Every day, several times a day, and for extended periods of time, I think about writing and dance and the teaching of each. I compare and contrast and I find myself forever returning to the same conclusion: writing and dance are both performing arts—significantly different in some ways, but essentially they both encompass the act of performance. As a teacher of each, then (teaching writing at a college and dance at my studio as well as judging dance competitions, which is a kind of teaching), my job is to teach students to perform. That is, my job is to help them improve as performers who render subjective expressions with the hope of affecting an audience.
Teaching performance is unique and special and challenging for many reasons because performance is an act that one person can never do for another. I can’t write your papers for you. I can’t go on stage in your stead.
I rely upon the same philosophy (in teaching, we call the set of theoretical principles or values that underlie and inform one’s teaching a pedagogy) which I have developed and continue to develop every day, in both my teaching of writing and of dance. I would like to share some of the tenets of what I call my pedagogy of performance.
My pedagogical framework is further enlightened and complicated (in a good way) by my fascination with 4E cognition and with affect theory, both of which contribute greatly to the understandings that allow me to relate to my students and to help inspire them to render their best performances.
In this one blog post, I would like to focus first and foremost on the first essential element of my pedagogy of performance.
This is the concept of autopoiesis.
It feels strange and intimidating at first to encounter this Greek word but let’s take it apart, consider its history, and acquaint ourselves with its rather lovely meaning and the limitless possibilities that thinking this way can offer our students. Put most simply, “auto” means “self” and “poiesis” means “creation” or “production.” So the term means “self-creation,” or “self-production.” Sounds exciting, doesn’t it? I really think so.
Autopoiesis comes to us from biology. The term was first used in 1972 when Chilean biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela were seeking to understand “cognition.” They wanted to know how living systems—whether a single cell, or a single organism, or a single person, or an entire community, or an entire ecosystem—learn to better survive within their environments: that is, to “self-produce.” They realized that autopoietic systems have two characteristics that I will try to explain simply:
- They are operatively closed. This means that they do their own thing. They are a unity, set apart from a background. There is something about them that makes them unique and self-contained and individual.
- They are interactionally open. They interact with their environment and the actors in it, can react to changes in their environment, and can be changed by the environment.
Perhaps most importantly, they have a sense of drive, of moving forward, of wanting to continue their operations so when they encounter problems, instead of stopping, they move ahead with the changes prompted by their environments. Thus they come to make sense of their environments through their interactions. They learn; they improve; they grow. This growth, or increase in complexity as a result of changes from continuing to operate but being open to changes prompted by the environment, is what Maturana and Varela call “evolution.”
Autopoiesis is the self-driven evolution, the “making sense” of one’s environment, the getting better at facing challenges that result from (1) maintaining your own identity and (2) being open to changes in response to your environment.
Perhaps most strikingly, we don’t know (and it doesn’t even matter!) what propels an autopoietic system forward. The reasons don’t even matter and you don’t have to know where you’re going or even have a specific goal as to where you’ll end up. The learning happens as you just do your thing and make adjustments as necessary.
The brilliant biologist Lynn Margulis and her son (by famed cosmologist Carl Sagan), Dorion Sagain, wrote in their book What is Life? That living things and systems are driven by some “internal teleology of the autopoietic imperative.” This phrase and its mystery give me goosebumps and deeply inspire my teaching. I remind myself that my students are driven by something internal, maybe invisible, and it’s my job to help them access that. As long as they keep moving forward, it’s certain they will actualize their individual destinies. Who’d have thought such a powerful and subjective concept would be borrowed from biology by artists?
Understood this way, I believe that writers, dancers, and all performers are autopoietic systems. They are unified, complete, self-contained individuals who are open to changes prompted by their environments. As a teacher, I am one of the outside players who offer the opportunity for meaningful interactions to prompt those productive changes.
This is what it means to view learning as an autopoietic process.
Many teachers and students and administrators and parents and others still retain an ancient view of education called the “empty vessel” model of teaching and learning. Going all the way back to Aristotle, this classical concept views the student as an empty cup waiting to be filled by the overflowing cup of the teacher, as if “knowledge” were some liquid substance that can be easily poured from one person to another. I couldn’t more vehemently reject this view especially in the context of our performing arts.
Rather than as empty vessels, defined by lack and emptiness, I look at my students as fully self-contained, complete artists right from the beginning.
You’re not a student.
You’re not a student writer.
You’re not a student dancer.
You’re not a developing writer.
You’re not a beginner dancer.
You are a writer.
You are a dancer.
You are a performer.
I am also a writer/dancer/performer. I just happen to have more practice than you, so I will offer my advice as you write your papers and you perform your dances on the stage. And no matter what drives you, as long as you move forward, true to yourself and open to changes prompted by interactions with your audience, you will grow.
As I’ve said before, I can’t write your paper for you, but I can help. I can’t do your dance for you. These have to be owned by you. These are your operations. I will help, advise, supervise your practice, and I will stand in the wings (between the curtains on the side of the stage) while you perform. That is perhaps the most important job of a teacher—to stand in the wings while you perform. You know I’m there. I’m watching and I’m proud. But it’s you out there in the spotlight. It’s you out there interacting with the world. It’s you who must be guided by your own “internal teleology of the autopoietic imperative.”
You—and the performances you offer—are your own “self-creation.”
So this notion of autopoiesis or of autopoietic pedagogy or of an autopoietic approach to teaching constantly reminds me to view my students not as students, not as lacking talent or ability, or even as developing writers or dancers or performers, but as fully formed, complete, self-contained, self-referential unities of their own. I don’t—indeed cannot—teach them to perform. I merely guide them along onto a path whereby their own trajectory, their own inner motivation, their own wishes and hopes and dreams, drive them forward, allowing the miraculous process of autopoiesis to continue its course. The autopoietic act of performance is the best teacher; I am merely a cheerleader/critic/supportive audience standing in the wings.