4 Looking Forward Rather Than Backward | Priscilla Briggs

             “The teacher’s role is not that of simplifying the content, but of providing unfamiliar content and the setting for learners to step from their current level to a higher level of understanding.”

I came across this quote in a text by Lev Vygotsky, a sociocultural theorist, while doing research for a Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SOTL) Project in the summer of 2005.  This quote was enlightening in that it helped me understand how to better meet my biggest challenge as a teacher: how to teach independent creative and conceptual thinking.

In my first yeas at Gustavus, I focused on transitioning from an art school to a liberal arts environment.  Teaching is, of course, a learning process, so I was also a student facing unfamiliar content.  The Gustavus student was a new student population and the liberal arts an unfamiliar context for me.  At an art school, all students major in a specific discipline of the visual arts (painting, photography, sculpture, etc.) to earn a BFA, versus the general BA art major at Gustavus.  Art schools generally require a lengthy core curriculum of courses equal in number to the total course requirements for an art major at Gustavus.  Such a core curriculum includes various foundations courses as prerequisites for further study.  Because our department at Gustavus is small, our beginning courses for each discipline are listed as general education courses, with no prerequisites, in order to maintain healthy enrollment.  As a result, the majority of my students are non-majors who are often taking the first art class of their college experience, requiring that I address basic foundational concepts rather than building on prior knowledge.  Adapting to the small liberal arts environment of Gustavus was a process full of challenges, some of which are ongoing, so I would like to address those challenges as a way to describe my work as a teacher.

The first challenge was that my position as a New Media instructor was a new one in the art department (an area of study new to many colleges and universities across the country at the time).  A major ramification of this is that I, in large part, started from scratch with courses and equipment.  When I first came to Gustavus, I inherited a class titled New Media (ART-250).  This was an ambitious title in that New Media is an enormous umbrella under which many disciplines fall. The term “new media” is meant to encompass the emergence of digital, computerized, or networked information and communication technologies in the latter part of the 20th century.  In the studio arts, new media can include digital imaging and photography, digital video production, net.art and interactive media, 3-D animation and various interdisciplinary fields of study.  The visiting professor, which taught the course before me, included digital photography, video, and web art in his curriculum.  Feeling this was too much to cover in one course, I removed the web art component.  However, the class was still difficult to teach because student interest and performance often fell when we arrived at the more complex and challenging section of the course dealing with Video Art.  In order to improve this situation, I created two courses, Digital Photography (ART-256) and Video Art (ART-258), to cover the basics of the still and the moving digital image, consecutively.  This structural change greatly improved student interest and performance in each discipline and made the classes more enjoyable to teach as a result.  There was more time for the student to: master one discipline instead of skimming the surface of a few; explore relevant contemporary theories in more depth; and become skilled in the appropriate software rather than getting a brief introduction and moving on.  Eventually, I also introduced three advanced courses: Video Art II (ART-3, Digital Photography II (ART-386), and Interactive Media (ART-360).  In the context of the visual arts, “interactive media” refers to work that allows for active participation by the viewer.  The Interactive Media course was meant to delve into complex concepts, software, and modes of presentation.  With this class, students could use the building blocks of the still and moving image within the interactive environments of performance and public art, net.art (art which uses the web as a medium, sometimes self-referential, rather than a platform), and installation art.  In 2004, I received a Bush mini-grant to attend two one-week intensive classes on Flash software, an interactive media tool, at the School of Visual Arts in New York.  I used this knowledge to create tutorials on the Flash software for my Interactive Media class.  This past year, I introduced a basic version of the course titled Introduction to Interactive Media (ART-260).  At this point, I feel I have finally established a sustainable two-year cycle of the eight courses I now have on the books.

