Sunday, December 25, 2011

Merry Christmas

Our Christmas baking efforts so far this year:

A gingerbread train

The kiddo decorated cookies while Grandma and Mom constructed the train.
Later the train got a little bit of landscaping.
A gingerbread House* (the doctor) is standing on the caboose.
His motorcycle is parked against the peeps trees.

*We stole the "gingerbread House" joke from a Fox Trot cartoon. 

Sunday, December 18, 2011

"Mining Data" in the Classroom

I've been subscribing to The Chronicle of Higher Education for a year or so. I thought I subscribed to read about new ideas in higher education. As it turns out, I read this journal simply to give me a target for specific frustrations. I find it more satisfying to yell at The Chronicle than to yell at Fox News. I'm not sure why.

Anyway, today's target is the article by Marc Perry, "Colleges Mine Data to Tailor Students' Experience". I only got about 7 paragraphs in before I was yelling at the paper--and Bill Gates, of course.

The article is advocating technology that can group students by their interests, grades and responses on test. Those things sound strikingly like part of the job description of teachers and advisors. I'm not saying I would never use a technology that could do some of these things, but it would be an aid to something instructors already do. Grouping students for in-class discussion based on the answers to their tests is NOT new. I do that all the time.

a typical group discussion

Bill Gates earned my ire with this gem: "I know more about my 11-year old son's sixth-grade basketball team than the average college faculty member knows about their incoming class..." I wonder if his son plays on a basketball team with a new roster of 35 students each term. I wonder if he's met any of the players before the first game (class).

Teachers learn about their students during the course of the class. In the best case scenario, they interact with students in and out of the classroom, but is it feasible that college level instructors know the "...key variables that are going to make them successful or not successful" before the class begins? I just learned the "key variables" of 70 other students, most of whom will not take class with me again this year.

So, anyway, the technology will fix all this. Student scores, and a "college-admissions algorithm" will enable teachers to serve students better. I might be overly sensitive today, but this seems like the folks who believe this don't value my skills as an instructor very highly.

I get that there are folks out there who believe that my job is to deliver a product service to my customers students, but I think this is a dangerous way to look at education. If I sign in to Amazon to buy a book, its fine that Amazon suggests other books I might like, but it gives me suggestions based on author's names, best sellers and general topics of books I've purchased in the past. Amazon doesn't know what is useful for me and it has a superficial idea of what I might like. Amazon certainly doesn't encourage me to try books by authors or genres I haven't tried before. As a "provider" of higher education, I hope I am giving my students more than that with which they are already familiar.

To use a computer to track test answers and quickly group students for discussion sounds fine, but when we get into having computers (alone) direct students to career paths based on their previous success, I start to get nervous. Its not a bad idea, but it seems like a potentially limiting idea. Just the same, using a computer as an assistant to an instructor is fine, but I get nervous when the folks touting the technology aren't acknowledging that instructors do performed these "tasks" before the computer came along. And skilled instructors can perform these tasks with or without the technology.

Support the instructors, don't try to replace them. Writing about or developing programs that act like instructors don't know this stuff sounds like a step towards de-valuing those instructors and their specific skills and experience.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011


Yakima was cold and foggy this weekend. It was also beautiful.

I went for a walk with my daughter and we marveled at the frosted trees and crunchy grass. I pointed out to her how spiky the frost was on the branches and fences. We talked about how the bushes were frosted everywhere except right next to the church.

Sunday morning I went for a run about 7:30am. It was light but early enough (or late enough) that I only saw one other pedestrian and three dogs (separately) on my run. It was foggy. The world felt deserted, peaceful and still. It was a beautiful run. I took pictures later around our block.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Finals Week Traditions

The end of the quarter is a festive time of year for instructors. I like to celebrate the season by following some personal traditions. One of my favorites is to delude myself into believing that grading and firing will be completed early in the week. I usually give my students an explanation and warning of impending deadlines. For the two weeks preceding finals week, I remind them to finish, fire and glaze work. All this is to help prevent me from firing after their scheduled final critique. This quarter beginning students did an excellent job of finishing their work on time.

