Bob Ross-ing It

Jess: What is this sorcery?
Me: We didn’t need Harry Potter; we had Bob Ross.

It’s late afternoon in the office, and, looking for something else, I happen upon The Joy of Painting with Bob Ross on Hulu. I decided that there wouldn’t be a better way to end the day than with 30 minutes of happy little trees.

Jess, a co-worker, had never seen an episode of The Joy of Painting or had even heard of Bob Ross. We spent the next 30 minutes mesmerized by an episode of the show, where in that time he produced a complete painting replete with the usual mix of clouds, trees, mountains, water, and such. I whooped like I watching a hockey game. “Wait for it! He’s getting out his knife! OOOOOOOH! THE FAN BRUSH! HAPPY! LITTLE! TREES!”

If you’ve never seen an episode of the show, then click on the link above and watch one, for free, on his YouTube channel. If you’ve never met me, then you probably don’t know that Bob Ross and I could not be more opposite in our demeanor. Jess giggled when Ross would say, “now, let’s get crazy,” his tone never changed from the soothing, even tone while I was cheering, YES! CRAZY!

Watching the show, now, after not having seen an episode in years, put into sharp focus how much my approach to teaching and learning has changed, how much it has stayed the same, and how, inadvertently, it was shaped by Bob Ross and his show about painting. And how much it still can.

“It’s so important to do something every day that will make you happy.”

My first introduction to Bob Ross was sitting in my grandmother’s living room with her, watching it on PBS. Nanny was an amateur painter herself. She had painted when she was younger, but gave it up, picking it up again after kicking her 40+ year smoking habit. In the 20 or so years between when she picked up her brushes again and then passed away, she probably painted almost 1000 paintings, large and small.

To me, what Bob Ross and my grandmother did and really what any artist does was like magic. Ross, in particular, made it look effortless. And it certainly was filled with joy. My grandmother, for whom my other strongest memory was of her listlessly lying on her couch and smoking the day away, was changed after she started painting again. Joyful was never a word anyone would use to describe Nanny, but she was certainly happier and livelier once she started painting again. I would visit and she would show me the various paintings she was working on, the folded over pages in magazines and sticky notes in calendars she would use for inspiration for her next 10 paintings, at least. I loved listening to her go on and on about her painting.

For me, though, there was no joy in painting, or in any art, really. All thumbs and with hopeless sense of depth and shadow, painting held no joy. And I didn’t understand effortlessness in any realm. I saw there were people who possessed it, like Bob Ross, in all different areas. Even swimming, the things that brought me joy (if I could sell a book or tv show called The Joy of Swimming, I would), was far from effortless for me. Red-faced, tear-streaked, and bruised (yes, bruised), in either practices or races, I would cringe at how my times stayed stubbornly the same.

Bob Ross was soothing, insofar as he would reassure me that anything was possible, if I just worked long and hard enough at it, but at the same time I knew that, really, I could, but it would bring me no joy. I would watch, with my grandmother, bewildered by this man who was so self-possessed, so self-assured, so much the opposite of what I felt all the time. I took joy in their joy, but struggled to find it for myself.

“Gotta give him a friend. Like I always say, ‘Everyone needs a friend.'”

My last two years in Sherbrooke, where I did my undergraduate and Master’s degrees, three of us lived in a spacious apartment downtown, further away from campus, but within walking distance from things to do, places to eat and drink and dance. Weekends often found our apartment filled with people who came out with us and then crashed at our place, too drunk to drive, too broke to take a cab. We would spend the day recovering, eating ramen or mac and cheese, watching TV (we had cable). And, a few times a year, often around mid-terms and finals, PBS would be doing their pledge drive, and there would be a Bob Ross marathon on.

