Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Student Behaviors

I've had some interesting classroom experiences in the last week or two. I'm not sure they are exactly related, but they do have to do with classroom atmosphere, classroom (or studio) culture and behavioral expectations.

Gallery Visit

I took my clay classes over to Larson Gallery last week to see "From the Ground Up". On Wednesday I took my hand-building class. I was introducing the show, telling them what it was and what they would see. I had a short assignment for them to complete in the gallery and I wanted them to see the variety of clay work. Before I had gotten to the end of my spiel, one student walked over to my wall installation, stepped over the taped line that says "stay behind this line" and started petting one of my sculptures.

mmm... I want to touch you
I amended my introduction to include the never-before uttered (by me) sentence, "please do not rub the artwork." Later this same student walked into a low pedestal and sent the piece wobbling. He caught the tall sculpture and replaced it but I was flabbergasted. I told him to watch where he was going and I pointed out that the work was $4500. I suppose he felt bad and he didn't walk into or rub any more pieces, but I was surprised that he required the dual reminder. For what it is worth, I did tell the class not to write or lean on the pedestals. It didn't occur to me to remind them not to walk into it.

From the Ground Up postcard (that sculpture on the bottom left looks like it might wobble if I walk into its pedestal).
The second class I brought over was warned before entering the gallery not to touch the work and to watch where they walked. I have been bringing class groups to this gallery for almost 6 years. I can't remember anything similar happening. Or maybe I just reacted more strongly because it was my work being "rubbed."

Visiting Lecture

Yesterday I visited a colleague's class to present a guest lecture. I was speaking to this humanities survey class about the influence of wealth, consumerism, and trade in art of the 17th and 18th centuries. (I tried for a more catchy title.) The class met a bit longer than my usual class period but I had built the lecture to tightly fill a 50 minute class and I intended to involve the class in some discussion at several points during the lecture. I guessed that I would fill the time easily.

This quarter, in particular, my problem has consistently been running over or leaving no room for discussion and review. In preparing my lecture for my colleague's class, I planned for my current class. I ended up being surprised when his class reacted differently.

My art appreciation class this quarter tends to ask a lot of questions and they tend to ask more in-depth questions that lead to some discussion, rather than just quick answers. During lectures I encourage them to answer questions, guess and discuss the topic. I only lecture exclusively in about a third of their class meetings. We spend about another third of the class days in group discussions and the final third mixes guest lectures, visits to the gallery or studios, videos and other activities. I intend for the mixed delivery style to encourage them to be more involved, less passive in their learning. Just today I was lecturing about Medieval art. Several slightly tangential conversations and some energetic review caused me to run long in my lecture. I didn't finish and will have to make adjustments later this week or next to accommodate the extra information.

So I went to my colleague's class with this format in mind. What I found, instead, was a classroom with an entirely different culture and habit. I am not trying to say that my colleague fostered this atmosphere. Last quarter, for example, my class was set up basically the same as my current class and that group of students, together, were loathe to answer a question. I even had several instances where I had to remind students to actually look at the screen during a lecture. Sometimes students, for whatever reason, develop a habit and a class culture that is not conducive to learning, discussion or teacher sanity.

What was interesting during this guest lecture, though was how quickly I had forgotten what it was like to teach an inattentive, uninterested and uninvolved class. I have become thoroughly accustomed to my current art appreciation class and I don't want to have to change.

When I walked into this colleague's classroom, students were not there yet, and most didn't arrive until a few minutes before class. Contrast with my current class who arrive often 10 minutes early. Most students sat down with cell phones out and texted or played for the few minutes before class started. To my horror, at least one played with the phone during class. (I don't tolerate this in my class.) During my lecture I asked questions that were answered with crickets chirping. I double checked with their instructor to assure myself that they had indeed covered the information that I assumed they knew (Humanism. They had covered it). Eventually I took to teasing them for not answering. I had asked a question that should have resulted in a laugh and a negative response. I got neither, though perhaps we can assume that no response is a negative. I joked that they wouldn't answer either way. I'm not sure that teasing a quiet class for not responding is a mature way to conduct myself as a guest in someone else's class, but I can't even remember how I handled it when I had this situation in my class--a mere 3 months ago.

