Teaching is a lot like juggling. It requires an attentive eye and a soft, yet deliberate hand to keep all the balls in the air. As with juggling, an art classroom works best when handled with minor adjustments rather than aggressive gestures. It is important to maintain flexibility and tailor my approach to the needs of specific artists to create an optimal learning environment for students. My role is to be an experienced guide that leads learners on the path to their creative potential.
Juggling requires one to overcome doubts and mental blocks to achieve confidence and dexterity. I convince students that they are capable of more than they think possible. Challenging oneself to work harder, observe more closely, think more deeply, and consider more thoughtfully creates a creative foundation that individuals can take with them far beyond the classroom. Frequent in-progress critiques keep students on track to meet the demanding expectations we have set together. My role as instructional motivator has been practiced in assorted and challenging settings. Teaching appointments at institutions as disparate as an elite private university, an urban community college, and state schools of various shapes and sizes, have provided me with a multitude of strategies to engage the diverse interests and experiences of a varied student population.
My classroom fosters artistic and conceptual rigor through example. Students are treated as working artists and scholars—professional though inexperienced, peers as well as pupils. As a practicing artist in the communal studio I set the pattern on which students can base their own persistent studio habit.
I encourage students to explore diverse interests as the art world moves away from media specialization and moves toward a greater focus on concept in cooperation with craft. Brainstorming, idea generation, and nurturing an interest as it develops into a body of work are encouraged through sketchbook assignments and in-class work at the beginning level. Advanced students develop artist statements and are encouraged to explore possibilities in other disciplines. Research is demanded to expand perspectives and increase specificity of message. Students learn to juggle varied interests and intents to create cohesive, coherent bodies of work.
Drops are important to juggling; they allow the individual to see where the mistake was made and how it can be remedied in the future. In art, these slipups can lead to a greater technical understanding of the medium, but also to more unexpected expression. The dreaded drop also teaches one to fail with grace and humor. In the classroom, I encourage students to take measured risks to expand their content and extend their practice. This contrasts with reaching blindly, hoping to catch a happy accident. Intent is the key. Students see the risks I take in my own work—experiments to test a hypothesis or self-sabotage just to keep me on my toes—and I share with them the steps I take to troubleshoot complications that arise as a result. I also invite visiting artists and scholars to share their strategies and approaches, enriching the collective. When the standard, three-ball cascade becomes routine, it is important to learn new skills to keep the practice stimulating and rewarding. Through a shared sense of adventure students determine that sometimes it is better to learn and recover from an unsuccessful gambit than to always play it safe. In assessment students are rewarded for taking risks to compensate for resulting mishaps so that savvy gambles do not doom a student’s semester.
In critiques students are asked to develop a critical eye that they may apply respectfully to one another’s works, as well as in future art experiences. Critiques require peer-to-peer reflection and writing that pushes beyond shallow value judgments and mutual ego stroking. The work is addressed as if displayed in a gallery setting, discussion focuses on formal concerns and conceptual interpretations. Issues pertaining to process are addressed in the classroom as they arise rather than in the critique space.
The limited workspace and shared equipment of an academic studio fosters a fellowship between students that is an important part of a constructive, collaborative, and creative environment. Students who will continue into art careers may never have the opportunity again to work so closely with their colleagues with so little competition. I often step back during open studio and allow students to help each other with small issues to strengthen their partnership. This also allows artists to gain insight into how their work is perceived by their audience. Classroom camaraderie ensures that the studio is a learning environment during class and after hours. At its best, this camaraderie leads students to feel that the studio is an extension of home, a haven to be creative, try new things, and cope with the stresses of the outside world. I have encouraged this sense of home through activities like hosting studio lock-ins, a sort of creative slumber party, where we work in the studio all night with a break room set aside for those who need a rest. While most students bow out before sunrise, the lock-ins reinforce that the studio should be a hotbed of activity and imagination. Part of being a good citizen in the studio is maintaining clean, safe, healthy shop practices. Frequent scheduled cleanups require student accountability for shop upkeep. Many toxic solvents and other materials have been removed from the studio in favor of greener alternatives to keep the cooperative healthier, longer. The importance of a clean, orderly shop is emphasized early and often in the classroom so that students are largely self-policing when they are on their own after hours.
I enjoy the challenge and the reward of teaching. I value the opportunity to enrich students' educational experiences and nurture their artistic development. I learn from each class as I strive to constantly improve as an artist and instructor. Remembering to remain open to change myself is just one more ball I try to keep in the air.