these kinds of questions raise. In teaching land-use issues in a secondary educational setting, Kumler (Chapter 18) highlights very similar patterns whereby teachers learn alongside students, exploration is paramount, and authentic participation by every learner facilitates the creation of workable models. Grese’s (Chapter 19) examples from his design studio class offer more evidence of the successes that can come from a participatory, engaged, and student-led experimental setting.

    Finding and Generating Meaning

    We make sense of the world by giving it meaning and connecting our sensibilities with people around us. When we are relatively clearheaded, when we can shed the overload of visual and other sensory cues from the noisy world around us, when we are able to construct mental models that have some internal value for us, and when we have the opportunity to explore in a space—physical or otherwise—then we have some of the essential conditions for meaning making. In “Farmscape,” the group endeavors to build layers of meaning in a social process scaffolded through a series of aesthetic encounters. This, too, has been an evolutionary process. It is not a linear process, of course, and there are times when the meaning—perhaps through epiphany—predisposes a creative process to build a better model. That does not reduce the impact of finding conditions whereby the development of meaning can be enhanced and made easier.

    My own education in relation to artful meaning making has taken a very circuitous path. I was first attracted to the aesthetic of small symbols in our food system: the chain on an old potato harvester, the contrasting colors in a cow’s black-and-white hide, the repeating patterns of a hay rake, the reflection of an orchard in a barn window. These surface layers led me to deeper ones and to a realization that my food system photography was more about the development of my self-identity than about where my food comes from. I came to understand more about seeing as a way of knowing and seeing myself through my images in ways I had never before contemplated. It continues to unfold and revise, and my ability to explain these multiple meanings varies as they evolve, almost in a parallel universe over which I have remarkably little control. Artists often comment about art “happening to them,” and it is true—but it is more of a cyclical process whereby we happen to our art as it happens to us.

    These kinds of arts-based mental models are probably much more akin to James’s “blooming buzzing confusion” than a neat-and-tidy RPM framework would suggest (Basu & Kaplan, Chapter 1). But when those moments of alignment between art and artist appear, the construction of meaning can be exquisite, and sometimes the result even makes sense to other people, too. But the more central point here is that the construction of meaning begins with an unfiltered look or gaze (notwithstanding Foucault’s [1970] view of that term as a reflection of power dynamics in society) and a willingness to take in a sweep of information without determining any particular story line in the image at hand.

    In other words, artful meaning derives from an openness to the experience of perceiving anew and a willingness to reconceptualize one’s own experience in the context of a new stimulus. To take in the scene and begin to ask questions of it—Why are features situated the way they are? What has brought the arrangement of elements to their current status? How are the facets relating to one another?—is to hold it as a kind of mediating artifact, available for interpretation and perpetual reconstruction. In seeking to understand how an artifact speaks to us and what narratives it may contain, we may at times follow hypothetical pathways and at other times be purely exploratory in our search for understanding and growth.

    To risk misjudgment—or simply new judgment—is to acknowledge the existence of a safety net in seeking to understand what we see. And in taking that risk, we build meaning because we allow ourselves to be freed of the filters we all carry around with us, the baggage of our existence. The more we are able to place ourselves in the midst of our interpretations—to consciously note how our experience shapes our measure of the moment—then the more free we can become in seeing more deeply, more holistically.

    This point of view offers a different perspective on model building. It asks us to incorporate the myriad ways of knowing and the inquiry-based exploration that leads us to enhance our own experience and our own understanding. Instead of seeking order and organization, art often produces models that are increasingly messy and chaotic, where if anything it is the questions that gain clarity and not the answers. To engage in that enterprise is frightening and makes us vulnerable, yet it is necessary in order to be authentic to the process.

    This kind of artful thinking is a matter of practice and is probably a difficult transformation in the absence of some degree of guidance. Perhaps most fundamental in this regard is the notion of the safety net—the safe and supportive environment in which exploration and baggage-reducing efforts can transpire without fear of repercussion. Monroe’s (Chapter 14) discussion of a collaborative approach to adaptive management and Ginsburg’s (Chapter 9) presentation of the Education Justice Project both incorporate aspects of the safety net whereby people feel a greater degree of safety to try new things than perhaps they would without the RPM framework supporting their work.

    Reasonableness, Art, and Our Best

    Editors’ Comment: Being attracted to mystery helps us build models of things we might never seek out in a planned way. Such curiosity extends our mental models, helping reframe familiar experiences and cope with new ones.

