Saturday, October 1, 2011

track what you value; value what you track

At the beginning of this summer, I had some vague goals in mind for my work in the studio. I had various checklists and sketches around the studio. During the school year I have time to sketch ideas for studio work but I don't have as much time to make the work itself. I keep the sketches in books and on scraps of paper and put them around the studio when the summer starts. The sketches are a kind of to-do list or reminders of works I want to make. Once I have made a work I don't cross it off the "to-do" list but I might turn to a new sketchbook page.

My to-do list: sketchbook pages, doodles and a photograph

I also kept track of my summer studio progress in various ways. I kept a tally of pieces finished every 2 week period. (I usually start several pieces at once and finish them the next week.) In most of the 2 week periods this summer I finished 5-7 pieces. I also tried to keep track of how many pieces I underglazed each week. This was harder because of how many times I apply underglaze to the same piece; the resulting tally wasn't particularly accurate. I also kept to-do lists on post-its and the backs of packaging all over the studio. Usually a daily or weekly to-do list would include "chores" like recycling clay or a list of the pieces I plan to finish that week.

Wet clay "arches" drying on my wedging table

I also kept a sketchbook page with simple renderings of works finished for a particular installation I hope to create this winter. This sketchbook index helped me keep track of what I'd done. Since something was constantly drying under plastic or firing in the kiln or moved around the studio to make space, I tended to forget what I had made.

What is hiding underneath the plastic sheets?

Of course, there are items that more readily lend themselves to keeping a tally. It is easy to track how many pieces I finish or fire or glaze. It is more difficult to track aesthetic achievements. I can tally work completed but I must become subjective when I try to count how many "good" pieces I have completed or how close I am to "ready" for a particular show.

How many good pieces are piled under my cabinet?

I try to keep track of the important things in the studio: the things I value. However, the act of keeping track can become a distortion. When it is difficult to tally the important achievements, I might end up tallying something that approximates my important achievements but is easier to count. The mere fact that I am tracking it then increases the importance of that data point.

I encounter this at school, too. Faculty are encouraged to make "data-based" decisions. But, again, what we can track doesn't always match what we value. Tests and scores are much easier to track and compare, but don't always account for subtler idiosyncrasies of an individual learner or an individual question, situation, class, etc. Interpretation is pulled at least one step away from the experience of the individual student and the individual teacher.

At home and at school I regularly make to-do lists and checklists of what I need to do or want to do or hope to do. Since January, I have been keeping track of the books I read. I started doing this because I was curious how many books I read (or listen to) in a given year. However, the count started shifting regular reading into a competition. I suspect the fact that I am keeping count means that I have read more books this year than last. Similarly, I made more pieces this summer than last summer, but I find it harder to be confident that the works completed this year were stronger than the works completed last year.

At the end of the summer studio season, I have been thinking a lot about what I accomplished this summer and how best to spend those long hours in those short months. As the school year has started, I have also been thinking about how best to spend the very limited hours I can squeeze in between school and family time. I can't say I've gotten very far in making decisions about this time, but I've certainly been thinking on it. 


  1. Hey it's Joe Rosenkranz from your Art Class. Just letting you know i set up my blog and here it is

    :O) Joe

  2. Here is mine.


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