Monday, May 11, 2009
"A self-respecting artist must not fold his hands on the pretext that he is not in the mood." - Tchaikovsky
A little pause to reflect upon this semester's classroom experiences is always in order; time to look back in review and see how both the students and myself did and what the high and low points were. Also interspersed with this posting are a few examples of the work done for last week's final critique.
Everyone works for and earns the grades they get, and there's a balance between toughening oneself up to the task and feeling like it's your fault somehow for not doing better as a teacher. Feelings of insecurity and inadequacy vie with relief at shaking off another semester: there’s always a yin/yang thing with every passing class. Win some, lose some, and there’s the average mix of success stories and sob stories. A few students really made (and leave) an impression on me; I sincerely wish ‘em all luck and hope that the majority stick with it, at least doodling. Some have found out that maybe their creative energy works better in other avenues, and as always, a couple could use some help with priorities in Life in General, not just with an art class or the overall college experience. Success stories are everywhere, tempered somewhat by the cynicism of experience - artists that have made careers out of teaching tend to develop a pretty thick skin over the years. Mostly I just shrug off the weirdness and keep focused on the positive. Of which there is a lot to see in a class like this: every day something else is created that I've never seen before, never thought of - how many people go about their life without getting to experience that.
A few notable things had happened in this class that are good examples of speed bumps or balls that come screaming straight outta left field; here I have to respect the absolute right to privacy of people and keep it vague + anonymous. But this is a small sampling of the various and random situations that one has to be prepared for.
Having students mysteriously vanish, fall off the map, leaving you to wonder if they dropped out and if it was something you said or did in passing that pushed them over. Having campus security show up and ask to see a student in order to deliver some obviously bad news is a helluva way to start your day. Being questioned by a student and watching the actual words go from your lips, enter one ear then exit the other is always fun, especially when that's immediately followed by a blank-eyed rephrasing of the same question. I'm always privately amazed at the imaginative range of excuses that some folks come up with too, sometimes almost as creative as the artwork. Being greeted in hallway first thing in the morning before even getting to the room by a student in total melt-down mode; breaking down in tears over how many classes they've missed and how they can’t fail this class and etc. etc. I never lose sight of the simple fact the logistics of an 8am class means it'll be a minor miracle to get good attendance, let alone the basic decency and respect of showing up on time. So for many freshman it's almost like boot camp training in preparation for not just college but the "real world."
A lot of the time in these situations “irresistible force meets immovable object” in my head and I consequently wind up defaulting to neutral until I can process what’s happening and what the best reaction would be. As in, part of my brain pipes up and protests (ok, whines) that hey, I’m not a qualified councilor and this isn’t part of what I signed up for. Besides, I really suck at therapy and advice, but this clashes with genuine sympathy as I’m not some unfeeling hardass that gets off on ending academic careers and crushing hopes and dreams. And also, it's always in the back of my mind that as a lowly adjunct lecturer my caseload pales in comparison with the full-time faculty, who have an exponential increase in special cases to deal with on a daily basis. Sometimes a situation develops where I have no previous experience in dealing with something, and this often calls for bouncing it off another teacher or two, or just putting a little time to distance yourself from the heat of the moment to better objectively gauge a course of action.
I can remember having worst-case scenarios happen in class with a totally inappropriate comments or content cropping up; learning how to firmly and react diplomatically is an ongoing skill. For example, dealing with rape jokes in a cartoon from a completely naive individual that was clueless about the effect such material would have other classmates - which was nothing compared to how pissed off I got. Needless to say he got one hell of a personalized lesson from me outside the room, and learned a valuable lesson about responsibility and conduct that will linger for the rest of his life. And there exists on campus some valuable resources for both faculty and students for dealing with any number of potentially uncomfortable situations. One good instance would be working students with disabilities, which I've dealt with on very steep learning curve several times. There have been some other notable (though fortunately few and far between) interpersonal conflicts that have arisen over the years, ones that were serious enough to merit not just failure but immediate removal from the classroom. Always at the forefront is my priority to provide a safe learning environment, and anything that interfers with that specific mission has to dealt with. Sensitive artist stereotype aside, it's interesting plumbing the depths of compassion and empathy with other people. Discovering within yourself both emotional extremes and objective detachment and seeing yourself, your actions and attitudes, reflected in turn within the relationships amongst peers and students, it's almost as educational as the class is. Teachers are just a susceptible to shortcomings and failings as other humans, and the art world attracts its share of assholes like any other job. That said, it's assumed we'll conduct ourselves with a wee bit more professionalism and maturity in front of the class, but one of the more refreshing aspects of teaching at the University of Alaska is how the faculty tend to keep it real and not cop to the pretentious bullshit I've seen at other colleges.
And again, remembering to put student's efforts into the context of this being a beginning level class (which I've made abundantly clear doesn't excuse poor workmanship) but is an overriding perspective. This class is almost like a "Cooking In The Kitchen" one: I teach the acquisition of skills in a classical, traditional, linear sense; begin with the basics and gradually build up a tool-box or pallet of abilities, techniques & media that the student can eventually use to literally draw from when approaching and solving the visual problem of how they are going to tackle any chosen subject. So when someone gets frustrated at not being able to reproduce exactly what things look like in a realistic manner, one assumes that they cannot draw and give up, not realizing that it is a simple skill like learning how to cook – it is a only a matter of learning what tools to use and how, being familiar with and comfortable in a kitchen, and following the recipes until you have it memorized and are confident enough with your experience enough to begin experimenting. One of the lessons I hope stays with them is how relevant and useful drawings they do can be, and how many easy avenues of expression there are.
There's always a list of things I wished I’d gotten around to saying or doing, but it's getting shorter every time, and writing down a lot of the stuff that's occurred to me over the semester here on this blog has been an interesting experiment. This'll be my final posting relating specifically to teaching beginning drawing, with probably one additional meta-post about Ink & Snow later on during the week. Then I fully intend to try documenting the six-week session in Cartoon & Comic Art, which, seeing as how I'll be also be teaching the Beginning/Intermediate/Advanced Drawing class, will be a challenge to stay on top of. Switching from an 8am class to a 2pm one is a major shift in gears, around 6-7pm is my mental magic pumpkin hour where I could use a nap; too bad Monday through Thursday are 10-12 hour days, so no breaks there, and Fridays are reserved for catch-up, and the weekends devoted to my own work. But already I'm looking forward to the upcoming classes; a completely new roster with different and unexpected creative solutions to this problem of art.
“Do not fail, as you go on, to draw something every day, for no matter how little it is it will be well worth while, and it will do you a world of good.” – Cennino Cennini