Adventures in TAing: Art Colonies

At the beginning of the semester, Professor Donaldson, the instructor for Utopia in the Americas, invited me to give a short lecture on any topic relating to American utopias. While I’ve given plenty of gallery talks and lectures to museum audiences, I haven’t had as much experience in the college classroom, so I was eager for the opportunity to apply my skills to a new setting. Last week then, I gave a half-hour talk about art colonies, a topic I’ve been casually researching since at least my time in New Mexico.

Commonwealth Art Colony Students, Boothbay Harbor, 1915. Image courtesy of https://www.mainememory.net/artifact/98553

I chose art colonies because I saw a lot of parallels with intended utopian communities like Brook Farm. Art colonies are communities of artists, writers, and other creatives who come together with the intention of producing new work together in a supportive environment. Like utopian communities, they take issue with the world as it currently is and seek to improve it by providing a creatively stimulating environment. Art colonies were especially popular in Europe and the United States during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, before World War I. In the US, you could find them in New England, the Midwest, the West Coast, and everywhere in between.

Since this was an art history-focused discussion, I developed a PowerPoint presentation that let me share several images. I also provided an outline of my notes to the class so students could have a basic reference to follow. At the end of my notes, I included a brief list of book suggestions in case students wanted to read further.

As for the talk itself, I divided it into three parts, and clearly stated when I was moving on to a new topic. After defining art colonies, I described the historical context in which they developed. I highlighted the following interconnected trends:

Maria Bashkirtseva, In The Studio, 1881, oil on canvas, Dnipropetrovsk State Art Museum, Dnipropetrovsk, Ukraine
  • Camaraderie: 19th-century American artists studying academic painting finished their training in Europe whenever possible, going to Paris especially after the Civil War. These American students often socialized together while abroad, and wanted to recapture that camaraderie when they returned.
Colonial Revival Room Design, 1924. Image courtesy of http://www.vintagedesigns.com/id/colrev/20thcent/sem/
  • Anxieties about change: The United States in the second half of the 19th century experienced a lot of rapid change in terms of immigration, industrialization, women’s rights, and so on. A lot of white, middle-class people in particular experienced anxiety over this, and responded through reactionary, nostalgia-driven movements such as Arts and Crafts, the Colonial Revival, and the City Beautiful Movements. All of these creative responses were intended to reintroduce a sense of order and human agency over the seeming chaos the defined rapid urbanization.
Anonymous, Bellows, ca. 1825-1835, paint and stenciling on wood. American Folk Art Museum.
  • Nationalism: During the late 19th century, nationalistic pride cropped up in both the United States and Europe as countries looked to their folk cultures for the roots of their identities. Over here, American artists took increasing interest in painting American landscapes or incorporating folk art into their work as a means of asserting an art that was distinct from European examples.

I emphasized the historical context because Professor Donaldson had already talked about it in previous lectures. I wanted to show students how this same context extended to art colonies while reviewing concepts we had already talked about through lectures and discussions. Once I sketched out this background, I then briefly talked about three different communities:

Mabel Dodge Luhan House, Taos, NM
  • Taos/New Mexico: artists have been coming here since the late 19th century. During the early 20th century, various groups cropped up, many of them focused on seeking out exhibition opportunities. The first generations of artists were primarily European trained and applied their training to painting New Mexico’s landscapes and indigenous cultures. The most overtly utopian iteration is arguably the salon of Mabel Dodge Luhan, who invited leading Modernists such as Andrew Dasburg, George O’Keeffe, and Marsden Hartley to visit, not to mention writers such as D.H. Lawrence.
  1. Ogunquit, Maine: In 1898, painter Charles Woodbury began frequenting the Perkins Cove area of Ogunquit to set up a summer painting school focused on rendering the landscapes and peoples of the region. In 1911, artist Hamilton Easter Field bought a series of fishing shacks and began renting them out to artists. Whereas Woodbury focused primarily on landscape painting, Easter Field became more interested in Modernist abstraction, and sometimes decorated the shacks with folk art to inspire renters. In the 1950s, the Ogunquit Museum of American Art opened, highlighting the artistic activities of these two groups.
  1. Byrdcliffe, New York: This was the most overtly utopian of the groups I talked about. Founded by architect Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead, artist Jane Byrd McCall, and artist Bolton Brown, it modeled itself on the Arts and Crafts Movement, with guild-like workshops underpinning its social structure. It continues to operate as an Artist-in-Residence program.

