Thursday, January 22, 2009

First Day

“When my daughter was about seven years old, she asked me one day what I did at work. I told her I worked at the college – that my job was to teach people how to draw. She stared back at me, incredulous, and said, "You mean they forget?" - Howard Ikemoto

Good start this morning as all seventeen students enrolled actually showed up. First-come-first-serve basis with letting in folks who are wait-listed; there are real-estate issues what with the rather limited facilities in the drawing studio that led to the department dropping maximum enrollment in studio art courses from 20 down to 15 last year. This really does make a incredibly huge difference in the logistics of spending individual time with people during in-class exercises, critiques etc. This has always incidentally increased my respect and admiration for our local grade-school art teachers that have to deal with 25-30 students per class, all day long - absolutely incredible skill in time-management, not to mention crowd-control. So if people don’t show up on the first day of class I usually summarily drop them and add in the waitlisted folks in order of their respective enrollment, plus a few extra (extra consideration given to art majors) as there will always be ones that bail out as soon as the going gets tough, and they can still get full refund on tuition. In fact, there are several indicator, or “separating the wheat from the chaff” assignments right at the outset that serve to gauge the seriousness of each student, i.e. if they drop the ball and fall behind right off the bat, I can duly advise them to withdraw voluntarily, and if problems persists there is always the faculty-initiated withdrawal as a last step.
After waiting an extra about ten minutes longer than normal to allow for people who are still trying to locate the classroom, syllabus is handed out and I go over the nuts & bolt stuff:

Tuesday/Thursday 8 -10:30am Room 317
Jamie Smith, Instructor (here I give out my personal email for them to use to check in with me if they have questions or miss a class, since I check the university account usually once a semester – typically there are at least anywhere from 1-3 thousand spam messages and only a few legitimate emails)
This class serves as an introductory exploration of drawing as a basis for creative expression. Students will be exposed to a variety of principles, concepts and techniques that will increase their artistic abilities in both personal skill and appreciation. Focus will be on acquiring the simple tools for visual problem solving; observation (learning to see) and awareness (interpreting what is seen). This is a studio class with emphasis on producing work in a respectful and supportive atmosphere.
Students will develop a working understanding and demonstrate knowledge of a basic set of skills through in-class exercises, demonstrations, slide lectures, sketchbook reviews and critiques of assigned work. Other tentative events include guest artist presentations, field trips, gallery exhibitions and participation in the Student Art Show.
Perspective and proportion (weeks 1-3)
Value (weeks 4-5)
Composition (week 6-7)
Line (weeks 8-9)
Pen & Ink (weeks 11-12)
Figure/Life (weeks 14-15)
*Reasonable accommodations will be provided for students with disabilities including equal access to campus and course material. For information contact Office of Disabilities Services 203 WHIT 474-7043.
Students will be evaluated on the basis of the following:
Attendance - mandatory with two excused absences, after which grade will drop accordingly (ex: 3 absences = an A to a B, 4 = a B to a C, 5 = C to a D).
*Note - If perfect attendance and completion of all work is average and equates therefore to a “C” then absences have obvious consequences.
Repeated lateness will also affect grade cumulatively (ex: late for half the class twice = 1 absence, etc.).
If you miss a day, get someone’s email/phone # and/or email me with questions.
*Note - there may be a couple days where we will meet at 9am: makeups will take place during Friday open drawing sessions.
5% Participation - contribution to discussions; constructive criticism & asking questions, is expected, along with individual effort & improvement. This will be reflected in the “plus or minus” factor of your grade.
10% Sketchbook - One 8.5x5.5 full. "mulch-pile" of doodles/sketches/thumbnails + journal/notes; pieces from 1st Friday openings.
20% Classwork - representative samples of in-class exercises
65% Assigned Work – five take-homes (three points each = 15%) and five critiques (five points each = 50%). A note that for each class session you are late turning in work after review/critique/due date = loss of point.

The majority of the grade will be reflected in the quality of the final portfolio, which will include the body of the student's work. All assignments should be clean, fixed, and clearly labeled on back.
Reworks are strongly encouraged.
Failure to turn portfolio in is automatic F.

That's the low-down on one double-sided sheet of paper, plus a couple other hand-outs with the materials list and a copy of general grading guidelines I'll transcribe and post later.
And as usual, a cell-phone went off while I was lecturing this morning, which gave me the opening to announce my policy of personally answering calls if it goes off in class (this has in the past led to some very amusing situations, though awkward as hell for them, to say the least).

For many years on the first day of class I used to hand a random student my old Honer 5-string banjo and ask them to play a song. Chances are they have never held a banjo, let alone play one, and this provides a perfect opportunity to use a metaphor for drawing: don’t expect to walk up to a blank sheet of paper & knock out a perfect drawing right off the bat. It takes the time and skill brought about by constant practice and methodically learning the basics – which is the equivalent of what we do in the studio class for the first portion of the semester, ie learning the quite frankly boring & repetitious notes & scales, over & over, until we finally go out & jam. It also takes forethought and planning, hence the stressing the importance of using preliminary sketches or thumbnails – they will help to visualize what it is they are going to do: I stress that this is where you want to make your mistakes, not on the final work when you put it up on the wall for critique.

Speaking of critiques; one of the basic, underlying challenges for many people is overcoming inhibitions of exhibition. Studio art classes are quite different than the normal routine in that students usually doesn’t have their quizzes or tests posted up on the wall for everyone else in the class to see, which can lead to some understandable stress. I have lots of empathy with moving into a new medium of expression (apprehension over public displays is comparable in this way with an experiment posting writings on a blog), and I take special care to point out how this will also be a gradual learning curve where we will gain confidence and get over it as the semester progresses. That, or just stop caring so damned much about other people’s opinions, and losing any sense of shame (sometimes an annoying asset). A side-note here in that I’ve long felt having a background in being a waiter for many years in some way inures one to the habit of waltzing upon a group of strangers, talking to them and peddling your wares.

Finally, one of the best rules of thumb I’ve heard came from my graduate school advisor: to be successful in the field you only need to satisfy two of the following criteria – first, be really good, second, to be liked, and third, to never miss a deadline. Thus, you can be a total schmuck, but if you are the best, and are never, ever late; or occasionally be late but are a decent human being and are pretty good; or on the other hand maybe not be the greatest artist, but you never miss a deadline and are a nice person, then you should do okay. That said, I add a prudent warning that one is often up against people who are all three…

At the beginning of this class I had also handed out blank white index cards for each student to fill out the following information on: full name legibly printed + contact number and email address, a release so I can post their work and snapshots of the class, and a short description of their goals or desires to achieve in this class. On the other side I ask for a sketch of himself or herself in either pencil or pen – this helps to roughly gauge their current level of ability and gives some indication of personal style. Plus I can then use these cards to take attendance (which I forgot to do), and they are squirreled away to be brought out at a later date for a related assignment…

Then after having gone over the syllabus and outline of the schedule, I ask if there are any final questions or concerns, and do a quick demo of the art supplies on their materials list. A short break to finish up the collected index cards, write and tape up names on the staked-out storage cabinets and on to the show & tell. This all takes approximately an hour and a half/forty-five minutes, after which I cut everyone free to go and get stuff for the first actual working day next week.

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