Friday, 22 May 2009

Why bother with Sketchbooks?

The following is an edited version of an email sent to a student who queried a low mark he’d received for failing to present sketchbook work and evidence of research for assessment. He wrote a lengthy disgruntled email in which he also suggested that in future he could instead submit “fake sudokus and evening puzzles”. I’ve removed all personal references which makes it read a little more awkwardly than the original but I stand by my sentiment:

...Yes, it’s possible to argue that this is embedded in the finished work – after all, art is a process of making physical artefacts and as such it demands that we not only evaluate these artefacts as evidence of skill but also as evidence of thought and intention. However, if this thought seems to lack depth, clarity or articulacy then one has to look elsewhere for further evidence to support (or contest) one’s assumptions about the work. One obvious way to do this is to speak to the maker (if they are available - ie; still alive, living in the same country as you are etc). Another way is to look at their previous work. A third possibility is to examine supplementary materials: sketchbooks, notebooks etc.

In the context of an educational institution (which, for better or poorer, is also an institution of assessment) we try to utilise all of the above methods to examine intentions and thoughts. If one area is lacking then it becomes difficult (sometimes impossible) to accurately evaluate the work.

I’m sure you’ve seen/read many fascinating things which inspire you, but how am I supposed to know what they are? If I could look through your sketchbooks and see such references and how you were contextualising your own practice, I (and other tutors) would be far more able to guide you in appropriate and interesting directions because we’d be able to see, almost at a glance, exactly what you were thinking about and struggling (as all good artists do) to explore.

Other students ARE producing workbooks which DO expose such thought processes and we do have to compare (and asses) this work with work carried out by other students. But more to the point, when the work of these students is called into question by moderators or external examiners we can directly refer them to the physical evidence. If this evidence doesn’t exist the argument is extremely difficult (sometimes impossible) to substantiate.

But ultimately who cares about marks? Low marks should only be seen as an indication (advice) about how we think the work could best be advanced. You seem to be in serious doubt about this advice. That’s ok. Many students decide for strategic reasons to prioritise certain areas and to neglect others. Well rounded students don’t necessarily make great artists anyway.

So the answer is simple. Either ignore the fact that you’re getting low marks for research and continue as you were, or put some energy into recording the “journey” you are making.

I hope that it’s obvious that I think you’d be crazy to ignore THE ADVICE though. Yes your workbooks may start out as “limping, retarded fractions of thought” and maybe it won’t be easy. But forget easy! Who ever said it was supposed to be easy? Easy is fake sudokus and evening puzzles!


Vivian Oblivion said...

Prior to becoming a reader of your blog, I never realized how much the artist and writer share in and outside the classroom. That's not to say that I've never considered the overlaps, (writing as art, art as writing, expression, communication) since most early theories of film, mass media, and cultural refer in some way to the (canonically established?) arts. It's the practice aspect I overlooked. This conversation about sketchbooks as tangible markers of thought, reflection, and growth mirrors arguments about freewriting, brainstorming, and other prewriting assignments, which inevitably several students refuse to complete/turn in. Nice job handling the issue. Now how to prevent the resistance..

J. Hamlyn said...

I'm really interested in this issue Vivian, because I think there seems to be a mismatch between process and outcomes in the way that academic work is assessed in comparison with practical work. I wrote about this very subject earlier this year but decided not to make it public because some of the assertions were a little conjectural. The main issue revolved around the fact that when we mark studio work in fine art we deal with everything not just the final show. However, in both art schools I work at, the written component which is a dissertation of approximately 6000 words is simply marked as a final product. There are some preliminary meetings and perhaps a draft version which is taken into some account but the main mark is given almost entirely to this final product. I can't help thinking that there is a privileging of ends over means here which leaves many students with a great deal of work (blog posts, notes, annotated material etc) which is simply unacknowledged and un-assessed.

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