Saturday, 20 June 2009

Tactful Criticism

One of the most difficult to master but least acknowledged skills of being an art teacher is the ability to modulate frankness with tact. But why do we need tact and why are students so wary of being critical with one another?

Early in my career as an art teacher I once made the na├»ve mistake of thinking that it would be wise (!) simply to be frank in all my critical opinions. During one memorable critique I expressed an honest but unguarded evaluation of a particular student’s work and in the days, weeks and months which followed it became clear that any possible rapport, which might once have been cultivated, was now unthinkable.

Good teaching, as well as good learning, requires mutual respect but how this is gained, won or earned by teachers is of vital importance. We’ve all encountered or heard of imposing teachers who “command” great respect from their students. In my experience this tends to have more to do with assumed authority and power (and, of course, the way it is wielded) rather than any special ability such teachers have to cultivate learning. Certainly it gets peoples attention and to that extent it works – but perhaps it’s more of a proverbial stick than a carrot. Other teachers possess a different kind of reputation gained through successful art practice or occasionally through outstanding pedagogy. This fame, whether putative or deserved, literally precedes them and often on the basis of this alone they receive respect (admiration even) without having to prove themselves anew each time they work with new students. For the rest of us mere mortals though, it’s more a case of having to earn respect through the demonstration of knowledge, skill and/or experience and this takes time to establish.

Without respect, teaching and learning become little more than farcical. Mutual respect gives both students and tutors the confidence to trust that their communications with one another will be taken seriously. As respect builds, it becomes increasingly possible to be frank in one’s criticisms without fear that such remarks will cause offence. This is not to say that there’s no longer a need for tact – there is always a need to moderate strong opinion with sensitivity to its likely impact – but as trust and understanding grow so too does the realisation that tact can sometimes mask, or even worse obscure, valuable insight and advice.

Search for quotes on “frankness” and at the top of the list you’ll probably find Tennessee Williams:

“All cruel people describe themselves as paragons of frankness.”

Undoubtedly this is very often the case, but the reverse is not necessarily so: frankness is not, in itself, cruel. When well judged, frank comments can lead to rapid understanding of the cause of problems or difficulties. They can also help avoid wasted time and effort and lead to new solutions and more sophisticated outcomes. However, frankness is not always well judged and like any unvarnished opinion, no matter how plain and simple it appears, should never be confused with truth. It’s a common mistake to identify it as such, because concise statements - and frankness is nothing if not concise - invariably present themselves as unmediated truths.

Tact, on the other hand, demands consideration not just of the individual to which it is directed but also of the issues at hand. It requires us to analyse our opinions and find appropriate form for expressing them. Tact is not without its drawbacks though: too much tact can cushion criticism to such an extent or meander down such circuitous routes that very little value can be gained from trying to follow its convolutions. Judging the appropriate balance of tact and frankness therefore is crucial. Too frank and we risk conjuring truths from unexamined falsehood. Too tactful and we risk making no point at all.

When dealing with one another’s work, students frequently have to negotiate this difficult terrain and in the process they must decide how to proceed. In the context of group critique this becomes doubly difficult because each student is understandably sensitive to the ways their comments may be perceived by other members of the group. This fear of repercussions, particularly of appearing tactless, frequently leads students to err on the side of positivity and to leave all potentially negative comments unmentioned. Of course, there’s an irony here, because such “constructive comments” are often to some degree selfish in nature since they seek to protect not the individual to whom they are directed but the originators themselves. The other unfortunate consequence of such comments is that they actually omit genuinely “constructive” observations altogether. This is why teachers and the distance that their role confers upon them are so important. Such distance gives teachers the liberty to speak their minds but with it comes the significant responsibility to always modulate frankness with an appropriate quantum of tact.


Anonymous said...

Listen for the good notes and ignore the bad. That is how I raised two musicians.

J. Hamlyn said...

That's interesting - I'm just reading Richard Sennett's "The Craftsman" where he describes the difficulties that children encounter producing accurate pitch on string instruments and how the "Suzuki" method instantly solves the problem with plastic guide strips on the fingerboard. Nonetheless, as soon as the strips are removed the whole process becomes so much more difficult again 'feeling' one's way towards good notes and avoiding the bad. I guess one of the things that makes it difficult is that in this instance it's all the more difficult to ignore the bad notes and focus on the good because the proportion of bad to good becomes higher than one is used to. 

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