Tracing the unconscious

(Edmonton) For jan jagodzinski, it’s often the unsaid that creates the most powerful teaching moment. The art education professor’s work is grounded in psychoanalytic theory, so he naturally pays close attention to the play of human desire and the unconscious in the classroom. And he realizes that when definitions and categories fail in the act of interpretation, when meaning itself eludes our grasp, that’s likely where true learning begins.

The U of A professor (who spells his names in lowercase) has been captivated for more than 30 years by reading art through the lens of psychoanalytic theory—particularly that of the celebrated French theorist Jacques Lacan and his followers, notably Slavoj Zizek. Jagodzinski recently received the 2011 Killam Professorship for his exceptional work in research, teaching and community service.

Described by colleagues in the Department of Secondary Education as an “idea man” who is “held in high esteem across the province for his contribution to art teachers and curriculum development,” he has long been ahead of the pack when it comes to critical theory in education. He was the first in his department, for example, to introduce courses on gender studies, postmodernism and issues of race and post-colonialism. One nominator for his Killam award calls jagodzinski “without a doubt, one of the foremost scholars in the area of art education today.”

Jagodzinski teaches the practicum course for art majors, before they begin teaching art in schools. He says his mission is to “help students grapple with existential and social issues” through visual media. He admits it took awhile for colleagues to understand his approach to teaching and stresses that his interest in psychoanalysis and art is not grounded in a therapy, nor is it connected to any solipsistic notion of individual expression: “I wanted to get away from the couch. I’m not psychoanalyzing students in any way.”

What does interest him are the various forms of desire at play in our culture and the way they shape a collective dynamic�the way in which “symptoms,” understood in the cultural sense, emerge in the classroom.

“I did not want to get caught up in the psychology of education. There’s already lots of that,” he says. “But because I’m coming out of visual art, media and cultural studies, I wanted to understand what’s going on in terms of desire. How does it circulate in the classroom...you’re always part of a larger group or assemblage.”

In his research, he explores how “film thinks things through,” especially cultural preoccupations, and how students can learn to be more sensitive to the subtextual nuances of desire that shape the perception of meaning.

“I think great teachers can open the abyss,” says jagodzinski. “You get to the edge where there is no answer, just a question mark, and it opens up the imaginary in way you just fascinate about….It’s really trying to question where identity fails�all the signifiers fall away and the categories disappear so you have to rethink them. That’s where the education is.”

Jagodzinski has been involved with the National Art Association for 25 years and is co-founder of the Journal of Social Theory in Art Education. He has been instrumental in developing what became known as visual cultural studies in art education, refashioning, as he says, “what art education should look like given the drift toward a post-alphabetic culture where visual media has become a key focus.”

Over the course of his career, he has published 10 books—including one with the intriguing title Youth Fantasies: The Perverse Landscape of the Media—and more than 100 book chapters and refereed journals on popular culture including television, popular music and cinema. He is now working on two books: one with colleague Jason Wallin that aims to “rethink arts-based research” and a collection of essays on film theory. 

“There’s no question that the U of A has been awfully good to me,” he says, looking back over a successful career. “I’ve been really blessed with a great department, and great people.”