Sunday, February 16, 2014

Teaching Philosophy and the key phrase "Studio Practice"

A delayed flight from Chicago, returning from this year's CAA Conference, gave me plenty of time to revisit the schism between my own Statement of Teaching Philosophy and the teaching philosophy itself.  I can speak, at length, about teaching technique with colleagues and reveal my own philosophy in the course of that conversation.  But, when it comes to codifying the thing into a single page there is a part of me that reverts to worrying about what certain academics will think, and I end up using jargon that might not perfectly fit.  I believe that this is due, in part, to a lack of understanding of what the job of teaching really is about; not by me, but by a select few former teachers (a minority number, but enough to give me pause).  Whether they understood the jargon that they used or not, the connection between the words and the meaning of those words was not effectively communicated.  It made me realize that my own teaching philosophy has developed to address two main goals:

1.  Find a way to get the students to put forth real effort.
2.  Make sure that I put more time into helping students understand the language of art (visual, physical, and textual) than I do asking them to remember simple definitions of jargon.  Essentially, I hope to turn them into philosophers and not sophists.

Much of my thinking on the flight home centered around a short Facebook thread on Don Kimes' page in which he lamented the use of the phrase "studio practice".  It might be academic to use that phrase; academic in the pejorative sense.  The Facebook conversation was interesting, and in revisiting it I scrawled some tangental train-of-though pages in my sketchbook while passing the time in the sky.  I'll retype it below.

Grammar police beware!  This is a blog, not a formal journal, and what is retyped below is just a thought process.  

Athletes practice for years to be ready to play.  The audience only sees the show, a moment, the culmination of all the past effort.  Musicians practice for years, stumbling, fumbling and learning their instruments.  Same can be said for actors.  The audience does not hear the sour notes, the awkward first rehearsals, only the brief perfection of the concert, the show.  Scientists study, theorize, and experiment.  Experiments fail, and they document the process and results, adjust the experiment, and run a new experiment.  The process of experimenting and adjustment is repeated until a discovery is made.  Even then, the discovery dictates the direction of new experiments.  The audience only reads about the final discovery, not the years of experimentation and failure that lead to the amazing published discovery.

The key to any of these (sports, performing arts, science) is a willingness to put forth real effort.  Real effort is work.  The reward is not immediate.  Often, the reward is not immediately noticed, and needs space for analysis.

Students need to understand that foundation classes are designed to build good work habits that will give them the tools for later advanced study.  Effort must be employed, whether students are advanced or beginners.

Let's recontextualize the word practice as it is currently most applied to creating visual art.  The connotation that seems most common is that practice is being used to draw a parallel between making art and other disciplines which have older academic traditions (such as medicine and law).  I think that the term art practice (or studio practice) has existed for a long time, and been justified through usage, similar to discussing the practice of a skill for the sake of learning and improving (with the implication that the improvement is continuous and that learning never ends).  Musicians and athletes practice skills; they practice their trade.  Science experiments.  Experimentation is, itself, a practice.

Unfortunately, some academics have lost sight of the effort behind practice, and are simply co-opting the word (practice) to align an artist's business in the studio with the business of being a medical doctor (scientist who's business is called a practice) or a lawyer.

While some academics may be doing this out of insecurity, many do so with a full recognition of both the effort required to make art and the desire to constantly learn and improve.  Unfortunately, students don't always get the background information, and end up parroting the word "practice" because they heard it roll off their professor's tongue.  And, the job of a teach is to help a student draw connections, understand the source of the words.  If not, then students resort to (what essentially are the note-taking techniques taught by prep schools and college prep courses) listening for repeated words and ideas that the lecturer emphasizes.  Essentially, the students are listening to hear the material that is going to be on the test.

Too bad that we now live in an environment in which state and federal requirements force teachers to teach to the test.  Higher education is (or used to be) the exception, in which students could research and discover connections between concepts and their source.  I am getting the feeling that is increasing less true, and even college teaches to the test.

I challenge my colleagues to return to teaching effort and experimentation, with the goal of giving students the tools to make their own discoveries, make connections between the vocabulary and the real meaning of the concepts.

Teach the meaning, not the jargon.
Teach the habit of work, not just the result of a show.
Foster curiosity, connection, and experimentation, instead of memorization.
Teach effort.
If these are done, then a student will learn a real studio practice instead of just repeating a phrase that indicates one is not working (making art), but just talking about it.

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