Tuesday, February 13, 2018

my brain is mushy

I've got critique brain.

If you don't teach studio art classes at the college level, that may not mean much to you.  What I mean is, in the last 24 hours I've critically analyzed and thoroughly discussed 30 projects in a critique setting.  

Critiques are fearsome events.  Students dread them for weeks.  This is the time when an art student turns in a project they've worked on for many weeks.  They've invested blood, sweat and tears to create what they hope is their newest masterpiece.  Then we gather as a class and look at each project one at a time.  The student artist will explain what they've done and how they've used the elements and principles of design to create an effective composition.  This is the manipulation of space that causes the viewer to want to look at the work of art.  The behind the scenes magic that designers use to influence your actions on large and small scales.  Once the design is presented, the group then provides feedback and analysis, breaking down each and every part of the design.  They make judgments based on visual evidence and suggest ways to make the designs more effective.  If there's a conceptual problem involved, the success or failure to communicate the concept is also discussed at length.  When all of the formal and conceptual qualities have been sufficiently analyzed and discussed, we move on to the next student's work.  

This can be a treacherous process for students.  After spending so much time creating your design, it can be difficult to separate yourself from the work of art.  Any negative comment about the work can sting on a personal level.  There can be frustration, anger and many, many tears.  Sometimes a student will be overcome with emotion and quietly leave the room in order to shed their tears in the privacy of the hallway or the bathroom.  Less often, the tears fall on the studio floor.  On the really interesting days, students can become offended and lash out at each other's artwork in personal ways.  While this act can be funny to me, I do try to stomp out those flames when they appear as this is not a helpful or professional characteristic of critique. 

The student is not completely off the hook after presenting their design and emotionally surviving the feedback.  Students are also expected to provide analysis and feedback to their peers.  Some offer more observations and feedback than others and their critique grades will reflect this participation.  

However frightful and energy depleting this may be for the students, I will argue that the teachers must give even more energy to the process. 

Let's take a second.  All my students just slammed their laptops down, tossed their phones across the room and whispered an obscenity as they left.

If you're still here, consider the plight of the studio art teacher in this process.  There's the obvious participation in the critique, of course.  We stand there in front of the work and break it down into the most basic components just like the students do.  We follow along, trying to understand each perspective offered and each suggestion, fact checking as we go in case someone is off base.  If so, we offer correction and keep things moving.  Then, when the students are finished talking about an individual work of art, the teacher speaks up to offer the more definitive feedback.  We take all the evidence into consideration and more or less offer a judgment for or against the work of art.  Then, taking it further, we may offer observation and feedback on the student's work ethic, attitude or potential...all things we've carefully observed and even more carefully worded right there on the spot.  At the end of the critique of the first student's artwork, the teacher's brain is warmed up and working just like everyone else's in the room.  

Then we do it again and again until the entire class has been properly critiqued.  That's what the students see.  When class is over I get the feeling they assume we retire to a teachers' lounge ensconced in velvet and drink champagne from our "best teacher ever" coffee mugs.

But they missed a few things.  What they didn't see was how carefully the teacher was also observing students and listening to comments during the critique.  See, those have to be graded, so the teacher has to be paying close attention and perhaps even making notes about each student.  And then instead of retiring to the posh teachers' lounge, we instead walk fast to our offices and answer 40 emailed questions, prepare for the 3 faculty meetings we have that week and when we get home after dark, we kiss our kids goodnight, eat a pop-tart over our computer while we enter grades and grade comments for each student's artwork.  Then we enter grades and grade comments for each student's participation in critique.  In a class of 12 students (the capacity for a space hogging 3D studio) that can take a few hours if you rush.  I currently have 3 classes of the same subject, so after doing this on a Monday, I get to do it again with even more students on a Tuesday.  This semester, my student total for this particular course is 31.  So for every one critique a student must suffer through, the teacher must do that 30 more times.  Then those next two classes must be graded as before and you know those students are going to expect that their grades be ready for them to question the next time class meets, right?  So you go home and yell at the dogs for barking and close the door to your studio so you cant hear the kids playing video games and you get it done.

Of course I can hear the scoffing of the lecture oriented professors from here.  "31 students?  Oh please, I have more than 31 students in each of my 4 or 5 classes!"  That's true but also misleading.  Because you spend 2 or 2.5 hours with those students each week.  I spend 6 hours face to face with my students in the studio each week.  And don't get me started about your little Scantron tests that are graded by a computer for you.  Or maybe you are really classy and you require essay questions on your tests.  That's cute.  You read those and check for accuracy and understanding.  We mentally and emotionally wrestle with each student in critique in order to figure out how to inspire and motivate each one on an individual level.  Really though, I only mock you out of respect.  I know you work hard in your teaching and grading as well.  I just have to take crap from people who still think all we do is sit around and draw little pictures, so I'm a little sensitive.  

My point is only that at the end of a critique/grading cycle I've solved more difficult problems than any one person should have to solve in a year.  I've had to think fast on my feet and come up with some really impressive ideas - ideas I've given over to a student and I'll never get to use for myself!  My brain feels like a wet sock that squishes water inside a shoe with every step you take.  

In spite of this small complaint and my slightly mushy brain, teaching is still the best job ever.  In some weird way, I get energized by the whole process.  I love critiques and how they can be the most effective ways to teach certain things to students.  I love watching students change their behavior in a critique and learn to really dig in and see all the mechanics at work in a design.  I love having them in a critique years later and hearing them still use some of the same language I helped to teach them.  I love it when they email me after 12 years and tell me they still hear my voice repeating critique lines.  I love being a small part of what they become.

But again, my brain is tired.  I'm not even sure those were complete sentences up there.

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