Why I chew gum from under classroom desks
It is 1987. I just finished my PhD and moved to Edmond, Oklahoma to teach at Central State University. Growing up in North Texas, I either didn't think about Oklahoma much or I heard jokes about it. But I came up excited to begin a career. That first semester, I was asked to help judge an annual high school art competition called Young Talent in Oklahoma. Cool. That should be fun. Later, I found out that one of the other judges was my major Professor, a former Chair of the Department of Visual Arts & Design, and now a Vice President at the University of North Texas. The judging was a lot of fun. Prior to judging, my students and I took on the job of designing the graphic materials for Young Talent - a poster, a banner, name tags, and a catalog of the work by the winners. We worked with the Young Talent steering committee. During this process we proposed several innovative concepts (a triangular catalog, a shorter acronym - YT, rather than YTIO). But every time we proposed a new idea we were met with these comments: "That's not the way we did it last year." or "That's not how we've been doing it." and other similar attitudes. And these were arts people. Damn. I soon learned that there is a culture of status quo and playing-it-safe in Oklahoma. While its getting better, there is still this acceptance of not rocking the boat. Another Oklahoma mantra: "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." (Great designers use the mantra, "If it ain't broke - break it. It can always be made better.") This pervasive attitude of stifling innovation frustrated me. As a student pointed out in class during my first semester teaching in Oklahoma, "Watson, here in Oklahoma, we strive for mediocrity." The other students nodded their agreement. Not 'settle for mediocrity' but strive for mediocrity.
So, my mission for teaching in Oklahoma became clearer - I had to work at chipping away at this attitude of conformity for the sake of being 'safe'. I tried many methods in class to motivate students to be uncomfortable in the directions they took their thinking. Staying comfortable meant staying within the established boundaries that lead to more of the same, rather than progressing towards growth and innovation. Oh, the other judge, the one from North Texas, commented at dinner after a long day of judging, "Jim, I've never heard so many comments about 'That's not how we've been doing it'. What's going on here?" I told him I didn't know but that it had frustrated me also. It wasn't just my perception - others had noticed it also.
Its time to chew used gum
During Graphic Design 1 class, typically made up of freshmen and sophomores (the uninitiated), I would reach under a desk, find a hardened wad of gum, pick it off, and hold it up - giving time for students to go, "Oh yuck." "Gross." "Don't chew that." "Don't put that in your mouth." - Its simply not proper to do that. So, of course, I had to do it. I would put the hard gum in my mouth and begin to chew. The cries of repulsion got even more vocal. Some students said they might throw up, others looked away, many did the wrinkly nose disgust expression. Exactly the way I expected and hoped they would react.
I would then look dumfounded, like, 'what's the big deal?' And then realize that maybe students were disgusted because I hadn't offered it to others first, to share as we had been taught in elementary school. So, I would then ask, "Oh, did you want some?" And I would pull it out of mouth and offer to those who were looking most incredulous. They would recoil and emphatically state, "No, I don't want any of that!" And more cries of "Gross."
We are conditioned to believe and therefore to behave in certain ways - we've been trained/brainwashed by our parents, the government, the church, and the mainstream media. We often don't think about our responses, we just react out of habit. Habits are dangerous for a designer. They inhibit creativity and innovation. They hinder our ability to see our surroundings from fresh viewpoints. Students responded to my gum chewing strictly from conditioned response, a habit. Once they calmed down, I would ask why that bothered them so much. "Its got germs." "Its dirty." "Its been in someone else's mouth."
I then informed them that none of those were the real reason they were repulsed. The real reason is they were behaving the way they had been trained to behave. They didn't think about it. They didn't reason. They didn't see with an open mind. They just reacted out of habit and conditioning.
I then discuss the reasoning.
• Germs? Nope. Germs require a warm moist environment to survive. Underneath a desk is neither. Imagine if germs didn't die? But they do, they die if they are not in the right environment. There are more germs on the student's hands than on that gum. But their hands didn't gross them out.
• Dirt? No. Not under the desk. Dust can't even settle up under there. The underside of the desk is quite well protected. The coins in the student's pockets probably had more dirt on them than the gum.
• Someone else's mouth. I ask if they've ever given/gotten some tongue action while kissing. Of course, they have. Isn't that someone else's mouth? And, remember, the germs are long dead.