Independent clay students, on the other hand...
this work wasn't loaded until after the last critique.

On the first days of finals week I always think I can get the grading done quickly. Wednesday at noon all the stuff comes in (my Art Appreciation class usually has a Wednesday noon deadline for their final report) and suddenly I'm surprised by all the stuff I still need to grade.

I usually observe the tradition of forgetting to prepare the paperwork for the student show. I remember 10 minutes before the first final critique. This allows me to perform my tri-annual finals-week sprint back to my office and the accompanying fidget-in-front-of-the-copier while I make copies right before class.

I round out the festivities with a grading melt-down on Thursday afternoon when my brain stops functioning and I find it impossible to coherently grade another paper. This is followed by the Thursday night panic that I won't finish grading the next day before grades are due. Friday I finish grading before the deadline and wander away from my office with a sense of let-down. I finished grading but I have to come back next week to prepare for next quarter anyway. (In the summer I just race from the building, knowing that I get to spend the next 3 months in the studio before even considering another assignment.)

the birthday stack
This week wasn't too bad and despite shopping for birthday gifts for the kid and doing some half-hearted preparation for a sale at Larson Gallery, I finished my grading with time to spare. I've also spent the week feeling like a cold is coming on. I firmly believe the cold symptoms are a finals-week tradition, as well, but I'm too busy at the end of each quarter to have ever documented symptoms.

This quarter I think I did a better job keeping calm as I graded work and finished projects and as I fired late kilns and talked to students who had missed deadlines. I tend to get worked up about the students who flake out during finals week. As I enter and calculate grades, I find myself yelling at the Excel document when I discover that a student hasn't turned in a final project or assignment. As I read the artist reports students have been writing all quarter, I get mad if they haven't made changes since we last discussed the paper. Of course most students do turn in their final projects and most earn a grade pretty similar to the grade they were earning all quarter. So I waste a disproportionate amount of energy and frustration worrying about the students who didn't try very hard at the end.

One of the things that kept me calm this time around was something a colleague said to me earlier this quarter and has been referring to for the past month or two: "if the teacher is working harder than the student, something is wrong." Basically: don't put in more effort grading than the student put into doing the assignment.

Reading final reports with this in mind, I was better able to recognize those that haven't been edited or fixed since last time. These I simply graded and moved on, I didn't try to give lengthy explanations of my concerns and I didn't get frustrated. I thought to myself, this student didn't revise or re-read this part or put much effort into improving this assignment. And, thinking this to myself, I was able to grade the work, set it aside and move on. I think this left me in a better mood and I was able to grade more efficiently.

I'm still upset that some students didn't take advantage of the designated time to meet and discuss their papers, and I'm still disappointed if some students didn't finish what should have been a reasonably easy requirement (for a different class), but I was able to remind myself that they need to take some responsibility, too. They need to read the schedule or the assignment guidelines.

If a student comes in at 9am for a 12pm final and doesn't bother to communicate with me or check the schedule, we probably can't blame it all on the fact that he ran out of minutes on his phone. I think it is possible that writing the final time and date in a larger font on the syllabus would have helped, but 12pt is pretty standard and I did announce it 3 or 4 times in class as well.

And then there are the high-achieving students:
 This drawer hadn't been cleaned for at least 6 years before one of my functional pottery students took it on. 

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

"Naughty" Sculpture

Maybe it's because we're at the end of the quarter (finals ended today, grading stacks await me in my office), but I can't bear to write about something serious today.

The word "naughty" seems to keep cropping up, so I'll talk about that.

a water fountain
In the last weeks of class, a lidded piece showed up on one of the clay carts that looked phallic. It was a straight cylinder with a cone shaped lid, but the lid was irregular and didn't have a handle.  I saw the piece earlier, in process, and chose not to mention the similarity. I was pretty sure the student didn't intend to create a phallic piece, or maybe I just assumed this because the student was female. After class other students confirmed I wasn't the only one interpreting the piece as "naughty."

not the jar in question

For their final project, my Design students were creating posters advertising the spring Drama production, "As You Like It." They prepared drafts of their posters and then the drama director, Alicia Bickley, talked to them about their designs and her vision for the play and the posters.

