Teaching is a lot like juggling. It requires an attentive eye and a soft, yet deliberate hand to keep all of the balls in the air. As with juggling, an art classroom works best when handled with minor adjustments rather than aggressive gestures. It is important to maintain flexibility and tailor my approach to the needs of specific artists to create an optimal learning environment for students. My role is to be an experienced guide that leads students to achieve their creative potential.
Juggling provides a valuable metaphor, as it requires the individual to overcome doubts and mental blocks to achieve confidence and dexterity. In this, way I convince students that they are capable of more than they think possible. Challenging young artists to work harder, observe more closely, think more deeply, and consider more thoughtfully is a legacy that individuals can take with them far beyond the classroom. Frequent progress reports and in-progress critiques keep students on track to meet the demanding expectations we have set together. My role as instructional motivator has been practiced in assorted and challenging settings. Teaching appointments at institutions as disparate as an elite private university, an urban community college, and state schools of various shapes and sizes, have provided me with a multitude of strategies to engage the diverse interests and experiences of a varied student population.
My classroom fosters artistic and conceptual rigor through example. Students are treated as working artists and scholars—professional though inexperienced, peers as well as pupils. As a practicing artist in the communal studio I set the pattern on which students can base their own persistent studio habit. In the classroom, drawing is the cornerstone of idea generation, communication, and technical development. Keeping a sketchbook routine is required. An emphasis on the elements and principles of design provide the remaining framework for a successful art practice. Technology, in the form of digital media and interfaces is encouraged to supplement traditional processes, as well as a means to image and idea production. Students are assessed based on progress, both technically and creatively. Novelty and pride are bolstered in the work by asking questions that require the artist to critically analyze his or her formal and conceptual intentions.
I encourage students to explore diverse interests as the art world moves away from media specialization and moves toward a greater focus on concept in cooperation with craft. Brainstorming, idea generation, and nurturing an interest as it develops into a body of work are encouraged through sketchbook assignments and in-class work at the beginning level. Advanced students develop artist statements and are encouraged to explore the possibilities of the multiple in sculpture, photography, installation, graphic design, and sound design. Throughout my classes art is portrayed as the pursuit of ideas through varying disciplines that push the culture forward. Research is demanded to expand perspectives and increase specificity of message. The juggling metaphor is again appropriate here as students learn to keep varied, potentially disparate interests and intents in the air in order to create cohesive, coherent bodies of work.
Drops are an important part of juggling; they allow the individual to see where the mistake was made and how it can be remedied in the future. In art, these slipups can lead to increased skill and a greater technical understanding of the medium. The dreaded drop also teaches one to fail with grace and humor. In the classroom I encourage students to take measured risks in order to grow their bag of tricks, so to speak. They are encouraged to develop technical challenges or conceptual hurdles to expand their content or extend their practices. This is in contrast to reaching blindly, hoping to catch a happy accident. Intent is the key. Students see the risks I take in my own work—deliberate self-sabotage in order to test a hypothesis or just keep me on my toes—and I share with them the steps I take to troubleshoot complications that arise as a result. When the standard, three-ball cascade becomes routine in juggling, it is important to learn new skills to keep the practice stimulating and rewarding. Through a shared sense of adventure students determine that sometimes it is better to learn and recover from an unsuccessful wager than to always play it safe. In assessment students are rewarded for taking risks to compensate for resulting mishaps so that savvy gambles do not doom a student’s semester.
In critiques, students are asked to develop a critical eye and an artistic vocabulary that they may apply respectfully to one another’s works, as well as in future art experiences. Critiques require peer-to-peer reflection and writing that pushes beyond shallow value judgments and mutual ego stroking. The work is addressed as if displayed in a gallery setting, discussion focuses on formal concerns and conceptual interpretations. Issues pertaining to process are addressed in the classroom as they arise rather than on the critique wall.
My approach to teaching in general has been influenced by my time in the printmaking studio. Limited workspace and shared equipment fosters a fellowship between students that is an important part of a constructive, collaborative, cooperative and creative environment. Students who will continue to make art beyond an academic setting will never have the opportunity again to work so closely with their colleagues with so little competition. I often step back during open studio and allow students to help each other with small issues in order to strengthen their partnership. This allows artists to gain insight into how their work is perceived by their audience. Classroom camaraderie ensures that the studio is a learning environment both inside and outside of class time. At its best, this camaraderie leads students to feel that the studio classroom is an extension of home, a safe haven to be creative, try new things, and cope with the stresses of the outside world. I have encouraged this sense of home through activities like hosting studio lock-ins, a sort of creative slumber party, where we work in the studio all night with a break room set aside for those who need a rest. While most students bow out before sunrise, the lock-ins reinforce that the studio should be a hotbed of activity and imagination.
Part of being a good citizen in the studio is maintaining clean, safe, healthy shop practices. Frequent scheduled cleanups require student accountability for shop upkeep. Many toxic solvents and other materials have been all but removed from the studio in favor of healthier alternatives in order to keep the cooperative healthier, longer. The importance of a clean, orderly shop is emphasized early and often in the classroom so that students are largely self-policing when they are on their own after hours.
I enjoy the challenge and the reward of teaching. I value the opportunity to enrich students’ educational experiences and nurture their artistic development. I learn from each class as I strive to constantly improve as an artist and instructor. Remembering to remain open to change myself is just one more ball I try to keep in the air.