(a) BTS Influenced pandemic pedagogy: What’s given me hope (BTS), a reason to pause (BTS), and the push to keep going (BTS)*
(I originally published this in November of 2020 as a blog post on my website.)
“The artist’s job is to think about the future.”
Nam June Paik, “Random Access Information” (1980)
“The teacher is of course an artist but being an artist does not mean that he or she can make the profile, can shape the students. What the educator does in teaching is to make it possible for the students to become themselves.”
Paulo Freire, We Make the Road by Walking: Conversations on Education and Social Change (1990)
I started 2020 thinking about BTS, their fandom, ARMY, and pedagogy during the first BTS A Global Interdisciplinary Conference Project at Kingston University in London. Now* (this essay was initially posted as a blog entry on my website in November of 2020), I’m wrapping up 2020 thinking about BTS, ARMY, and pedagogy from my home, where I’ve spent most of my time this year. January started with hope and excitement: the BTS conference, travel abroad, a new semester, working with new students, and just the general anticipation I usually feel about the start of a new year. Like everyone else, I had no idea how quickly things would turn.
At the #BTSandKU conference, I presented a paper, “A Global ARMY of HOPE: BTS and a Pedagogy for Global Citizenship,” I described BTS and ARMY as a potential model for an approach to critical pedagogies outside of a traditional institutional structure. I was first introduced to critical pedagogies when I read Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970) as a graduate student.
Freire, a Brazilian educator, philosopher, and activist, articulated a praxis for education that placed students at the center of learning and resisted the notion that education could be separated from politics. Arguing against the “banking model” of instruction, where teachers deposit knowledge into “empty” students, Freire believed that students and teachers should be co-creators in the knowledge-making process. I remember reading Freire for the first time and feeling like I’d finally found a text that articulated many of my own beliefs about learning, teaching, and who students are: Learning happens most often when students can be in dialogue with others. Teachers should make content relevant to the lives of their students. Students enter our classroom with valuable knowledge and experiences, and teachers need to make space for this. One of the challenges I’ve faced with critical pedagogies is how best to adapt these tenets in institutional structures that often want the opposite, but that’s a different post!
What I observed and experienced with ARMY was the myriad of ways this community was creating its opportunities for learning outside of traditional school structures and experiences. If ARMYs wanted to discuss literature or books, they started a book club. If they were interested in learning Korean, there were language and tutoring opportunities.
This learning also happens around the practice of giving in the ARMY community. For example, when One in An ARMY (OIAA), a collective of fans who organize global fundraising projects, share opportunities for giving, they include background on the cause. They often pose questions for ARMY to consider about the issues.
In my #BTSandKU paper, I noted that learning opportunities weren’t contained or prescribed by any one entity. They weren’t happening because BTS made it a prerequisite for being ARMY. No, they happened because ARMY was naturally curious and encouraged to create these experiences, most facilitated in online learning environments. This kind of independent, self-driven learning opportunity is what many teachers (myself included) dream of for our students. I’d wager that many students dream of having this kind of agency over their learning, too. Having the ability to chart pathways for learning that are supportive and connected to people and issues you care about is quite remarkable. It can be a pretty radical experience compared with more traditional educational experiences.
So, you can imagine my excitement when just two weeks after the #BTSandKU conference, it was announced that part of the comeback experience for BTS’ album ‘Map of the Soul: 7’ would be a worldwide art exhibit known as Connect, BTS. I was ecstatic! Its mission was (and still is) bold:
“Connect, BTS is a global project to connect five cities and twenty-two artists, each of whom contributes their unique philosophy and imagination to it. This project aims to redefine the relationship between art and music, the material and immaterial, artists and their audiences, artists and artists, theory, and practice. Connect, BTS may be described in terms of collaborative curatorial practice by curators around the world who resonated with BTS’ philosophy.”
