My approach in the classroom aims to cultivate the individual as part of a whole—that is, within both the student community and larger social context. Although I’ve had experience instructing students at various levels, I currently focus on those in their first year, often in groups as large as fifty. This arrangement, in my opinion, calls for such engagement with notions of collaboration and community.
In order to open up first-year students to group work, discussion, and criticism, I’ve adopted an approach that never assumes them as “empty vessels” or minds in need of “unlearning” what they already know. I view what they already know as a class resource in itself, and a base of information from with explore the course’s goals. I often start with writing exercises, using prompts like: “What do you know well,” “What do you enjoy,” and “What do you want to know?” In this way, we can move beyond purely formal elements of visual arts instruction, and tease out some content for our projects, which could include the publication of class zines and interactive prototypes. This also gets the students acquainted with one another and helps individuals locate areas of interest and expertise.
We also share and learn from one another through assignments like student tutorials, where participants give short lessons or presentations to the entire class relevant to a certain research topic, software, or skill. I don’t want information to flow in just one direction, from me to them, but also from student to student. This builds confidence, and encourages them to help one another during studio work hours as well, when giving as many as fifty students direct instructor attention is challenging.
In my foundations sculpture class, we established a rule in the studio: “No one owns anything; everyone owns everything,” which created a space for communal authorship, taking the blind pursuit of individual expression off the table to make room a sincere exploration of ideas beyond the self. This applied to materials and also “finished” sculptures. Students were given the freedom to repurpose or reconfigure others’ work as the semester progressed, seeing potentials that often go beyond the original intentions.
In this same class, while we did produce discrete art objects, we also expanded this notion by situating them within an immersive site—that is, the site itself was consider an artwork itself, as in an installation. To push this even farther, students eventually created costumes (wearable sculptures) that also related to their built site. This, as well as other assignments, culminated not only in a traditional critique, but also in a photoshoot, runway show, “red-carpet”-style interview, or other interactive presentations. These activities bring out camaraderie and enthusiasm not often experienced in competition-driven classrooms, and also set the work into new contexts beyond the gallery setting.
This is an iterative approach that moves the students from one problem to another: from making to space–building, from exhibiting to performing, and even demolishing. The dismantling of their installations became a lesson in itself—making through unmaking. This extended to creating novel modes of transportation—like sleds, carts, slings, and packs, etc—to sites for removal or recycling.
I don’t believe that expensive specialized materials are required to reach my pedagogical goals, and I strive to make sustainable and resourceful choices when determining materials for a sculpture class. Working with second-hand and found materials, students are forced to negotiate how any previous function or indexical information may inform its reuse in their work. This also places the student’s practice into a greater context within the community, in which to source materials, they might ask the convenience store for discarded cardboard or dig into a thrift store dollar-bag sale or collect empty aluminum cans from a fraternity. I want students to see their campus and town as a resource for both social information and physical materials. This also forces them to consider value (money, time), environmental impact, and how audiences might later ascribe value to their end product.
In addition to expanding the students’ awareness of one another, I also want to expand their awareness of the world around them. In my slide lectures, I tend to mix examples from art, design, and film history with everyday examples—even familiar local or ubiquitous visual material or social conditions that might inform their work. In fact, students are often tasked with taking and presenting their own photographs and documentation too, as it helps record studio process and ideas, as well as seeing the work in the round. This is, of course, the basis of my photography and lighting courses. While looking carefully at the world around them is key, I also assign “emulation” projects, which require the students to perceive, understand, and recreate qualities of pre-existing images. This helps them to both “read” a picture, and figure out how it is made in a practicable way. And while some of this may require specialized equipment, across the classes I teach, I encourage the avid use of the common smartphone camera for investigation and visual journaling.
As I continue my teaching career and try innovative methods, I take seriously feedback from my colleagues and class evaluations, learning from successful class projects and those that require refinement alike. The outcomes can also be seen in the student work itself. I make notes and reflect on the merits and challenges of my approaches, but processing this among other faculty is a tremendous resource; in this way, I apply the part-to-whole and individual-to-community approach to myself as well and with equal sincerity.