A second challenge I have faced at Gustavus, has been confronting students’ preconceived notions of what art is and what an art class entails, as well as my own expectations of what knowledge or ability with which students would come to class.  Part of the challenge is teaching general education courses in which art majors are often out-numbered by non-majors.   Another factor in the equation is the general marginalization of the study of art in secondary schools in the U.S.   For many students, there is an expectation that art classes will be “fun and easy”.  I try to make my classes fun, but when students complain that the work is hard, I tell them it is not my goal to make it easy.  The student population I have now are often taking the class as an “interest” rather than a “focus” and are sometimes unprepared for the amount of time necessary to do well in a studio art class, expecting to focus on skill-building alone.  I have worked on ways to correct these misconceptions.  First, I stress the time factor on the first day of class and there are always a few students who drop right away if they think they will not have enough time in their schedule to succeed in the class.  I think this is a proactive measure that prevents predictable student failure and increases the morale of the overall class because the students who remain in the class are committed and focused.

In order to prepare students to confront their preconceived notions, I begin the Digital Photography class by asking them to discuss the following questions: “What is art?”, “What is the purpose of art?”, “What is an artist’s role in society?”, and “What is the role of art in the artist’s life?”.  I show contemporary artwork on the first day of all my classes (and throughout the semester) to give students a feel for what we are going to be doing.  Many students’ ideas about art are based on Modern Art that is a century old.  Contemporary artwork is conceptual and intimidating.  When I show the work, I introduce basic concepts and then ask the students to analyze the work themselves.   This helps them demystify contemporary art and become more comfortable with the idea of making it.  For instance, some students have signed up for Interactive Media not really knowing what it is.  On the first day of class, we discuss the process of interactivity, looking at examples of how active viewer participation is necessary to either experience or complete an art piece.

I have also altered my grading system in order to accommodate non-majors.  Studio art classes are about the process rather than the product; they should be about progress and skill-building rather than individual project outcomes.  In all of my academic experience, college professors of studio art did not grade individual assignments, but simply gave one grade at mid-term and another at the end of the semester as an evaluation of process and skill development. For the visual artist, grades are not as relevant as they are for other disciplines.  It is the work itself that is judged to determine whether a student gets into graduate school, gets a job, or wins a grant.  A report card will not get you a gallery show.  Because this traditional grading system seemed to create too much stress for general education students who do not plan to be artists, I began to give grades on individual projects so they could self-monitor their “performance”.  A side effect of this is that student creativity is sometimes stifled, or paralyzed, because they are too concerned with how to get an “A” on a particular assignment rather than following their own creative flow.  Ultimately, creative experimentation requires the occasional failure.

I have increasingly provided students with additional opportunities for feedback in response to confusion about grades.  Grades in the studio arts are not based on right and wrong answers, but on degrees of mastery of craft, of concept development and of aesthetics.  Group critiques occur at the end of each project, so students each receive feedback from their entire class.  Then I require that they revise their projects accordingly and write a self-assessment.  I then write comments and a grade on their self-assessment.  This past year I experimented with this process by developing a grade sheet, which outlines the specific elements on which they are graded, for each project in the Video Art class.  Because the students expressed appreciation for the grade sheets, I will continue to develop these for each class in an attempt to demystify the grading process as much as possible.

During my initial years at Gustavus, I was also very concerned with the difficulty students had developing visual concepts despite having been shown many examples and receiving much personal feedback.  This topic became the focus of my Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SOTL) project.  My initial goal was to figure out how to break conceptual thinking into steps in order to simplify the process for students.  I gave a journal assignment asking students to record their thinking about their projects so I could study them and try to discern patterns of thinking.  As I refined the assignment, I changed the title of the assignment from a “journal” to a “concept notebook”.  Then, after reading the ideas of Lev Vygotsky, I also realized it is not my job to simplify the process of creative and conceptual development, but to make students aware of the process.  I broke the concept notebook into three parts: Ideation, Concept Development, and Self-Assessment.

