Maintaining Momentum For Change At Mizzou

One of the big issues that has come up in the days following the protests is what can be done to keep the momentum going. The protests and interventions that took place this semester are intertwined with a huge number of categories, among which are:

  • Race and gender.
  • The rights of all students and the proper remuneration for graduate students in particular.
  • The failures of a business mindset in a university setting.
  • The responsibilities of administrators to deal with racial and gender-based discrimination.
  • The necessity of recruiting, mentoring, and retaining students and faculty of color.
  • The proactive development of the University of Missouri as a place where students and faculty of every kind can feel safe, heard, and valued.

We’ve got a long way to go. The national media certainly pigeonholed the protests and reduced the reality of what is, and has been, happening at Mizzou down to overly simplified binaries. They wanted to pitch free speech against racial tension. They wanted to make it seem as if the grievances that were being aired amounted only to vapid temper tantrums of spoiled millennials. They cast the reality of racially-based aggression as fantasy. They collapsed over two years of issues into a couple scattered spats about imagined racism. All of that was wrong.

So in the wake of all of this, how are we to be clear about the problems we face, the progress we’ve already made, and stay the course on the work yet to be done? These were the sorts of questions Dr. Maya Gibson had in mind a couple days ago when she posted on her Facebook wall. I met Maya at the Wakonse Conference in May of 2015, and that was one of the most compelling aspects of the event. Getting to hear from her then, and having the pleasure of a few interactions with her since then, made me want to add my voice to the others who were posting their answers on Dr. Gibson’s Facebook wall. I decided to post the questions Maya asked and my answers here to get a chance to express these thoughts out beyond Facebook.

Maya Gibson: Dear white MU friends and allies: what do you think MU could do to make it a more welcoming place for black people (students, faculty, and the COMO community)?

Matt Ballou: One of the main things I have been doing is curating the canon of art history and art-making techniques. Rather than defaulting to 12 or 15 dead white males, I strive to show the work of artists in ways that empower my students. That means showing artists of color, artists of underrepresented genders and gender-expressions, and artists of different abilities and disabilities. That means talking about these examples as Artists and Thinkers, not as some label or hyphenation that could be used to disqualify their contribution. Students need to see themselves in the classroom, in the examples that are presented in the classroom. They need to know the possibilities for THEM.

I don’t view this as fulfilling some quota – I see it as part of the central aims of my work as an educator: to provide and advocate for ACCESS. Most of my students are female; they deserve to see the true breadth of approach to art-making that’s out there and know the significant contributions of women throughout time.

I could keep going… I think this is what I’m trying to do in the classroom to keep the movement going. When they see the institution respecting people they relate to and who look like them, they can believe that the institution – or at least ME – is on their side.

MG: Thanks, Matt. If you can keep your list going, I would encourage you to do so. I am learning and I hope others are too. What are specific things you do to make Mizzou a welcoming and safe place for black students, faculty, and the greater-MU community? I love that you are proactive in the ways in which you shape and recreate the canon for your students. You’re actively resisting the model of euro- and ethnocentrism that comprises so much (western) art pedagogy. We have that problem in music, too. I also have to say that I greatly appreciate the way in which you’ve advanced a notion of diversity writ large. Do you encounter resistance, and if so, how do you handle it?

MB: In terms of specific things, here is one big thing:

I always try to engage with others in such a way that they – and anyone observing the interaction – believe I think they are real. One of the biggest issues I have with most discussions in the public sphere and in the media is that they can so easily dilute the REAL lives, REAL experiences, and REAL perspectives of REAL people. So whether it’s informal – walking past an acquaintance on the sidewalk – or more formal – in a critique session in class – I want to concretely show that I believe in the truth of others’ existence. This means, for example, thoughtfully building on the comments of my colleagues of color during a graduate review. That may seem small, but it shows my white students that I affirm the things my colleague is saying and it demonstrates for my black/minority/female students that I listen when an African American woman speaks. They can see clearly that I hear that voice. It may seem little, but this sort of courtesy does, I think, make a difference.