At the time, I could only imagine how this, too, would be another learning opportunity ARMY, and honestly for anyone interested. The mission statement alone immediately piqued my interest. Of course, I was drawn into this experience as ARMY but also as a teacher. From a pedagogical perspective, these goals were bold! Since art and museum spaces are not always places where people feel they can enjoy without a certain kind of knowledge or education, having a project state that it wanted to “reimagine” the relationship between artists and audiences felt huge. As a writing teacher, it also made me think about the challenge I often face concerning students who don’t believe that they are writers. Students often enter writing classrooms feeling that they don’t belong or cannot write “properly.” They’ve been told by others that writing is only “good” if it looks or sounds a particular way and that you have to follow prescriptive models to attain said styles. In my writing courses, we often spend time unpacking where these beliefs about what counts as “good” writing come from, and we spend time looking at writing that is meaningful for the communities and causes that are important to us. With that in mind, I wanted to understand how Connect, BTS, would encourage participation and resist the notion that a privileged few can only understand art. Several articles and essays have also expressed how Connect, BTS was an opportunity for learning and exchange and a powerful statement about who can experience art.
As an educator, I took from Connect, BTS, the importance of providing multiple ways to encourage and invite participation no matter one’s familiarity with the content being shared. There were several ways for people to learn and explore. Besides the exhibits (which included performance art, a balloon flight with solar panels, and several installations), BTS interviewed the artists and provided videos of themselves acting as docents. In their talks with the artists, BTS asked the artists questions about their intentions, perspectives on art and connectivity, representation and shared their thoughts on the exhibits. As docents, their videos offered both descriptions and reflective statements. One of the things I appreciated the most was that the members spoke from their own experiences as artists themselves. Not only did that frame the conversations, but it also invited the audience to do the same: to experience this art with our knowledge and experiences shaping the moment.
Many ARMYs were documenting their experiences with the exhibits and sharing them online to add to this. I was also planning to attend the New York exhibit to see Gormley’s piece, but my plans for that trip and everything else would stop.
COVID-19 made the world standstill. The constant uncertainty and fear were unlike anything I’d ever experienced, and I experienced it in almost every facet of my life. The days after my university would move us to online teaching were filled with anxiety and planning. I’d taught online before, but never during a pandemic. Most days, I felt like I had more questions than answers: How would I be able to provide my students with what they needed? How would I know what they needed? How do we make space for the unknown? Would students feel comfortable sharing their own needs and challenges? These questions kept coming but, what seemed most important was figuring out a way to make space for students to engage with the course content in a way that did not cause them any more stress than what we were all facing. I wanted them to focus on surviving and sustaining connections to the people and experiences that offered hope.
There are decades of scholarship and research about online teaching. Most of it tells us that we can have the same kind of engagement, connection, and creativity that we value in f2f classrooms in digital spaces. Like others, I made it through the semester because of grace, making my expectations realistic with the new norm, and putting care at the forefront of all my student activities. Still, I often feel a certain amount of regret and grief over all of the things I’d planned for my courses and, of course, for life in general, that would not come to fruition in the ways I’d planned.
I’m still teaching online and trying to figure out how best to navigate the Zoom classroom in a world faced with so many unknowns: the pandemic, deep social and political unrest, and the fatigue that so many of us have now come to accept as part of everyday life. I’m also at the point in the semester where I’ve got to both stay present and begin planning for my next course (one I’ve never taught before) on memoir or life writing. The topic of this course also feels particularly intense, given the current moment. So, I’m looking for new ways to be creative, and once more, I find it through BTS.
As we learned more about the next BTS album, BE (yes, that’s two albums in one year), through their YouTube #StayConnected and #CarryOn vlogs and from promo interviews and Dynamite, I listened with curiosity. Their discussions around this album’s concepts and ideas were undoubtedly reflective of and impacted by the current pandemic reality. Like many ARMYs, I began counting down the days until the release. One of the many questions I had was whether or not BTS might once again incorporate some art experience as part of this comeback. On November 1, 2020, when #Curated_By_BTS began, I knew I’d found both an answer to that question and the inspiration I need for my next course.
