First Day Activities, Teach@CUNY

First-Day Activities: Imagining Artworks

By Joy Connolly

On the first day, I like to ask students the following questions.  Imagine a non-verbal artwork — a musical composition, a painting, a sculpture, a digital image — that captures what you think an ideal class should be and feel like.  Is it a jazz band or choral performance, where instruments or voices resonate with one another?  Or the glorious chaos of a painting by Jackson Pollock?  What kind of intellectual dialogic experience does your artwork convey?

The students describe their pieces and explain their reasoning.  It’s a creative, encouraging way to explore and open up students’ ideas of what a classroom experience should be.  For myself, I offer the picture of a sculpture by Anthony Caro. For me, it embodies three important ideals: ideas and arguments burst forth from a level floor, conveying the dynamism and equity I value in the classroom, and it is slightly awkward, the L shape in front dominating the smaller planks in the background — like so many classes, with some voices louder or more frequent than others, but still maintaining an essential balance.

To imagine the classroom in aesthetic terms also allows the students to think of their contributions as artistic gestures made in collective space, which both challenges and frees them to think creatively and contribute more frequently.  When this exercise works well, the classroom becomes an artwork that it is up to them to create — a memory whose effect can ripple through the entire semester. I occasionally end class meetings with the question of which artwork that particular class recalled — which allows for a peculiarly reflective and insightful self-criticism on all our parts.

Dr. Joy Connolly is the Provost and Senior Vice President of the Graduate Center and a Professor of Classics.

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