Sherbrooke is a French university, and so unsurprisingly, most of my friends were Francophone. PBS wasn’t something they typically watched, let alone this guy with an Afro painting landscapes. They had never heard of Bob Ross, and I converted every single of them into being a fan of the show. We spent hours, sitting all together on the couch, a couch that had been in student apartments in Sherbrooke for over ten years, passed from brother to brother to sister. It was huge, and we would all fit on it, together, for a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, with visions of happy little trees and lazy rivers dancing in front of us, and Bob Ross reassuring us that, really, everything was going to be ok.

That was the couch where later I would spend almost a year, listlessly watching tv, and those were some of the friends who got me through it, made sure I ate, made sure I wasn’t always alone despite my best efforts, sat with me in silence watching with me, because there wasn’t anything else to be done with me or for me. When we watched Bob Ross, all together, exhausted, stressed out, hung over, I felt safe and it got me through. I, in turn, shared what food I had, my facility with English (most were classmates in English Studies), and a place where they knew they would always be welcome and never be judged.

Those moments, those are the moments I take with me from my time as a student at Sherbrooke. They were moments of magic, really, in times of varying degrees of chaos for most of us. I stayed and did my Master’s because I found joy in literature and I had amazing professors, but it was with my classmates and my friends that I found moments of effortlessness. They were mundane and fleeting and almost impossible to predict and recreate, but they were there.

“Water’s like me. It’s lazy. Boy, it always looks for the easiest way to do things.”

Of course, nothing is ever effortless, although there are always things can seem to come more easily, more readily, more beautifully to some than to others. For me, there were always two things: writing and teaching. Or rather, writing and speaking passionately about stuff that I am interested in in front of large groups of people. But the two are often conflated.

I write blog posts, in particular, the way Bob Ross paints on his show: with a general idea of what we want to accomplish, but open to “happy accidents” along the way. It appears (and even sometimes feels) effortless. Or, less kindly, like I didn’t put any effort into it. But there is the always effort, always the practice and thinking, technique and time.

I wonder if there is a b-reel of unaired episodes of The Joy of Painting where the painting just didn’t work that day, or the happy clouds turned into a mess or the happy trees just didn’t stand. I hope there is, because of all the abandoned, unpublished, private, scrawled, and unlovable words I have written over the years. Or perhaps episodes that did air where Ross felt like it wasn’t his best work or his best effort, but there it was anyway, like so much of my writing, too, that goes out and just…fades away.

What there is also is the memory, in my students and in myself, of failed lectures (so many failed lectures), exercises, activities, and even entire courses. The Joy of Teaching, live, with an audience of critical, disinterested (long-live the gen-ed I’ve always taught), overwhelmed, and underfunded students. The lasting record of those courses are etched in evals, for better or for worse. They stick with me. They remind me of all the things I am not in attempting to create or recreate a moment of magic, of learning, of connection.

“Be so very light. Be a gentle whisper.”

I haven’t been writing nearly so much lately. The blog post, as flexible and versatile as it is, just wasn’t working for me anymore. There was nothing but effort, heaviness, pounding on keyboards, abandoning words, abandoning ideas before they even became words because they didn’t feel like blog posts, but something else. I didn’t know what. Something more like this, I suppose, something more like me.

I push too much and I try too hard and I plan and stress and worry and there is a weight that I carry with me, especially when I teach. Generally, I would not be described as being light or a gentle whisper, and I tend to hold tightly, too tightly. Bob Ross is the epitome of chill. I have, as they say, no chill. None whatsoever.

In my imagination, there is a point where, despite its flexibility, Bob Ross tires of painting landscapes in a half an hour. Did he dream of murals and large-scale landscapes, or maybe miniatures or (gasp) watercolors? Or was he just so chill, so in touch with who he was and what he was good at that he was happy, content to paint in 30 minute intervals?

I get restless. I throw out what was working, maybe for something better. Again and again. Bob Ross provides a stabilizing voice, a predictability, a flag-bearer for owning who you are and what you do best. He just wanted to get us to all love and enjoy painting as much as he did. And he just trusted that he could get you there.

“If you do too much, it’s going to lose its effectiveness.”

