Harvard Educational Review
  1. Critical Aesthetic Pedagogy

    Toward a Theory of Self and Social Empowerment

    Yolanda Medina

    New York: Peter Lang, 2012. 156 pp. $35.95 (paperback), $139.95 (hardcover).

    Critical Aesthetic Pedagogy: Toward a Theory of Self and Social Empowerment is Yolanda Medina’s treatise on a new pedagogical approach that marries the fields of critical pedagogy and arts and aesthetics education. Medina is a scholar with a penchant for alternative methods of teaching and an experienced teacher who employs social justice pedagogies in her higher education classrooms. She notes her frustration with the tendency for students to come away from social justice curriculum expressing an increased awareness of a need for social change but a powerlessness to take on the task themselves. She offers critical aesthetic pedagogy as a method by which students may become empowered to progress from recognizing the need for social change to enacting it.

    Before launching into Critical Aesthetic Pedagogy, Medina devotes the first chapter to introducing her life story to her readers. She self-describes as “a Dominican and a New Yorker; a rebel and a hyper-achiever; a Latina with a Southern past; a bad student but a caring teacher; a dancer and a teacher educator; a Salsera and a feminist” (pp. 5–6). A critical pedagogy orientation necessitates foregrounding these allegiances, as they are the lenses through which Medina has experienced her own education and social conditions; they are the combination of identities through which the need for critical aesthetic pedagogy takes root. In particular, through the journey of rediscovering herself as a dancer, an identity she abandoned after a devastating childhood accident, Medina reunites her body—the source of her feeling and meaning making—with her mind—the repository of her intellectual and critical prowess—and in so doing makes the connections between thought, imagination, compassion, and action that she felt had been missing in her scholarship. Her story is one that is likely to draw attention, whether because of the engagingly personal manner in which it is written or because of the pervasively human emotions she expresses while recounting her experiences. Through Medina’s spiritual and physical highs and lows, we are given insight into the personal motivations for her scholarship as they unfold alongside her identity.

    Medina next lays out, in methodical and concise detail, the scholarly foundations of critical aesthetic pedagogy. She draws heavily on the work of scholars such as Paulo Friere, Jill Green, Maxine Greene, and Peter McLaren, as well as on Susan Stinson’s three levels of aesthetic experience. Stinson’s levels provide a framework for understanding how artistic encounters might already be used in schools and how they can be used as teaching tools to invoke student empowerment. Specifically, at the first level of aesthetic experience—perhaps the level at which most arts curricula already operate—there is appreciation for the beauty of a work of art. The second level of aesthetic experience concerns the connection that is felt in relationship to an artistic work; this is dependent on relevant personal experiences being brought into the artistic encounter. Medina explains how she both experienced and witnessed others moving through Stinson’s first two levels in a research project she conducted with salsa dancers. These dancers—herself included—experienced feelings of awe in their first encounters with salsa, then progressed from simply learning new steps to utilizing dance to embody the passion and commitment that they felt in their own quests for self-empowerment. Through salsa, some of the dancers in Medina’s study found the strength to stop drinking, terminate bad relationships, and even combat clinically diagnosed depression. Medina argues, however, that “experience at Stinson’s second level can release the imagination and allow the observer to see a path toward a better life, but it does not encourage movement beyond the personal into the social realm” (pp. 45–46). But at Stinson’s third level of aesthetic experience, the observer becomes connected to the world around her; art—particularly art that encourages that sharing of experiences of oppression—is a vehicle for experiencing one’s suffering and the suffering of others as intertwined. Medina does not relate having witnessed or experienced this level herself. However, through her relationship with dance, she has come to believe that students must be able to use their bodies as mediators in interactions with artwork. The use of the body and its language, she argues, help “us to feel what the artist means, rather than simply seeing or hearing it. We can actually experience . . . emotions . . . and this visceral connection evokes discussions of the human condition” (p. 46). This employment of the body as a source of emotional authority and a mediator of compassion is the unique contribution of critical aesthetic pedagogy.

    Medina does not stop at theory, however. In her third and penultimate chapter, she presents the reader with two case studies of teacher education classes in which she has employed critical aesthetic pedagogical approaches. Through organized descriptions of both the crafting of the curricula and of the classroom dynamics that unfold as she teaches, Medina offers both guidance for the aspiring critical aesthetic pedagogue and a glimpse into the lives of students participating in, wrestling with, and ultimately shaping this new educational approach. Both curricula contain lessons involving individual and group work experiences, opportunities for bodily movement, performance, and thoughtful reflection. At the conclusion of the case studies, Medina notes a range of reactions to the curricula: she observes that while all students were able to attain Stinson’s first level of aesthetic experience, there was variability in terms of students’ ability to reach levels two and three of the framework. Medina demonstrates noteworthy reflexivity in making sense of these findings. She ultimately concludes that these results may be an inevitable outcome when diverse individuals with different backgrounds bring their own experience to bear on a piece of artwork that lends itself to multiple interpretations. Medina further illustrates deep reflexivity as a researcher in her presentation of the case of a resentful student who respectfully expressed his disagreement with her about the focus of her curriculum. This experience led Medina to examine the implicit messages she seeks to convey through her courses and how her own identity does and should interact with those of her students.

    In her fourth and final chapter, Medina takes on the challenge of imagining a future for critical aesthetic pedagogy in urban classrooms around the country. She acknowledges the marginal position that the arts already occupy in public schools and calls for the redesign of U.S. education in a manner that aligns easily with the calls for change of the radical educators who have come before her and on whose shoulders she stands. Although the pedagogue well versed in critical methods might argue that Medina’s work overlaps with much of the successful practical pedagogy that has preceded her, Critical Aesthetic Pedagogy nonetheless puts forth that the movement from self- to social empowerment—a nebulous journey for many in the field—may be made tangible through the infusion of aesthetic experience into a social justice curriculum. Overall, Yolanda Medina’s Critical Aesthetic Pedagogy is a solid foundational text that sits at the intersection of education for social justice and the arts and solidifies a foundation for the growth of this interdisciplinary field.
    l.a.e.
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    Abstracts

    Foreword: Exploding Parameters and an Expanded Embrace
    A Proposal for the Arts in Education in the Twenty-First Century
    STEVE SEIDEL
    Editors’ Introduction
    Expanding Our Vision for the Arts in Education
    Edward P. Clapp and Laura A. Edwards
    Expanding Our “Frames” of Mind for Education and the Arts
    JENNIFER S. GROFF
    Expanding Our Vision of Museum Education and Perception
    An Analysis of Three Case Studies of Independent Blind Arts Learners
    SIMON HAYHOE
    Universal Design for Learning and the Arts
    Don Glass, Anne Meyer, and David H. Rose
    Graphica
    Comics Arts-Based Educational Research
    STEPHANIE JONES AND JAMES F. WOGLOM
    Why the Arts Don’t Do Anything
    Toward a New Vision for Cultural Production in Education
    RUBEN A. GAZTAMBIDE-FERNANDEZ
    Afterword: The Turning of the Leaves
    Expanding Our Vision for the Arts in Education
    MAXINE GREENE

    Book Notes

    The Learner-Directed Classroom
    Diane B. Jaquith and Nan E. Hathaway (Editors)

    Critical Aesthetic Pedagogy
    Yolanda Medina

    Hip Hop Genius
    Sam Seidel

    Design and Thinking
    Mu-Ming Tsai (Director)

    Changing Lives
    Tricia Tunstall

    Art Education Beyond the Classroom
    Alice Wexler (Editor)