Michael Betts II MFA EDA ’20: Revolutionary Teaching
Meet sound designer and documentary artist Michael Betts II, the new CDS Courses Director for the Center for Documentary Studies. For his thesis exhibition, he designed an immersive, interactive experience that invites visitors to be anti-racist. With spring thesis presentations postponed, Duke Arts honors the MFA EDA Class of 2020 with interviews that dig into the projects and their makers.
Michael Betts II first learned the power of sound when he was twelve and volunteered to run his church’s sound system. “The beautiful thing about churches is that if you want to do something and they need it—they’ll teach you,” he said. At Destiny Christian Center in Greensboro, NC, Betts learned how to turn up the bass and “bounce the building away.” He loved the blend of artistry and technology. He saw how the music he played before service gave people joy. Without knowing it, he took his first step towards becoming a multitalented, supremely collaborative sound designer.
“It gave me a creative arm, and it was something that was semi-grounding while I was in school,” said Betts. Betts didn’t enjoy school, but his parents deeply valued education and secured him a spot in a new private school in Greensboro. “We were super poor and they applied for me to go to this super wealthy school. My parents told me: ‘This could be a game changer, this could legit change the course of your life.”
They might have been right. Betts would go on to be a first-generation college student (his mother later earned a paralegal associate’s degree). He enrolled at UNC-Chapel Hill as a Covenant Scholar, graduating with a degree in media production in 2011.
But a few things had to happen before Betts was ready to apply to Duke’s MFA in Experimental and Documentary Arts. For one, he began digging deeper into his personal and family identity. “When I was in school, my personal racial identity was that of a person of color, not necessarily black,” he explained. “That changes, but it takes a minute.” Growing up, his parents stressed to Betts that if he worked hard enough, people would look past the color of his skin. “I believed the colorblind lie of white supremacy that states if you are just a really good person, people will see past what you look like.”
“I am a black indigenous man. My perspective on the world is going to be radically different than your perspective on the world. And that is an asset to you.”
A shift happened for Betts when he saw the positions he was applying for all go to white men. “I realized there was this great disconnect between what I understand about myself and what these individuals understand about me.” Betts dug deep into black history and culture. He started asking his grandparents questions. He learned his dad integrated a school, and his grandfather was a Freedom Rider. “I didn’t know the number of direct assaults against black and brown bodies to keep them in place. . . It was frustrating to me because nobody thought that was important enough to tell me when I was in school.”
Revolutionary Teaching: An Experiment in Art and Learning
When Betts entered the MFA EDA program in 2018, he was interested in tackling these ideas while earning a career-changing (and maybe even bias-busting) credential. He dove deeper into his family’s story and the histories missing from his educational experience. The work he started making grew into a “pragmatic” method to actively reverse the erasures he had experienced.
To do this, Betts took his sound design experience into the classroom. He collaborated with Dr. Miguel La Serna of UNC-Chapel Hill’s Department of History to produce a live documentary experience for a course on Cold War–era Latin American conflicts. “We were trying to get students to be able to touch the history, to make it more meaningful for them, to let them find themselves in it,” he explained.
His thesis exhibition, Revolutionary Teaching: An Experiment in Art and Learning, weaves all these threads together. It would have transformed the Murthy Agora in the Rubenstein Arts Center into a first grade classroom featuring listening and participatory experiences “that put you in a place where you have to decide if you’re going to remain complicit in a system that is built for white bodies.” The setting might be elementary, but the content is heavy, violent, tragic. “If you’re a white body, Revolutionary Teaching is an opportunity for you to see experiences that are not your own, an opportunity to stand, not just in solidarity, but in learning how to be an accomplice, to make sure freedom struggles proliferate for all people.”
“Through the imitation of life, interactive methods, and the use of inherently disruptive aspects of the language of the classroom, Revolutionary Teaching engages a user’s inner childlike wonder, encompassing all the senses, and sparking knowledge that goes beyond being right or wrong.”—Excerpt from Artist’s Statement
The Artistry of Teaching
Betts now has the opportunity to pursue new intentionally anti-racist educational models as the new director of CDS Courses, a continuing education program of the Center for Documentary Studies. The program offers onsite and online courses, intensives, and workshops that can lead to a Certificate in Documentary Arts. Betts will actively shape the future of the CDS Courses curriculum, and while he’s only a couple of weeks into his new role, ideas are already taking shape.
“I’m very excited about the opportunity to create not just partnerships, but collaborations within the community that benefit all the people,” said Betts. He wants to explore working more closely with Durham Public Schools and hopes that CDS Courses students can meaningfully grow their portfolios by providing creative media services to Duke. Betts is also motivated to grow partnerships across the university. “I think we can benefit our students, we can benefit Durham, we can benefit North Carolina, and we can benefit the world,” said Betts. “If we bring the community to the table, they’ll let us know how to do it.”
CDS Director Wesley Hogan couldn’t be more excited to have Betts on board. “Michael’s thoughtful, values-based leadership propels us all,” she said. “As we continue to embed racial equity work across CDS, I’m thrilled that he will be determining the direction of the continuing education program, which deeply touches individuals and communities as students pursue their documentary projects. Michael’s life experiences, artistic talents, and personal convictions, not to mention his wit and joie de vivre, make him perfect for the work ahead.”
“I love the artistry of teaching other people how to be artists,” Betts shared.
Together with the rest of the MFA EDA Class of 2020 exhibitions, Revolutionary Teaching: An Experiment in Art and Learning is postponed until Fall 2020. Following an evaluation and redesign period, look for new offerings from CDS Courses starting in January 2021.