There were several other examples I could have discussed, but these were the ones I’m most familiar with. With Taos in particular, I wanted to get out of the Northeast and highlight what was happening in the Southwest, since the course has primarily concentrated on communities east of the Mississippi.

E. Martin Hennings, Passing By, ca. 1924, oil on canvas. Museum of Fine Arts Houston

I wrapped up with a brief conclusion. I argued that while limited funding or clashing personalities often prevented art colonies from becoming long-term, autonomous communities, we still benefit from art colonies in the form of artist-in-residence programs. I described these as permanent communities of temporary residents, places where artists can focus on their work, bond with their fellow residents, and return to their regular lives to share their new work.

From left to right: Vivian Bevans, Fall Tree, watercolor on paper; Zulma Steele-Parker, Drop-Front Desk with Three Iris Panels, 1904, oil paint and green stain on cherry wood; Ralph and Jane Whitehead, selection of White Pines Pottery with textile created at Byrdcliffe Colony, c. 1915-1926, Ceramic; Zulma Steele-Parker, Byrdcliffe, No. 4, c. 1914, oil on board.

This talk was a lot of fun. When I was a curator, I always liked giving gallery tours and brown bag lunch talks, so I enjoyed having a chance to talk about art history again in an educational setting. Public speaking has always been one of my strengths, so I’m always eager to put those skills to use when the opportunity comes up. Professor Donaldson also enjoyed the lecture so much that she recommended I consider developing it into an undergraduate seminar. I’d definitely like to teach a class at William and Mary in the future, so it’s certainly an option I’ll keep in mind moving forward.

Charles Woodbury, High Tide, Narrow Cove, Ogunquit, Maine, 1939, watercolor on paper. Vose Galleries, Boston.

What I’m TAing this Semester

When you’re an American Studies graduate student at William and Mary, your assistantships change every year. Last year I worked at the Mariners Museum in Newport News, where I helped out with inventories and drafted an exhibition proposal using the map collection. This year, I’m in the classroom serving as a Teaching Assistant for a class called Utopia in the Americas.

Encompassing literature, history, and film, this one-semester course looks at Utopian communities as they have manifested in the United States, particularly during the antebellum period. Through specific case studies, students analyze which qualities people seek in a perfect society, what you need to do to achieve it, and equally importantly, what you have to give up, whether it be individualism, private property, diversity, freedom, or something else. Utopian societies also offer an alternative lens for examining American history more broadly, as they illuminate the kinds of problems and issues people have endeavored to ameliorate by establishing brand new communities.

Thomas More’s Utopia. Image courtesy of https://streetsofsalem.com/2012/03/26/utopia-not-dystopia/

So far we’ve been looking at early examples of Utopian literature to get a sense of its history as a form. A couple of weeks ago, for instance, we read Thomas More’s Utopia, considered one of the most influential examples of the genre. This week, we’ll be reading The Tempest in conjunction with watching a classic sci-fi film that takes inspiration from the story, Forbidden Planet.

The iconic poster for the 1956 film Forbidden Planet, though the somewhat ominous imagery is a bit misleading. Robby the Robot is no menacing machine, but a benevolent character dedicated to serving humans (there’s even a sequence in the movie where Dr. Morbius demonstrates Isaac Asimov’s laws of robotics with him). Indeed, the only time he carries anybody in the film is the ship’s doctor after he overloads his brain on Krell technology, but I guess that wasn’t sexy enough for the poster. Image courtesy of https://www.ebay.ca/itm/Forbidden-Planet-1956-Original-Movie-Sci-Fi-Poster-Spanish-Herald-First-Release-/133028007314?oid=170951278501

As an American Studies course, this class is interdisciplinary in content, so in addition to literature, we’ll also consider historical utopian communities. Examples include New Harmony, a community founded in Indiana by businessman and philanthropist Robert Owen, and the Shakers, whose religious practices underscored gender equality, communal living, and celibacy. While a lot of these communities may sound idealistic to us, they also addressed important social issues that still affect us today, including gender equality, family structure, and comfortable standards of living. These communities may have underestimated the practical challenges of establishing new social orders, but at the same time, we can still learn from their example when addressing ongoing inequalities.

