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.

1 comment:

  1. Good discussion! I think the student ceramic sale also has positive benefits outside of the receipts: Through volunteering at the sale students get a better sense of contributing to a funding source and see the hard earned cash pile up in the till that day,,, it's not just "lets order some more clay using some nebulous college funds". Also, the Raku firing if a good example of students working together in the firing to do individual ceramic pieces. No matter how varied and different the student clay forms are, the pieces all have to go together in the kiln at one time and it encourages students to make good pieces to protect other students pieces in the firing process. Because ceramics students are slowly learning how to have "clay in their veins", it makes the clay shop experience more like a "Clay Club".


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