THUD! The sound your body makes when hitting the floor. Pain usually follows, but “What if?” there is no pain, or perhaps there is an entirely different sensation than expected? My mother taught us as kids how to stage fall on a hardwood floor without hurting ourselves. Within this action was an implied question: “What if?” What if you challenged an assumption (falling hurts) and ended up with an unexpected result? As a graduate student my mentor at Cal Arts, Michael Asher, would begin conversation with that exact question “What if?” followed by a laugh. From that starting point we would begin to dismantle assumptions. My experiences with these two individuals have played a large role in determining who I am as an artist, researcher, and teacher. In sum: don’t assume that you know what will happen (or what something is), always ask “What if?” and find the humor, even the dark humor, in all of it.
As a professor my goal is for students to achieve a series of interrelated learning outcomes. The order in which these are accomplished is not critical. The first learning outcome that I look for is a student’s ability to find an area of personal intellectual curiosity in the topic at hand. Achievement of this outcome is evidenced through a student’s level of engagement with a topic, as demonstrated in discussion and in their approach to topic-related projects. The second outcome is a determination to follow through with the development of ideas, as evidenced when a student struggles but perseveres to completion. As an example, a former student conceived of a series of constructed images based on a Jules Vernesque concept. The student found that obtaining several key objects was more difficult than anticipated and realized that he would have to master a significant new skill. Despite these obstacles he stayed committed to his vision, learned the new skill, and created a sophisticated portfolio of images. The third outcome is for a student to take ownership of the learning process. Ownership of learning is evidenced by a student’s investment in the work that goes beyond simply meeting class requirements. A good illustration of this occurred during one of my food photography classes. One student, uninterested in conventional food photography, successfully pushed the boundaries of several initial assignments and then proposed that he deliver a single large-scale project to satisfy his remaining class requirements. Combining his engineering background with his love of Wes Anderson’s aesthetic, he ultimately delivered a demanding project that far exceeded those requirements. The fourth learning outcome is the ability to provide, receive and absorb constructive criticism. Participation in the critique of others’ work, a considered response to critiques of one’s own work, and the demonstrated ability to integrate criticism successfully into one’s work are the metrics here.
In order to achieve these outcomes, three components of learning are vital: critical theory, technical skills, and critique. In relation to critical theory, group participation in close reading and analysis is invaluable in moving students past the intimidation factor of difficult texts and ideas. By working as a group, with class members taking responsibility for leading specific sections of the reading, students experience ownership, practice collaboration, consider different opinions, and develop a deeper understanding of the text. In the case of technical skills, demonstrations combined with hands-on experience provide a solid foundation for learning both equipment and software. I break classes into small working groups to harness the collective brain and reinforce students’ newly-acquired knowledge. Lastly, I understand critique as both a skill and a learning method in and of itself. I model an approach to this collaborative group practice, guiding students in the development of their ability to constructively use and benefit from the critique format. Clarity about the purpose of the critique, and the behavior acceptable within it, sets the tone for a productive student experience.
Knowledge is most valuable when shared, and the most impactful sharing in a classroom is multidirectional, with inputs coming from all participants. As a teacher one of my main objectives is for my students to make a practice of turning the asking of “What if?” into an ongoing practice of investigation. I embed this objective into my teaching practice by starting each class with a discussion, perhaps about a book I see a student carrying, or by soliciting thoughts on personal experiences. I then extend that collective sharing of our everyday experience into the subject of the day’s class. This practice creates an awareness of each other’s (and our own) experience as inherently valuable, and thus promotes collective understanding.
I teach because I believe that fostering the exchange of ideas and thoughtful discourse is essential to creating the world that I aspire to live in. My primary responsibility as a teacher is as a facilitator of environments in which multiple points of view can be expressed, questions asked, and ideas considered, so that the students can grow into fruitful contributors to our society.