Anyway, the upshot was that my lecture finished early. We were able to squeeze a few distantly related questions out of a student I sort of knew before class. My colleague asked some questions and then we just had to end it. I felt my lecture went well (apart from the joke that no one got) but I felt like overall my visit fell flat. Disappointing.

The joke they didn't get: this "Concrete Mixer" by Wim Delvoye wasn't one of the Chinese influenced porcelain pieces made by the famous Wedgewood Porcelain company.

Clay Critique

And finally, back to my beloved hand-building class. Today they had a critique. Though this is their third class critique, somehow they have not quite mastered the art of being civil and supportive to each other. This was the first and only class in which I had a student say "You Suck" in response to someone presenting on their work. That was the very first comment of the first critique and looking back, it seems to have set the tone. I stopped the critique, of course, and explained how "You suck," even said jokingly was not appropriate in a critique atmosphere. Somehow we still had some of this negative energy in todays critique.

We were about halfway through  the critique when one student was energetically presenting his work. He presented a little too energetically and broke his wet clay object in half. The break happened at a seam that hadn't been scored very well and I took the opportunity to point out that fact. I then thought we could proceed with the discussion. Several of his classmates, who had been respectful and involved in the critique with the rest of the students, tittered and dismissed him and his work as a joke. I tried to explain to the rest of the class that this was their opportunity to give the student suggestions on how to improve the piece he now needed to repair. However, the student presenting had basically shut down by this point and it was difficult to continue with his, now broken, piece.

We moved onto the next student who had not tried as hard on this critique as the previous one. His pieces were intact and he had done the basics of the assignment. Several of his classmates noticeably dismissed him as well. One told him, in a condescending tone, that he hadn't make one of his decorations very clear. You couldn't tell what it was. I stopped the critique again here. I explained to the class that they needed to be supportive and offer suggestions, not criticism. The point is to help each other improve and get each other to think about the choices being made, not to prove whose work is better.

I told the students that this is what I'd like to hear:
First, the student should ask the question, "Why did you decided to make the decoration look like that on the top?"
The the artist could respond that he made it that way on purpose or made a mistake but liked it.
The first student could now tell him that she thought it was hard to tell what it was supposed to be.

I was trying to get the students to understand that just because one student doesn't like the artist's choice doesn't mean that the choice was incorrect. And just because he didn't want to change his work, doesn't mean that she shouldn't offer her thoughts. I finished explaining this, I didn't appear to get any glimmers of understanding and then the artist presenting his work said, "I'm right anyway."

So, lesson lost. Momentum 1, Rachel 0. But I tried. Maybe someone was listening.


  1. Hey Blogger, It's really cool how I had to publish that 4 times to get the font size and line spacing to show up right. I appreciate how the edit view font decisions I make have no relationship to what actually shows up when I publish. That makes editing extra fun and surprising!

  2. Hey, it's Gavin (even if it says Unknown):

    Something occurred to me when reading the third example (hand building class). It may be worthwhile to somehow broach the subject of the interaction in an upcoming class. In my (albeit limited) experience, some of my students struggled with constructive feedback and/or reactions in the moment, but were better able to process with time. It seems like the student saying "I'm right anyway," is merely a snap reaction to feeling disrespected. He or she might see the value in recalling the process with the advantage of hindsight. Just a thought.

  3. You know I stopped the class right then and talked to them about it, but I think you're right, Gavin, I need to bring it up again next class.

    I forget sometimes that students don't know what I know or see the big picture the way I do. I've been teaching here almost 6 years--in some ways it is harder to remember what it was like to be a student, to think about these things for the first time. How did I feel in my first (or third) critique as a student? I can't quite remember.

    I looked at my "rate your professor" page this weekend and saw a student complaint that I make them "use citations--in an ART class!" My initial reaction is "of course I expect you to use citations--in a COLLEGE class," but then I remind myself that they might not see the reasoning behind the expectation. After the first couple weeks, I haven't discussed the reasons for my assignments again. Maybe it is time for a reminder.


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