Sunday, April 19, 2009

The student's responsibility

I've written in the past about several of the jerks I've had for teachers in art school, and judging from the feedback I've gotten, many of us have had similar experiences.

But it occurred to me this morning that the student has a great responsibility too.

I was thinking back on the semester when I was a teaching assistant in graduate school. I had never taught before, and this was one of those arrangements in which the T.A. IS the professor, not an assistant.

On the first day of class, I was approached by a student who informed me that he didn't like any of the other teachers on staff (he was a second-semester freshman) and that he was convinced I would be a better teacher for him than any of others. (Lord, I had so many dates tell me that story -- "My old girl-friend doesn't understand me; YOU are the only girl for me" -- you'd think I would have seen the writing on the wall.)

Anyway, it turned out I wasn't the best teacher for him. My style of critique is to emphasize what the student did RIGHT, which tends to make him/her continue to do that and let go of the techniques/habits/etc. that I haven't mentioned that are unsuccessful. Not that I never touch on possible improvements or make specific corrections; I do that often. But I talk far more about what's working in a piece of art than what isn't working.

My methods displeased this particular student. He thought I was babying him and not being straight with him, and he wrote a scathing evaluation of me at semester's end.

By then, I thought he was pretty much a dork, but I could understand his frustration that he felt he hadn't had a good experience in art class, that his teacher had let him down. I had certainly felt that way myself.

But this morning it occurred to me: it is up to the STUDENT as much as the teacher to create the classroom experience. What this guy needed wasn't a teacher to reveal everything to him; he needed to stop complaining and WORK, years and years of painting and drawing, and answering his own questions.

In my case as a student, I needed to insist that my teachers help me. One in particular I've mentioned before on this blog, a painting professor at the Art Institute of Boston, who never helped us as students, never explained anything, just set up a still-life and left the room. I should have insisted on some instruction. It was my education, it was my money, and I let him get away with collecting a paycheck for doing nothing.

Somehow this realization -- that education is a two-way street -- feels liberating to me. I can forgive myself for not having been a perfect student, and I can forgive myself for not being a perfect teacher. We all do our best, and we learn from our experiences.


kim said...

Right on. Having been a lousy art student at 17 (so sorry to my profs at the U of Maine!) and then back in college in my early 30s, I can understand how things like this happen. K-12 public ed is often little more than obedience training, then all of a sudden the rules change: students are expected to think for themselves, develop cogent, well-thought-out arguments, and participate rather than just passively consume their education. Perhaps college freshmen in all disciplines need to be told this explicitly. "I like it" doesn't cut it as a critique, kids.

Catherine Carter said...

Definitely ... I've found, as a teacher, that there's a HUGE difference between first-semester freshmen and second-semester freshmen. By second semester, usually they've either "gotten it" or they've dropped out of college (hopefully to "live a little" and then come back).