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.