When you teach, it’s one thing to know your material, and another to know how to translate that material into a digestible format that actually sticks. Over the past few years, I’ve learned that less is always more when it comes to teaching. The natural reaction for many teachers is to provide as much information as possible. This is especially true when you’re teaching an introductory course because there’s so much that needs to be covered. When you have a lot of expertise in your field, it’s easy to forget how overwhelming even the most simple concept can be at first glance. I’ve found that students can quickly drown in information, and that it’s much more effective to offer small morsels that are given at incremental stages.
The other day, I was digging through some old syllabi from when I first started teaching, and I was startled by how different they were than the syllabi I use today. I used to explain every possible scenario that could happen in a syllabus, but I’ve discovered that once the syllabus is longer than two pages, students won’t bother reading the syllabus at all. So I have the option of having 1) a short syllabus that students will actually read, or 2) a syllabus that explains everything, but that doesn’t get read. Take a wild guess which option I use today. Certainly, there’s a compromise because a shorter syllabus limits your content, but if that’s the difference between being read or not, that’s a compromise I’m willing to make.
Despite my experience with less is more, I’m still struggling with this balance in my current project. Part of me always wants to add more content, but in the feedback I’ve received, I’ve seen that my audience is quickly overwhelmed by large quantities of content. I think for many teachers, adding more content is in some ways a kind of insurance policy. We worry that if we cut back on content that our students will miss the point, so we pad our content with supplementary information that isn’t critical. I’ve seen concrete evidence with this project that small bites that are succinct and straightforward can have a tremendous impact. If a small bite piques a student’s curiosity and stimulates a craving for more, that in itself is much more valuable than having every fact crammed down your throat. If you bombard students with too much content all at once, not only will they not retain that content, but they won’t come back for more. I think about those first bites as appetizers in a meal. A good appetizer stimulates your senses, doesn’t fill you up and spoil your appetite for the entrees, and makes you hunger for more. Once you get your students to crave that information, it opens all kinds of doors where you provide those details that you initially suppressed.
Over the past two months, I’ve been getting tons of feedback from colleagues, former students, and friends on my project. I started the feedback process very early on, when I was only 30% done. This was crucial because other people caught some major problems early on that I would never have seen had I waited until I was finished. In doing so, I’m grateful to have saved myself countless hours of grief and backtracking. I just read “Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Stick and Others Die” by Chip and Dan Heath, and in the book they talk about the “Curse of Knowledge” meaning that you know too much about your project, which affects your ability to evaluate your work objectively.
Speaking of books, I’m currently reading Ed Catmull’s book “Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration” which talks about the strategies they use at Pixar to strike a balance between management and creativity. In the book, there’s a point where he talks about how Pixar director Andrew Stanton says it’s best to “fail early and fail fast” and “be wrong as fast as you can.” I’m constantly hounding my students to get feedback in the sketching stage, before they even lift a finger to begin the final artwork. When you delay feedback and wait until your project is finished, it’s painful to confront problems that could have been so easily prevented within minutes in the early stages. At that point, it’s too late to start over, and there’s nothing you can do to fix those glaring problems.
The feedback process for this project has been very startling, which surprised me given that having my work critiqued is about as natural as breathing. What has been different is the immense range of diverse reactions that I’ve gotten. With past studio projects, I got a range of reactions to the artwork, but most of the opinions were approximately in the same area and seemed to eventually reach a general consensus about how the artwork would be received by most people.
Not with this project. Every single person I’ve showed the project could not have reacted more differently. The contrast of different reactions has been so great that for the first time in a long time, I really have to work hard to figure out what to listen to. I am always eager and willing to improve my work, but at a certain point, you have to make decisions about what feedback you listen to, and what you tune out. If you implement every single suggestion you receive, you’ll lose your original voice and focus.
Wading through so much feedback can be very confusing. When I was a senior at RISD, I remember at one point feeling overwhelmed with the daily critiques in my classes. I would talk to one professor who would tell me “you’ve got to stop using that red in your paintings”, only to be told by another professor the next day “the red is terrific, you need to use it more!” In previous years, I craved critiques on my artwork and savored every morsel of criticism. That year, I just wanted to be left alone and make the work, without stopping every six hours to get feedback. At that time, I found that the constant stream of contradictory feedback had become disruptive to making the artwork.
