“It depends on what you mean by use”: teaching and learning in the arts now

I was going to write to celebrate Tolkien Reading Day (March 25) as I usually do, with a post on “Leaf by Niggle,” one of the texts recommended by the Tolkien Society for this year’s theme of Nature vs. Industry. However, as we were approaching Tolkien Reading Day, COVID-19 cases started to pop up in Canada, with the result that my university closed on-campus classes on March 13th, and by the 19th they had entirely locked down the campus. So within a matter of days, we had to shift our last three and half weeks of classes and three weeks of exams into virtual operations.

Those weeks were chaotic and stressful, and a Tolkien Reading Day post was abandoned. Students were moving home, sometimes to far-distant time zones; others were taking care of children who were out of school or daycare; some were dealing with the sick and worst of all, with the death of family or friends. Some had no Internet access, or nothing more than a cell phone with limited data to try to connect to their online classes. Most lost their jobs. We missed seeing our students in person, especially our graduating students who would be leaving without an in-person good-bye celebration.

As faculty, we had to rethink how to teach course concepts online and quickly learn new technologies within a matter of days, while triaging student problems. Many faculty had additional challenges at home with childcare or having to share one home computer. Relatively speaking, though, my position has been a privileged one indeed. I have a home and the companionship of my husband while in lockdown (and we each have our own laptops to work on); I can work from home in a safe job with a continuing salary. My adult children, while never far from our minds, are managing (for now) to get by independently. And yet —

And yet, it has been an unsettling and anxious time, filled with uncertainty. Among other concerns, the research and writing that I would normally be immersed in at this time have been relegated to irregular jabs at getting going. My ambitious research project recedes further and further into the distance.

Niggle was a painter. Not a very successful one, partly because he had many other things to do. Most of these things he thought were a nuisance; but he did them fairly well, when he could not get out of them: which (in his opinion) was far too often.”

(“Leaf by Niggle,” page 93)

I won’t push an allegorical equivalence with Niggle much farther, although as the banner on top of this blog reveals, I do enjoy and identify with parts of that story, and I would dearly love to learn the secret of his time management lessons without having to go to the same “workhouse.” However, as my attention shifted to our new pandemic living conditions, I was brought back to an important element of Tolkien’s story, the value of art.

I think he was a silly little man,” said Councillor Tompkins. “Worthless, in fact; no use to Society at all.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” said Atkins, who was nobody of importance, just a schoolmaster. “I am not so sure: it depends on what you mean by use.”
“No practical or economic use,” said Tompkins. “I dare say he could have been made into a serviceable cog of some sort, if you schoolmasters knew your business.”

(“Leaf by Niggle,” page 116)

In the midst of this pandemic anxiety, chaos, and for some, even boredom, how often have people turned to the arts? Movies; tv shows; livestreams of theatre, opera, dance, concerts; Zoom choirs and songs and YouTube parodies; online communities sharing readings; political graffiti or a child’s sidewalk chalk drawings, books and storytelling — the arts have provided us with comfort, distraction, entertainment, enlightenment, information, and calls to action. The fact that most of the artists producing these arts are now out of jobs while society eats up their work should lead us to consider the “use” of art in our Tompkins-led world. How do we use art? How do we use artists?

“It depends on what you mean by use” says the schoolteacher, who is considered “nobody of importance,” and who pushes back (albeit feebly) against Tompkins, who criticizes the teacher for not factory-producing people as “serviceable cog[s]” for some larger economic machine. 

It is shocking how often that view is expressed in our Primary World, even in my own world of the university. We have witnessed in numerous places professors being considered simply as “content providers” to students who are imagined as empty buckets – fill them all with the same information, and we’re done; they are “educated”; then churn them out the assembly line into a job. Putting our “content” into online format is easy, as one Tompkins-administrator told a group of students in my university a mere five days after the decision to move classes online, assuring them in her usual perky, uninformed style that everything was fine — “Of course your professors have everything all set online by now!” — completely oblivious to the careful thought that needs to go into teaching effectively in a digital world.

How often have students taking an Arts degree, either to learn to produce and/or to analyze the arts, been asked, “what use is that?” Now, don’t get me wrong: I’m glad when our B.A. students can get – and they do get – good jobs, despite popular misconceptions that Arts graduates don’t do as well as, say, Business students. But even within my university, a Business professor recently wrote in a university-wide document, citing reports by a national bank, that one of the main goals of higher education was “to produce business leaders of the future.” Tompkins is everywhere.

Thankfully, many of my colleagues countered that they believe, instead, that the aim of a university education is to encourage the development of socially responsible global citizens. Yes, we need scientists and social scientists to help solve our problems, but we also need artists and people educated in the humanities to help analyze our world and communicate some truths. Arts courses aim to give students a broad, multifaceted understanding of the world they live in and how it came to be that way. And these courses, at least where I teach, try to do that by having teachers engaging with individual students, exchanging ideas with them, developing their understanding and our own understanding as teachers as we analyze the world together beyond our doors, using novels, poetry, speeches, essays, plays, films, dance, music – the stuff of the arts, that illuminate the world for us.  

And let me emphasize together. Good teachers are always learning along with their students. We don’t just dump our “content” onto a webpage and call that “teaching.” And I, like many other teachers, have to continually remind myself that I have to keep learning, to look beyond the comfort and security of my home office to read, watch, and listen to what is going on in our society, and to question continually how it affects what we do and what we teach.

And right now, with protests against systemic racism around the world, in the midst of a global pandemic, our society, while in dire need of many things, also could use the transformative power of the arts – the analysis, commentary, expression, solace, and communication that artists and those educated in the arts can provide.

So yes, “It depends on what you mean by use.”

Work Cited
“Leaf by Niggle.” Tree and Leaf, including Mythopoeia. HarperCollins, 2001, pp. 93-118.

Floral drawing by Tolkien

I have a lot of learning to do in the next few months. Here are some resources that I’ve been using as starting points for my particular areas of interest:

Tolkien studies: 

“Race in Tolkien Studies: A Bibliographic Essay” by Robin Anne Reid. In Tolkien and Alterity, edited by Christopher Vaccaro and Yvette Kisor, Palgrave Macmillan, 2017, pp. 33-74.

Medieval studies:

“Race and Medieval Studies: A Partial Bibliography” by Jonathan Hsy and Julie Orlemanski. postmedieval: a journal of medieval cultural studies, vol. 8, 2017, pp.500–531. https://doi.org/10.1057/s41280-017-0072-0. Also available here: https://link.springer.com/content/pdf/10.1057%2Fs41280-017-0072-0.pdf

’Black Death’ Matters: A Modern Take on a Medieval Pandemic” by M. Rambaran-Olm. Medium.com, 5 June 2020.

Fan studies:

Lori Morimoto, @acafanmom on Twitter.  This thread includes reading suggestions on decentering whiteness in fan studies.  https://twitter.com/acafanmom/status/1268873028370382849?s=20

Canadian writers and issues:

A Different Booklist: A Canadian Multicultural Bookstore Specializing in Literature from the African and Caribbean Diaspora and the Global South. https://adifferentbooklist.com/

“35 Books to Read for National Indigenous History Month.” CBC.ca https://www.cbc.ca/books/35-books-to-read-for-national-indigenous-history-month-1.5585489

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: