An Uncertain Syllabus for Art Education

Introducing a series at the intersection of art and pedagogy, guest edited by Brooks Turner

Protesters carrying signs outside of stone building.
1Minnesota Federation of Teachers on strike. Photo: Tamara Turner.
Instructors: Brooks Turner, Audrey Wilson, Luci Aslakson, Livia Disney, Emmett Ramstad, and Isa Gagarin 

Summer Term, 2023


“Some regard the syllabus as a contract; others see it as a promise. (I frame it as an invitation.)”2

Susan D. Blum

This course takes shape between art and education. We will engage and examine pedagogical structures within art practices, historical models of art education, hierarchy and horizontality across social categories and organizations, noninstitutional frameworks of learning, and the convergence of power and politics in education. Art encourages interdisciplinary avenues of exploration; it entangles together disparate narratives to create a space of genesis, making it an ideal framework for fostering critical thinking and navigating the complexity of being an individual within a community. 

While it is easy to wax poetic about the importance of art education, there is also a very real economic dimension that drives artists into the classroom for the stable, though insufficient, income teaching provides. Thus, our course will also take into account the labor of education, both from the perspective of the student and from that of the instructor. The teacher has increasingly become implicated within the labor struggle as teachers’ unions strike for better pay, fairer treatment, and more agency in school governance. Because the top-down, corporate model of authoritative management dominates education in America, this course will focus instead on collaborative models of teaching and institutional organization beginning in the classroom and extending through the nature and structure of the school as a whole.


“I like the notion of self-subverting authority. I think there are certain types of authority which undermine their own basis, and I think those are very good. Like a teacher; if you’re a teacher and you teach someone very well, they know what you used to know, so there’s no further basis for your authority.”3

David Graeber

As students and teachers, we will strive to: 

  • Challenge hierarchy in the classroom
  • Cultivate relationality

We will ask questions: 

  • Do grades belong in art education?
  • Will I have work again next semester?
  • What can art and education become? 

The outcome of learning will be: 

  • Critical thinking, more questions
  • Practicing community in preparation for participating in society
  • Finding purpose, agency, and meaning in our work


Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, bell hooks

Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire

Poetics of Relation, Édouard Glissant 

Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead), edited by Susan D. Blum


In the summer of 1938, Minneapolis union organizers at the center of a national conversation on labor rights traveled to Mexico to study with Leon Trotsky, who was then living in Frida Kahlo’s Blue House. Transcripts preserved in the Trotsky Papers at the Hoover Institute entangle propaganda, pedagogy, history, revolution, art, and action. These seminar-like conversations provide a model for education whereby the teacher teaches so that their authority is supplanted at the lesson’s end. This inherently democratic approach to authority will be further considered through works by Paolo Friere and Édouard Glissant, as well as case studies from the Black Mountain College. At the heart of this unit is the proposition that horizontally organized models of art education promote democracy and inoculate both individual and community against the seducing myth of fascism. As in Italy and Germany in the 1930s, we are currently witnessing a new wave of American fascists aggressively targeting education in an attempt to reshape an authoritarian model of education that feeds the military and prison industrial complexes, while sustaining the capitalist class at the expense of the people. As fascism targets education, so must education respond by targeting fascism.4

"Pedagogy and Propaganda: Art Education in the Time of Fascism" by Brooks Turner


How can we properly introduce curious students to the intellectual resources they may need to create exciting art? While this question is specific to art educational environments, it implicates the profit-driven hierarchies that create inequitable conditions. What is considered “quality” often privileges artists who have access to materials and training. What methodologies exist for creating equitable classroom communities that inspire open dialogue and an exchange of resources?5

Audrey Wilson


Art can easily become “self-selecting.” Consider how kinanthropometry and somatotype essentially predetermine an athlete’s performance (gymnasts, for example, tend to be very small because their small stature improves rotation.) In the art world, the predetermined factors that seem to be most strongly correlated to an artist’s success are class, race, and sex, with the most highly-paid artists being white and male. How can institutions provide all artists of all backgrounds with opportunities to avoid “self-selection”? What might art education look like in a society without class?6

Luci Aslakson

Too often, we are fed information as fact without the freedom to explore and ask questions. Taught-nonsense shapes who we become. How might we step from this curated path? How might we find our own footing? Art education is a way to question knowledge that is taught to us, a way to express our curiosities. Instead of accepting a spoon-fed fact, dig deeper into its reality. Why is something the way it is? Does it have to be that way?7

Liv Disney





Throughout the last academic year, we, Isa Gagarin and Emmett Ramstad, have shared an ongoing conversation about the practice of teaching. We were inspired to experiment with ungrading methods based on the ideas put forth in Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead), edited by Susan D. Blum (West Virginia University Press, 2020). Moving away from traditional grading challenged us to question our fundamental role as educators. It was crucial for us to check in throughout the year to provide mutual support. After the school year ended, we shared lunch at Emmett’s home on a hazy summer day and reflected on our successes, failures, ideas, and questions.8

Isa Gagarin and Emmett Ramstad in conversation


“Agency, dialogue, self-actualization, and social justice are not possible (or, at least, unlikely) in a hierarchical system that pits teachers against students and encourages competition by ranking students against one another.”9

Jesse Stommel

As an artist and educator, I, Isa Gagarin, have always questioned the purpose of grading in studio art courses. Do grades help students gain agency, purpose and meaning in their work? When a good friend (and tenured professor) shared her ungrading methods, I felt inspired to explore alternative forms of assessment. I abandoned my previous grading methods and committed to trying out ungrading for an entire academic year. Doing so helped me focus on what I was teaching and why. My essay offers takeaways from my experience.10

"Make Some Scribbles and Hope for the Best" Isa Gagarin


Land Acknowledgement

As students and teachers, we acknowledge that the spaces we occupy are located on the traditional, ancestral, and contemporary lands of Indigenous people. The land occupied by the Twin Cities—Gakaabikaang and Ashkibagi-ziibiing to the Anishinabe; Bdeóta Othúŋwe and Imnížaska Othúŋwe to the Dakota—holds great historical, spiritual, and personal significance for its original stewards. By offering this land acknowledgment, we affirm tribal sovereignty and will work to hold ourselves accountable to Indigenous peoples and nations. We strive to affirm the resolutions of The Truth Project in demanding that our schools and educational institutions “take concrete, meaningful, and measurable steps toward healing through a comprehensive approach that combines reparations, truth-telling, policy change, and transformative justice processes.” This includes the specific demand that tuition waivers be offered to all Indigenous students for study in higher education.


“Relation is learning more and more to go beyond judgments into the unexpected dark of art’s upsurgings. Its beauty springs from the stable and the unstable, from deviance of many particular poetics and the clairvoyance of a relational poetics. […] The highest point of knowledge is always a poetics.”11

Édouard Glissant

Copyright is often leveraged as a tool to control information and limit collaboration. Therefore, we grant anyone the ability to use this syllabus and this course for their own teaching purposes. We invite you to plagiarize our words. We invite you to challenge our statements. We invite you to imagine new possibilities in art and education with us.


“Problem-posing education is revolutionary futurity. Hence it is prophetic (and therefore hopeful).12

Paolo Freire
  1. Is this actually a course? What makes a course a course? If a syllabus is an invitation, could a class be defined as any invitation to consider a series of questions together? Or does a class require the structure of an institution, of desks, projectors, and whiteboards? This “course” is a series of essays organized around art and education.

  2. From Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead), edited by Susan D. Blum. 2020, West Virginia University Press, p. 15.

  3. Charlie Rose, “A Conversation with Anarchist David Graeber,” originally aired in 2006, uploaded to YouTube by Savician, November 25, 2011, 20:06,

  4. “Pedagogy and Propaganda: Art Education in the Time of Fascism,” Brooks Turner

  5. Audrey Wilson

  6. Luci Aslakson

  7. Livia Disney

  8.  “Lunch Break: Isa Gagarin and Emmett Ramstad”

  9. From Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead), edited by Susan D. Blum. 2020, West Virginia University Press, p. 28.

  10. “Make Some Scribbles and Hope for the Best,” Isa Gagarin

  11. Édouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation, trans. Betsy Wing (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan, 1997) 138-140.

  12. Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (New York: Penguin Classics, 2017), 57.

Brooks Turner

Brooks Turner is an artist, writer, and educator based in Minneapolis. Through diverse methodologies that include archival research, writing, collage, drawing, and installation, Turner engages anti-fascist histories as a means to deconstruct and challenge the aesthetics of violence enshrined by ongoing US imperialism. Solo exhibitions include Knowledge Becoming at the Perlman Teaching Museum (Fall 2023), Legends and Myths of Ancient Minnesota at the Weisman Art Museum (Fall 2020), …   read more

Isa Gagarin

Isa Gagarin (b. 1986, Guam, USA) is a visual artist raised in Oʻahu, Hawaiʻi and based in Minneapolis, Minnesota, whose work focuses on site-responsive installation and mixed media works on paper. In her works on paper, Gagarin uses color and texture to create compositions that allude to elements of islands and ocean such as water, waves, dappled light and the moon. Her installations explore similar themes while responding to the unique characteristics of light and architecture on site, …   read more

Emmett Ramstad

Emmett Ramstad is a transdisciplinary sculptor living in Minneapolis, MN. His work explores body maintenance and the intimate collectivity of public space. Recent achievements include a McKnight Visual Artist Fellowship, a Eureka Commissions Grant for a nationally touring performance work, and a Creative Support for Individuals Grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board for an upcoming exhibition with artist families. Photo: Rik Sferra …   read more

Livia Disney

Livia Disney, a 2023 SPCPA graduate, intends to enroll at SAIC next fall. They are presently taking a year off to travel and pursue their individual artistic interests, such as painting, fashion, and filmmaking. With a focus on psychology, spirituality, and self-improvement, Livia enjoys writing about their interaction with their surroundings. …   read more

Luci Aslakson is a student and visual artist at Saint Paul Conservatory for Performing Artists. She has collaborated with the Minnesota Museum of American Art, the Minneapolis Institute of Art, and the Ordway. In 2021, she spent ten months in Germany as a Congress Bundestag Youth Exchange Scholarship recipient, continuing to pursue art. Her primary mediums are textile and sculpture, and her recent work focuses on cross-cultural exchange in the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance. …   read more