How do you decide what feedback to use? I take extensive notes when I ask for feedback, which lets me review my notes later when my head is more clear. The first thing I do is throw out the extreme reactions at both ends: the people who have a negative reaction and are picking at every little thing, and the people who are massaging my ego and spoon feeding me what I want to hear. I weed out comments about minutiae. While I do believe some small details can sometimes play a critical role, I’m amazed at how much some people can fuss about tiny aspects that really don’t matter. I have to be convinced that changing that tiny detail will have a noticeable change on the viewer’s experience with the project. If the difference is negligible, then I throw it out.
The suggestions I try to concentrate on are the comments that recur in more than one person, and that seem to have the potential to have a positive contribution towards emphasizing the fundamental purpose of the project. Time and distance also helps me reflect more before I make hasty decisions. My first reaction when I get criticism is to fix problems immediately, but I find that if I make changes the same day I hear the suggestions, those changes just become a knee jerk reaction that haven’t been fully considered. Even today, I feel like there are many comments I got a month ago that I’m just starting to fully understand.
Having too much feedback is a good problem to have, but that doesn’t make sorting through it any easier!
As a professional artist, hearing “yes” is the highly rare exception, so I think many artists have to find a way to deal with the constant stream of rejection. In the past, I’ve always kept a pessimistic outlook, as means of trying to protect myself from professional disappointment. I guess the premise I had was that if I told myself from the beginning that something wasn’t going to work out, that somehow, it would hurt less if something failed and would be a pleasant surprise if it succeeded. Pessimism is not a pleasant mindset to have, but in the past it seemed like a better option than going in with blind optimism and then being caught off guard with disappointment. Somehow, I thought if I anticipated the failure that it wouldn’t be as painful when it happened.
However with this project, that defensive pessimism has had no place, which is a first for me. I told a friend about how I was using pessimism as a protective mechanism, and she told me that once you’ve decided something isn’t going to work out, that you’ve basically killed it already. My friend was right, I can’t work on something if I tell myself it’s doomed to fail. Even though I told myself that pessimism would protect me in the past, I don’t know that there are degrees of failure that hurt noticeably less than others. Failure is failure. I’ve been rejected enough times to know that every failure hurts in some way. I know now that there’s nothing I can do in advance to prevent that feeling when I fail. Pessimism would have been poisonous to the project. For the first time that I can remember, I find myself envisioning success, and believing that this can happen. While failure is always there, this has lifted a huge burden from my shoulders and let me focus with great clarity. I don’t deny that if I fall, it’s going to hurt like hell, but I’ll cross that bridge when I get there. Hopefully, this project becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Setting small, manageable expectations also helps keep me going. I’ve found this approach very similar to parenting. Before I had kids, I had this ridiculous vision of my children only playing with wooden toys that were hand crafted from Switzerland, and how kind and perfectly patient I would be with my kids at the grocery store. Anyone who has kids would know what a bunch of hogwash that vision is, and how many times we have all been that stereotypical parent yelling at their kids in public. Today, my new perspective on parenting is “are my kids alive and in their beds at the end of the day?” If the answer is yes, then I’m okay. Same goes for this project, “is this project still alive today?”
My mystery project has me learning a huge smorgasbord of skills in areas I have zero experience. Over my past decade teaching at the college level, I’ve become very accustomed to being the one in charge and having or finding a solution for every possible problem. I’ve found the process of acquiring these new skills to be a refreshing change. Instead of helping my students get back on their own feet, I’m now the one bumbling around, falling on my face left and right.
My project is a strange mix of knowing everything and nothing at the same time. I know the content of my project inside out, but I have to translate it into a completely different language and drastically change the format. It’s like someone told me that I had to go teach my RISD Freshman drawing class, a class I’ve taught over 20 times now, in Russia. Except that I don’t speak a word of Russian, and they want me to start teaching the class tomorrow. So I have to learn Russian as I’m standing in front of the students teaching the class.
When I was a student at RISD, I was so appreciative of my professors who gave me the opportunities to mess up for the sake of trying something new and bold. As a professional, I’ve found it much more difficult to take big risks because when you stumble, it’s in front of the whole world. In school, I was insulated from all of my creative endeavors being on public display. There was an extraordinary freedom I had as a student that I didn’t appreciate enough at the time. I think that’s why I tell my students upfront on the first day of class that the reason they’re in school is to make mistakes. For many students, that’s a huge relief. Many of my students have been trained their entire lives up until then to be “correct,” which of course has no meaning in the visual arts.
