Pett workshop reactions mixed

merrettkrahn

Joel Pett gave a campus-wide lecture on the evening of Tuesday, Sept. 22, followed by a series of workshops on Thursday, Sept. 24 Credit: Gold
Joel Pett gave a campus-wide lecture on the evening of Tuesday, Sept. 22, followed by a series of workshops on Thursday, Sept. 24 Credit: Gold

“If you have a passion for something, anything, that’s what you should do,” said Joel Pett, the Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoonist and Whitman’s O’Donnell visiting professor of global studies. The workshops he hosted, one for faculty at noon on Thursday, Sept. 24, and one for students at 8:00 that night, were highly anticipated. Reactions to them were mixed.

Director of global studies and politics department chair Shampa Biswas was instrumental in bringing Pett to campus.

“Joel Pett brings a creative approach to covering global issues, and in that, added an often under-represented element to other global studies speakers at Whitman,” said Biswas in an e-mail. “His passion for his craft and his grave concern for some of the most pressing global issues of our times made him an excellent and provocative speaker at Whitman.”

Both workshops were entitled “Draw Your Own Conclusions” and there was a strong emphasis on speaking one’s mind through art and taking full advantage of our free speech rights as citizens.

“In the U.S., you can say damn near anything,” said Pett, showing slides of his cartoons that pushed the envelope through their artwork, message, or both. “You squander your free speech rights every day by not standing up and saying whatever you want.”

He punctuated his presentation by drawing spontaneous caricatures of presidents and other world leaders. His repertoire was impressive, depicting Barack Obama, George Bush, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Saddam Hussein, although Pett jokingly admitted later that “I can actually only draw eight things; if I move them around enough, nobody notices.”

While the message was inspiring and his presentation amusing, the delivery, some felt, left something to be desired. Many who were enthusiastic about his lecture on Tuesday, Sept. 22, were disappointed to find that the workshops offered little that Pett had not already covered. Visiting Assistant Professor of art Mare Blocker required her students to attend the Tuesday night lecture because the lectures and workshops corresponded to activities they were doing in class, and she herself attended the faculty workshop.

“He gave workshops for both the faculty and students, which were, apparently, from talking to the students, exactly the same workshops. I was a little disappointed because all the lectures were exactly the same from one to the next,” Blocker said. “Even though they had titles and descriptions that alluded to talking about something else, they didn’t, and I just felt like he has more to say than that,.”

Biswas, among others, had anticipated that Pett would take a more hands-on approach to the workshops.

“The workshops were intended to be more interactive, providing attendees with the opportunity to witness and experience the process of cartooning and captioning,” said Biswas.

The interactive portion of the student workshop included an option of filling in captions on pre-drawn cartoons.

Many of Blocker’s students reacted negatively both to the repetition of content and Pett’s overall outlook.

“A lot of my students were really turned off by his negative attitude. He’s just critiquing and not offering solutions,” she said.

First-year Ethan Maier concurred.

“I learned that some people, although good in their fields, aren’t good at doing much else, and I think Joel Pett is one of those people. He’s super good at drawing cartoons, but you ask him to come and do three or four structured workshops, and then he kind of sucks,” said Maier.

Despite Pett’s apparent controversial nature, many appreciated his cynicism and were just as enthusiastic after the workshops as after the Tuesday lecture.

“[Pett’s negativity] also is encouraging for them because there is a void that somebody needs to provide some dialogue about positive issues and things that could be done,” Blocker said.

Maier agrees that the experience wasn’t wholly negative.

“I thought Joel Pett was very avant-garde and kind of crazy, but he has a lot of interesting ideas,” Maier said.

In a way, the broad range of conclusions that Whitman students and faculty drew from Pett’s workshops indicate that he fulfilled an important aspect of his job-provoking discussion and dialogue on campus.