    RPM aspires to bring out the best in people. Art can have that intention as well. Art does not always adhere to reasonableness as a part of that goal—art is not always reasonable—but the two perspectives share many features. Both seek to galvanize higher levels of human interaction, greater cultural engagement, and more intensive opportunities for meaningful action. Finding certainty is a central human trait, but as Block aptly notes, embracing mystery is a valuable counterbalance (Block, 2003, p. 185). It is my contention that we have misplaced some critical foundations of our aesthetic and creative imagination and that our ability to make a difference can be severely compromised as a result. I am hopeful that somewhere in my own artistic evolution are lessons—good ones and bad ones—about pathways toward greater exposure to that creative process and toward the small wins that the risks of that pathway offer along the way. If I have—to some extent—embraced mystery, then perhaps my eyes are just a little more open to ways of knowing that offer new value, new meaning, and new opportunity.

    In this regard, there are a variety of RPM-related themes that crosscut the goals I see in the artistic ways of knowing. One important facet is the supportive environment I hope to create both for my students and for the participants in my art exhibitions. Too often, art comes with a capital “A” and intimidates people who are intrigued but perhaps unsure how to approach an artistic artifact. For instance, by teaching a course that focuses on the doing of art and scaffolding the elements of understanding that might seem scary at first, I hope to create both the conceptual and physical safety net for exploration. The small wins I just noted are the result of numerous small experiments that my students and I undertake within that safety net. What if we try taking photographs from a cow’s eye perspective? How could we convey the idea of a life cycle without following the developmental path of an animal or plant? What would it mean to show humility in our images? As long as we have a common agreement that there are many great ways to approach questions such as these and that the thought process is just as useful as the result, the fear of failure steadily recedes. And two lovely outcomes of these opportunities are that they deepen and expand our exploration of meaning and that our sense of expertise—our clarity about meaning—also builds. Art has the potential to offer all of these capacities.

    Editors’ Comment: To see with freedom requires putting aside one’s existing mental models—a challenging task. Being in an environment that promotes an artistic perspective allows us to let go, to some degree, of culturally dominant mental models and build models from a fresh perspective.

    People have the capacity to know, respond, engage, solve problems, and create when they have the freedom to see clearly. Seeing clearly comes naturally for young children but not so much for the rest of us—we’ve had it conditioned out of us through traditional models of education, specialization, peer pressure, and the still-standing dominant, rational model. But as educators, if we open the space for people to be artful, to have a sense of meaningfulness, and to know that there is a bit of a safety net, they will make something wonderful. Reasonable or otherwise, they probably will be happy doing it, too. Even on a Friday afternoon.


    • Art as a Way of Knowing. (2011, March). Conference organized by Exploratorium, San Francisco, California, and sponsored by the National Science Foundation. Retrieved from
    • Berger, J. (1972). Ways of seeing. London: BBC.
    • Block, P. (2003). The answer to how is yes: Acting on what matters. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.
    • Brumberger, E. (2011). Visual literacy and the digital native: An examination of the millenial learner. Journal of Visual Literacy, 30(1), 19–46.
    • Dewey, J. (2005). Art as experience. New York: Perigee. (Original work published 1934.)
    • Foucault, M. (1970). Las Meninas. In The order of things: An archaeology of the human sciences. New York: Pantheon.
    • Freire, P. (1993). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Continuum Books.
    • Gardner, H. (2011). Frames of mind: The theory of multiple intelligences. New York: Basic Books.
    • Gee, J. P. (1992). The social mind: Language, ideology, and social practice. New York: Bergin & Garvey.
    • Hill, H. (2008). Food miles: Background and marketing. National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service, National Center for Appropriate Technology, U.S. Department of Agriculture (ATTRA/NCAT). Retrieved from
    • hooks, b. (1994). Outlaw culture: Resisting representations. New York: Routledge.
    • Jenks, C. (Ed.) (2003). Visual culture. London: Routledge.
    • Kulkarni, M. (2012). Social networks and career advancement of people with disabilities. Human Resource Development Review, 11(2), 138–155.
    • Latiolais, C. (2012, November 12). Personal communication.
    • Mander, J. (1978). Four arguments for the elimination of television. New York: William Morrow.
    • Marsden, P. V. (1988). Homogeneity in confiding relations. Social Networks, 10(1), 57–76.
    • Naylor, R. (2007). Nonverbal cues-based first impressions: Impression formation through exposure to static images. Marketing Letters, 18(3), 165–179.
    • Sturken, M., & Cartwright, L. (2001). Practices of looking: An introduction to visual culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press.