I constantly talk to my students about the importance of failure in the creative process. While I firmly believe in this point of view, it’s one thing to talk about it, and it’s another thing to actually walk the plank the way I ask my students to. I’ll admit that I had forgotten how incredibly disorienting it can be to do something you have no clue about, and to be in a constant state of confusion. I haven’t felt this awkward since I was 12 years old. I have accepted that basically everything I do in this project has to be done wrong a minimum of three times before I make any progress. Somehow, doing a task badly a few times helps me see a good solution much more clearly.
I go ice skating with one of my friends frequently, and her six year old daughter just learned to ice skate last year. The fear of falling paralyzes a lot of kids when they first get on the ice, so many kids just stand there because they’re so afraid of falling. My friend’s daughter let herself fall every time she was even close to being even remotely off balance, and the result was that she quickly got over her fear of falling. In fact, once she figured this out, she seemed almost enjoy the fact that she was falling down every two minutes. (snow pants helped too) She quickly got over her fear of the ice and was skating in no time.
I like to think that I’ve borrowed my friend’s daughter’s pre-emptive mindset. I tell myself that I’m required to fail first, so I don’t even bother trying to get things “right” on the first few attempts. I can welcome failure and wade through my mistakes much more quickly. It’s an odd balance of feeling totally perplexed and yet being incredibly exhilarated at the same time. Who knew that being really bad at something could be so fun?
When you’re an artist, it’s so important to have artist friends who have an inherent grasp of why you do what you do. I have a friend who was a year ahead of me at RISD, and I always love our conversations because she completely understands the artistic impulse. I don’t have to explain anything to her, she just gets it. She is incredibly energetic and lively, and I love feeding off her enthusiasm.
A few weeks ago, I was telling her that my current project had completely taken over my life, that I was on a compulsive creative rampage that I couldn’t stop even if I tried. She’s the same way; once I get stuck on an idea, I can’t leave it alone. I develop this sense of urgency in my work that I have to satisfy. I get so intensely focused that I give up a lot of personal time and comfort to fulfill the work.
My friend said that when she was a teenager and she got into that kind of mode, her mother would call it dybbuk.She described it as an uncontrollable creative drive that burns inside you. I looked up dybbuk later, and it was even darker than my friend’s description: “Dybbuk is a malicious possessing spirit believed to be the dislocated soul of a dead person. It supposedly leaves the host body once it has accomplished its goal, sometimes after being helped.” (Wikipedia)
I’d say that’s a pretty accurate description of how I’ve been feeling lately with my project. Despite some tough late nights I’ve had recently, I absolutely love this feeling. When I’m in this frame of mind, it’s like everything around me disappears. I’m so riveted by the work that I don’t even want to get up to eat lunch. That’s really saying something- I’m a big foodie, and I spend most days day dreaming about the next time I get to eat. The drive is strong enough that I can almost start to understand why those Silicon Valley engineers drink Soylent so they don’t have to interrupt their work.
If all goes well, I’ll get to share with you soon what has been possessing me over the past few months!
I finished up final reviews with my sophomore Illustration majors in my “Drawing I: Visualizing Space” course at RISD today. At the end of every semester, I ask my students to reflect upon their time in my class and do a written self-critique. Although I’ve read hundreds of these self-critiques over the past several years, I always find them to be inspiring and enlightening. Below are some excerpts from my students this semester.
“I have learned that ideas will come if you are patient.”
“Thumbnail sketches are very helpful and will save you hours of time.”
“Not every artwork is a success, and I do not need to attach myself so emotionally to every piece.”
“Ideas do not come from nowhere, they need time to grow.”
“The preparation of an artwork can make or break a work.”
The vast majority of the time, I love teaching and I savor my time in the classroom with my students. A student once wrote in my course evaluations that I was “born to teach.” I even enjoy nerdy tasks like writing student progress reports and making spreadsheets and assembling slideshows and course materials that a lot of other teachers find tedious. My students are endlessly fascinating and frequently entertaining. The second I think I’ve seen it all, something will happen in my classroom that takes me by surprise. There is literally never a dull moment when you teach.
On the other hand, I have to admit that one of the toughest parts of teaching is that at times it can feel like a thankless job. One of my former teachers told me that she viewed her students as leeches who latched on and sucked her blood all day long until she had nothing left. I’m not sure it’s that dramatic for me, but the honest truth is that most of the time teachers give much more than they get back.
