Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Invisible Teaching

Is it advisable for an art teacher to walk into a degree show, exhibition space or studio where a student is hanging their work and, after a cursory glance, to say to the student that they need to change the work?

Last June I wrote on this blog:
Throughout all Universities, staff are increasingly under pressure of time and this often leaves little opportunity to respond to students with the generosity and open-mindedness which is so frequently necessary. Due to their lack of proximity to the experience of being a student - with all its attendant vulnerabilities - many teachers ignore student anxieties or brush them aside as trivial or inconsequential. It’s an attitude which helps no one and can sometimes cause genuine harm. All students are understandably sensitive about many aspects of their studies and even seemingly confident students need reassurance sometimes. More significantly, there’s a subset of committed students who can occasionally appear to be bullish, demanding or self centered and it’s vital not to assume that these students are just “difficult”, but instead to engage them and, if possible, to provide an opportunity for them to explain the cause of their behavior. This takes time and sensitivity, even from highly talented teachers.
    “Criticism, especially, is irremediably social in character, since we are ordinarily as blind to our own failings as we are attentive to those of others. Social interaction is therefore as crucial to the prosperity of critical rationalism as are the individual qualities of imagination, resourcefulness, courage, determination, and willingness to learn.”
    David Miller on Karl Popper in "A Pocket Popper"
It’s important to realize that teaching is a discursive process which requires teachers to engage students meaningfully and generously wherever possible. Whilst it’s often very easy to spot the flaws in students work, this shouldn’t lead one to the temptation to immediately suggest a change. Artworks often take a great deal of time and investment (both emotional and financial) to produce so it’s hardly surprising that students are resistant, at the best of times, to altering their creations. But there’s a more important issue here. Such critical circumstances offer a vital opportunity for teaching and learning at the deepest level because, if the student is genuinely engaged - as they are most likely to be if they’ve made a real investment in the work - then they are also likely to be highly receptive to any opportunities for making the work stronger. However, blunt statements and criticism are definitely not the way to proceed. What is needed is a caring but thorough discussion about the benefits of changing the work. It’s essential in this situation to acknowledge the possibility (as slim as it may seem) that the student is, in fact, correct in their decision. It is only through this acknowledgement that the necessary rapport may be engendered such that an equal discussion can evolve. Students know that they are in these situations to learn, but it is essential that they also feel that the teacher is willing to be persuaded. They need to know that the teacher is interested and most importantly, they need to know that the teacher understands what they are trying to achieve. Once these preliminaries have been established it’s usually a straightforward matter of fulfilling what both parties desire: an improved work of art.

So what's my advice? I think it's vital that every effort is made by each party to understand the motivations and perception of the other, and it therefore seems only fair that the student should be able to seek clarification for any suggested change. It is nothing short of hubris on the part of the teacher to assume that the student will instantly recognise the sheer logic of the suggested improvement like some kind of revelation from on high. For this reason it's far wiser to withhold the suggestion and to introduce it tactfully into the natural flow of discussion. If the advice holds water then there’s no need for persuasion. What the student needs most urgently, is to be able to fully appropriate and internalise the rationale for changing the work. They also need to be able to claim authorship for this change, otherwise it will be no more than a compromise made under an all too familiar but subtle form of academic coercion. For the teacher, the imperative is therefore opposite and complementary. Here the emphasis is on transferring authorship for the suggested change to its rightful owner. In the most agreeable situations, this is done in such a way that the student makes the decision without even realising that the suggestion has been made in the first place.
    'Tis not enough your Counsel still be true
    Blunt Truths more Mischief than nice Falsehood do
    Men must be taught as if you taught them not

    And Things unknown propos'd as Things forgot"
    -Alexander Pope, May 1711


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