Direct and Heartfelt Peer-reviewed Publication for Teaching Artists

Reviewed by Judith Tannenbaum

Teaching Artist Journal; Taylor & Francis Group, LLC; Nick Jaffe, editor.

Teaching arts is a current descriptor for an ancient practice. After all, the arts have always been passed on one way or another, sometimes from mother to daughter, sometimes in a formal cultural transmission (Ravi Shankar learning from his guru), sometimes through large government programs such as the WPA and CETA. I have shared poetry in public schools and state prisons for more than thirty-five years. During these same decades my peers shared painting, dancing, and drumming in afterschool programs, cultural centers, hospitals, senior centers, drug rehab programs, and other institutions and neighborhood sites. My peers and I called what we did community arts.

Now the label has changed, and changed too is my generation's learn-from-doing, seat-of-the-pants approach. In recent years teaching artists—as well as program directors, trainers, funders, and others—have advocated for a professionalization of the field. This effort has resulted in college and university programs that train teaching artists, and has resulted as well in Teaching Artist Journal, our first peer-reviewed professional journal. Volume 7 of TAJ begins with the January-March, 2009 issue.

We teaching artists so often work on our own, without colleagues to check in with. So I am most grateful for the conversation TAJ allows. As the journal accurately says of itself: “TAJ is a broad, jargon-free, imaginative, direct, and heartfelt peer-reviewed publication addressing the fullest range of practice, research, theory, opinion, and issues related to Teaching Artists… Each issue includes a wide variety of writing about the most innovative and powerful work being done by teaching artists across the U.S. and around the world (as well as) news of the field, discussions of the most important research, and reviews of books, online and other resources.”

TAJ is primarily addressed to teaching artists, but the subjects the journal explores are certainly of interest to classroom teachers, school arts specialists, and other arts providers. Grantors, researchers, and policy makers will also find the quarterly fascinating and useful.

TAJ was founded by Eric Booth, a musician on the Juilliard faculty who is a well-known researcher into, and spokesperson for, teaching artistry. In the journal's early days, “teaching artist” seemed to refer primarily to artists working in schools, and a central vision of both Eric Booth's and TAJ involved recognizing an artist's “habits of mind” and advocating for the ways these habits might inform and improve education theory and classroom teaching practice.

This inquiry was deeply interesting to me, and yet I also felt some concern about limiting the field to only work inside the schoolhouse. In a 2007 (Volume 5, Number 3) TAJ review of Arlene Goldbard's New Creative Community, Eric Booth listed some distinctions between “teaching arts” and “community arts” along these exact lines (in and out of the schoolhouse) and described the two as “siblings, with the same genes, upbringing, and interests who live in the same house, undertake similar work but in different locations, and are so busy they almost never sit on the porch to talk.” I might describe other distinctions, too—ones that primarily have to do with the ways social justice and cultural democracy were at the core of the community arts work done during my time and how those central values, while still clearly present, are not always shouted from the rooftop these days. Fundamentally, though, I agree with Booth when he writes, “Damned if I care what we name artists who guide such beautiful work.”

By the way, the magazines and Web site created by Steve and Linda Burnham have long served as the “porch” where community artists metaphorically sit to share. All teaching artists are invited: you will find a comfortable perch on this porch, along with enormous amounts of relevant information.

In 2006, Booth passed on TAJ's editorship to teaching artist (as well as musician and audio engineer), Nick Jaffe. Columbia College, Chicago hosts the journal. With Jaffe as editor, the journal seems to have widened the range of work represented to more fully include those of us sharing what Bill Cleveland called, “art in other places.” Jaffe even sought, and then published, an article by one of my own former San Quentin students. Spoon Jackson—who, as he puts it, “found his niche” when a student in our class in the 1980s—is himself a teaching artist now, sharing poetry at the prison where he's currently housed. Spoon's “Speaking in Poems” (Volume 5, Number 1) is a beautiful essay.

So TAJ is both rigorous and inclusive. Eric Booth wrote (in 2006 Volume 4, Number 1) that when he prepared the case for a journal to present to TAJ's original publisher, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, he looked for what was known about the field of teaching arts. He reports that he found almost nothing. As Teaching Artist Journal prepares its seventh volume, that “nothing” has become a substantial and valuable “something,” thanks largely to the journal's own existence and efforts.

Judith Tannenbaum is currently training coordinator for San Francisco WritersCorps. Author and editor of many books, her By Heart: A Prison Conversation—a two-person memoir written with Spoon Jackson—is forthcoming in 2010 from New Village Press.