Thoughts on the Last Week Before Spring Semester

17 Jan

San Diego – Today starts the last week of the break that leads into Spring Semester.  It is not a completely open week since it is interrupted by meetings for faculty but it is our last chance to truly get ready for school to start and prepare for the faces staring at us from the classroom expecting… well lots of things, often conflicting things.  Often impossible things.  At City College we run what the state calls an “Applied” program.  That means our primary goal is to prepare our students to enter the workplace using our education and training to allow them to generate revenue.  It is what used to be called a “vocational” program before that term, for some reason, seemed to fall into the blacklist of the politically correct.

Within the broad visual art world, photography holds a somewhat unique position.  As Michael Freeman pointed out, these days photography is often purchased (as a service or product) by individuals who themselves do photography.  That is not something painters and sculptors and others are comfortable with. This spills over into the teaching realm as well as the selling realm.  Although it does happen, it is but rare that we get a new student entering the program who has not actually been taking photographs and often for quite some time.   Frequently our first job is not to start from scratch but to actually try to break old counter productive habits and procedures and consequently we sometimes receive more push back from students who already think they know quite well how to do the basic stuff.   They are annoyed that they have to, horrors,  take a  — gasp — beginning class because they see themselves ready for the advanced classes and do not realize their knowledge may have holes in it.  That means that the worst of all situations can occur in which the resistance to us or a course is not just a matter of conflicting information, it is a matter of ego.  And anyone who is prepared to charge for what is fun for them has to have a well developed ego.  Our job is then that of a psychologist and philosopher and turn that ego’s attention away from the individual and place it squarely with the individual’s “product” and photographic output.  Once their ego has a vested interest in getting better at what they do, that is at producing better and better photographs, then things progress a lot more smoothly because we are then seen not as confronting them personally but as helping them to improve the art work.

We also are teaching in the day and age, as I’ve mentioned before, when for many “instant gratification” is not quite fast enough.  What they want from us, and usually in the first few days, is to hear the “secret” equation for success so they can then, ideally, simply drop the school and go out and make a fortune in what they see as a glamorous field.  God knows I wish there were such a secret and more, that I had known it back when I was a working photographer.  But there isn’t such a thing beyond the general admonition that the primary element to success is extreme passion for producing images.  Only that passion will allow the extreme effort it will take to attain skills ands knowledge sufficient to take on the competition that is already made up of some extraordinarily skilled and creative photographers.

Those students want specific training in specific photographic issues and to be given the bottom line knowledge of how to work with those issues.  We try to do that, of course, but if that is all we did, then they would discover with some speed and panic when they hit the real world, that those real world assignments rarely fit neatly into those specific issues.   But because that was all they learned they would have no idea how to go about engineering a solution to a problem never exactly presented in class.  We need rather, to teach them to think — and to think outside the box.  Sometimes WAY outside the box.  The ugly truth for teachers is that with the onslaught of photo books and data on the web, there are few specific techniques we could teach that they could not get elsewhere.  What we really need to do is force them into thinking for themselves, to analyze a problem they have never seen before, and be able to figure out, based on the foundational skills we teach, how to be comfortable putting those foundational skills together in new and innovative ways to resolve the problems to the satisfaction of themselves and of their clients.

That puts a huge, and i think proper, burden on them, the students.   It means we are not spoon feeding them solutions but forcing them to bring their own brains and creativity to the table with increasing frequency and effort.  Unfortunately many simply cannot deal with it and drop out.  But that “failure” is not truly a failure but is actually a kindness because of they were putting all of their time and money into a discipline that is predictably going to eat them alive in the real world.  When we allow, much less facilitate that then we have perpetrated a fraud on them often just to get them to like us and write nice things on evaluations about us.

At my college we have another issue that impacts teaching.  Our program is a vocational one, which means we need to teach truly high end material because ours is a field where the bottom rungs of the work force are overrun with passionless photographic automatons and people clueless about the business side.   And as a vocational program with a vested interest in student success rates, we need to try to prepare students to insert themselves in the upper middle of the pyramid if they are to have a chance.   However, we are still an inner city school in a community college system where we must accept anyone.  We have no entrance exams or portfolio reviews to help us weed out all but the ones likely to do well anyway.  Consequently we cannot “salt” our student body with ringers that help make the school look far better than it might actually be.

We get, instead, a number of students who are, frankly, using the school’s incredibly liberal financial aid policies simply as a revenue source and will take nearly any open class in order to keep the money flowing.  We get students as a result of the concept of “mainstreaming” who might do well in other areas but because of our professional standards of evaluation struggle and often fail and then we end up doing more damage to their fragile self-image than was their before.  And if we give them “mercy” grades to bolster their self confidence then we degrade the credibility of grades from our school and program.

We also get students who, haplessly come from a culture of failure and lack of expectations (or sometimes even hope) of success and who, in their minds, have failed before they even enter.  That is a sad travesty that can only be laid at the doorstep of public education and, more importantly, parents and family.  Some of my colleagues in private  schools have the luxury of having weeded  them out in advance;  but we cannot.  And once they are sitting in front of us, I don’t know any of our faculty willing to simply write them off and so we take precious time, sometimes away from the top notch fire breathing students, to try to ignite some spark in them, generate some understanding that their success or failure is completely in their own hands.  And I have to tell you, some of our very best students are ones who, from their own inner strengths, responded and pulled themselves out of that cycle of failures and produced some simply stunning work.