While the course focuses primarily on the nineteenth century, we’ll also move into more recent material from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. In particular, we’ll explore the negative counterpart of utopia, the dystopian community, and ask why the concept of utopia-gone-wrong has become so prominent in literature and film. Among the films we’ll watch during the second half of the class is WALL-E, which playfully explores the overlaps between utopian and dystopian places.

More than a story about a cute robot, this film explores both utopian and dystopian communities while commenting on the consequences of rampant consumerism. Image courtesy of https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Eb4sMcyzCeg

So that’s the content, but what do I actually do as a TA? As a Teaching Assistant, my job is to help students learn not only the content of the course, but to hone their critical reading, writing, and discussion skills. This means I attend all the lectures and read the course materials so that I know what material is being covered. Since the professor has to go out of town later this month, I’ll give one of the lectures myself, using her notes as a guide. I’ve also been encouraged to give a mini-lecture later on the semester, so I plan on talking about art colonies, given my background in art history.

Attending lectures only constitutes one small part of my job though. I also read, comment on, and grade short papers written in response to course materials, as well as a more formal essay later in the course. In my comments, I usually highlight ideas that I’d like students to explore more deeply, praise them on instances where they used specific examples from texts to support their arguments, and all-around encourage them to speculate on the works they’re reading rather than simply summarize. I also lead weekly discussion sections where students talk about the materials they’re reading in greater depth. I write discussion questions based on the readings, but I also compile and synthesize questions that the students have written and posted online in advance.

Sabbathday Lake, the one Shaker community that remains inhabited. Image courtesy of https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Gloucester,_Maine

While this isn’t the first time I’ve been a TA, that was ten years ago, so going back to the classroom, especially after working in museums for so many years, has definitely been a novel experience so far. Yet it hasn’t been as scary as you might think. Since I’m already in my 30s, I’m not as close in age to the undergraduates as a lot of my fellow graduate students, so I already have an advantage in getting the students to take me seriously. Being older also means that I have more life experience in general, which definitely helps with my confidence. My session as a Classroom Instructor for the Keio Program also helped me get comfortable in a classroom setting, especially when it comes to facilitating discussions. I’ve also found that I have a lot of transferable skills from my previous museum experience. This is especially true in relation to the time I spent giving tours to school groups, as I used questions and interactive discussions rather than lectures to talk about art with students. I’ve still got a lot to learn, of course, but I also know that’s true of anyone in any profession, so it doesn’t worry me the way it might have a few years ago.

So that’s what I’ll be up to this semester. While I was grateful to have the familiarity of the museum environment through my assistantship last year, I’m glad to have the chance to be in the classroom now. After all, one of the reasons why I decided to return to academia was to see whether I actually have any interest or aptitude in a teaching career, so this is a great place to try it out. Even if I decide to return to museums or similar institutions, the academic job environment is not the most promising, after all, I can definitely apply the skills I’ll develop through teaching to other types of work.

Right now, it’s too early to tell how I feel about teaching, but I’ve been enjoying TAing so far, and learning about fascinating communities in the process, so I can’t complain. More importantly, though, I hope my students are enjoying the course, or at least learning from it.

Keio Program

From August 5th to the 20th, I served as a classroom instructor (CI) for the immersive Keio/W&M Cross-Cultural Collaboration. For two weeks, twenty-five students from Japan’s Keio University visited William and Mary to practice their English skills, learn about United States history and society, and complete a research project comparing American and Japanese cultures. Today, I’ll tell you about my experience as a first-time instructor in this special program.

The students and staff of the Keio/W&M Program, 2019.

Keio students had a full schedule from the moment they landed at Dulles, and for all activities, students were expected to speak, write, listen to, and think in English. A typical day included a morning lecture on a topic pertaining to American culture, a dialogue class, lunch, an afternoon research session at the library for their group projects, and dinner. Toward the end of their stay in Williamsburg, students presented their group projects to the rest of the class, with each presentation taking about 20 minutes. Topics included elementary school transportation, perceptions of elderly drivers, the nature and function of vending machines, cash-spending habits, and women-only transportation.

