Friday, March 5, 2010

Teaching Update: Me & My Shadow

Lamont Cranston: “Am I in hell?”
Tulku: “Not yet.” - Walter B. Gibson
 Lesson #1: "How To Stand Over a Student and Critique Their Work With Proper Pressure"

Didn't actually think I'd make it a whole semester without some mention of this fresh crop of prospective talents. Especially not when for some mysterious reason this particular group of folks are the by far the most outstanding I've seen come through the department in quite some time. So sprinkled throughout this post are some notable highlights from the in-class exercises, assignments and critique pieces turned in so far.
In the meantime an enterprising and talented (if not tired) student - Ariel from Ben Eielson High School - shadowed me for a couple classes as part of her requirements for an Economics course. She had to observe me for six hours and write a 3-5 page paper on her interview and document the experience of our combined efforts to convince her to choose a path of hope instead a life of degradation, corruption and insanity.

While I probably didn't make the best first impression showing up after getting only three hours of sleep and totally mixing up the schedule, she did have the opportunity to witness firsthand a teacher cluelessly scrambling like mad to reboot a planned activity upon figuring out the critique wasn't until our next class. Which was at least an honest portrayal and an example of how often, despite any proverbial best laid plans, you often have to go with the flow and be just as creative teaching as you would be creating a work of art. Not exactly making it up as we go along.... but intuition and experience do factor into the overall picture.

The question was asked: "What is the worst thing about teaching?" - that's an easy one, and it ain't the 6am wake-up in the dark at forty degrees below zero. Flunking people sucks: there's a big difference between being a good artist and a good student, which accounts for why many exceptionally talented individuals, as far as relative skill level, routinely fail, and conversely, how some of the comparatively lesser talented folks pass with flying colors. Attendance and turning in works on time are the number one and two reasons for poor grades, and the overall average ratio of 5 outta 15 students failing a Beginning Drawing studio class has held up over the years. Much can attributed to more mundane factors such as the overwhelming number of freshmen who require as many lessons in Beginning College 101 as they do basic art techniques.
There are also other considerations, such as grading, or, how to translate what most people think of as an abstract, subjectively aesthetic opinion into a quantifiable, objective numeric grade. This is achieved by the specific set of criteria which, regardless of interpretation and content can be ascertained during a critique.

  The flip side of the coin is the question "What's your favorite thing about teaching art?" - also an easy call for me, as the pleasure of enabling people to creatively express themselves and the consequent validation of these efforts is the ultimate payoff. I remember the first time putting up works of mine for a review amongst a crowd of like-minded individuals - peers - and for the first time ever in my creative life feeling the satisfaction that I was amongst others who took it seriously, respected what I was doing and why, and challenged me to keep trying harder, pushing farther and reaching higher. So okay, I really only do it for the money. Yeah.
No but seriously, where they go afterward and what they do with these acquired skills when the semester is over is up to them, and I'm aware of the grim odds in successfully pursuing a career in the visual arts - but individually they damn well better have learned that they can draw, and are henceforth empowered to achieve whatever they can possibly envision. [cue strings]

Overall some fabulous works are being produced, and I had a mild bout of chest-thumping over how comparatively poor the work is from other beginning classes after seeing a hallway display in our department showcases. Sometimes being a arrogant bastard hardass has its rewards, and I'm certainly not above wallowing in a bit of validation myself. The shadow got a taste of the juggling that goes on accommodating various individual needs, from counseling or critiquing, to coaching and catch-up. Sitting in on a critique, a couple brief lectures and watching one-on-one interactions hopefully gave her a pretty fair idea of the routine, warts and all. After a quick preview of the next phase of our class, and a short demonstration of upcoming materials + techniques, everyone is sent off early and homework free to get a jump on a well-earned spring break. Back to the drawing board!

"You don't get to cut that chain of evidence and start over. You're always going to be pursued by your data shadow, which is forming from thousands and thousands of little leaks and tributaries of information." - Bruce Sterling

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