The early weeks of First-Year Seminar at Columbia are typically devoted to an exploration of self. In my class, what begins with a round of simple and uncritical first-day introductions—“Hi, my name is Michael and I’m a film major from the suburbs”—grows into a rigorous exploration of questions about identity and self-representation. A pragmatic concern like learning names and getting to know one another can, my students find, quickly open up big philosophical questions like “What is a self, anyway?”
Our classroom discussions continually revisit and reframe questions like this, tethering the exploration of self and representation to critical textual analysis of creative works, such as Marjane Satrapi’s memoir Persepolis. Students identify artistic and communicative strategies at work in Satrapi’s graphic novel, and they consider adopting, adapting, or avoiding these techniques in the creative projects of their own produced along the way. The hands-on practice of art-making and reflective writing pushes exploration forward. When everything is flowing, this exploration of the self is at once creative and critical, introspective and analytical, artful and authentic.
This is no easy task. Exploring the vexing concept of ‘the self’ is hard work, no doubt even more so for a first-semester college student getting acclimated to a new city, a new community, perhaps even a whole new identity. I ask my students to choose a medium that is unfamiliar to them, adding an additional layer of challenge while also in some sense leveling the playing field. Working with a medium in which one is not fluent, the richness of process becomes more important than the sophistication of technique. The final products may not be pretty, but they’re always interesting. They may not answer all the tough questions they raise, but they represent a real and rigorous engagement with those questions. They make evident that risks have been taken and discoveries have been made.
Phillip Cheng’s self-portrait, “Gravity,” is an example of a project that rises to the challenge. Presenting a video of yourself dancing to a roomful of near strangers takes a lot of guts, especially when some of those strangers happen to be dance majors, and you happen to not be. The class—and especially the dance majors—found Phillip’s piece compelling. Even if the technique wasn’t perfect, it was clear that Phillip had worked and reworked each movement until a story emerged that felt genuine and clear. The piece is neither uncritical self-expression nor overly-calculated communication. It is honest about the ambiguity it explores, bearing traces of the many layers and tensions that make up a self, especially a self in a moment of deep transition. Phillip’s rationale statement, in which he discusses his process and vision for the dance, makes clear that he set himself up with the lofty task of wrestling with complicated questions, and that through the work of creating in this medium well outside his comfort zone, he found that he could do something more with those questions than just answer them. He could study them, engage them, confront them as a force in his world, and draw from them as a source for his art. In the process, he learned as much about this medium as he did about himself, and he arrived at rich insights about his own creative process. His writing shows the kind of awareness of these elements that First-Year Seminar is designed to foster, and for this reason we are proud to present it here.
FYS Instructor Michael Lawrence
Phillip Cheng is a Film Producing major and Arts Management minor at Columbia. Born in Queens, New York, he spent much of his high school career in the suburban midwest discovering extracurriculars such as speech team, theater, show choir, film, and marching band. These opportunities to explore art and leadership would eventually push him to study producing and management. In his free time he enjoys choreographing as an executive board member of the Columbia Show Choir.