Experience Beyond Text

Fed up with students asking “How do I write my story?” lecturer Natasha MH takes her students through the mysteries of contemporary art to find the words.
By Natasha MH

For any student, even more so a media student, experience is everything. At IACT College, taking the students to the streets or taking the streets into the classroom – metaphorically – plays a cardinal role in how we enhance their learning. This is because as a learning institute we emphasize on problem-based learning, which means our approaches are hands on. For almost every module we offer, there are avenues and ample opportunities for outdoor classroom teaching and practical learning. It’s fun for both, the teacher and the students. We try as much as we can to relate the real active world to our students other than what they achieve from textbooks.

On 8th September 21 students studying Diploma in Mass Communication (DMC) were given a dose of high culture at the Petronas Gallery, KLCC. The students were required to do an article for a feature writing module, and as the lecturer, I gave them the topic of contemporary art, which many of them described as bizarre, alien and mysterious as the Bermuda Triangle. I reply, “It was Albert Einstein who said, ‘The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science.’”

The exhibition held was titled Crossings: Pushing Boundaries featuring narratives by 15 Malaysian artists from three generations responding to world issues and events shaped by socio-economic and political development in the 1970s through the 1990s. Curated by Shireen Naziree, an independent curator and art historian, this exhibition seeks to explore the theme of internationalization and diaspora.

The gallery was the perfect classroom to inculcate an appreciation not just for arts and culture but also social research. It became an appropriate setting to teach the students a sense of respect and understanding for Malaysian history and socio-politics, especially when most of the narratives and legacies described predate the students themselves.

As an educator, I believe that students learn to push their own boundaries when placed in unknown territories. It becomes our civic duty to ensure that what we teach takes them out of their comfort zones and into “conflicted” precincts. Only then will they begin to pay attention to the smaller details and to be more acute of their surroundings.

Traditionally, we were taught that reading is the prime factor to our vocabulary expansion. But times have changed. Today students, namely from generations Y and Z, learn faster and better through visual communication. Researches in neuroscience show that synapses grow stronger through active participation in the arts. Art trips can do wonders to their cognitive and spatial skills. They can explore the arts with both a creative and a scientific “eye” allowing the artist in them to search for creative expression, including creative writing.

Back in the classroom, I asked my students what captivated them about the trip. Many replied it was going to the gallery itself. Social media, modern lifestyle and busy parents have robbed them of physical visits to parks, libraries and learning centers like galleries, museums and planetariums. Second was realizing that art was “interactive” because it allowed everyone to have an opinion (wow, it’s like Facebook Miss Nat). In fact, the students created a new game back at the gallery with who had the more compelling chronicle behind every painting. Thirdly, as they perused each description, they became fascinated with the artists’ attitude toward life while learning new adjectives. “Miss Nat, some were pretty dark and complex. But that’s cool cos we could relate.” And that’s when the bait was sunk. In class, it could take the same students weeks to accomplish a difficult text. Here, they were analyzing priceless abstracts within minutes. Relating each picture to themselves, they were making meaning and deeper connection beyond words. And by finding the words and structuring them through their banter, they were also writing their article in their minds.