I show students how to think beyond what they like, and instead we develop a vocabulary for describing both the appearance of artworks as well as a work’s effect on the viewer. I require introductory-level students to practice daily, to work quickly through sketches and strategies, and to complete a number of low-stakes experiments. There is something due almost every week for the introductory-level students, and I give them guidelines about how much time they should take so that their workload is reasonable. The explicitly stated challenge is to get students to let go of their own stifling perfectionism, and to play down the idea that everything we make is always precious. These are difficult concepts and practices for young students to internalize, but students come to understand the benefits of this method as they observe their own improvement.
Photography at all levels requires students to learn some basic skills required for articulation of their ideas, and I believe the skills are always working in the service of concepts. When teaching both technical skills and conceptual frameworks, I employ a strategy I call “three-peat.” In other words, we cover a new idea at least three times before I expect the students to be moderately proficient, and I employ some meta-teaching in the classroom so that students know exactly why I am expecting them to do something, why we are engaging in discussion, and why we conduct critiques. Basically, I introduce something and explain how it will be presented in the reading. Then, when we meet again, I ask the students to synopsize the reading and I demonstrate how something is done. Then I ask the students to demonstrate what I’ve shown them, and I make sure each student has the opportunity to show me how it is done. This is a safe space for mistakes, and I play down any shame or judgement students may place upon themselves by using in-class errors as light-hearted teaching moments. Doing something wrong helps us to learn quickly and often provides for more creative invention than “doing it right.” Projects and other assignments reinforce a newly acquired skill or concept while also incorporating previous material. The approach is cumulative and it fosters growing confidence as the students move from unskilled to proficient, and onward toward eventual fluency.
I believe young Art students need the following: help finding their own voices, to be introduced to the works of as many artists as possible, guidance in determining how to successfully evaluate what makes some ideas better than others, and to be led by example when it comes to work ethic, time management, honesty, integrity, and taking responsibility for one’s own mistakes. Sometimes receiving a C or an F on an assignment makes the point, but I think my enthusiasm and love of the process make the biggest impression. I know that positive reinforcement is the best way to encourage anyone. I often show students my incomplete, illogical, or failed projects, and I make it clear that the appearance of success requires a large volume of work followed by heavy editing. Every student I have ever had is likely to say that I held her/him to a very high yet realistic standard. And every student I’ve worked with has demonstrated to me that s/he is completely capable of what I expect. Some alumni have gone on to do work that humbles and impresses me. Many alumni have become part of my professional network. A few have become friends.
Students tell me that they put in a lot of hours making their projects, and that they are having fun while doing it. I think that’s important, but what I feel most confident about is that I leave my students prepared to move to the next level. Students who take my courses know that success in Art requires open-mindedness, experimentation, repeated failure, and lots of work. It is my job to push students into difficult places so that they can challenge what they think they know. And the best students also challenge what I think I know. We sometimes have to make students uncomfortable by holding them accountable, and this is best handled with firm and respectful candor. Besides, we all need to be made to feel uncomfortable at times because it is part of the process of unlearning limiting thought patterns. The proof of effectiveness for me has been my students’ growing skill, fluency, and conceptual depth over time.
I explicitly tell students that I expect them to work hard, experiment and prototype more, and engage with the process. I’m careful about the language I use when lecturing and critiquing — to avoid misunderstanding — and I repeatedly check-in with the students to have them articulate, in their own words, what they have heard from me. I believe it is disrespectful for me to be anything less than honest with students about their work, especially in cases where I need to encourage deeper engagement with craft and/or content, and of course, when the student simply hasn’t done enough work. It’s a competitive world out there and students should leave college with a realistic sense of where they stand. I am careful to make the case that the students are not the same as their work, and I am emphatic about this point because it is so easy for young people to have their egos fully inserted into the things they make, and then to feel crushed when those things aren’t successful. Besides, I learn as much from my failures as my successes. Helping students to see the difference between self and work is my contribution to their process of becoming more mature adults. Moving students beyond facile or trite ideation and execution, so that their projects exist with complexity, is my contribution to their becoming successful artists.