In this contribution to our forum, “Communicating Critical Qualitative Research Departures,” David Carless reflects on the self-revelations and vulnerabilities that reflexively accompany arts-based inquiry in his piece entitled “It's a Leap of Faith, Writing a Song.” In attempting to express fresh or risky understandings in creative ways like composing and singing songs, Carless celebrates the uptake of a good listener. Having his early songwriting efforts “truly heard” by his grandmother inspired him to continue his efforts and to wonder whether the “relational qualities” she embodied might serve to promote other interpretive, “arts-based or performative scholarship.”
Indeed, contemplating the susceptibilities of crafting a song is a wonderful way into this meditation on the risks of creativity and learning with others—and the impacts of our modes of response for shaping arts-based and performative ways of knowing. What does it mean to sing a song that you have written to others (for the first time)? Such effort is embodied intensely from the inside out, start to finish. You put yourself on the line both in what is “said” and how it is expressed. Carless keenly attests, “So when you share your songs, you share your self. And when others hear a song, they have an opportunity to hear a self.” Creativity requires courage in making something—anything—new and physically shared. What can we do to help it along?
As John Dewey reminds us, when we undertake the work of art, we are simultaneously doing our creative acts and undergoing the results of our labors. In making music, we hear and remake ourselves. Yet how do others experience our early offering? Understanding artful composition as communication, Dewey insists “the hearer is an indispensable partner. The work of art is complete only as it works in the experience of others than the one who created it.”1 We require the consummation of others’ responses to realize fully-formed aesthetic contributions.2
Carless regrets our tendency in academic culture to respond to such formative moments with “critique and deconstruction.” He hopes we can aspire to the “relational qualities” of his grandmother's listening. I am reminded of the “compassionate objectivity” I have seen demonstrated in the ethical responses of friends—the practice of listening appreciatively and lacing substantive engagement with person-centered affection, holistic positive regard, and judicious appraisal.3 I have argued that such “conscientious listening” involves a “committed, active passivity” in withholding kneejerk judgment and creating an opening for another's emerging discourse to flourish, especially when that individual may be at risk in rendering it.4 I recall a recommendation that I recently wrote about a valued colleague:
She is a bright, perceptive, other-regarding, energetic, and positive person. She is a true team player who consistently empowers others and takes genuine pleasure in their successes. These consistently demonstrated qualities don't just happen.—It requires preparation, commitment, goodwill, and intellectual energy to habitually see and elicit the best in others.
Would that our academic culture encouraged these qualities.5
In this artfully and thoughtfully written essay, Carless makes edifying and useful connections to the stances we may or may not assume in truly listening to and constructively responding to the work of others. He also addresses the vulnerability each of us feels in the throes of trying to create anything—be it a song, essay, or some other performance—that palpably reflects who we are, our deeply felt relationship(s) to what we are seeking to learn about and express, and those we are trying to reach with our insights. This essay accomplishes keenly wrought connections between life's fleeting moments and committed projects, and provides helpful, heartening, and eloquently rendered suggestions for living our practices. I look forward to the next time a fellow student of human possibilities wants to co-fashion a new idea, work, or song with me. With Carless, I pledge to listen well.