Thursday, May 6, 2010

feedback ambushes

I tell my students that it's good to get feedback on a project. I tell them to step back a few feet from the project and have a look and if anyone else is around I suggest they seek feedback from someone who has not been staring at the project for the last couple of days. Feedback is helpful if you want to improve. Feedback, though, is not always fun.

The end of the semester brings opportunities for feedback. I'm not talking about final critiques which can be tearful and messy affairs - I'm talking about verbal interactions in more casual settings. In the critique setting you come prepared. You know a room full of eyes are picking apart every detail of your work and you understand the questions and comments are on the way. You're ready. You've thought through the project and you have anticipated the questions. It's fair.

Not so with the casual encounters. These situations are much more relaxed and typically I've entered the setting with the belief that I'm attending a social function or just walking through a building. These are not the moments when I'm anticipating an interrogation or a critique of my teaching.

Of course many of these ambushes are nice surprises. Sometimes a student blind-sides me with a compliment. I had to mentally wrestle with a student this semester in Drawing class. This young man was a Sculpture major and did not enjoy drawing at all. He made this quite clear and really struggled with the class early on. I kept at him and kept trying to convince him how important drawing skills would be to a sculptor. Eventually he pulled himself together and became a pretty good student - a remarkable turnaround. A couple of weeks ago I walked in the Drawing room and out of the blue he says to me, "You know, because of you, I think I actually drew for fun yesterday." I was floored. Certainly his comment said more about his own development than it said about my methods, but was nice to hear.

And then there are the not so nice ambushes. I shared the story a while back of being accosted at a school gallery reception by a parent who wanted to know why I would encourage her child to change her major to Sculpture. She had legitimate concerns about her daughter being able to find gainful employment after graduation and being caught off guard, I had precious little comfort to offer. The mother was dignified, classy and sharp as a tack and I was a rambling idiot desperately trying to remember how to arrange words to form a coherent sentence. The daughter has since gone on to win multiple awards for her sculpture and is graduating in a few days with honors, leaving as the best undergrad sculpture student in while. I conversed with her mom again at a reception this week and I'd like to point out the fact that I did NOT gloat.

There was no time for gloating because of the next feedback ambush. I gathered the dishes from our small group as we prepared to exit gracefully. As I walked across the lawn to place the dishes on the designated return table I heard someone use my name in context. I turned to see another former student at the honors reception with her family and her mentor professor. I walked over to say hello and as the former student waxed nostalgic about some of my project challenges her mother says, "Oh, this is the one!" We all know this is not going to be pretty, right? So then the mother and daughter begin telling horror stories about negative emotional and physical impacts of my 3D Design projects giving explicit details about tears and blood and paint stained kitchens. In these stories my character is depicted as a ruthless, heartless hater of all things cute and cuddly. I wanted to defend myself but I quickly found the hyperbole insurmountable. While all of the stories were technically true it was simply the adjustment or absence of some minor points that helped paint me as villain. This was not a battle I was going to win. I listened helplessly as the mother began detailing how a project ended up sending her to the emergency room but in a surprising plot twist it turned out that project was not one of mine, but rather one developed by her mentor professor who calmly bowed his head and prepared for the blame to fall his way. Help finally arrived, albeit a few minutes too late as the rest of my group rescued me. I wiped the sweat from my forehead and tried to avoid seeing any other former students on my way out.

1 comment:

Nora J said...

Oh man, you should be soo glad I wasn't there! Kidding of course, I only tell the horror stories to the new freshman, but cheers to the man who made me realize I should really work in 3D (whether he meant to or not...).