If Artists Could Audit: A Case for a Class Pass
For the last four years, I have audited local university courses in Houston as part of a self-styled solo grad school. This post outlines my process and proposes scaling it up in my own city (or in any other city) as one addition to the many models of alternative education piloted by and for artists.
In the face of the current state of arts education – high costs, huge debt, inflating administrative staff and budgets, undersupported faculty, low job prospects afterwards, and perhaps most unappealingly, a poverty of perspective in the classroom determined by the narrow band of privilege that would allow someone to pursue an arts degree in the USA – many artists have piloted alternative education models.
These approaches to education by and for artists have taken various forms including informal DIY meeting groups, itinerant curricula, courses curated from existing cultural programs in a city, barter based peer-to-peer learning networks, public labs, finite workshop series, working-living-research environments, two year pedagogical models, schools set within residency structures, or over a given program period, temporary schools as programming for arts institutions, application based courses that charge tuition, and more. Some of them took every one of these shapes and then some. Some deliberately took any shape other than a school. Their degree of school and their degree of free varies with accessibility, expense, and viability.
As someone who has both taken enthusiastic advantage of alternative arts education models in my city1, and as someone who has piloted some of my own2, I’ve learned a lot. I’m a student and supporter of the many frameworks we can use to find a new way within, around, through, and beyond the impasse of higher ed.
Many of these novel models have now travelled up the food chain. Several have morphed into partnerships with, or content providers for, established art schools. Several of the founders became faculty at these art schools. Some programs that began as alternatives have become the gateways of pedigree. Several art schools introduced low residency programs. New degree granting schools were formed. This November there is an Alternative Art School Fair. An entire MFA class of the USC Roski School dropped out in protest. Clearly, things are in flux.
But despite all these infiltrations/incorporations/co-optations (depending on your perspective), I still couldn’t see existing MFA programs as a viable option. And despite being a serial participant in and instigator of alternative models, I still needed something more to feed my mind and practice.
What ended up working for me was a self-styled solo version of grad school. It was a meantime, hometown, slowed down, also-working, barebones, bootstraps version of infrastructure for my practice. It was manageable, affordable, generative, stimulating, and leaky.
It looked like this:
As compared to the Low Residency programs that have proliferated, my solo school was Ultra-Res. The idea was staying put and grabbing every resource around me in my city – determining a radius and then finding all the people to learn from within it.
My solo school included a lot of elements common both to artists trying to sustain their practices and to the alternative education models listed above:
– Program hopping – keeping up with calendars around town and going to every lecture possible
– Studio visits – regularly, I used them as deadlines for projects that had no deadlines
– Exchanges – skill shares, how-to trades
– Independent study – deep reading lots of books even if I didn’t know anyone else reading them
– Brain gym while at the gym (or on walks) – podcasts, lectures and MOOCs
– Naming stuff learning – considering activism and organizing as its own learning experience3
– Making that a residency – calling accompanying my partner on a work retreat on a farm and reading about Information Politics a residency, calling my trip to see family on the beach and reading The Body in Pain a residency. No application necessary, restorative, crunchy for the brain, and time to think.
The least common element of my solo school was auditing. Since 20124 I’ve been fortunate to sit in on at least one course per semester at Rice University and University of Houston. The process goes like this:
Finding out what to audit started by checking what the books I was reading had listed on their back cover as their discipline, what department the paradigm shifting lecturer belonged to, or what category the New Books Network put the juicy interviews in. Then I searched the course catalogs of the universities in my city. I got login access or course listing screenshots from current students,* and syllabi from friends who work at the schools,* or went to the campuses where syllabi and schedules are posted in the halls. Coordinating a schedule with my work, art work, and own work schedules required knowing the time, day, and who was teaching that course that semester, not just a publicly listed course description.