So, any reason they come up with to be disgusted can be disproved. It just leaves the correct answer - they were disgusted because they were supposed to be disgusted. Society brainwashed them with enough propaganda to react exactly as they did. As perfect robots. My job as the motivator to growth was to encourage students to react less and think more.
I am still intrigued by cultures that regularly eat insects as part of their routine diet. More protein but we have been conditioned in the USA to be disgusted by that. Me too. Yucky. Gross. Dirty.
I do mention to the class, after the lesson sinks in a bit, that I don't chew used gum in front of kids or outside of the classroom. There have been semesters when I could find no gum under the desks (I guess I had chewed it all). I would have to check first and then plant some gum there in order to present the episode of the used gum from under a desk.
Later a student emailed me that she was blown away that I would actually chew the gum. Then she was more blown away when I explained the rationale. It changed the way she thought and responded. Hallelujah. That's why I did it. It worked.
Life is unpredictable. I would strive to nudge students out of their comfort zones. Growth doesn't happen inside the comfort zone, only when we step outside of and beyond that safe boundary. While my methods might be unorthodox, I found them to be more effective. I typically had students for only one studio class and often felt a sense of desperation to reach them with the greatest impact. Chris, the DJ character from Northern Exposure, said: "I am the chaos in the order of the universe". I'm not quite that grandiose, but I see myself in that role sometimes - to help students adapt and respond to unforeseen circumstances. Having to respond to and deal with weirdness is where growth and learning happens.
Other quirky classroom stuff
While checking the printout roster on the first day of class, if there was a name that seemed confusing (like 'James - do you go by Jim?') I would ask what they preferred to be called. Sometimes, the student would answer with, "I don't care." "You really don't care?" Then, I would say, "Okay, I'm going to call you slutpuppy." I have no idea where or when I came up with the name slutpuppy, but I used it almost every semester. One time, a GD1 grad came by to visit and asked which student in the class was named slutpuppy. A student raised his hand. "That's me." They both laughed. The lesson became apparent when the student would finally object to being called slutpuppy in class. I would say, "So you really do care what I call you." "Yes, I guess so."
Often, I would ask a student a question, calling them by name, but looking at a different student. That seemed to make both students uncomfortable. Some students would have fun with it and laugh or play along, but others would correct me, as if I was really stupid and didn't know their names (I usually learned all their names during the first day of class). Finally, the class acknowledged that it was all a game, as much of life is. To play is to win, to not play is to lose.
The very first presentation in the semester I would simply ask for volunteers to go next - no predetermined or assigned order - they had to volunteer. We would always run out of time and some students wouldn't be able to present. I would talk about the next homework assignment and then casually mention that those who didn't present that day would get a zero. "A zero!" "That's unfair." "We ran out of time." "I didn't get a chance to go." and on and on with the bullshit. Some students got very upset, "I've never made a zero." They would get mad at me. I'd say, "Why me? Did I ask you not to go? Did I tell you to wait until class was over?" We would talk about it and they eventually, but reluctantly, came to the conclusion that it was entirely their fault (in the USA we are conditioned to play victim and blame others for our shortcomings - students have learned that lesson well). They did have a chance to go but simply chose not to. That's the game. You don't play, you lose.
I have learned from 30 years of teaching that a zero is a powerful motivator. Dropping a grade 10 or 20 points makes no impact. But a zero - the symbol for nothing - carries a lot of weight. (Later in the semester, I would delete those zeroes, the point had been made, and the zeroes were then unnecessary.)
If a student presentation became boring, I would pick up a newspaper and start reading. One time, a student commented on how rude that was (although not nearly as rude as her saying that to me in front of others). I explained why I did it - If, at the end of the presentation, I had said that it was a bit boring - well, that would make almost no impact on the student. They would nod and maybe agree but all they cared about is that their presentation is over and they're just a few seconds away from being able to sit back down. But if I make a scene like reading the paper or doodling, or turning to talk to someone - that makes an impact. One time, a student bored us all so I read the paper during his presentation. Later in the semester, at the next presentation, that same student was completely animated with no monotone speaking voice. We were all amazed. Afterwards he commented, "Watson, no way was I going to let you read a newspaper again." It worked.
I did wear a uniform to class. Every class. Same uniform. You can read more about that quirk here.