From a recent piece in the New York Times, examining the lasting popularity of Bob Ross, the closing paragraph:

[Kowalski] has a theory about why Ross has endured. “If you listen closely to Bob’s programs, he never says ‘I’m going to teach you this,’” Ms. Kowalski said. “He never assumes that he knows more than you do. He says: ‘We’ll learn this together.’ And I think — even though people don’t realize it — I think that’s what his big turn-on is.”

And then one semester, I learned to let go, at least somewhat. And I keep working on letting go, and letting my students become a part of the learning experience, rather than me carrying on, telling them, I am going to teach you this. I wanted to make room for happy accidents, and so I had to stop planning my courses within an inch of their lives.

I remember my grandmother, excitedly sharing her painting, her inspiration, and most importantly, her paintings themselves, with me. Those paintings still grace my walls, and my children, who never met her, know the stories behind the paintings, and the woman who was so much more than my grandmother. Every student in my classroom is so much more than that, and they deserve to have moments of excitedly discovering and sharing their interests and even passions.

But the students often didn’t know how to react to this looser format in the class. Maybe (probably) because I don’t radiate the zen-like calm that Bob Ross does, or maybe it’s because the students aren’t used to a professor who says things like, hey, that’s interesting, let’s explore this further, and model the process, warts and all, with them.

Maybe I still haven’t figured out how to recreate the necessary environment to have such epiphanies, such moments of quiet intimacy. My intimacy is too loud and too overwhelming. How do I create a variety of spaces, loud and quiet, safe and unsure, crowded and vast, limited and endless?

Like what Bob Ross does, in 30 minutes, over and over again, on his canvas?

“You can do anything you want to do. This is your world.”

It’s not perfect. It’s never perfect. It’s messy and it’s unpredictable and it’s scary. If the students are challenging to convince, faculty can prove to be…almost impossible. Faculty often see the classroom as the canvas where they can do anything they want, instead of seeing the students as being empowered to paint their own pictures.

I want to paint for faculty a different picture of what their classrooms can be like, what their students can do, what they role in the process can be. The Joy of Teaching Differently. How long did it take Bob Ross to get to a point where he could feel comfortably and confident and ultimately capable of being the teacher he was? When do I get to that point?

One way for me has been to write and keep writing. To keep sharing words as openly and as honestly as possible. Maybe there is no zen-like calm, but there is, hopefully, an authenticity. Here is what I did, here is why I did it, here is why it worked or it didn’t. Here is how I’ll try to do better next time.

Bob Ross had 30 minutes. I have 15 weeks, others 10, some a whole series of courses. If poetry is never finished, only abandoned, what about our courses, or, more appropriately, our students? There are always, always things that have to be left unlearned. Particularly in my situation, the situation that most faculty now find themselves in higher education, we are together for a semester in a course, and then we abandon each other, unfinished.

I have 15 weeks to try and recreate the world, hopefully iterating and improving each time. The students have 15 weeks to hopefully start creating and exploring their own world, to be abandoned, torn down, forgotten, or maybe, if there are moments of magic for them, becoming a place to keep building, to keep trying, to keep learning.

“You need the dark in order to show the light.”

In every episode, there is at least one moment where Ross cleans his brush and then beats it to clear the water out. It is his one moment where he gladly admits he is letting out his frustration. This is part of the process as well. And even that, he manages to make joyful and magical.

I am not Bob Ross, nor will I ever be. I will, probably, always be too big and too loud and too much, despite my best attempts at balance. The cracks will always show. There will continue to be many, many happy accidents, big and small.

But there are still things that I can give to my students, give for my students. The imperfect can be beautiful and valuable and will not end the world. That effortlessness is to be admired but is often difficult to be recreated and that’s ok. There will the other moments. It’s ok to get excited, and it’s ok to be disappointed.

Can I create a privileged space for them to feel like they can achieve these goals, less tangible, and more open-ended? Because that is a privileged space, one that the students not only won’t be accustomed to, but might never had had access to? That is something I can do, cracks and messiness and loudness and all.