Then I sent emails to professors. I always said “I’m an artist.*” (whether this helped or hurt) and why I was interested in their class. I learned to ask my friends who were colleagues of the professors to vouch for me.* My friend who works at Rice sent a glowing recommendation about me to the faculty.* I listed the relevant shows I was in, especially the museum show.* I offered to put the next professor in touch with the previous professor as a reference.* I tried lots of things: Object-Oriented Ontology, Feminism, History of the Petrochemical Industry, Architecture, Urban Planning, Art History, etc. Out of 12 tries, I audited 4 classes. Of the 7 no-gos, 3 were refusals, 2 were no response, 2 didn’t work out because that faculty was on leave, and one course I tried but dropped because I was too eager to jump ahead in the course material in way that was not helpful for the actual students.
Setting ground rules
I began each course asking the professor how much they preferred I speak up or just listen. Sometimes it changed over the course of the class. We determined how much I would participate. Typically, I did the readings and was included in discussions, but did not turn in anything that took up class crit time or the professor’s grading time. Instead, I worked on opened version of these assignments in my own projects in the city.
What came out of it
Each of the courses informed a major project, ongoing work, or new collaborations with both professors and students. Landscape and Site Strategies for Houston became a year long video project about oilfield services campuses and organizing a “Houston Has a Labor History?” panel, Urban Determinants turned into working with my shero on a toolkit for retrofitting singles apartments with play spaces for families, Houston Architecture began my fixation on the history of the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston’s building and inspired me to populate my exhibition there with alternative architectural models by students and visitors, Art and Urban Society Latino America kicked off a somatic drawing series and had me claim queer tango as a part of my practice after dancing for nine years.
What else was good
It was free (besides parking and books)
It let me learn about other disciplines
It got me (and my thought cycles) outside of narrow critical whirlpools
It got my projects out into the city
I met colleagues in other fields
It gave a community and framework for research intensive work
I could maintain my own practice and part time/contract/grant gigs as well
It was a form of self-care while I was responsible for being a caregiver for others
It made it possible for me to stay in my city and grow. Without auditing these courses I would not have had the inspiration and intellectual activation necessary to keep my practice in development. Being able to get an ongoing education in my city meant I could keep being an artist in my city.
It made it possible for me to continue organizing and advocacy work because it fed me new ideas in when I was depleted and opened up new thoughts when I was frustrated. In the midst of advocating for better, auditing classes was an exercise in proving to myself that the world was bigger.
My self-styled grad school also kept me feeling that my work mattered and that I was in rigorous dialogue. It provided enough critical reinforcement and peer-to-peer feedback with other thinkers that I felt excited, valued, and sure about my own work – all without too much fear of missing out or worry about career boxes unchecked. In this way, it let me pick some unique values over ubiquitous art world values and gave me a postgrad alternative to the hotspot circuit that allowed me to broaden my practice outside the art bubble, into my city, and into other fields.
For these reasons, I’m proposing a Class Pass.
A city could scale this auditing experiment by giving its artists passes that grant them student status across colleges, allowing them to audit classes, take the shuttles, attend conferences, use the libraries, and visit the museums. This would be skinny but powerful infrastructure – the point of which for the artist would be to get an ongoing education in a range of disciplines that inform their work, and the point of which for the city would be to have more interesting artists who are incrementally more incentivized to stay.
I believe this is viable now because of the role of artists in cities.
It doesn’t matter if Richard Florida is full of shit – cities believe him. They believe that “creatives” have the secret sauce that can turn around economies and put them on the map. So far, actual artists are drowning in images of artists used in city-boosting ad campaigns. So far, in this dynamic artists are capitalized on without receiving much in return.
As cities forefront the image of their thriving arts communities, there may actually be less corresponding support for artists behind it. For example, less individual artist grants for artist directed projects and more creative placemaking grants for artists as content providers for megaprojects. This distinction may be illegible or exciting from a funding level view, but from an artist level view it can be the difference between freedom of expression and public relations work.
Recently many U.S. American cities have had their cultural plans written, and in my experience, when the forums arrive at “Ok. So the arts make our cities great! Do we need to give the artists something so they keep doing all this for us?” the common answers are live/work space and exhibition opportunities. At worst these put artists into strategic locations, perpetuating the instrumentalization of artists as property flipping agents. The Class Pass, by contrast, gives artists something that cannot be taken back from them: education – and also something that makes any population harder to exploit: education.