My wonderful dialogue class. I had nine students total. Left to right in each row. Top row: Koryu Ikeshita, Yu Horiguchi. Middle Row: Maho Arito, Miu Nishimura, Fumiho Tanaka. Bottom row: Kaori Sano, Manai Suzuki, Kimika Kariya, Haruna Fujimaki. These pictures were taken on the day we visited churches, hence why we’re all dressed up.

The dialogue class was my biggest responsibility as a classroom instructor. For an hour an a half every day, we’d talk about the content of the lectures we’d just heard, with the guest lecturer stopping by for 15 minutes to answer questions. I usually started the class by having students write down a question for the guest lecturer, as students could refer to the text when talking to the professor. While we waited for the professor to stop by, I’d have the students go around the room and share a thought or observation about the topic. Once the professor arrived, I’d have the students ask their questions. Since we usually couldn’t get to everyone in 15 minutes, I’d have the remaining students ask their questions to me, and I’d answer them as best as I could. I also had students occasionally break into pairs or small groups to talk about specific discussion questions, as it was less intimidating than speaking in front of the entire class. Finally, we’d usually wrap up with a few presentations of memory books, which were small autobiographical PowerPoints that each of the students had made before coming to the United States. Through these different exercises, I was usually able to get each student to speak in English at least three times during each class. In addition to dialogue classes, I also read and graded online journal entries from each of the students, where they would analyze their experiences in America using the lectures, dialogue classes, and comparisons with Japanese culture.

My other job was to transport students, which meant I drove my dialogue class around town in a 12-person van. I mostly drove around Williamsburg, but we also took trips to Newport News and Richmond. Driving the van was initially a little scary, I’ve driven U-Hauls full of art before but it’s different when you’re responsible for the well-being of 12 other people, but it got easier with practice.

In addition to the regular lectures and dialogue classes, there were also several field trips. During the two weeks, we toured the Canon factory in Newport News, went shopping in Richmond, and attended a baseball game. On a free day, students visited Colonial Williamsburg, York Beach, and went shopping at the Williamsburg outlets. On Sunday morning, we all went to different church services to see religion in practice in America, with my group going to New Zion Baptist Church. That was a particularly special experience for me, as it was the first time I’d ever visited a black baptist church.

The Air and Space Museum at the Smithsonian was especially popular with students. Any why not? From airplanes to lunar modules, this place has cool stuff!

The culminating experience was a trip to Washington, DC. During the next few days, we visited different Smithsonian museums, took a walking tour around the monuments, and visited the Japanese Embassy. After an emotional farewell dinner and talent show, students headed back to Dulles Airport, while William and Mary Students returned home.

The program challenged me in a lot of ways. During the first week in particular, I worked a lot of 12-hour days. While I wasn’t with the students the whole time, I couldn’t go home either, since I needed to be available to drive the van. As an introvert, it was challenging to be “on” for such a long time, even when I knew it was only for two weeks.

My days were also filled with active listening. Since I wanted my students to feel confident when speaking English, I needed to pay extra attention to what they were saying to make sure I understood what they wanted to communicate. I can be a little hard of hearing as it is, so this meant I had to work extra hard on my end to make sure I could hear through my students’ accents, as well as mentally process their often very formal questions into more idiomatic English for myself. I also had to put more thought into what I was saying to make sure my students understood me, as I didn’t want them to feel lost or confused. All of this active listening and speaking was very draining mentally, so by the time I got home every night, I had to keep asking Brandon to repeat himself because I couldn’t remember anything he was saying.

The Natural History museum was another popular destination during our Smithsonian excursion.

Beyond the physical and mental challenges of so much active listening, the content of the conversations themselves could also be difficult. Since I had the most advanced group of English speakers, we could discuss the lectures pretty deeply, and a lot of them delved into serious subject matter. The lecture on race relations in America was particularly intense, as I had to explain the systemic nature of American racism to students who had not grown up in this particular environment or culture. The students, meanwhile, learned that the United States is not the ideal country portrayed in its patriotic mythology, but a highly complicated place that has yet to live up to its ideals. Indeed, “it’s complicated,” became my catchphrase at every dialogue class.