I’m going to start my classes now by showing them an episode of The Joy of Painting. I might be setting the bar too high, or creating unrealistic expectations in my students, but I figure, why not? At least for a moment, we can have a shared experience of magic.

All quotes from Bob Ross unless otherwise noted are taken from here:


What if I Never See You Again?

Last week, I was at the Educause ELI conference. I have more thoughts about the conference, particularly as it relates to my new role at DTLT and UMW, but for now I want to reflect on the experience of the conference itself.

Going to ELI meant that I was able to more fully connect with a new network and community of people, particularly people who are at liberal arts institutions. I am at the intersection of two new realms: Not only is this my first job at a liberal arts institution, it is my first job in what can be loosely considered instructional technology. While the focus of ELI isn’t exclusively the liberal arts, there is a group now for SLACs.

But, I already knew a lot of the people through my social networks, and a lot of people knew me because of my blog and Twitter presence. I had earned a certain degree of (for lack of a better word) legitimacy even though I was also a newbie. I might have felt out of place (largely a result of my own impostor syndrome) at the beginning of the conference, but by the end, I knew that I belonged within the community and network.

And then, the rumor hit that Twitter was scrapping their current format and moving to an algorithmic format. What does that mean? Currently Twitter shows tweets from your followers chronologically. They want to change the format to allow an algorithm to decide which tweets you see.

This news sent shockwaves through my network, and across Twitter at large. And as we began discussing the implications of such a change, it became very clear to me what one of my biggest fears is with a change like that: what if I never seen those people and parts of my network again?

There are two pieces to my social media presence: my network and my community. Can an algorithm tell the difference? I don’t always reply or like a tweet from my community, while I RT resources from my larger network to the benefit of, largely, my community.

That’s probably a simplistic example, but I learn the rhythms of my community within the network. I know I’ll see the latest news from, say, the NYT (shudder) form various sources, RT, and scheduled tweets throughout the day. But I have to learn when and where members of my community are active, reading, tweeting, listening, responding.

My community is important to me. It’s big and loud and messy and generally wonderful and supportive and I learn a tremendous amount from them. There is value in that. There is value in my larger network, too, but what happens to community when an algorithm takes over?

The flip side of this fear, of course, is what if no one ever sees me again? What if my presence is erased from the community. Of course it took writing this post to realize that, ultimately, that fear is real in me. For someone who has built her reputation and credibility through public platforms, what happens when they are taken away. I’ve already let go of one, but what if the other is also taken away?

I’m working hard in my digital students class to get students to try and see what is often overlooked or erased, to hear what is often lost in the noise. Somehow, in a moment, I was able to find a space so I could be heard and seen. I have worked hard to see and hear. But what happens when we are silenced, erased, forgotten?

It’s a selfish position, and one that has been explored more generally (and we’re going to explore in the course), but for someone who went from being geographically isolated to involved in some of the most important conversations around the future of higher education, I know what the stakes can be.

That, and I’d really miss everyone.

Teaching and Learning as Paying Attention

Last semester, I taught a book and an author I have long loved and studied, but haven’t been able to engage much with in a classroom setting: I am a Japanese Writer by Dany Laferrière (yes, he’ll come up a lot in this space). The book is a meditation on identity, authorship, creativity, and memory. I knew it would be unlike just about anything the Introduction to Literature students had ever read.

One way into literature that I like to introduce students to is to look for patterns. You might not know what it means, but when an author keeps coming back to a theme or an image or some other noticeable repetition, then we, as readers, should stop and take a look. What is also interesting to me, as an educator and scholar, is how we each notice different things, based on our own embodied self and experience.

One pattern that I hadn’t noticed in the book was how the author refused coffee and only drank tea in the narrative. A number of students picked up on it and pointed it out. They weren’t sure what it meant, thought about the connection to Japanese culture, but were stumped beyond that. What they didn’t (and really couldn’t) know what that the author’s grandparents lived on a coffee plantation and one of his other autobiographical novels was called An Aroma of Coffee.