"As You Like It" is the story of Rosalind who is forced to flee her erstwhile home disguised as a man. As Alicia was explaining her vision for the play, she explained that Rosalind dresses as a man for safety as she journeys in the forest, not as a cross-dressing experiment or for fun. Alicia said her production will not be "raunchy" or "naughty."

This is the second poster design the students have created for a client in this class and the second time the client had to warn them not to cross the line to something sexy or naughty. The earlier project was a poster for "The Vagina Monologues."

One of the finished designs for "As You Like It" was accidentally naughty. One of the students, as suggested by our client, was using dramatic lighting in his design. Unfortunately the arrangement of his two spot lights seemed to form the rear end and legs of a person bending over. The title of the play became more of a joke.

another fountain

My own work has sometimes been interpreted as naughty. The biomorphic forms I reference remind people of the biomorphic forms of human bodies. Even though I don't often look at human organs when I am sketching and planning my work, the swellings and orifices of natural forms (such as flowers, seeds and undersea animals) are similar in form to the swellings and orifices of human bodies, particularly when the color is not "right."

I like to assume that viewers interpret my work based on what they think about, or more specifically, what they expect to see. Since my work is abstract and based on slightly familiar but not easily recognizable subjects, people sometimes identify "naughty bits" as the likely subject. Sitting for hours at art fairs, I've observed that some people really struggle when the subject is not identifiable. These are the folks who earn my ire at the end of a long hot show when they ask "what is that supposed to be?" These people aren't comfortable with the idea that their question might not have an easy, or even a correct, answer.

people were disgusted with me for showing this piece
In class I am able to push students to accept the possibility of flexible answers, at art shows I just have to let these people walk away thinking I have a "dirty mind."

In graduate school I showed work with a classmate, Ryan Myers, during an art fair at our instructor's studio/gallery. My work consisted entirely of abstract sculpture similar to that which I create now. His work included figurative sculpture and functional mugs or drinking vessels with semi-abstract, minimal line drawings of nude women. The mugs were attractive and the line drawings were subtle but the subject was clear enough if you actually looked. One of the visitors to our space looked at my work and voiced disgust at how obviously "naughty" or erotic the pieces were. Then she picked up a "naked lady" mug, admired it, and bought it.  We wondered to ourselves whether we should tell her what she had purchased. We didn't, though I expect the woman's children eventually informed her.

based on a sea squirt
I think, in this situation, that the woman expected abstract in the surface decoration of a mug but she expected figurative sculpture. She warped reality around herself and turned my work figurative and Ryan's work abstract.

But kids tend to react to my work in the same way I do. They don't notice phalluses or body parts in my work, they notice colors and textures. I can't think of the last time a young child walked up to my work and wanted an answer (what is it?). Children usually grab and point and talk about the work, but it seems like they make observations and don't attempt to categorize the work in the same way adults have been trained to.
based on an acorn
Jason Briggs, one of my favorite ceramic sculptors, creates work that is clearly meant to reference human anatomy. (I must mention that in picture form, I think his work looks more "naughty" or "gross" than it does in person.) When I brought my 3-year-old daughter to an exhibition that included Briggs' work, she was fascinated by his work. She didn't tell me what she thought she was looking at but she just wanted to keep looking. Of course little kids haven't yet learned to react to their own anatomy with more than curiosity. (If you got to Jason's website, visit the "stimulation" link to read about his inspiration.)

I just started a new book by Terry Tempest Williams. I thought the book Red, was about pigments.  It turns out it is about the southwestern United States. I've only just begun reading it, but I love how she takes ownership of a "naughty" word: "I want to reclaim the word erotic at its root, meaning 'of or pertaining to the passion of love; concerned with or treating of love; amatory.'"

Williams is discussing love of place, but I like her broader interpretation of erotic. I want to apply this "passion of love" to an interpretation of my own work. At the very least, this non-naughty definition give me a new perspective when encountering people who interpret my work as phallic or relating to those human organs of love.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Studio Atmosphere and Group Dynamics

As the quarter wraps up, I've been thinking about how my classes this quarter compare to previous quarters. Just the other day, my brother (psst, Gavin, I could link to your blog right here someday), who is teaching his first college class this year, said something about being impressed that my students seem to pitch in to help each other in the studio.