And then we have the “ideal” students, the “fire-breathers” who are passionately, sometimes obsessively engaged in the pursuit of their skills and knowledge and ultimate success in the field.  These are the ones we would love to give all of our attention, but cannot.  The worse situation is where they become discouraged because the class is being held back by others.  I know of no teacher in our faculty who does not struggle with this horrid reality and wishes for a proper way to serve ALL of their students equally.  I also know of no way to do it every time without being able to separate class sections based on those varying incoming skills and attitudes.  If anyone out there reading this has an answer I’d certainly love to hear it.

I love those passionate students and have, once or twice by the sheerest of luck had a class entirely made up of them.  Wow!  They take all I can give and still ask for more!  What a rush it is for me as they pushed each other to excel and produce incredibly fine work.  But were it a mixed class, we would have left those others in the dust by the second week.  Were I teaching at some place like Art Center  those slower ones that somehow made it past the screening are just purposefully and coldly left in the dust.  Like the old cowboy saying, “If you don’t make dust you eat dust” or the dog sledder’s refrain, “Only the lead dog gets a change of view.”  Will rogers asserted that even if you are on the right track, if you just sit there you will get run over.  There are times I think I would enjoy such an educational environment but that is not what we have and not something we likely will ever have.   So from a teaching perspective, I would rather have an entire class of problematic students that I can deal with more or less alike and at the same speed than a mixed class where I am constantly aware that someone on one or the other end of that spectrum is getting cheated.

So why do it?   My non-teaching artist friends ask me that a lot.  Wouldn’t I rather be out making art, or even making commercial work which they know I love to do, than be dealing with all of that; with every semester having to add a paragraph or two to nearly every syllabus to try to preclude some student behavior or another?  The answer is,  “Been there, loved it, done it.”   And now it is time to grow again, reach for a new plateau, and teaching is the perfect field in which to do that.

It was also time to pay back the photo world for all of the wonderful help and guidance I had received first in art school and then in photography.  But the truth is that, that altruistic element is a small part of it.  A much more self serving reason is more important.  No, it is certainly not for the money…

Only an artist (in any medium) understands the “rush” that comes from realizing they have just produced a really good piece and from having that recognized not just by friends (who will generally be kind), or from “Mom” who will put the most egregious trash proudly on the fridge as if it were the next Rembrandt, but from strangers who simply like it and are moved by its emotional content and want to buy it, or from clients who recognize that your efforts will help them succeed in their own businesses.  It is akin to the adrenalin rush of adventurers responding to danger.  It heightens your senses and makes you “alive” and it is highly addictive.  Of course I loved that and still do.  But for me, from the very first classes I ever taught, I find the “rush” that comes from having entered a student’s life at one point and exited at another and because of that connection seeing them having grown and gotten better is a rush that can far surpass that of the successful work of art or the dangerous adventure.  In some ways, that is the ultimate work of art.

The problems noted above are, I believe, subject to solutions which, alas, at the moment I do not know well or at all.  But I believe they are out there and when resolved then the rushes should be even greater!  So hope, and the search for those solutions springs eternal.  And besides, I have an extraordinarily low boredom threshold so if it was that easy I’d probably not love it so much.   Additionally, I have found that teaching is the world’s best learning experience.  I have gotten better at the production of my photography to a very large degree because I teach it and am constantly forced to learn new things, challenged by students to get it right and make sense of it all, to find slicker, easier ways to do things, none of which I would necessarily have done because the old ways worked, I was comfortable with them and that was that.  The best reason for teaching is that teaching can make you better at your discipline.  As I alluded to early on, professional artists of all types need an ego.  And I have a massive one.  But it is totally aimed not at me personally but at my work.  Anything that makes me better at my work strokes that ego and is something I enjoy.

I’ve been accused of being a workaholic but I’m not; I’m a play-aholic.  Therefore whether I am photographing something, writing about photography, preparing lesson plans or data sheets or presentations for students, just practicing skills or learning new ones, tweaking the equipment, or just talking about it all,  it is all — ALL — play for me.  The only real work I do is go to the meetings…

So as usual I am ready and anxious to start again.  I do love what I do.   And because we have a faculty cadre that largely feels the same, our little inner city community college photography program has, despite its challenges, generated a very large number of now successfully practicing professional photographers and enjoys one of the best reputations in the region.   We are building on the work of those before us like my friend, Paul Spafford (who retired and whose position I now have) who fought long and hard to maintain the highest professional standards for the program.  And wonder of wonders, we have a new world class facility as an anchor for an evolving major league program.  How could I not like, or not feel privileged to be a part of that?  It was Paul who brought me into the program so I dearly hope he is both proud of  what he built and left us and, at the same time, pleased with what we have done with it.

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Posted by on January 17, 2011 in Uncategorized


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