It would look good on the first city that introduces such a pass, evidencing that it supports the arts ecosystem which enriches the city long term, instead of just immediately capitalizing on its “arts” which accelerates how quickly that city’s culture conforms copy-and-paste to every other “world class” city.
I think such a pass for artists can be argued for with precedents like the Artist Placement Group in the 60s-80s, or with Minneapolis’ system of placing artists within city departments, but here the project is undetermined, the education is what’s on offer. The artist has a new resource without a shrinking of creative autonomy.
Some problems with the model and how scaling it addresses them
Like actual art school, the main problem with my solo school of art is access. There’s a * in the process paragraphs above for each time I used my existing cultural cache, my extra free time, my existing network, and/or my white lady body to access these resources. But many of these “requirements” would be eliminated by scaling it citywide – a pass giving access for any of a city’s artists to be able to audit classes at that city’s universities. Scaling it reduces the necessity of a flexible schedule, because if any of the classes are potentially auditable, the scheduling options are much wider. Scaling it eliminates the necessity of a network, because you don’t have to pull personal connections to get faculty permission to get into a class, you just get to get in. Scaling it reduces the amount of time required by participants, because most of my time was spent on getting in, not on actually attending the classes, and many more people have the time to show up for classes than have time to orchestrate getting access to classes by themselves.
Yes, the class pass idea is problematic because it gives artists a privileged status over other students. However, as mentioned above, artists already have a privileged and instrumentalized and problematic status in cities right now – we could at least ask for something in return that can inform and give stamina to our next-world building work. We use “artist” as the password for this pass because “artist” is sexy right now and cities owe us right now, though the pass need not actually be policed as only for artists.
Like ghostwriting visa application agencies that help you appear as an artist, or invoking the role of artist in other social critiques, as our title is being used we can use it to open more entry points into gated enclave education. Of course, I believe that the real answer is fighting for education as a basic human right, but this is one idea for starting where we are right now.
It skims off existing infrastructure.
This is a political and philosophical problem that I reconcile by considering what “skim off” and “infrastructure” in higher ed means right now. The current path of higher ed gives more access and resources to those who can get the name degree because they can afford to get the name degree. Elite schools have practically inexhaustable endowments for fewer students, while even public schools’ increasing tuition saddles students with greater and greater debt, and the reliance on undercompensated adjunct labor means the endeavor of educating cannot even regenerate itself. In this context, skimming off of becomes a rehearsal gesture for movements of redistributive justice. It’s a tight spot from which to try to make open space where everyone has access to learn. So in order for us, artists who image currently unimaginable futures, to keep doing so without burning out, retreating into a bubble, or being instrumentalized beyond recognition, I’m suggesting a Class Pass as one right here resource.
What I learned on the inside
I have two anecdotes to support my high-fallutin claims on what such a proposal could do:
One low point of my experiment came after waiting outside a seminar for two hours to ask a professor to audit who hadn’t responded to emails. I felt lame sitting on that carpeted hallway (even though I was excited to discuss ideas I’d been thinking through alone). I felt possibility shrink when that professor still said no. I felt acutely my lack of value as a non-customer student within an educational institution. I felt humiliated at my own audacity for believing so hard in intellectualism beyond academic pedigree. I felt like an entitled millennial (even as I deeply believe education is a right not a privilege). I felt dumb for not respecting the official admissions process (even as I did not want to be officially admitted). I felt ridiculous for thinking I could qualify without being vetted (even as I simultaneously believed this process to screen for class, pedigree, and privilege as often as for richness of perspective, intelligence, or ability to contribute to a learning environment).
One insight came when I took one course that was taught at two different universities by the same professor on different days, so I would join wherever fit my schedule each week. Within the same curriculum the quality of discussion varied greatly, and it was not according the prestige of the school. The more accessible and diverse school had much more interesting and complex discussions, and the class was better there.