He was referring to students helping during the raku firing, but this quarter's clay class seems to be more helpful in general than previous quarters. Yesterday as I started to load the glaze kiln, two students came over and said "what can I do?" I didn't need to ask.

loading the glaze kiln
This quarter's clay class was a strong group. They worked hard and I didn't have to do a lot of nagging or reminding. In fact, I usually spend the last week or so reminding everyone to clean up their stuff, get it to the kiln, etc. I joke that I become a broken record at this point and just start repeating myself. But this quarter as I started to say it, I realized that there was very little work that hadn't been fired. Tuesday was set aside for glazing, and most of the class was glazing. This is always my expectation, but not always reality.
During the quarter, I felt I was able to do more demonstrations than usual. Fall quarter is a strange one because we gain about a week of real time but November is broken up with quite a few holidays. Most of the days we lose are Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. This means clay classes, which meet on Tuesday/Thursday, don't lose work days in the studio. This quarter we also added a work day (Veteran's day) and a raku day (students could glaze or work while the kiln was heating up). The total of all these days meant that all students had more time in the studio than they do other quarters.

Both these students put in more more than average...and later took additional clay classes.

More time in the studio translates into more work, which translates into better work. When a bunch of students are working hard and pushing themselves, we get a feeling of friendly competition in the studio to see who can make the most or the biggest work. At the end of the fall quarter, we also have the impending holiday season and student often try to make extra work for Christmas gifts.

homemade holiday stockings
But the time increase alone doesn't seem to account for the positive atmosphere of the studio. Students in this class have consistently volunteered to help with loading and unloading kilns, mixing or sieving glazes, clean up, and other things. I'm not quite sure of the exact formula that creates this studio vibe of helpfulness. A studio class is different from a lecture class and often these classes become more friendly and chatty because students (and instructors) chat while working, but friendly isn't the same as helpful.

They look friendly, I'm not trying to imply they aren't helpful
To some extent, it is the students. Some students just naturally volunteer to clean up and to help out. Sometimes the chemistry between students in a class can cause students to behave a bit differently than they might in another group of people. I've seen this group dynamic take over for the worse, when a couple students complain loudly, others start to join in or when a few students leave a mess, others get the idea messes are okay. I suspect that a few students visibly helping or cleaning up can encourage the rest to behave the same way.

Look, I'm cleaning, you should too.
I also made what I thought was a small change this quarter in the requirements. I'm curious whether this helped shift the group dynamic. Most of the class grade comes from projects and critiques with a couple of short tests. I also give points for helping to load and unload kilns. Extra credit can be earned by helping with the clay sale, raku firing or mixing glaze. This quarter I added the requirement to help with the glaze kiln and bonus points for helping to sieve glaze. I also made a more concerted effort to remind them about these points and mark students off for the points during class. I am curious to know whether increased awareness of these requirements and potential bonus points helped push students to help a bit more in the studio.

There is one other significant factor that impacted this quarter's class. Most quarters I have taught a cluster of classes at the same time, with some Functional Pottery students and some Hand-building students. I don't teach more students, but my class time is divided between the two groups. It shouldn't be surprising that fewer classes and fewer things to demonstrate, describe and explain should result in more attention and more in depth demonstrations or explanations in the remaining class.

cylinder demonstration
Next quarter I plan to teach Functional Pottery on the same days as usual (Tuesday/Thursday) but Hand-building will be offered this quarter on Mondays and Wednesdays. In my teaching load, Hand-building replaces Design, so my attention next quarter will be more focused on the clay students and the clay studio. I anticipate that this extra time will allow me to do more in depth demonstrations and spend more time with the two classes. Additionally, if I am not required to be outside of the studio for the entire morning two days a week (and for me, outside the studio usually means in a different building on campus), I will be more available for students even outside of class hours.

good students make good work

The two classes should mean double the students (or close to double), which will mean more work. If I am correct in a couple of my assumptions, I should be able to get the students next quarter to help out quite a bit with the studio clean up and loading, unloading, and maintaining clay and glaze. First, I will again be clear in requiring and giving points for help with studio tasks. Second, I should have at least a few students continuing from the fall quarter. These intermediate level students should be able to model their helpful and conscientious behavior and thus impact the studio atmosphere and the group dynamics in the classes.

