Picture is an original Curtis Tappenden, published with permission.
HIGH WIRE! Keeping the Maverick Nature Alive in students. When I was a young art student back in the late 80s, there were no mobile phones, no social media – its virtues and vices. There was less pressure to achieve high grades on diploma and degree courses, hope of a well-paid, long-term career and optimism that as a creative individual, I could be part of a youth culture that could and would change the world!
Thirty or so years have passed and I have achieved some of my aspirations. Keeping the maverick nature alive can sometimes be difficult. Constantly juggling pressures of life like everyone else, but in it have learnt to be fulfilled and recognise what I have to offer those with whom I have contact, or to whom I steer some influence.
I was termed ‘maverick’ by a teaching colleague around fifteen years ago and had not considered the term or my part within its interpretation, until I decided one day to ‘do my own thing’, whereupon I upset the status quo and in terms most will understand, ‘it all kicked off!’
Since then, I have been researching the nature of maverick educators in the Further and Higher Education art/ art & design sectors, where I hope to help fellow colleagues who paradoxically feel caught between toeing-the-line and unleashing autonomy in a highly regulated teaching system. I also want to help students; my chief motivation for teaching in the first instance, and what has kept me training younger artists and designers for almost thirty years.
Keeping the Maverick Nature Alive in students
My fellow colleagues are more than aware of the sweeping changes in education- the neoliberal agendas that have increased our personal responsibility, accountability to our bosses in the business of education, and removed our permissions to behave in an overtly autonomous way. In the staffroom, there are daily groans, and peers are being signed off sick almost on a monthly basis, unable to cope with the pressures to perform in understaffed, overworked and underpaid environments.
So why do we do it? Because educators care, and in my view, I personally do not want students, future creative innovators and influencers, bowing low to the conforming machine.
Why should they be driven to believe that getting a good job is the chief reason for existence, that their body image and view of self should have to be dictated by an idealism that few of us can actually attain? There has to be a better way to manage our identities, the environment, capitalism, globalisation, or to demonstrate new alternatives which benefit others, change lives for the better, and reduce gaps including poverty, and equality through creative practices.
Fellow teachers discuss the issues amongst themselves and seek help through their networks, but our students need guidance and that is where I believe I can make a difference.
Get inside and shut the door! Keeping the Maverick Nature Alive
My studio has a door on it and before I go in every morning I tell myself I am going to get inside and shut the door, then tell the truth as impartially as I know how. It is tricky. We are all biased and interpret the world around us, but to me some of it doesn’t make sense to curious thinkers and those who want to change and reinvent its rules through their artistic practices.
I know I need to be genuine in my honesty and that will be my truth. Learners can sniff out the phoney, even though I believe all teachers are acting up in their role, but with careful relationships and classroom negotiation we can spread our maverick gospel and work it successfully alongside the conforming practices we are asked to fulfil. Our team is fortunate to be able to embed philosophies and encourage student inquiry from deeply within the projects we offer. My immediate colleague is a fellow ‘maverick’ and being as thick as thieves we plot and plan our illicit challenges to thinking and practice in each of the curricular units we have to deliver for the Further Education art & design diploma programme.
So what are our strategies and how do we achieve them?
We need to offer students space to think for themselves, question themselves, the work of others and respond in open dialogue which we encourage through seminars and small group work. Most have come from the didactic ‘chalk and talk’ cultures, of being told what to do and how to do it. We run a successful ‘propaganda’ poster and brochure project, where students respectfully speak up on the subjects they care for and about. They debate them, challenge their motivations, and then we offer a more public ‘pop-up’ show of what we have concluded. The results are artistically excellent, where students have tackled their interests in a meaningful way.
Notable past offenders – a rebellious student who tried to provoke me with a ‘Keep Calm, get an Erection’ poster idea. It turned into a double-bluff as I decided to welcome her provocation and sent her into the local town to challenge members of the public with her poster. She argued with a bus inspector that the shelter she posted it up in was ‘an erection’, was ironically chased out of a branch of Ann Summers, and was at one point on the run from the police. Her provocations were soft, and the student’s observations of public attitudes was evaluated into a very successful, socially scientific / art-based project.
I would support the risky decisions and encouragements to be maverick and learnt valuable lessons about empowering certain types of student through more left-field approaches. No harm was ultimately done, no lives spoiled, and we all lived happily to the next day and project!
I am a game-player, and I expose my own vulnerabilities to a point, but astutely, not beyond it. Through demonstrating my artistic frailties – can’t always draw well, can’t always come up with good ideas, don’t always make deadlines, make mistakes in my work; I get learners respectfully on-side. I know of colleagues who wouldn’t dare let their guard down, and perhaps this too is a key maverick educators’ strategy?
We are role models and I have understood through my research that many of us who call ourselves maverick had a maverick role model to offer us the permission to subvert, through their own overt demonstration.
I have been placed in a position of responsibility to nurture young lives, and take that seriously, so it is at this point that I endorse the notion of the structured responsible maverick, who is not chaotic, but the MOST carefully considered individual in the classroom. If you are going to take risks, you need to be aware of the consequences of your actions and that means not endangering the welfare of students.
A final thought … On one occasion, I took a cohort of students to the circus. I knew the Ukrainian high wire walker very well, she is an expert in her field, and offered us all the chance to walk the wire. I knew it was not on the risk assessment and proceeded to allow it. I had reasoned the chances of tripping over the tent ropes and pegs to be far greater than injury through fall from the wire, when the expert would be leading and guiding students across the wire. It was not high off the ground but high enough to have set the alarm bells ringing!!! Despite my confidence in students keeping discretion, excited individuals could not contain themselves, and duly posted their acrobatic achievements online!
It was promptly picked up by a line manager, I was called to account immediately and returned to the university to explain my crass behaviour – and I expect you can guess the rest …
Would I do it again? You decide … Was I sacked, no! What does this say about mavericks being necessary to upset and disrupt? You probably know the answer to that also.
In concluding, students currently entering the early – mid 21st Century must not, I believe take what they are told lying down. As social media cleverly and very softly takes control of lives whilst leading us to believe we are empowered and in control, those of us who passed through the relative innocence of the 80s need to pass on the maverick baton to ensure resistance is often in the face of regulations we believe to be morally and ethically wrong.
Keeping the Maverick Nature Alive in students. I will continue, out of my experience to behave as I do, where I believe in doing so, I might just be helping to keep the maverick spirit alive in the art school and beyond it.