NJP and Avant-Garde Pedagogy

By employing various avant-garde methods as a pedagogical tool, my dissertation demonstrates new ways of promoting student engagement and interdisciplinary critical thinking in the college classroom. The art works of Nam June Paik serve as an example of a fusion between avant-garde and pedagogy, and his unique artistic process has greatly influenced the development of several teaching tools I have used in my own classroom.

In my years of teaching college, I consistently noticed a trend in student’s lack of engagement and/or critical thinking skills, often due in part to a variety of factors – some cultural, some sociopolitical, and some even personal. However, being an interdisciplinary professor and researcher, I fundamentally believe in the importance of students learning how to engage and think critically about a wide range of topics, despite students’ initial presumptions that such topics are of little importance to their personal or future professional lives.

Mentioning the name Picasso would often cause eye-rolls around the room, even though most students had no real understanding of his art. Spending some time with literary giants like Kafka and Proust proved to be less-than-engaging to the majority of students, even if they worked in small groups. The challenges regarding lack of student engagement and critical thinking to began to lessen, however, when I turned to the course materials themselves and began re-designing my curriculum in its entirety.

I spent a lot of time in the classroom teaching students about the theoretical underpinnings of modern avant-garde movements, but I completely overlooked the fact that I could (and should) have students engage directly with the avant-garde, both in and out of the classroom. That way, students would learn about the avant-garde, by doing the avant-garde. My course lectures on the avant-garde focused on three major movements: Futurism, Dada, and Surrealism. As I began searching deeper into each movement’s research agenda and creative processes, I began experimenting with adapting avant-garde activities into my courses. While some activities were more successful than others, I nonetheless continued my experiments, some of which are illustrated in my dissertation.

Soon, my dissertation began influencing my teaching and my teaching began influencing my dissertation; in turn, creating a useful parallel between my life as a doctoral candidate and my life as a college instructor. Ultimately, my classroom became the experimental testing ground for the theories I was developing through my doctoral work. My research on Futurism, Dada, and Surrealism eventually led me to the postmodern avant-garde movement of Fluxus, which developed in New York in the early 1960’s via collaborative efforts among an international group of artists.

One of Fluxus’ pioneering members: Nam June Paik, of course.

Paik’s prolific and innovative body of art quickly caught my interest and I soon began scouring through books and art museums for any reference to his life and work as an artist. The more I learned about his creative process, the more fascinated I became with his immense level of insight in relation to future technological developments, such as the Internet.

Paik was a modest and passionate man, quick to give credit to the artistic minds around him, and hardly ever taking any for himself. He deemed his professional work apolitical, and his personal life simplistic. In reality, his works were incredibly political, and his life was filled with seemingly unending adventures that took him from South Korea, Hong Kong, Japan, Germany, and eventually, to the U.S..

He was a digital nomand and a true global citizen – a man simultaneously with no homeland and many. Paik’s life and art was anything but simple.

I have viewed over three-dozen of Paik’s multimedia works in various museums across the world, and I have read a great deal about his early Fluxus performances. Through my research, I began speculating how his work follows a research-through-experimentation process that is personal, political, and interdisciplinary. As I continued fine-tuning my argument about the elements of Paik’s creative process, I came to find out he spent many years teaching college part-time, both in the U.S. and abroad.

While teaching at CalArts, for example, Paik wrote a short memo outlining his teaching philosophy for a video art course. He began the memo with “I am teaching video art,” and ended with, “I will just teach about art politics.” Paik’s preoccupation as an instructor moved beyond the confines of the classroom, as he wanted to ensure his students understood what it really meant to be a working video artist. Even though he was teaching at an institution known for its experimental curriculum, Paik did not shy away from teaching his students about the often brutal realities of a professional artistic career.

It was in reading Paik’s CalArts course memo that the intersection between the avant-garde and pedagogy became clearer to me, not just as a student, but as a professor as well. While a fusion between the two is not a completely novel concept, there is much room for continued exploration and experimentation with avant-garde methods as pedagogical tools, particularly in the undergraduate curriculum. Following the path of Humanities research, my quick connection between avant-garde and pedagogy only marked the beginning of my doctoral work. My research on the modernist avant-garde and Paik’s art soon led me to theories on progressive education, critical pedagogy, and strangely enough, the Jesuits.

The intertwining of elements derived from modernist avant-garde methodologies to the various theories that encompass progressive education, comprise the foundational context of my dissertation, while Paik’s Fluxus performances and early multimedia works serve as examples of the fusion between the avant-garde and pedagogy. The demonstration and discussion portion of my dissertation centers on three experimental activities created for one of my Humanities courses, and how these avant-garde based pedagogical tools can aid other instructors in increasing student-engagement and critical thinking skills in their own classrooms.

The notion of avant-garde as pedagogy is still very much in the beginning stages, and even after my dissertation is complete, there will be much more research and writing to do, all of which I look forward to dedicating my time and efforts to pursue.