In the next class, I decided that instead of having students hand in a notebook, I would require a self-assessment after each project and then a revision of that project. I revised the final assignment for my Digital Arts class to try this method out.  The final assignment is self-defined with the guidelines that students should begin with one idea that organically evolves into something else as they work through the project.  The point of this is to emphasize understanding of the creative process by requiring the following things each week for the 4-week duration of the project: small group critiques of their work prints; a subsequent written assignment redefining of the project according to feedback from the small critiques and self-assessment; and new work to be shown the next week.  I was pleased that the students responded very well to this assignment and said they felt they better understood the creative process and how visual concepts evolve.  I felt I had finally found a process that works, and I restructured all my introductory level class assignments to fit this model.

My last point is about group critique and discussion.  Once, a student complained that I was critiquing them at a level to which they had not yet risen.  I explained how the critique functions as a bridge to get to that next level of understanding.  A critique is our form of assessment in the arts, but it is different from a typical exam in that it looks forward rather than backward.  In order for this kind of group assessment to really be successful, the students must be honest and vocal.  I have devised various methods of critique and discussion that have greatly improved class participation.  Some successful methods include asking students to take turns leading a conversation about each others’ work for group critiques, and having student’s form small groups to critique each others’ work-in-progress.

Overall, in all my courses I teach a balance of skill and conceptual thinking, stressing the necessary interweaving of the two.  The semester assignments model this approach and the final assignment is left open for the student to self-define.  Each assignment is introduced with viewings of relevant artworks (historical and/or contemporary), readings that should supplement student understanding of concepts and theories (as well as provide food for thought for their own work), and examples of previous student work for that same assignment.  For instance, the first assignment for the Digital Photography class is to create a series of three images that subvert the original meaning of magazine ads by scanning the images, removing the text using Photoshop, and then inserting their own meaningful text.  To prepare for this assignment we look at and discuss the work of artists who use image and text and/or advertising to address issues of identity and representation (e.g., Barbara Krueger, Adrian Piper, and Matt Siber).  I also have them read two relevant texts for discussion: a letter to the readers by Time Magazine about their controversial cover photo illustration of O.J. Simpson, and an excerpt from Ways of Seeing by John Berger in which he discusses publicity images and how they function in contemporary society.  These readings, which address ethical and theoretical concerns, are supplemented by technical demos and skill-building exercises in Photoshop.

I also want my students to gain confidence in their ability to make decisions about their own work.  There is a fine line between guiding them toward those decisions and then cutting them loose to figure things out on their own.  This requires lengthy conversation with each individual student.  I give them responsibility for defining their final projects—this also allows them to follow a personal interest.  I make them responsible for critiquing each others’ work—this also nurtures their ability to discuss artwork.  And I try to respond as much as possible to their course evaluations.  For instance, one student in the Video Art class suggested they have more room for experimentation and another suggested I assign group projects.  I am hesitant to assign group projects for a number of logistical reasons, but also because I want every student to be involved in each step of the production process to make sure they master those skills.  As a compromise, I changed my curriculum for the class by eliminating one project and replacing it with two skill-building exercises that allow them to work in groups on ungraded projects.  These assignments encourage experimentation, and because they are ungraded, the students do not have to worry about failing.  I try to give students every opportunity to succeed.  For instance, they are allowed to revise or redo any project at any time up until the end of the semester in order to improve their grade for that project.  My goal is to make my classes rigorous, but enjoyable learning experiences.

Running a studio art course requires choreographing a mixture of lectures, demonstrations, hands-on lab work, reading and discussion, and critiques.  In addition to pedagogical challenges, there are also logistical challenges.  My greatest logistical challenge accompanied the development of new courses for the art department that necessitated the purchase of a good deal of expensive high-tech equipment.  During my first year at Gustavus, we had four video cameras for 34 students to share.  I distributed the equipment during class after drawing a flow chart outlining when each student would have access outside of class and what time they would have to hand the equipment off to another student.  I put in a proposal for more equipment, and a faculty member from the Communications Studies department put in a similar request for the Broadcasting classes.  We both received the funds we requested and pooled our resources to finally purchase the cameras, tripods, lighting kits and microphones necessary to teach our classes.