At some point during a discussion in class, I would belch, hopefully loudly and disrupting. Of course, I could keep a straight face and play dumb, like, "What's wrong." Students gasped, chuckled, and voiced their disapproval. It was mainly because I would drink a Diet Coke in class and I was dealing with the carbonated bubbles in my system. But it knocked out of whack the expectations that students had and they didn't know how to deal with that. Education is creating situations that might be uncomfortable and encouraging students to learn how to deal with those that they don't anticipate. This lesson also explains why I would say the word fuck in class.
Why would I act goofy in class? The answer could be as simple as, "Why not!" But there's more to it than that. My large size can be intimidating so one reason is that it can put some people more at ease when I display my own vulnerability. It provides situations that demand response or reaction, therefore growth and learning. Also, its just more fun.
Teaching sure was a hoot.
Other quirks from the eccentric Jim Watson
Why I stop at stop signs
I don't stop at a stop sign just because there is some red and white paint on a piece of metal. It doesn't even matter that its in the shape of an octagon. I choose to stop there:
1. To avoid the hassle of being pulled over and paying for a ticket.
2. To avoid hurting people.
3. To minimize damage to the car and paying for car repair
4. It's easier than closely checking for cops and other cars.
This list was prompted by seeing several people get stuck at stop signs in our naberhood during the blizzards. If they hadn't stopped (there was no other traffic), they could have glided right on. I suspect these were Foxies, people who are trained to obey and not think for themselves: "Its a stop sign - I have to stop."
The drive home from Colorado took me down I-25 to Raton, New Mexico and then southeast towards Amarillo, Texas, where I would spend the night. Just before getting to the Great State of Texas (that's the way we were taught to write that), I went through Clayton, New Mexico. I had already passed the Capulin Volcano and other small towns where the speed limit dropped from 70 to 30 or 40. I suspect some of those are intended as speed traps to get unsuspecting drive-thrus to pay a 'donation' to the city. Well, it seems to work. I am very alert when I drive. I avoid driving out of habit - I don't always use a turn signal (only when there is someone I need to communicate with). But, as alert as I was, this officer was better - he was well-hidden. By the time I noticed him behind the trees, it was too late. I pulled over immediately. I was already on the outskirts of town. The speed limit lowered in town, but then returned to 50 and then 70 at the edge of town.
A ticket for speeding is just no big deal. Really.
• Sometimes, I choose to speed. It is entirely my decision. I accept the consequences for my actions. I am willing to pay the ticket in exchange for my decision to drive higher than the posted limit.
• I am very alert when I drive. But, sometimes, I miss spotting a police car. They sometimes play the game better than I do. Congratulations to them.
• The issuing officer is doing exactly what we ask him to do, exactly what we pay him to do. He is doing his job - and doing it well.
• Since the officer was doing a good job, I am very courteous and polite to him/her. That usually pays off in reduced fines - in the Clayton case above, he clocked me going 54 in a 40 zone, but lowered it to 44 in a 40. The citation I mailed back clearly showed the 5 crossed out and replaced with a 4. How kind of him. And I thanked him for that.
• Once I get home, I pay the ticket as soon as I can and then put it out of my mind. It's done. Over. No big deal. I see it as just making small donations to cities and towns who play the game well.
I am often amazed and disappointed how angry some people get at getting a ticket. They fucked up, not the officer. Maybe they are just mad at themselves and too proud to admit it.
• Ed Benguiat: From conversation while he installed a show of his work at SVA, NYC.
• Christo: From a preview exhibit at the Met, NYC.
• Milton Glaser: Dylan poster: From an AIGA Conference, Las Vegas.
• Milton Glaser: I heart NY More Than Ever: From his office, NYC
• April Greiman: Mailed to her in LA.
• Gary Lewis and the Playboys: From an appearance in a store in Dallas.
• Philip Meggs: From a conversation at a type conference in Ft. Worth.
• Clement Mok: From an auction at the AIGA Fellow presentation, NYC.
• Karim Rashid: From conversation at Price Tower lecture, Bartlesville, OK.
• Ringo Starr signed to me and the Impalas: My dad met him at a lunch at J. Paul Getty's house in England and I was in a junior high school band (The Impalas) at the time. I later sold it to a collector - I needed the money.
• Deborah Sussman: From an auction at the AIGA Fellow presentation, NYC.
• Massimo Vignelli: A 1970s Subway Diagram, NYC.
I rarely answer the phone
Telemarketers. Long-winded talkers. My upbringing and culture taught me to always answer the phone. While reading a book on grieving, one suggestion was to ignore the phone. I tried it and I liked it. It resulted in less stress and more influence over my time.