So then we looked at the scenes where he refused coffee. Each one was an instance of his radicalized identity being emphasized in some way as a Haitian living in Montreal. We looked at the scene before and after it. We noted the significance we get from only reading the text but then also knowing how the reference may fit into his larger canon.

Pay attention, the author is telling us. This might be significant. Take notice, take note.

These moments of shared revelation (I told my students honestly that I hadn’t noticed the coffee vs tea and we were going to try to make meaning of it together) happened quite a bit in this class. I was taken to task in some of my course evaluations for being “disorganized” but really I was trying to model a version, my version, of trying to make meaning. Learning is messy. Often it begins as a disorganized mess, and we weave our way into something more meaningful.

I am conscious, as an educator, that one of my responsibilities is to introduce students to things they may not have noticed before and to try and start making meaning from them. This semester, I’m teaching Digital Studies 101, Introduction to Digital Studies. I was thinking about the class just as Hook and Eye was blogging and tweeting about #inclusivesyllabus, a challenge to take a hard look at who and what we teach in our classes.

And so I made the commitment to try and assign a majority of women and people of color authors, scholars, and activists in the course. You can see the full syllabus here, but it is a work in progress. This is what I told my students the class will be about:

The theme of this class is going to be Absence, Invisibility, Erasure. We will be focusing specifically on interrogating what is not seen, not recognized, marginalized, and even silenced through the digital. We will also be looking at approaches that address these gaps and lacks. 

The first act was to assign the Afrofuturist novel Midnight Robber by Nalo Hopkinson. What does Afrofuturism have to do with digital studies? We’re going to find out (a lot actually, but I’m still formulating these ideas and reading all the things), but this particular novel (among many other things) provokes us to imagine the digital from a different cultural heritage and perspective.

And I built out from there. The suggested readings and resources for the modules will consist of a number of different sources and perspectives, including Model View Culture, Auntie Pixelante, Tressie McMillan Cottom, and others.

(In other news, I need to get my links organized…)

I want these discussions to be varied and to have these voices brushing up against each other, to notice the differences, the spaces, the gaps, the silences. To have the students ask, if they have never thought of these issues, why not? If they have never heard these perspectives, why not? And what does that mean? And what will they do?

I believe very deeply in empowering students to take ownership of their learning. But I also believe in my role as someone who facilitates a space where they are confronted with the limits of their knowledge, of their perspective, of their worldview. This class, then, for me, is an opportunity for all of us to pay attention, notice, and then create and learn.

Let’s see how it goes.

Telling and Retelling

Dany Laferrière has a new book out. It’s a(nother) retelling, another version of his arrival in Montreal as a young man, fleeing Haiti and dictatorship, in 1976. I have been fascinated by his constant and continual revising of his life story through varying levels of autobiographical fiction. I also just love his writing.

I sat down to start reading the book the day after I found out I would be saying goodbye to my old blog space. The email had come the morning before, over the holidays, after a great upheaval in my life. It was just one more thing I would have to say goodbye to, to let go of.

This particular version of Laferrière’s arrival story is one that is for a different audience (a newly arrived immigrant to Montreal in 2015) and one that has been informed by 40 years of living in Montreal, 30 years of being a celebrated author, and a handful of years of being a member of the prestigious Académie française, and thus, in the words of the organization, immortal.

So how does all of that, change in audience, change in position, standing, change in life (he’s now a grandfather), change in the world at large, change the story?

I didn’t get very far into it because it trigger too many thoughts, too many emotions, too many parallels with my current situation. It resonated in a way that caused me to have to put the book down and think.

And write.

Because this is my story’s reboot. Five years ago, I started a blog. And now I’m in a completely different place, personally and professionally. And so I have a new space, too.

So my mind wanders back to the literary research I’ve done, and thought I had left behind, and the life I’m currently rebuilding and rewriting. What does it mean to rewrite your life? What does it mean to have your life, in various forms, on various platforms?

I want to go back and read the book now. It feels good to want to read again.