Beginning November 1, 2020, and continuing for seven days, a photo release as part of the BE comeback experience. (If you don’t know, a comeback is like a promotional cycle that happens before releasing new music. There might be trailers, concept photos, tracklists, and other teasers for the latest music). For this part of the comeback experience, there was an individual photo of each member, a photo of a room they curated to reflect themselves, and an interactive picture with audio of the room. In the interactive version, clicking on three different points in the image allows the user to hear a recording of the member where they gave their rationale for the room decor, colors, clothing, and more. This is similar to the kind of interactive experience you might have at a museum exhibit in many ways. It wasn’t just the narration that I found exciting, but the fact that the members also posed questions. From a pedagogical perspective, this did several things. First, it encouraged the participant to engage with the image actively. We searched for the points to click and listen to the recording (sometimes several times). The questions asked invited us to look again, again, and again. This is no different from what BTS has always done with their music and art in many ways. They invite us to participate actively and engage with what they’ve created; however, in the context of this current moment, this also struck me as another attempt to reach us once more in an effort similar to Connect, BTS. They have shown us and told us that art exists both inside of us and around us.
#Curated_By_BTS did not require us to go outside of our homes, make purchases, or get on a Zoom call. They told us that we could stay right where we were, and they would bring the experience to us. As a teacher, this felt like something I recognized: reshaping an experience to meet new needs. So many people could not visit the Connect, BTS exhibits, and museums in general, so BTS brings the art to us and invites us into their own curated spaces. Experiencing it felt like another opportunity similar to what Connect, BTS was offering. There was connectivity, along with opportunities to think about art and design. One of the most “BTSesque” things was how the members offered reflections and questions as they engaged with the artists. It felt like they were encouraging reflection at the end of a year where many of us are still trying to understand who we are amid almost constant uncertainty. Who are we in our homes? Who are we in our Zoom boxes? Who are we in relation to one another? Here then, were each of the members in carefully curated rooms, reflecting on who they are as individuals and asking us to consider the same.
It didn’t take long before I began to see #Curated_By_ARMY tweets that shared rooms inspired by BTS. Some were actual photos of people’s spaces; others were rooms that people imagined or created in response. Whether they were real physical spaces or not, each room was as diverse as the ARMYs who make up this community. There were also direct responses to the members’ curatorial statements and questions, analysis threads about the colors used in each room, tweets about the various objects members selected, explanations of design elements, and symmetry, and there was joy.
From the anticipation of waiting for each room to be revealed to listening to the members describes their rationale, this was an experience that cultivated joy through reflection. Joy is something that can never be separated from learning for me. If I’m reflecting on my own experience as both an ARMY and educator, I have to say that it is probably the thing that I appreciate the most about how BTS and ARMY teach and learn from one another. This joy cannot be replicated by one theory, model, or design because it comes from organic praxis and connections that take time to build and nurture.
I’m sure being the artists and innovators that they are, BTS has more surprises and ways to interact that will give me even more inspiration for teaching, and I’m grateful to keep listening, watching, and learning.
I opened this post with two quotes: one from Nam June Paik and the other from Paulo Freire. I’ve returned to both of these quotes throughout the year. They remind me of BTS, and they feel like a challenge for me as a teacher. Paik was a Korean-born artist who is widely known as being the founder of video art. Much of his work was both a reflection of what it might mean to foster connections through technology and an invitation for us to question how we might live with technology. I had the good fortune of seeing an exhibit of his work at the Tate Modern in London back in January. I’ve been turning over this statement from him about an artist’s job because it reminds me of how BTS often reflects on the past while still being present in the now and creating pathways for the future. The second quote from Freire makes me think of our charge as teachers at this moment. If we are also artists, our job is to reflect and build from the past, be aware of this present, and create possibilities and experiences for our students to help them grow into themselves, even when the future is uncertain. When I think of these quotes together, I often imagine BTS as a pedagogical model for putting this into practice, and I remain inspired to keep moving.