When I was a recent college graduate, one of my first jobs was teaching art at the Learning Project Elementary school. One of the unique aspects of teaching grades 1-6 was that you always got immediate feedback from the students. The kids told you exactly what they were thinking right in the moment. If they thought the activity was boring, they would not hesitate to declare outright, “This is boring, I want to do something else.” If they were having a blast, you would hear immediate comments like “This is SO FUN! I love drawing TREES!!”As the teacher, the students’ enthusiasm was infectious and energizing. I found it incredibly satisfying to have instant, concrete validation that you were doing something right.
Teaching college is a totally different ball game. College students wear poker faces most of the time, and the majority of them would rather die a thousand deaths before they let me know what they were really thinking. I remember the very first college class I taught, I was mortified that I had done a terrible job with the class because the students barely said a word to me all semester. (although looking back, that really was an exceptionally quiet class by comparison) So I was pleasantly surprised, when a student who hardly spoke a whole sentence the whole semester described my class as “her favorite art class ever,” in my course evaluation. The other extreme is I’ve also had students who were fine during class, but who lashed out at me with angry, aggressive emails explicitly describing how I directly caused them to develop mental illness and destroyed their lives. Teaching college students can be a constant guessing game that you can’t ever win.
During my lectures and demonstrations, sometimes I look at my class and see a sea of dead pan, sleep deprived facial expressions, (I have concrete evidence, see the photo below) wondering if any shred of information I’m teaching is being retained. Then a year later, I’ll run into a student and they’ll repeat back to me verbatim something I said to them during that class. So I guess they are paying attention?
As a professor, there are so few moments when you know absolutely for sure, without a doubt that you’ve made a positive impact on a student. So that’s why when I received this lovely email below from a former student, it was a rare moment for me to hear a student be so honest, direct, and reflective of her experience in my class. These are the gems I get from my students once in a while, that tell me that yes, my students are indeed listening.
“I just want you to know how much of an impression you made on me in your drawing class. I’ve been taking art in school since sixth grade. I’m fortunate that I go to a school where art is taken seriously, and the curriculum is really great. I’ve done other summer programs with plenty of one-on-one time with art teachers who took the time to sit down with me and teach me techniques I was curious about. Despite all of that though, I think that you’ve had more influence on my art and my attitude towards art than any other teacher.
For the first few weeks, I’ll admit your critiques terrified me a little. I wasn’t used to hearing anything truly and purely constructive about my work. Critiques before then were always fluffed up with compliments and apologies. But your critiques were straight to the point, and I appreciate that more than I can say. Not only did it make me a better artist at the time, but it also made me able to grow more as an artist in the long run.
I remember during the critique for our chiaroscuro self-portrait drawings, you said that I managed to take my drawing to a level beyond that of “just a homework assignment.” I’m not sure why that’s the thing that stuck in my mind, but I felt so ridiculously proud when you said that. I think it was just the past several weeks of instruction finally coming together to allow me to make a work of art that I was really proud of. I poured everything into that drawing, and I had so much fun with it (even as I was crouched under my bed with an aching back for 10 hours), and for you to recognize that meant so much to me.
I don’t know if you’ve heard of the impostor syndrome, but it’s a term for people who feel that they don’t deserve their accomplishments -that whatever they’ve achieved is due to luck, timing, or deceit, rather than their own hard work. I feel that way so often. When people compliment my art, some part of me thinks that I don’t deserve the praise I get. I just don’t feel like a “real” artist, and the fact that some people view me as such irks me for some reason. Looking back at the work I created in your class, though, I can almost shake that feeling, especially with the one self-portrait I talked about above. To this day, that self-portrait is still one of my favorite pieces that I’ve created. I attribute that to the fact that in your class I felt like I was actually learning, and making visible and tangible progress, whereas so many of my other art projects in school until that point felt like they weren’t truly mine. Up until that point, art in school felt like no more than following an instruction manual-that’s how specific our assignments were. It was hard to take ownership of my art when I was just copying down step after step that my art teachers gave me. On the chance that I was given freedom to create something original, I didn’t even know what to do with it. In your class though, I learned to take ownership of my art.
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about myself as an artist, and I realized how much of my confidence and ability came from your instruction. I don’t think I ever thanked you personally for the impact you made on me, maybe because I didn’t even know it then. Thank you so much.”