Thursday, November 24, 2011


Is it possible to do a Thanksgiving post without sounding earnest and a little corny? I'm going to take a hint from one of my favorite websites, thxthxthx: a thank you note a day. I always feel better when I read her thank you notes.

Dear my job,
Thanks for allowing me to watch my students learn how to make and talk about art. It's fun to watch them discover what I already love. Also thanks for being a 9 month position so I can spend the summer making my own work.

Dear House,
Thanks for having an attached studio (heated) even if it sometimes is overtaken by bikes and other things during those months that I don't get to use it as often.

Dear Design and clay classes this year,
Thanks for working hard and creating a positive studio atmosphere where everyone helps each other out. Your attitude makes the class enjoyable for everyone. I hope my classes next quarter are just as much fun.

Dear Sean's shift,
Thanks for being a day shift for the last few months, it's been nice having a full time husband and a second person to help with parenting.

Dear thxthxthx,
Thanks for brightening my day every time I read your post. And thanks for updating frequently. I look forward to buying your forthcoming book.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Raku Firing

Today we had a raku firing in the clay studio on campus. This is about as late in the fall as I have fired the kiln (at least since grad school). It was pretty cold, but we still managed to get decent results and fire four loads. Yes, today was Sunday; we fire on the weekend ever since some from a weekday firing in 2006 (my first year) smoked out our VP's office.

horse hair pots smoking in the YVCC kiln yard

Yesterday it snowed and today was just COLD. I had forgotten that the heat isn't on in campus buildings over the weekend. Unfortunately we didn't have a bisque or glaze kiln loaded. An indoor firing might have helped keep us warm in the studio. The raku kiln is outside and, though warm itself, it didn't radiate enough heat to warm the entire kiln yard. I wore two sweatshirts over my two T-shirts and was still cold, even though I was also wearing a hat and gloves inside.

students waiting in the cold for the kiln to be unloaded
Six of my students came for the firing, 3 from beginning pottery and 3 independent students. We fired four times, starting just after 9am and ending a little before 1pm. We fired regular raku pieces in the raku kiln as well as some smoke fired work in the barrel kilns.

smoke firing in barrel kilns
A couple of students experimented with horse hair (from the student's own horse) and sugar sprinkled on the surface post firing. The firing in these instances really just served to heat the work up so that the horsehair would burn on contact with the pot. They didn't use glaze.

hair recently attached to a horse
horse hair and sugar pot (with paper reducing interior)

Our Kiln

We fired using the studio's permanent top-hat raku kiln. It has a hard brick base with a soft insulating firebrick interior. We put a kaolin fiber lined top on the kiln for firing, but the top is stored under cover the rest of the year.

YVCC's top hat kiln and propane tank
The kiln yard has a counterweighted frame that allows us to put up the top hat while we remove work from the kiln. This is an important feature as the top hat is too heavy for one person to lift up and over hot work.
kiln top being raised before first load

We fire using my own venturi burner and a couple tanks of propane gas. The kiln yard does have an outside gas line, but when I first tried the burner and natural gas line at the school, I wasn't able to get enough pressure for the heat we needed. I have been meaning to try it again; I remember from a few years ago that the gas line was in some way affected by tearing down and replacing Glenn and Anthon Halls. I can't remember now if I tested the natural gas line before or after the buildings were replaced.

But the venturi burner and propane works well for now.
venturi burner
During our firing today we had to switch propane tanks because the one we started with froze up partway through the firing. This usually happens at some point. It doesn't mean the tank is empty, just that the liquid propane has frozen and needs to be thawed before it will go through the burner. Today's frost was more impressive since the entire area was semi-frozen.

frozen tank (on right)


When I first got to campus we needed to set up the kiln. Today's special task was that we also had to remove the snow from the kiln shelves that cover the kiln base and keep the rain (or snow) and leaves out. The kiln yard had accumulated leaves along the wall and snow on top of these leaves so we also had to remove them.