I most enjoy phone calls that are Vignelli/Swiss style - pure, clear, and to the point. The phone doesn't allow visuals, expressions, gestures, etc. and, because I'm a visual thinker/processor, hearing only a voice is awkward. I'm not one to 'chat' for very long on the phone. As Elvis says, TCB - Takin' care of business. However, there are times when a call is the most efficient way to give or get info, and that's okay.
I don't give many gifts
For birthdays or weddings, I rarely know what people really need or even want. If its something really utilitarian, the person would probably already have it or would soon get it. If its just frivolous, it would likely end up as clutter that they would have to deal with later - and that seems sorta rude, inconsiderate, and wasteful. As I try to minimize clutter in my own life and encourage others to do the same, it doesn't make much sense to give stuff to others. I also assume and hope that a gift is not equated with an expression of how much I love or care about the recipient. I do buy gifts when I see something that someone might enjoy or that is just too appropriate for them - but it may not be for a birthday or at Christmastime.
I like the color yellow
It's bright, cheerful, fun, lively, positive, warm, glowing. Studies and research in color psychology show that the wavelength of light that we perceive as yellow enhances creative thinking, intelligence, and problem solving. A great color for accents in homes and classrooms. I was once lecturing about color psychology in the design classroom at UCO. I looked up and realized the walls were plain vanilla. I was a bit ashamed that this design program wasn't implementing what we were preaching about color. So, I had one wall repainted yellow.
There are urinals in my house
I hate to clean up the 'drip and splash' residue around toilets. No matter how hard we try and how careful we are, men will miss and drip. Mankind has invented a device that helps solve this problem - the urinal. We use them all the time in public bathrooms, why not in the home bathroom? Some bathrooms have bidets with the toilet - lets just add another fixture. Important: a home urinal solves forever the issue of leaving the toilet seat up or down. It never needs to go up. I have replaced the original urinals with waterless ones. These use a gel to trap odors - there is no water line, no flushing, and no wasting of water.
My house has no doorbell
Its an obnoxious sound. The house is so small I can hear a knock. Friends coming over usually call and leave a message that they're coming. A knock is more human. Knocking saves electricity. The dog barks when anyone even gets close to the house - she is the doorbell.
I wore a uniform to work
I sometimes act goofy
The answer could be as simple as, "Why not!" But there's more to it than that. My large size can be intimidating so one reason I act a bit weird is to put some people more at ease when I display; that I can be goofy. Also, its more fun.
Chris, the DJ from Northern Exposure, said: "I am the chaos in the order of the universe". I'm not quite that grandiose, but I see myself in that role sometimes - to help students adapt and respond to unforeseen circumstances. Having to respond to and deal with weirdness is where growth and learning happens.
I do not use a straw in drinks
1. Sipping through a straw makes the drink go too fast, I want to sip and savor drinks and pace out the alcohol or soda.
2. Hot drinks - the straw melts.
3. Waste of plastic straw and paper wrapper. Very short useful life span. Think of the raw materials, storage, shipping, truck distribution, etc. Then they likely end up in a landfill or litter in the street.
I order soft drinks with no ice
1. The ice takes up over half the volume of the cup, I get more soda.
2. Waste of ice. The ice is unnecessary - the drink is always plenty cold. Waste of water, electricity, storage.
3. Annoying cold bergs in the drink - tilt the cup to lips and those bits of frozen water just get in the way of a good sip.
4. The ice melts and dilutes the drink. I like my drinks strong and flavorful, not watery.
I use to drink drinks over ice because that's just what we were conditioned to do. I had never really thought about why the ice was in there (I think it's so the restraunt doesn't have to put in so much soda.) If available, I also order half Diet Coke and half Diet Dr Pepper. To be fair. And it tastes good.
I untangle phone and electrical cords
They look messy when all tangled up so I, often while on hold, I rotate the handset or appliance so that the cord unwinds and untangles. Maybe its part of meeting my mission of making things better or just a weird quirk.
I open up folded pages in books
You know how the corners of pages in books, especially phone books get folded over? Well, I unfold them. Yep, got to make that book look better.