Obviously it’s complex, but I think the idea I shared above about curating the canon and then following that up with visible positive engagement with my colleagues and students helps create an environment where welcoming other voices and actually hearing them can build a safe space and a more legitimate learning space.

In general I don’t personally get resistance. I think that’s a reflection of my privilege. I’m a pudgy white dude who looks semi-homeless half the time; no one questions the legitimacy of what I say or how I look. But I have heard about a number of situations where the appearance and ability to communicate of my female and minority colleagues have come under question. And that’s bullshit right there. When I talk about black artists, no one questions. But I have known of situations where black colleagues of mine have been accused of being shrill or having an ax to grind when they bring up the exact same artists in the exact same sort of situation. That’s bullshit. So my job is to recognize that difference between my experience and their experience and state my support for them. They didn’t do anything wrong, yet students felt it appropriate for them to give these educators a hard time. That’s bullshit. So, yes, there is resistance… We need to be vigilant.

Another thing I’ve tried to do is speak to my students – the majority of which are female and many of which are minorities of various sorts – as if they know what they are doing. They are used to professors talking down to them. I don’t do that. Some times they really don’t know what they are doing but they need someone to look at them with respect and ask them questions and make observations like they ARE already accomplished. And THAT will go a long way toward them actually becoming accomplished. This is exactly what happened to me. My main professors treated me like an artist and thinker long before I was actually there. And that’s why I have had some success. So I pay attention to my students in such a way that they hear the message that their lives are important and they can do this thing I’ve set before them.

MG: Thank you for seeing, acknowledging, and recognizing me, which is what I want more than anything. I have grown weary of being negated, silenced, and rejected by the majority, some of whom are so-called, supposed-to-be colleagues. Thank you for modeling for students how to treat people. Thank you for slapping the mess out of my hand when I raise it (at least it’s grounding). In short, thank you for being you.

~

I realize that this is just one conversation among all of the ones that have happened in and around Mizzou over the last semester. I hope that in some small way my clarification of my own attempts to be an educator who advocates for his students can help. God knows we don’t need more white dudes mansplaining, but I wanted to honor what I saw as Dr. Gibson’s serious and heartfelt request to her white colleagues. The primary thing I have learned throughout all of this is that LISTENING is one of the primary ways I can be an ally. Over and over I’ve seen Maya and other African American friends say “LISTEN” when the cacophony of viewpoints swirled up, when weird racist stuff crowded in and fostered disunity. Listen. Hear.

Listen. For me, part of listening well and preparing myself to hear well is having a strategy. What I wrote in response to Maya’s questions above amounts to my strategy as an educator to create a space for listening to my students and hearing their perspectives. LISTEN.

Let’s start now, and listen to Nina Simone…

 

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The Protests at The University of Missouri

As many around the country and around the world are aware, this past week at Mizzou has been harrowing. It was a week that culminated in the ouster of both the MU System President and the Chancellor. On Monday, before the strange, terrifying days that followed, many classes were let out in solidarity with #ConcernedStudent1950 and Jonathan Butler. I told my students that I’d be down on Mel Carnahan Quadrangle to witness the events. I decided that I would undertake a drawing to commemorate the day.

Screen Shot 2015-11-13 at 6.06.51 PM Screen Shot 2015-11-13 at 6.06.46 PMAbove are two shots of me at work, the first by my colleague and former student Jacob Maurice Crook (Adjunct Professor at Mizzou), the second by one of my graduate students, Jeff Markworth (MFA Candidate, 2016). I was also photographed by local media, and one of those shots can be seen here.

I’ll leave the commentary to other voices. My purpose in all of this is to remain an ally for my students while representing Mizzou well and encouraging the change it needs to see.

Here’s the drawing I made. It’s not as refined as I’d like, nor is it my normal thing to do subject matter like this. But it was a good exercise, and a good day to be present and aware.

November92015“An Historic Day on Carnahan Quad: November 9, 2015.” Pastel on paper, 28 by 44 inches. Click for enlargement.

I’m Really Glad We’re Teachers

There are a lot of cohorts we are a part of simply because of birth. Others we choose. There are some we seek out with tenacity. Other associations creep up on us, and they’re trans-historical, multi-generational unions.

