– Master/Novice

Since writing the “Wide eyed” post on novices, I’ve been seeing references to newness everywhere.  (Is my unconscious attention looking for them?)

Shirin Neshat, a “visual artist who works primarily in video,” has produced a body of work — Passage (2001), for example — that has garnered prizes and earned permanent placement in the collections of the Guggenheim, the Whitney, and the British Museum (Collins 86).  Although such a project has risks, she’s at work on her first film-length project, an adaptation of a novel by Iranian writer Shahmush Parsipur.  Neshat tells interviewer Lauren Collins that she felt “compelled to make Women Without Men“:

“It got to a point that it was a biennial here, a biennial there,” she said… “I started to get really tired of it. I needed a project that would let me be alone, let me be a beginner again.  I wanted to hide from the art world.  There was a danger that I would lose persepective–the integrity, honesty, and naïveté being washed away.” She pounded her fist against her palm to illustrate a wave eroding the shore. (90)

Historian and cultural critic Jacques Barzun is about to turn 100.  His former student, Arthur Krystal, “first encountered” Barzun in 1970, when Krystal was 22 and a graduate student at Columbia where Barzun, then 62, was University Professor of History; in spite of many differences, the two “hit if off” (Krystal 100).  Remarking on Barzun’s reputation and many accomplishments, Krystal points out a quality in his now friend that differentiates his work, and his stance, from others’:

Barzun regards himself in many respects as an “amateur” (the Latin root, amator, means “lover”), someone who takes genuine pleasure in what he learns about.  More than any other historian of the past four generations, Barzun has stood for the seemingly contradictory ideas of scholarly rigor and unaffected enthusiasm. (94)

I see that my friend and colleague Jan Donley, a writer and teacher, has altered the title of her website’s page on teaching to call it “Learning.”  One of my favorite running conversations with Jan has been on the seeming contradiction of being inside and outside an experience at once.  We’ve talked, for example, about being present in a classroom moment while stepping outside it, so that one can deeply participate and get some perspective, simultaneously.  A kind of duality.  It’s hard, requiring a person to let go and remain steady at the same time.  Now I’m mulling over Jan’s suggestion that, to be a teacher (and a writer), one must be a learner, too.

Which reminds me of a conversation I had last Easter with my father, Stephen Kokernak, about students.  (He was a teacher, a more than good one, of high school math for almost four decades.)  I was venting to him and my sister Sally about how some of my freshman students were not stepping up to the plate: not doing the reading, not bringing the book or homework to class.  My father commiserated as a teacher, and also talked about his own habits in college.  Then he said (something like this): “You know, I think it wasn’t until I became teacher that I finally figured out how to be a student, when I had to learn how to learn.”

To be a master and a novice at once seems key for being a teacher, writer, filmmaker.  Does the inverse work?  To be a student — a learner — must there be opportunities for teaching?


Collins, Lauren.  “Voice of the Veil” (Shirin Neshat).  New Yorker, Oct. 22, 2007.  86-92.
Krystal, Arthur.  “Age of Reason” (Jacques Barzun).  New Yorker, Oct. 22, 2007. 94-103.

One thought on “– Master/Novice

  1. I love the examples of Neshat and Barzun, as beginner and amateur–the notion of “taking genuine pleasure” in what one learns about–the notion of coming to any project with a certain innocence. And I had a similar experience to your father’s–the practice of teaching taught me how to be a student. I wish, as a teacher, I could figure out how to instill this notion of “learning how to learn” in students. I guess they have to come to it themselves, and maybe it’s our job, as teachers/learners, to help them find that path?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s