Synthesis, Application, Embodied Knowledge

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How can the classroom be extended beyond the dingy walls and  rattling windows of an assigned classroom space in disrepair?   Photo by Susan BernsteinHow can the classroom be extended beyond the dingy walls and rattling windows of an assigned classroom space in disrepair? Photo by Susan Bernstein


Synthesis, Application, Embodied Knowledge 

Neurodivergent Teaching


The accountant who thinks in numbers. The biologist who thinks in ecosystems. The chemist who thinks in formulas. The engineer who thinks in blueprints. The gymnast who thinks in movement. The historian who thinks in chronology. The musician who thinks in sound. The physicist who thinks in matter. The poet who thinks in words. The psychologist who thinks in emotions. The statistician who thinks in data.

The artist who thinks in numbers, ecosystems, formulas, blueprints, movement, chronology, sound, matter, words, emotions, data.  

The artist who thinks as a synthesizer. 

Synthesis: this is why art means so much to me as a neurodivergent teacher diagnosed with ADHD and generalized anxiety, and who, for many years, had no diagnosis at all. 

My diagnosis helps me understand my orientation to the world. I use the present tense because the processes of orienting and understanding are ongoing and ever-shifting; the processes include synthesis. Bringing together categories and elements that seem unrelated and even opposed– the art of working with these problems is where creativity happens. Composition, in this view, is the ongoing process of synthesis. 

As a teacher of composition, I try to incorporate the exhibits into our lessons whenever I have access to on-campus art museums.. In Fall 2023, reflecting Covid’s long wake of remote learning and disembodied teaching, the museum lesson focused on experiential learning, learning on purpose, and learning to show up

This semester, with the majority of my students majoring in fields immediately outside of traditional art forms, and primarily in STEM fields, the lesson focused on synthesis. Part of synthesis is accessing what you know to learn what you don’t know. 

To attend to this process, we visited the Godwin-Ternbach Museum to view an exhibit on portraiture, and then held a workshop to make our own portraits. Because our class includes corequisites, we used our additional hours to return to the museum in smaller cohorts to continue our observations.

Synthesis includes application–embodied knowledge. How do we apply what we do know to situations, contexts, problems that seem removed from our everyday experiences, interests, and coursework? In the case of our art museum visit, how can rhetorical appeals be applied to portrait painting? Such questions, I suggested, are not so far removed from STEM fields. How do different areas of science and math address design, proofs, and data in problems-solving processes? What choices do portrait artists make in composition? What connections can be drawn from them?

Given ongoing chaos, division, and uncertainty outside the classroom, how can connection be found inside the classroom, and how can the classroom be extended beyond the dingy walls and rattling windows of an assigned classroom space in disrepair?  How can spaces of learning include discord and dissension to arrive at new and expanded definitions and conclusions?

In other words,  how is it possible to attend to dissonance in the context of first-year writing? 

As this semester wanes, I return once again to the processes of synthesis, and the persistent aim of learning to grow as writers.


APPENDIX: Assignment for the Art Museum Portraiture Exhibit: Rhetorical Questions to Ask about Art

Choose a work of art for your focus, then address the following questions to gather data and evidence:

COMPOSITION: How does the portrait use color, light, and darkness to gain the audience’s attention? Does the  portrait succeed in capturing and keeping the audience’s attention? Why or why not?  

ORGANIZATION: How is the idea of the portrait interpreted? For instance, does the artist draw the complete figure, or just the head and torso? Does the artist use an object as a portrait instead of a figure? Why do you think they made these choices?

INTEGRITY AND EMOTION: Does the portrait display an artist’s struggle for integrity? Do the artists use emotion as part of their work? Does their work alleviate suffering? Do the artists make or document the truth of history? Why or why not? (Adapted from The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity by James Baldwin)

These questions are adapted from a video about our museum visit, “Museum Field Trip and Questions to Ask About Art April 2024.”

About the Author
Susan Naomi Bernstein (she/they) writes, teaches, and quilts, in Queens, NY. She blogs for Bedford Bits, and her recent publications include “The Body Cannot Sustain an Insurrection” in the Journal of Multimodal Rhetorics and “After Basic Writing” in TETYC. Her book is Teaching Developmental Writing. Other publications include “Theory in Practice: Halloween Write-In,” with Ian James, William F. Martin, and Meghan Kelsey in Basic Writing eJournal 16.1, “An Unconventional Education: Letter to Basic Writing Practicum Students in Journal of Basic Writing 37.1, “Occupy Basic Writing: Pedagogy in the Wake of Austerity,” in Nancy Welch and Tony Scott’s collection Composition in the Age of Austerity. Susan also has published on Louisa May Alcott, and has exhibited her quilts in Phoenix, Arizona and Brooklyn, NY.