Speculation about my role in the class
I’ve thought about how I “earned my keep” in these classes, and how having artist more artists in more classrooms might be good for everyone. Here’s my speculation:
#1. Saying much weirder ideas out loud that move the spectrum of imagination wider in seminar discussions. (when I was in a site design course with civil engineers and encouraged the way out ideas they almost threw out)
#2. Giving the professor someone to spar with in a way that let the discussions get a little more heated. (disagreeing with a point in the lecture gave an excuse for the prof to expound on their expertise or opened up the discussion for more students disagreeing with me, each other, the prof, in a generative way)
#3. The effect of “Oh, this person is choosing to be here not for a credit, but because they want to in their free time to apply to their own actual work in the world and they think they can learn from this professor. Maybe I can too.” (this was more of an effect in undergrad requirement courses and I just noticed a few less naps and phones in classes after the prof announced that I was not actually enrolled)
It’s really punishing right now to know that if you don’t do something that makes money it will not be valued in our society. It helps to have a community of people who do recognize your work, like in real grad school or within an academic discipline, but a permeable auditing framework is one way to micropilot mutual aid between thinkers and makers across disciplines that allows the benefits of reinforcement to ripple out instead of pool at the top of academic silos.
I believe this because one of my contract jobs involves organizing public talks between artists and faculty members in a range of disciplines, and it’s amazing what happens when you create even temporary platforms for exchange. For example, when a sociologist tells a dramaturg to imagine more interesting gender roles for artificial intelligence, or when a choreographer asks a quantitative imaging scientist who analyzes surveillance footage how his work is used. In this exchange both parties multiplied the area in which their work is potentially legible, of interest, and able to be engaged with. More sharing took the scarcity out.
Furthermore, the Class Pass would be a slow ambassador project for the arts. People who grew up here may have had their arts education end before completing elementary school, and even those who are experts in other fields often lack the basic fluency in art that artists often have in the sciences and humanities. Typical approaches to integrating the arts go through art history or arts institutions, but in my experience it can be really effective to just give working artists a chance to speak with other experts.
Up the Ante
If anyone is interested in this proposal, I’d be interested in further thinking through additional compensation for the professors, either from the city if they were really behind it, from the school for being “community engaged,” or from the local arts agency providing an actual educational resource for artists instead of the endless reel of resume tweaking professional development workshops for artists.
I’d also be interested to speak with anyone who may know about how an artist class pass could turn into an education visa beyond artists.
If this worked really well, and the classrooms got flooded with artists and everywhere offered such a pass, it would be tremendous chaos. Artists might leave elite MFA programs for free classes where they would learn about socially engaged work within a model that actually does it. Classes might be overwhelmed with excited outsiders eager to participate in discussions even without getting credit. Students might have their regular school day interrupted with strange proposals from unruly thinkers. Educators might have to contend with outside parasites who want to use what they learn in class to make projects in the world. Academics in all disciplines would know at least one working artist by name. Universities would find themselves contending with non-customer students. Schools without name brand recognition would find themselves celebrated in circulating cultural discourses. Artists would continue their flight from unaffordable former art centers and spread out across all cities. Cities might be compelled to provide a resource to those who are now considered their greatest resources, and everyone would start declaring themselves an artist to use these passes to get free ongoing education.
Clearly, my proposal is terribly flawed.
- ART, Skydive, Labotanica School of Latitudes, Ayanna Jolivet McCloud’s Writing in the Margins series at Project Row Houses, Antena writing series at Project Row Houses and Blaffer. More in this post. ↩
- Charge in 2014 and 2016 as weekend length symposiums and as a series of 10 programs over a 4 month long installation at Project Row Houses, and Sunblossom Residency, a pilot residency program in which middle school students chose seven multidisciplinary artists to teach them artmaking processes, also designed as a school of mutual aid for the artists in residence. ↩
- At one point, I spent about two years protesting a creative placemaking project with a network of other artists, cultural workers, and neighborhood residents who opposed the project for misusing the community they claimed to be celebrating. Despite the grueling, punishing, and absurd process, it was one of the strongest collaborations I’ve ever experienced. Because the work was collective, I was able to cope with the violence of endless doublespeak on behalf of the arts by believing that we as a united group of artists were learning how to shut it down next time. ↩
- It all started with Lynn McCabe’s feminist IART class open to the public. ↩
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