I also learned a great deal from my students. During our dialogue classes, some of my students grounded the lecture material by comparing the topics with examples from Japanese history, which offered me new perspectives. Meals at local restaurants became opportunities to talk about different food cultures, and food accessibility. We also talked a lot about differences in transportation, hobbies, and why stores in Williamsburg close so early. Since a lot of my students were from Tokyo, Williamsburg was comparatively more provincial and rural, which brought its own experiences and challenges.

Kimika’s PowerPoint presentation for the Japanese Embassy.

Over the course of our two weeks together, I learned a lot about my students, particularly through their memory book presentations. Yu Horiguchi loves listening to vintage jazz. Koryu Ikeshita enjoys rap and hip hop. Fumiho Tanaka has lived in several different places, including Mexico City and New York. Manai Suzuki would like to work at a TV station when she has finished college. Haruna Fujimaki is learning how to do magic tricks with playing cards.

I also had plenty of opportunities to watch my students engage with their peers during classes and projects. Kaori Sano was extremely supportive of her fellow students, particularly during the focus group projects. Miu Nishimura and Maho Arito always asked thoughtful questions in the dialogue classes. Kimika Kariya rounded out our experience by giving a lovely presentation on her experiences with the program at the Japanese Embassy.

The Directors and CIs of Keio. I couldn’t have done it without the help, experience, and humor of these fantastic people. And I guess I was all right too.

Ultimately, the Keio program was a very rewarding experience, not least because of my wonderful coworkers. Ravynn Stringfield, the program director and experienced CI herself, was meticulously organized and made sure we always had rosters and checklists that made field trips and other excursions much easier to implement. She also suggested the pairing and sharing technique that became a key part of my dialogue classes, and always took care to check in on our mental and emotional well-being. Laura Beltran-Rubio, the assistant director, also provided plenty of emotional and logistical support, whether she was picking up food for catered meals, or figuring out how to get baseball tickets for more than 30 people. My fellow CI instructors, Chris Slaby and Adrienne Resha, were equally helpful, sharing potential discussion questions and other ideas for dialogue classes. Chris, a CI veteran, was my go-to person regarding anything pertaining to teaching with Keio, while Adrienne suggested the idea of writing down discussion questions for guest lecturers. They all helped me become a better CI.

Keio’s Peer Advisors, a fantastic group of undergraduates who stayed with the Keio students and worked with them every day for two weeks. From left to right: Jessie Urgo, Daisy Zhang, Roger Zhao, Laurel Detert, and Kelly Shea.

The undergraduate staff members who worked with the students as Peer Advisors (PAs) were also indispensable. They, along with the directors, stayed at the same hotel as the Keio students, so they were always available if someone needed assistance (CIs, by contrast, got to go home every night, aside from DC). During the afternoons after Dialogue Class, they worked directly with each of the focus groups to ensure that everyone contributed and remained on task, and kept us CIs informed of their progress. They also coordinated most of the meals, deciding where to take the students to lunch each day, for instance. They also served as navigators for field trips, reading off directions to me while I focused on driving the van.

Keio is definitely a collaborative adventure, and I could not have completed my job without the help, support, and humor of my colleagues.

My students and I did a gift exchange at the farewell dinner. I gave each of them one of my prints, while they gave me fans, snacks, and other surprises. Of all the things they gave me, however, the thank you card by far meant the most, as each student wrote me a note. I didn’t think I left much of an impression on them, but the card told me otherwise.

The Keio program pushed my limits in so many ways, but it also expanded my skills and introduced me to new perspectives. Engaging in dialogue classes every day was especially helpful, as I’ll be a Teaching Assistant this coming semester, but I also benefitted in other ways. The Keio program is an exercise in endurance and flexibility, all taking place in a rich environment of cross-cultural dialogue and exchange. It demands patience, versatility, and above all, an open mind and the willingness to listen and learn.

I’d like to think that my students learned something from their experience here in the United States. I certainly learned a lot from them, and I will always be grateful for that.