The kiln top is then carried over to the base and attached to the cables and the counterweight is attached. The burner is attached to the propane and the kiln is loaded. This morning a few pieces were ready that had been glazed during the week.

waiting to load kiln

Other works that students glazed today were pre-heated in the bottom of an electric kiln so they wouldn't be wet when we loaded the second, third or fourth loads into the kiln. If the work is wet, especially if it is also thick, it can explode during the firing because the kiln is heated up so quickly. This time around we didn't have any work explode during the firing. No one dropped work either, as sometimes happens.

cracked rim (probably due to heat shock)


Once the kiln is loaded, the burner is lit and the kiln can be heated. The first firing takes about an hour because we need to heat up the whole kiln. This time around I tried to go slowly because the kiln base had been covered in snow and I was concerned that some moisture had gotten into the bricks of the kiln itself.

Once the work has heated up to the appropriate temperature (about 1750 degrees Fahrenheit or roughly cone 08), we turn off the burner, pull open the kiln top and remove the work from the kiln.

kiln just opened (notice the bowl in back was knocked by the top of the kiln and has tipped over)
still glowing hot, pieces are removed from kiln
The work is red hot and needs to be removed with tongs. Then the work is placed in one of several post-firing reduction buckets. The hot pot lights the combustible materials (shredded paper or leaves, usually). Students can thrown more paper on top of the pot, then put the lid on and reduce or smoke the pot in the bucket.

hot pot being placed in a reduction bucket
The post-firing reduction can affect the surface color of the clay or the glaze. Copper in a glaze can "flash" red or golden. If left out in the air, the color is more likely to be green or turquoise. Naked clay (clay without glaze) absorbs the smoke and turns black or grey. Clear glaze cracks and the smoke can be absorbed into the clay exposed by the glaze cracks. A typical raku glaze is usually a shiny or matte copper glaze with swirls or flashes of red, green and turquoise or a clear glaze that appears to have bold black cracks in the surface.

pieces cooling after reduction
Once the first load of work has been removed from the kiln and reduced, the kiln is ready to be loaded again. If the kiln can be emptied and loaded quickly, it will stay hot. The burner is directed at a brick under the shelf in the kiln. This "target brick" retains the heat so that when the gas is turned back on it doesn't necessarily require a flame to light. The second firing takes less time, maybe 30 minutes to heat up the work.
placing hot pot in a reduction bucket
reduction bucket flaming
re-opening a bucket to add another hot piece
Then the work is removed again and the process is repeated. Unless, that is, the propane tank freezes. In that case there is a short intermission while we try to screw the burner into a new tank valve.

moving burner from frozen tank

Horse Hair

When we say "horse hair" we usually mean the surface treatment in which horse hair is used to create small areas or lines of reduction on the clay surface. The work is heated but not put in a post-firing reduction bucket. In our case, the work was not glazed either. The work is taken out of the kiln and horse hair (or steel wool, I've heard) is placed on the surface of the piece.

The hot pot burns the hair which leaves smoke residue on the surface of (or absorbed into) the clay. The coarse horse hair shrinks and twists as it burns, leaving an irregular bumpy line along the surface of the pot.

teetering tower topped by a hot pot
yeah, let's put that hot pot closer to the ground
paper inside the pot (to blacken the interior)
throwing a pencil at your pot brings good luck 
holding horse hair against hot pot
the pot on the right was coated in underglaze before firing
The horse hair reduction line is very dark against the white (or pink) surface of the clay. Both students today reduced their interiors with other combustible materials. Here the hot pots are still smoking and the horse hair is visible hanging over the rim of the white pot. One of the students was, at first, hesitant to hold the burning horse hair against the pot. Eventually they both discovered that the horse hair burns slowly and can be adjusted for location on the pot. One student also threw some sugar on the surface of the pot. The effect is subtle and didn't show up well in my images.

interior of copper glazed pot (with burnt paper scraps)

various copper glazed raku fired pieces