Proceeding Within the Process

Thoughts on Learning and Education

Allen Bramhall

I wanted to write a few words about the process of education, mine specifically. As examples, I will use the drawing course that I took and the independent study paper that I wrote. Several issues revealed themselves to me while taking the drawing course and writing the paper. These issues inspired self-reflection, and a consideration of my means as a student.

The drawing course that I took was a basic one. It met weekly for three hours. For each class, the instructor explained aspects of drawing then gave us drawing assignments to do in the studio. I have previously taken a general art workshop (at Lesley University), and a calligraphy course. I have had no other training. I feel a little out of my element in such formal settings, but not to the point of distraction.

I discovered that when I began drawing whatever was assigned, I felt considerable anxiety. It was not a matter of not knowing my subject, because the instructor had set up a still life tableau that I'm suppose to render. That was my subject. Getting those first lines onto the blank paper proved difficult indeed. I kept confronting the idea of my going awry from the start.

It is true that early errors, especially in matters of proportion, will only worsen as the drawing proceeds. I would study the subject, marshaling my courage to make my first marks. And I do mean courage, a willingness to step into the unknown. With effort, I would get an outline to work with.

When I started in on the details, things became easier. Elements of the picture could be related to each other in terms of position, size, and tone. I had something to anchor to. As I've said, though, early missteps only get worse.

For most of the course, we worked with pencils. We were advised to use a fairly soft graphite, but I started using a harder one on the initial sketching. My hand is still a bit heavy. The harder graphite was less likely to mar the drawing.

I left numerous classes feeling as if I had done a crummy job. This owes to a sense of expectation. The subject before me offered itself, and all I had to do was render what I saw. Of course, such a simple task requires considerable training, I never thought otherwise. Still, this feeling of disappointment became a feature of my classes.

Another feature arose, however. I discovered that when I looked at my drawings after the class, I could see more places where I did well. While working, I focused so much on elements of the drawing that I could not see the drawing as a whole. Later, I could criticize my work better, so that my flubs were not distressing but rather lessons for what to do the next time.

I seemed to be the slowest person in the class, which fueled my anxiety. I learned to accept my pace, do as much as I could, and learn from that. I should grant myself the time it takes to learn at my own pace.

Patience isn't my best virtue but I found that if I just hung in there through those moments of confusion and uneasiness, I could reach points of understanding. Shaun McNiff says in his book Art Heals that one should work with one's anxieties and confusions. He writes, "Repeatedly I observe that fear and resistance signal the presence of rich veins of creative discovery." Ride the wave, trust the process.

The last few classes, we used charcoal, conte crayon, and micron pen to do our drawing. I liked the conte crayon and charcoal, because these soft drawing materials can easily produce interesting atmospheres. They also can be messy. I'm naturally messy so that became another challenge.

Regarding the paper that I wrote, the message is similar. I had to persist despite times of perplexity and doubt. With the paper, though, I had to remain within tenable bounds. I was writing a paper of fifteen or so pages, not a two hundred page dissertation. I had to shake off what would be beyond the scope of such a paper.

I began by reading around. While reading Philosophy in a New Key by Suzanne Langer, which I came to from reading The Journal of Pegagogy, Pluralism and Practice, I decided I had to read Alfred North Whitehead, who Langer mentions repeatedly. I constantly met such ratiocinations. I love following trails like that, but by doing so, I found that my subject just got larger and larger.

It helped me that the reading list for Shaun's class proved useful to my work in my paper. I jumped around a lot, in a teeming way. I was filled with the energy of a lot of writers.

Off the top of my head, I can remember reading to various extent works by Rainer Maria Rilke, Friedrich Nietzsche, Carl Jung, James Hillman, Shaun McNiff, Pat Allen, Martin Heidegger, Charles Olson, H.D, Jane Harrison, Joseph Campbell, John Keats, Suzanne Langer, and Alfred North Whitehead, as I mentioned, as well as others. My finished paper may not even show the influence of many of these writers but the process was necessary. My process was one of winnowing.

My reading has always been helter skelter. In my twenties and thirties, I used to read as many as four books at a time, strictly what interested me. I could juggle four books at a time if each one was of a different genre. I might read something historical, something scientific, a novel, and poetry. Or I might read P. G. Wodehouse at the same time as reading Proust. I was simply feeding my curiosity.

For this paper, I had to focus this scatter shot approach. I eventually found my way back to writers who are most familiar to me. This makes sense, they have already established their importance to me. What work I do should relate to my needs and be useful to me.

As I did when younger, I followed my interests as I read for my paper. That does not mean I cannot be adventurous, it means that I apply critical focus to what I read. Jung, Hillman, and McNiff were all on the list for Shaun's course, but reading them with my paper in mind (as it so often was), I found how their works applied to what I was doing with my paper.

Shaun himself confirms a sense that I have. He has many talents and interests yet they aren't segregated in his life. His art, his therapy, his teaching all inform each other in his work. We all have a work to do. I may think of myself as a writer, but I only do it maybe two hours a day. Writing can only be part of what I do. My work is more than simply being a writer. I learned from my work this semester about engaging everything as a part of my work.

I think one of my fears about a more academic schooling have centered on the idea that I'd be doing work that did not actually resonate with me. I've seen people do it, trudging through papers or whole courses only because they are required. Whether this is due to the curriculum or the attitude of the student, it clearly is not the way that I want to go.

I haven't mentioned the anxiety that I felt concerning the paper. As with drawing, I bore the weight of my confusion and perplexity. Moving added to the anxiety, as it is supposed to, and I felt at times as if the process were out of hand. It never really was, for I continued my reading and wondering. Even when I was getting nothing on paper, I was working.

The lesson comes to this: follow your curiosity. It occurs to me to quote a poem by Jack Spicer.

The red dog
Down the
Of possible

"Red dog" is an obsolete football term, synonymous now with blitz, and probably other terms that I have not heard (football terminology changes frequently). It refers to when a defensive player suddenly switches from his usual concerns and goes after the quarterback, with the goal of at least rattling if not tackling him. Spicer suggests staying on target no matter what. A directive is in place.

I survived the fever and fret of my schoolwork through simple persistence. This is what John Keats referred to as Negative Capability. Education in the best sense is a journey from darkness to light. It should be a journey of trepidation and uneasiness: one is moving within one's ignorance. Shaun writes that one should trust the process. That trust is not easily won, but it is the essence of education.