The next task was to figure out a venue for distributing the equipment.  The end result was a checkout system operated by Media Services that has evolved from a paper trail to an online service.   The facilities and equipment for the digital classes have improved greatly, but the absence of a budget line for repairs or replacement of equipment as well as the lack of a dedicated digital arts lab and Director of Instructional Technology create further challenges that I hope can be resolved in the future.  One major goal is the establishment of a long-term plan for a set periodic replacement of equipment.

I have gone into detail about equipment concerns in order to relay the amount of time and effort devoted to the ongoing chore of acquiring the equipment and facilities support necessary for my students to do their work in a professional fashion.  Student interest in the study of digital media grows every year, with more and more students wanting to create self-defined majors geared toward media studies or filmmaking.  There are, on average, three students per year at Gustavus who create self-defined majors.  In the past four years I have been an advisor for four such majors.  The art department, in general, is a hub for much interdisciplinary or self-defined study, including Independent Studies.  I have advised an average of 5 independent studies per year since coming to Gustavus, many of which involve video production.   The independent study format provides students the opportunity to produce lengthy video projects that are not possible within the limited course offerings.  For instance, a group of students worked together on a filmmaking project that spanned two semesters and was screened for a full house in Wallenberg Hall.  The independent study format also allows students to pursue a specific subject in a depth that is not offered in the art department (e.g., cinematography, alternative darkroom processes, and 3-D modeling).

An issue of concern to me when I taught the Senior Seminar for Art Majors during the Fall 2004 semester was the lack of an established visiting artist program, which I believe is necessary for studio art programs (especially for a small liberal arts college in a rural location).  To bring visiting artists, I received funding from the Center for Vocational Reflection (CVR) for local artists to lecture about their own working process and to critique the seniors’ work in preparation for the senior exhibition. I invited 5 artists, each working in a different medium and at varying points in their careers, and a gallery curator.  This kind of interaction is invaluable for artists, who need feedback from many perspectives. The visiting artists helped students understand what it means to be a practicing artist and how each artist’s creative process is different.  My Senior Seminar students were greatly inspired by the visiting artists and each wrote a letter to the CVR to describe this experience.  As a result, the CVR agreed to fund a pared-down version of this program for the 2005-2006 Senior Seminar.  Although I was not teaching Senior Seminar that year, I did work with my colleagues to help organize the five visiting artists.

After teaching the Senior Seminar during the Fall 2004 semester, I organized 4 nights of critiques for senior art majors in the spring to help them prepare for their Senior Exhibition.  Since then, the art and art history department has redesigned our curriculum so that the Senior Seminar spans the entire academic year, giving senior art majors the continued support they need in preparation for the Senior Exhibition.

There are also excellent visiting artist lectures in Minneapolis at the Walker Art Center and the University of Minnesota.  I try to take at least one fieldtrip with students per year (the limit of my budget) to visit galleries and museums and attend a lecture in Minneapolis.  This is especially important for my Video Art class, because much art, especially video installation, needs to be seen in person in order to really experience the work and understand how the presentation can affect the meaning.  Also, much video art and film is not available, or too costly, to bring to the classroom.  This past year, we visited the Walker Art Center’s Brave New Worlds exhibit, a showing of international conceptual artists that considered the “present state of political consciousness, expressed through the questions of how to live, experience, and dream”.  In conjunction with the exhibit, Walid Raad, a Lebanese artist, gave an artist lecture, presenting his conceptual historical archive Atlas, which is comprised of fabricated written, photographic and video documentation.

My time at Gustavus has been a great learning experience for me in which I have stepped to a higher level of understanding.  My teaching has been informed and enriched by many of the wonderful opportunities for faculty development available at Gustavus, by my own efforts to communicate effectively and connect individually with my students, by feedback from the students, and by both the successes and failures of my teaching reflected in my students’ work.




Teaching, Scholarship, Service Copyright © 2012 by Faculty of Gustavus Adolphus College. All Rights Reserved.


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