I stir my coffee with used stir sticks
When at Starbux, Borders & Noble, or another coffee shop, I just reach into the trash and pull out a stir stick to use in my coffee. I waste so much stuff when I get coffee - they put a sleeve around the cup, a lid (though I request none "We have to put a lid on it" - dang lawsuits), and a paper packet of sweetener. I figure the least I can do is to not waste another wooden stir stick. Now, for those of you who are gagging at the thought of my using a stir stick that some else has put in their coffee and possibly licked - remember that I am immersing it in very hot coffee that is likely to kill any germs that may have survived on the stick in the trash. And if I get really sick I can just sue Starbux on the grounds that they did not adequately warn me of the dangers of using stir sticks from the trash. That'll show 'em.
My car is silver/grey
Silver/grey is honest and pure, real, and true. Cars are big, massive, and powerful machines. The essence of the machine should show. It ought to look mechanical, industrial, and technical. Hiding it as a lollipop or colorful statement seems inappropriate for such a big machine. Do we really try to impress people with our cars? (that anyone can buy)?
Why I don't put on my seat belt when I start the car
Because it's dangerous.
I strive to have as many things in my favor as possible when I drive. I want to avoid an accident by limiting distractions and encouraging alertness. The windows are not tinted, there are no decals on the windshield that might obscure part of the view, and I drive cars (since the 1970s) in which I sit up high for a better view. So, here's the problem with putting on the seat belt when I get in - the belt constricts my movement when I turn around to see behind the car while backing out of the driveway or a parking place. So, I don't put it on. Once I put the car in Drive, then I put on the seat belt. Every time.
I use to speak only in sentences that had an even number of letters in them (the preceding sentence has an even number of letters in it). I really did (even). No kidding (odd). How weird is that? (even)
I think it was to keep my brain from being bored - to constantly give it challenges. Or to have fun. Not even odd.
I think and speak words backwards
Maybe nothing more than to keep my brain busy and occupied. And maybe because its fun for my brain. Some of my favorites:
Tucumcari (city in New Mexico) = Iracmucut (I rack 'em, you cut)
Tulsa = A slut
Barcelona = An ole crab
Chattanooga (city in Tennessee) = Agoonattahc (A goon attack)
Republicans = Snacilbuper (Snackle Bupper)
Democrats = Starcomed (Stark Oh Med)
University = Ytisrevinu (It is revenue)
Automobile = Elibomotua (Elly Bo Mot Chew Uh)
Biblioteca (Spanish for library) = Acetoilbib (Ace Toil Bib)
Miscellaneous quirky things
• I once used the washing machine as an ice chest for a party at my house - it worked great: held lots of ice and drinks and cleanup was easy - the ice melted when I ran a wash cycle. It was fun to tell guests to get their drinks out of the washing machine.
• Seeing the Beatles at Love Field in 1964
• Standing on the stage at the Ed Sullivan Theater (where the Beatles first performed in the USA) while Letterman's set was being loaded in.
• I like alignment, order, consistency
• I design buildings and interiors with overlapping angled grids
• I was ahead of my time:
Ranch + salsa
Claims to fame
I hold a US Design Patent for Backgammon in the Round (info).
My dogs, Vegas and Manhattan, were in a photo shoot for a lingerie catalog for a company from Chile.
I was once the Voice of TGI Friday's on all their training tapes. We recorded them in a sound studio and as I traveled the country working for the restaurant, people, even years later, would recognize my voice from their training sessions.
I've been on TV: in a promo spot for the PBS affiliate of educational television in Oklahoma City; on the HGTV show, Small Space, Big Style (more info), and on the local news morning program.
I once gave a ride to Scott Hamilton, the ice skater. My mother, niece, and I had watched an Olympian ice skating show in Dallas in the 1980s. Hamilton stuck around to sign autographs and visit with fans. As a result, he missed the cast bus back to the hotel. As we were leaving, I saw him walking by himself from the arena. I pulled over and we offered him a ride. He appreciated it and got in. We had our own private audience and a good visit with him during the drive to the hotel.
I shook Lyndon Johnson's hand in the bathroom at the LBJ Library in Austin. Bit awkward - we were each at the urinal, but I had a captive audience for my request to shake his hand (after we each had washed up).
One of my most eccentric habits
I had spent much of a day wandering through the massive Museum of Modern Art. I took a break for an afternoon meal at Terrace 5, one of three eateries in the museum.
After a meal of salmon bruschetta, shrimp noodle salad, and an apple cobbler sundae, I arranged the unbussed items in this straight line. The order and alignment felt right at home in the museum.