Teaching is like that; we choose it, but it comes with a great many intangible elements we might recognize only later.

I’m an educator. This fact sometimes surprises me. By reason of this vocation I am connected to so many people who try to bring a sense of what it means to know and to do to others. We teachers… we’re epistemologists. What do we know? How is it that we can know? Where’s the dark horizon line that signals our limited understanding? Let’s dive into a shared space and craft meaning with others. It’s a great calling.

The last few days I’ve been thinking so much about the connection I have to other teachers. As someone who has been in higher education for nearly a decade, it makes sense that I now know dozens of teachers. But there is joy in realizing that some people I have known for many years became teachers as well, each on their own pathway.

I want to mention a few of them.

David Schwei – University of Cincinnati, Classics

David is my brother in law. He is a PhD candidate specializing in Roman History at the University of Cincinnati. He will soon complete his work there, but over the past couple of years he has engaged in a serious study of teaching itself. Our conversations on the subject are always enlightening and encouraging. David is a thoughtful, generous man, and his blog contains a wealth of hard-won information about what it means to teach and how to think about teaching. I love following his thoughts and his growing expertise. Never one to do anything halfway, David’s observations on teaching go far beyond his chosen discipline and offer great advice to anyone thinking about education. Click here for more info:

Latin, Classics and Education in the 21st Century.

davecaiqunDavid and my daughter Cai Qun learning together. Photo by Alison Ballou.

~

Natalie Shull – 5th Grade

Natalie is the oldest daughter of a special couple my wife and I relied on during our early married days in Chicagoland. It was illuminating to have a sidelong view of the Shull kids growing up, and especially to see Natalie take on increasing responsibility and maturity. During college she focused in on teaching, and eventually began to blog her way though a variety of experiences. Her thoughts are not technical, but neither are they purely Dionysian. They are about grace and hope. She has cut her educator’s teeth in the grass roots of teaching, and right now leads some 5th graders through their paces. It’s wonderful to see her excitement, joy, and desire for excellence on display in her posts. Check out her story here:

Lead Me Where.

Screen Shot 2013-12-21 at 8.44.54 PMMatt Ballou – Natalie Reading About the French Revolution. Oil on linen on panel, 26 by 24 inches, 2006. Private Collection, IL.

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Alison Ballou – Homeschooling Superintendent

I don’t know that I’ve ever met anyone who is more qualified for homeschooling than my wife. It’s easy for people not familiar with homeschooling to see it as a fringe phenomenon. Yet throughout much of history high quality education was possible at home. When parents have vision, time, and desire – not to mention the intellectual and educational background – homeschooling is a viable option. With multiple degrees from Northwestern, experience in child care, and proven ability to continue her education through books, online courses, and certificate programs in a variety of disciplines that dovetail with elementary education, Alison has crafted a fantastic learning experience for our two daughters. She’s got them above average in reading and math, and the three of them are beginning classes in Mandarin this week. Her attention to detail (everything is laid out day to day and recorded for reference and tracking) and passion for shepherding their emotional lives is amazing. You can see a good bit of what goes into her heart for teaching and learning on her blog:

Not Yet What We Shall Be.

041Cai Qun and Miranda working at the dining room table on a project. Photo by Alison Ballou.

~

I could have put dozens on this list; teachers who changed my life like Roberta Dudley (high school), Lisa Gregg-Wightman (undergraduate), or Barry Gealt (graduate). I could have included colleagues I have taught side by side with for many years – Jessica Thornton, Deborah Huelsbergen, or Chris Daniggelis. I could have highlighted former students who are now teachers in their own right – Trudy Denham, Ian Shelly, Megan Schaffer, or Shalonda Farrow. I could have featured family and friends who have taught me so much – my Mom, especially. I respect them all. I’m glad to be one of them.

In some sense, however, David, Natalie, and Alison represent the surprising way that as I became a teacher, others also grew into that calling around me. Though our disciplines, day-to-day routines, and curricula are different, we are bound together as educators. I’m really glad we’re teachers.

_MG_3406Me, in the classroom teaching composition to a group of Drawing 2 students. Photo by M. Kanaan.

Chromatic Densities