An Eclectic Approach: P. Bruce Uhrmacher, AATC Past President

As I sit to write the first entry for the AATC Interview Series, I doubt my ability to do my interviewee justice. Since 2007 Bruce and I have worked together on many projects, and I have had the fortune of learning not just about academia, but also about life. Bruce is the most ethically grounded, humble, and caring person I know. His quiet composure can fool you though—he has jokes that lie just beneath the surface and a warm smile that comes easily around friends. A closet Three Stooges fan, Bruce loves to make reference to pop culture. He can make almost anything—including the Grateful Dead—a topic of study.

He, of course, requests the interview questions in advance so that he may think about them. There are only three. He responds via email with the first:

What do you think about when you are driving in your car alone?

My mind wanders greatly when I’m driving, often from a song on the radio, to an idea about education, to something about the St. Louis Cardinals, to something offbeat, such as why do bartenders place tiny umbrellas in fancy drinks? What function does the umbrella serve? I should add that while my mind goes back and forth, often with intellectual intent for a possible article, I prefer to talk out my ideas by phone. I know that some people prefer to write, but I choose to talk whether it’s to someone in person or to someone’s VM, which while not quite as stimulating, meets my need for dialogue. I have a friend/scholar/daughter-by-choice who listens to whatever I have to say, and when her VM is not full or her phone defunct, either responds immediately or in short time. (I talk in the car hands-free by the way.) This exchange fuels my thinking, and I hope hers, as well. We have after all produced numerous ideas in articles from just such short bursts of exchange. I should close by saying that this response to the question was produced from such an exchange, which began by discussing Lewis Hyde’s book, The Gift, which by the way, was recommended by Jennie Mizrahi, AATC’s recent dissertation of the year award recipient. This leads me to think about art (Jennie is an art educator) and to R.C. Gorman, one of my favorite artists—and to Elliot Eisner as well– but that’s a story for another time.

To discuss the other two questions, we agree that we should meet for a drink. I arrive a couple of minutes late to El Chingones for a margarita and good conversation. The music is loud, and so are the murals on the wall. As always, we start our conversation with an overview of the agenda. Bruce lists today’s topics: social and family catch up, the AATC interview, our Moonbird Institute (stay tuned art and nature lovers!), and our current writing projects.  Below is an abbreviated and mildly edited transcript of the interview portion of our agenda.

Christy: Tell us how you deal with criticism. We think graduate students and others would benefit from hearing this.

Bruce: When I first came to the question, I was thinking about it very broadly. And, in general, I take criticism pretty well. Especially from friends and family and loved ones.

Waitress: How are you doing? How are the drinks?

Bruce: Excellent.

Christy: Perfect.

Waitress: Do you want anything else right now or are you just munching and drinking?

Bruce: I think we’re good.

Waitress: You’re good? My name is Marcie, if you need anything else.

Christy: Thank you.

Bruce: So, with people I respect or admire, my first impulse is usually something like, “What did I do wrong?”

(We laugh. I know this to be true because Bruce is always the first to take any blame, even if he shouldn’t.)

Bruce: At least I think I do. You’d have to ask other people how I take criticism to really know. I suspect I don’t take criticism as well from people who don’t fall under one of those categories—family and loved ones. Especially those who may not understand some of the ideas I think are important or the type of work I’m doing or the sensibilities I bring to the profession. Sometimes those folks have good critiques and I need to listen better, to be fair. In terms of journals, I can be a little thin-skinned. I can react like, “Oh my god they hated this, why’d they even think about accepting it?”

Christy: I feel that way, too! I’m always like, “They hate me. I’m worthless.”

Bruce: Yeah. So, my advice for myself and others is to, look it over, put it in a drawer, put it away for a while, so you come back to it more rationally without being emotionally charged, and then go through the critiques point by point. One of the things I’ve found is that sometimes someone will rant on about something, and then if you look at the change they want, it may only require a couple of sentences. It can oftentimes be a very easy change. My advice is to know whether you can take criticism well up front or whether you need to put it away a couple of days. When you do look at it, approach it very concretely, practically, “What do I need to do to answer the critics’ questions and move this toward publication?”

Christy: What do you do if you get a second rejection or a second set of feedback after your first from a journal? Or what if you disagree with what somebody said?

Bruce: You know… it depends.

(We pause here to point out that this is the answer Bruce gives to almost every question: “It depends…”)

…partly on the context of the terms of what you are working on. Years ago I tried to publish an article on something I call presentational action research, which was basically the idea of doing arts-based work in action research. Being a student of Eisner’s, I was one of the first to really cue into that as a possibility. I couldn’t get it published and, honestly, I just gave up on it for a long time. I came back to it with Cassie Trousas.  We submitted it to a different journal and eventually it did get published. So, I guess persistence would be my advice. I think that’s one of my strengths and with ideas I believe in, I am very persistent. So, I’m not always the smartest person on the block but I am the most persistent.

Christy: Thanks, Bruce.

Bruce: I have a great quote.

Christy: Oh, good.

Bruce: Do you want me to read it to you? Well, I will read it to you, but you can also look it up later. It’s a quote by Calvin Coolidge.

Christy: Okay.

Bruce: “Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not. The world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”

Christy: I like it. I think I’m an educated derelict.

(He laughs with his upside-down smile.) Is an upside smile a frown?

Christy: Oh. So, why don’t you tell me about some educational issues that…

Bruce (interrupting): I don’t think you are, by the way—an educational derelict.

Christy: Uh-huh. Thank you. Some educational issues you are interested in?

Bruce: Well, currently I am thinking about combining my interests in arts and education with environmental education and seeing where that goes. And, on this idea of eco-educational criticism—combining eco ideas to criticism and connoisseurship. I’m fortunate to work with a colleague who, uh, has these interests, as well.

Christy: She sounds cool.

Bruce: She’s very cool.

Christy: So, what… what do you think that will do? Like, why is that interesting to you?

Bruce: My interest in environmental education actually goes all the way back to first grade. I’ve been interested in matters of the environment for a long time. That doesn’t mean I always acted on them. I think I was dissuaded by the scientific approach to environmentalism, frankly. I did take a course as an undergraduate called something like, “The Environment”. It was really interesting in some ways, but I didn’t see exactly how I could contribute. But I kept coming back to it. And I think we are living in a day where we realize the arts and humanities have a lot to offer. That a lot of our decisions are, of course, based on our values and that’s where the arts and humanities can contribute and help us think about and sometime change our values.

Christy: Is there anything else you’d like to add? Or what would you like the AATC membership to know?

Bruce: I’d like them to know a little less than what I’ve presented here, I think.

Christy: Why?!

Bruce: I’m kidding. You know, I think AATC is just a great organization. I like it for its eclectic approach to education, broadly speaking. That you can do quantitative or qualitative. That you can come from any of the disciplines, higher ed., K-12, pre-K. I think it has a great group of people and that’s what really makes a community. I oftentimes tell people that there are more prestigious journals out there than the Curriculum and Teaching Dialogue, but I really feel that the people that read CTD really read it. And I’ve had people tell me that they’ve used an article of mine in a class. It’s just a great community.

Christy: Thanks, Bruce.

Bruce: Thank you.

Our interview concludes, but our conversation continues to the next agenda item: The Moonbird Institute. When you see him next, be sure to ask him about his love of bird photography and why we like to see the bird first before knowing its name.

Written with love, respect, and gratitude,

Christy McConnell (Daughter by Choice whose voice mail is almost always full)