Just read a blog essay that describes a teacher’s experience critiquing students, and it brought to mind some issues I have been thinking about lately. So in a brief departure from my adventures with Saving Ceramics in Schools, here are some thoughts on what we can do for students when we get them in a classroom environment. This is what the author described:
I am currently at the point in my ceramics career where I am trying to develop my own niche of expertise both in technique and in style. This emphasis certainly effects my view of art and creativity. As an instructor I often have people asking my opinion of what they are making and, I must admit, I do find myself giving advice on the student’s project that is in line with the projects that I am currently working on. I suppose that this is, in many ways, impossible to avoid simply because this is the way that my brain is thinking at the time. I wonder if it is truly possible to provide a critique of someone else’s work without allowing one’s own preferences to come into play? I suppose this is something that I will discover as I get farther into the field of teaching, but, perhaps, simply being aware that my own preferences and experiences are coming into my perception of someone else’s work is a good place to start to provide some non-clay snob feedback. I am also aware that one of the things that a student is looking for by asking my opinion of their work is an honest assessment of their work based upon my own experience, so I shouldn’t completely discount that aspect either.
Here is my response:
This is a great issue to talk about. I remember a few years into my teaching at the local community arts center a student asked to have her pots discussed. In my experience this is pretty rare at community centers where folks can be there for a variety of reasons and there is no grade to hold over them. Just making stuff and their own satisfaction can usually be enough.
But this student had ambitions, and she understood that one of the best ways to learn more is to seek perspectives outside one’s own, like you suggest. It had been several years since my last grad school critique, and I had convictions about what things mattered but had lost touch with critiquing method. I remember sitting down trying to get the student to see what I saw and how this actually wasn’t helping her, really. Not the way I was presenting it, at least.
I have carried that experience with me for the past dozen or more years, and while I still don’t get much chance to talk with other people about their pots, I think I understand more about how that dialog should proceed.
One thing that seems important is to try to get inside their head first, discover what they were thinking and why they were thinking it. They are an authority for their decisions, but often they may not consciously understand why certain things matter to them. We can help them be more clear about this. Getting them to articulate those things seems an important first point. What are they aiming at and why does it matter to them? Which parts work best and which might they change? The things they prefer could possibly be used in other contexts, broadened or made more succinct. The things they could do without are an opportunity for you to suggest alternative, not just your own preferences but technical solutions and aesthetic variations from the realm of the purely possible: Round vs straight, soft vs hard, larger vs smaller…. None of these need reflect your own preferences, but you can still offer what you might have done instead. Its just not our only option. We can also be agnostic, pretend its a purely formal puzzle, a thing capable of being solved in a variety of unique ways…. A good student becomes an adroit problem solver. A decent teacher knows many tools that are used to solve different problems, not just our own, but problems in general. This is how we can help them.
But the main thing is that we care. Good teachers by definition care. And it sounds like you care enough that you ARE a good teacher. I’ve been around enough teachers who were merely going through the motions or just using students as a source for their own new ideas. Sometimes our own passion stops short of the students we are teaching, and that is unfortunate. We don’t need to be passionate about their decisions or the values they cherish. But we do need to be passionate that the road they are on can be more rewarding for them if we are there to point out the obstacles, smooth the way, and give alternate directions as needed. That’s an honorable job.
Keep up the good work!
Make beauty real!