Fifteen years ago, I knew I was going to have a Ph.D. Sometime later I knew I was going to be a writer, then a civil rights attorney, a graphic designer, and then artist. I've never been a good planner, drifting from one interest to another. At this point in my life, I am unsure if I'll obtain a Master's level degree. What is education and what is learning? This afternoon, I gave some pause to my own experience with learning. I realized that a large part of my education has been outside of institutions, though owing a great deal to them. The bottom line is about finding access to the information you need to get on with your life.
Intellectual development and military life seem incompatible. But that's exactly what happened. I slacked in high school. I did well in the classes I found interesting, but performed miserably in those I wasn't. I was unable to pass 10th grade geometry by the time I graduated. Military service was the most attactive of few options given my early poor academic performance. Stranded in the desert for six months, my incoming care packages consisted of Hemingway, Steinbeck and the high school required reading list that I ignored during high school. Reading in the desert is best for uninterrupted reading. Returning stateside, I enrolled in on-base distance learning programs and spent $100 a month paying off the 54-volume Great Books of the Western World over the span of a year. It was either that or a car.
When I was at De Anza Community College in 1993, the college was just beginning its experiment with Distance Learning. Then, distance learning was a program where students would watch their lectures on television at scheduled times on public/community television. The intent was to expand education to those unable to partipate in a more traditional student life. These included students working full-time, those with families, and those simply too far away from the college to easily commute. I was not in the Distance Learning program but thought it was fascinating, despite its lacking the benefits of mentorship and community, which can be as important as the curricula.
A couple of years later, no longer in school and working full-time, I found myself in need of learning. The University of California Berkeley had revoked my transfer admission into the Asian American Studies department citing an oversight in the transfer credit eligibility. Despite the semester having started and my being in classes, they said I would have to reapply for the following year's admission cycle. I fled to the east coast instead. Stocking grocery shelves, mowing lawns, and filling copying machines was slowly killing me. I finally landed a temp office job where I had access to the then burgeoning Internet. At that time, AOL charges were based on the minutes you were online. At home with a 14.4 kbs modem, hours accumulated quickly. A single $200/month service bill was enough to kill that habit for good. I was able to dial-up at work until we installed a fractional T1 line in 1997. Barnes and Noble was trying to gain some market share from Amazon and introduced an online learning service, B&N University. Enrollment was free. The virtual university offered an array of short courses ranging from computer software and Shakespeare to Film Noir and Renaissance art history. Of course, it was a disguised marketing scheme to sell you the required texts from the B&N site. And there was no accreditation, falling rather under 'life learning'. But at the end of the day, you really didn't need to buy anything and you learned something new.
Legitimate and accredited colleges and universities had since moved from television programming to online access. MIT dropped perhaps the biggest bombshell when they announced the OpenCourseWare project - in effect offering much of university course content online for free.
During my art school days, I was also a Teaching Assistant for a Creative New Media course at the Harvard Summer school and Division of Continuing Education. I developed the online courseware component for the course (which was used for 4 years) as well as a pilot for the Interrogative Design Workshop (IDW) at MIT. I founded an online forum in 2000 called E-DENTITY (which is still semi-active) as locus where people could exhange information about design, art and technology. The hosting was later bought out by Yahoo Groups where it remains today (though unaccessible in Vietnam without a proxy). When I graduated from the Massachusetts College of Art, I relocated to Ho Chi Minh City. As a Visiting Lecturer at the HCMC Fine Arts University, my experience from the earlier courseware sites went toward the development of my own course, the Video Arts Worskhop.
I'm in need of learning again. I miss being both a student and a teacher. Access to English language printed materials and programming related to my interests in art, history, media and politics is limited. Recently learning comes from the peer-to-peer file sharing networks. I am able to watch programming from the History Channel, the Discovery Channel and the BBC thanks to some anonymous Tivo/Computer hookup. I'm able to access scholastic databases through friends and with my alumni account. Last night I watched three programs: A biography on Josef Stalin; a profile on the Serbian named Arcon, who, before his assassination was wanted internationally for crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavian states of Serbia, Kosovo, and Bosnia; and a documentary about the history and practice of Islam.
Because of the nature of the art world, perhaps returning to the US for an MFA isn't the right move for me. I am looking into more experimental and flexible programs, such as the TransArt Institute, whose 2-year low residency MFA Program might allow me to continue my professional career while working from Vietnam (or anywhere that I may be).
I realize that I spend a lot of time online and sometimes at the expense of producing artwork. Though for me, they seem to go hand-in-hand. The sculptor Constantin Brancusi once said that it's not necessarily what you do that's important but your state of mind when doing it. I'm now on permanent eduvacation.
Barnes & Noble. B&N University
MIT. OpenCourseWare (OCW)
Harvard University. Creative New Media (CSCISK)
HCMC Fine Arts Univerisity. Video Art Workhsop
MIT. Interrogative Design Workshop (IDW)
TransArt Institute. 2-Year Low-Residency MFA Program
E-DENTITY. Design, theory, media newsgroup founded in 2000.