As both a practicing artist and an educator, my goal for my students is to help them leave class thinking critically about the process of creating work. This goes beyond final project or portfolio work they may make as an assignment for my class but instead spans their approach to making and creation. Making is a process, and it does not happen in isolation, counter to the popular narrative surrounding creative work which paints it as a solitary practice. To the outsider or new student practitioner, it may appear as if creative work springs forth from the breast of the maker, fully formed, when the maker happens to be blessed by a magic combination of inspiration and inborn talent. Of course, this is not the case, and on some level, students know this. Creative work is work. It takes time, effort, and iterations. Making that clear to students, however, is similar to the work itself: an ongoing process of questioning and discovery. This is why, regardless of the creative discipline I teach, I structure my classes in ways that help students question and perpetually revisit the process of making.
Why am I making what I’m making? What is my work adding to the ongoing conversation? What questions is it posing? How can I push myself further? How can I build off of what I have already made for the class — what I want to create moving forward? These are questions without set answers, designed to provoke a culture of ongoing inquiry. When students think critically about what they’re making, why they’re making it, and what they can make, courses turn into more than just a culmination of projects produced but into a methodology of creation that students can continue to cultivate throughout their life and careers.
Teaching creative disciplines
As a graduate student at Duke University in the Masters of Fine Arts program in Experimental and Documentary Arts, I have served as a Teaching Assistant for classes that span many creative disciplines: Photography, Visual Media Studies, Studio Art, Web-Based Communications (HTML/CSS), and Video Installation. Outside of this role, I have guest lectured, served as a portfolio reviewer, and taught workshops on Photoshop and multimedia projects. Across all of these mediums and experiences, there exist several essential threads in my teaching practice:
- Technical skills are necessary foundations that must be established early and revisited often.
- An environment of collaboration must be fostered, both on an individual and classwide basis.
- The creation of class projects must build on each other, working toward a trajectory of growth.
As important as engagement with critical thinking is, I find students learn best when technical skills are established early in a course. For Web-Based Multimedia Communications, a course where I independently led a section of sixteen students, I began the semester by teaching my students introductory HTML and CSS skills. I did this before expecting them to create their own dynamic sites or even engage critically with websites made by others. In addition to teaching them the basics, though, like HTML structure and the difference between CLASSes and IDs in CSS, I taught them how to search out beneficial questions and find the answers they needed themselves, and this empowered them to control their learning trajectory. (Several students initially responded with, “It feels like we’re just teaching ourselves!” My rebuttal: “Yes, you are.” And, also: “Good.”) Once technical foundations and a sense of ownership are established, then creation can expand to the classroom environment — to collaboration. From there, students see not only what other professionals have created, but what their peers are in the process of making. They see drafts, iterations, and a process of growth.
Showcasing the importance of the classroom is essential to an environment of collaboration. I do this by treating the classroom as a place for growth, creation, and collaboration, not just knowledge-sharing. Students explain the why of what they did, not just the how, and they do this both to myself and to their classmates during critique sessions. One of the largest benefits of college coursework is the classroom itself — the ability to interact with peers, learn from them, and teach them, too. I am a better artist when I teach, because learning is an ongoing state, and I learn both by teaching and from my students. As a result of that emphasis on learning, my classroom privileges opportunities for students to speak about their own work and, more importantly, learn from interacting with others’ work.
Even in classes that are not thought of as art classes, like Web-Based Multimedia Communications, I hold project Critiques. These Critiques allow students to benefit from seeing the work of makers at their level and practice giving constructive feedback, as well as to present their ongoing work and receive feedback from their peers. Fostering an environment of collaboration is essential to this practice, especially when it comes to an overall learning trajectory. I’ve found when students are able to talk about their ideas with their classmates and engage in meaningful discussions about their work, not only do their projects grow from it, but they influence others’ as well. To do this, though, I have to first create a rapport with them on an individual level. Students have to know that I am invested in their growth and feel comfortable talking to me before they can begin to feel comfortable sharing within a classroom environment. Students need to feel safe being vulnerable, know that that vulnerability is their choice, and understand that the process of making entails failure. That growth cannot happen without failure. To create that environment, I share some of my own work, both in-progress and finished, and share experiences with failure. I also make myself available for one-on-one meetings and invest my time in their work.
Making is a direct response to how we interact with and see the world. That response is shaped by both labor within a technical foundation (how their work is executed) and our response to what we see and feel (concept). Even personal work is meant to be shared. It becomes part of a conversation. A conversation that is ongoing — that is a practice.
The following select images are examples of student work from the Fall 2017 and Spring 2018 year at Duke University, including Web-Based Multimedia Communications and Expanded Cinema.
Web-Based Multimedia Communications
Expanded Cinema is a graduate level course taught at Duke University by Professor Shambhavi Kaul where I served as Teaching Assistant. The course engages with the moving image when taken to spaces beyond the traditional black box of the movie theater. I served as a teaching assistant for this course. The following images are in-progress photographs of final student installations and events.
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