As I said before, travel always teaches. Here are two more lessons from India as I wait in the arrival hall for my Mumbai departure back to the States.
During our travels, we were fortunate to stay with a good friend’s family in Delhi—my friend is my good buddy and colleague from my doctoral program in Boston. Their home is tucked away inside the busy, dusty streets near the universities in Delhi, so there is a good mix of the old and the new, sideways, blurred, everything (as I said last time) always intersecting. The home is my friend’s grandfather’s (on the paternal side) and has been part of the family for many years. It has a courtyard in the middle where rescued cats and a dog sleep away fortunately amongst potted plants and an old wooden chair with a cushion. Mostly, we sit in the living room because it is a nice spot to share and work at the same time, listening to conversations bounce back and forth to the sound of plates and irons griddles in the kitchen behind us. Just as much as the sites and sounds of an unknown city street can awaken the traveling mind, I think there is also something deeply satisfying about being comfortable, listening, and learning about life from another home. My friend’s father is a gentle man, and my first listening and lesson printed here comes from him.
As part of a family tradition, he worked all his life for the India Railway…always traveling back and forth to various places. His love, however, was photography. It had been a passion of his, he told me, for some time when he received a camera as a young kid. He loved the way you could see the world differently through that lens, framing landscapes and people across many parts of his travels. I knew he loved photography because when I first met him in Boston we talked about how to buy and sell items on Ebay. He collected vintage cameras and had quite a collection that he both wanted to add to and depart from. This time, I asked if he had any photographs he could show me as I have become (of late) very interested in capturing good photographs (still-lifes of flowers; architecture, especially doorways; and scenes of tourists, particularly when they are snapping pictures of historical sites or things they find beautiful or want to preserve, like we all do). I should say I am not very good…even at figuring out the camera functions, and so thought I might be curious about the father’s craft. Plus, I had hoped he might look at my own photographs and give me feedback.
He said he grabbed the first book he could lay a hand on in the storage space: a small black photobook with thick paper and only a few old photographs from 1950s/60s. The pictures were like miniature silhouettes, black and white still lifes that were both romantic with something like longing extending from their shadows where black bends into the greying paper. I remember one particular black bird sitting on a winter bare branch and in the distance, a hazy building. True to its genre, we know the image is momentary. More so, the paper, the book, the 5-6 photographs it contained on that expensive, thick stock matte photo paper all seem to say…a long time ago, this was photography. We talked about that distance and the difficulty of, let’s say, developing one photo, sending it to a magazine, waiting, waiting. Now, he says, it is another world. And, it’s sad for a moment to think that this patient craft has somehow disappeared. “But,” he says, “this is all a good thing. These are terrific advancements”. Digital cameras, sharing photos, clicking thousands of images indiscriminately from our phone is an opening to a new world. What that word “terrific” (if I have it right, though maybe some other word was the exact one) meant at that moment or to my memory was “expansive”. The direction that photography advances was going and is going to open new worlds for development, for seeing, for preserving. It didn’t mean something had not been lost…it had. Those silhouettes, the black bird, the thick paper that materialized this moment were gone. But, he felt new lens and new eyes would open the world to other depths that were not available before.
Okay, so what does this mean for education? It struck me that this was the same tension that we approach technology in the classroom or technology and the craft of education. Somehow, I think we still long for those moments where walking through the garden of the university, we catch up with an old professor who guides us through a question—or something like Woolf where we pad carefully through this garden and then write in women’s groups and publish our work on bright paper, bound, and so forth. Something, as I said…a long time ago….the libraries dark corners, the small, intimate seminar…feels something like privilege now—as, if we return to Woolf, it was then, too. We wonder now if education and the classroom experience is departing, has it departed already? Where intimacy between teacher and student is replaced by massive outreach? Like the printed photo, would the table and chair become another piece of an archive to remember when this was “true” or how things used to be. I think I like the father’s optimism though, or better, acceptance.
These developments are progressive, they do open (and shut), but they reach further or different depths than before. There is something of an embrace of this digital experience that might allow us to participate in its creation and future. Again, it struck me as a gentle perspective on movement and one I think will help educators find their own way through new technologies and new forms (or methods) of producing education.
Next lesson: the feedback. I showed him one of my pictures from Qutub Complex, an ancient Islamic structure made of sandstone and marble in Delhi. In between intricate columns, platforms, mixtures of Hindu and Muslim architectural grace, was a straggling tree, a few leaves, a bird (the scene would later recall his own picture I described above).
I took a picture of the monument (the Qutub Minar) through these branches. As I had recently figured out how to better focus the camera (it really takes me a few mistakes to learn just about anything), I wanted to focus the camera on the branches itself and have the column/spire in the distance slightly out of focus….a commentary on nature and structure or something like that. The picture was better than I think I could have produced had I actually known what I was doing, so we’ll say it was with a bit of luck that I produced it. My friend’s father said he liked the framing and that the picture produced good depth. He said that with new cameras, yes, everyone could produce a picture. But, he said, creativity and complexity is still meaningful and demands good thoughtfulness.
If we continue the metaphor of education and technology, we might apply the same tale. Technology will open many new opportunities and moments for education, but it is still necessary to look for and frame depth and complexity in those moments. How can we produce something meaningful in our interaction with technology and our students?
Alongside of technology, we need the story, the discussion with my friend’s father, the holding of the camera and thinking through how to capture this memory, looking through the photos from the past, holding onto this fleeting thing, evoking and remembering one’s journeys wherever they may be….And, I realize that all of this is necessary, not just photography, not just technology, but the connection and conversation one might have at such events and a reflection on what we can take away from them.