Beyond the Syllabus
by Wendy Richmond
I remember the first day of the first studio class I taught. I handed out my syllabus, and walked the students through the assignments, exercises and readings. I emphasized the collaborative nature of the class, explaining that their most creative work would come from mutual support.
Then I launched into a typical first activity: I asked them to introduce themselves one by one, and describe their most recent projects. As we progressed, the students who had not yet spoken seemed distracted, their attention directed inward. I realized they were probably concentrating on what they would say about themselves. I had spent weeks perfecting the syllabus, and then, almost immediately, thwarted one of my primary goals, which was to encourage the students to listen to and learn from each other.
Those of you who are teachers know that your detailed syllabus is only the beginning of determining how you will teach your subject. Beyond the syllabus, and even beyond your day-to-day lesson plan, you have to design the classroom experience.
Think about the underlying factors that will affect your goals. How do physical space and movement influence class participation? Do you consider pacing, so that students are at times animated, and at other times contemplative? What about maintaining energy during a class that lasts for three, or even five hours? These subtleties affect the overall experience, and it's best not to leave them to chance.
Being invested in each other. After that first year of teaching, I redesigned the introduction process. Now I begin by pairing up students and asking them to interview each other, and then report back to the class. I remind them that they are responsible for representing each other accurately and compellingly. I also tell them to pay attention to how they are being described, because they will most likely get a new perspective on their work.
I’ve done this now for years, and every time, I'm impressed not only with the consideration that the students give each other, but also with the way they become invested in each other’s work.
Controlling the energy. We’re all conscious of the dip in concentration that tends to occur mid-way through a long crit session, but in a recent photography class, I noticed that the lethargy could be attributed to factors other than length of time. For the first two weeks, my students brought their work on flash drives, and we projected the jpegs, switching between single images and groupings. As the crit progressed, it occurred to me that even though the screen was active, we were all sitting motionless in a dark room, moving only our mouths and eyes, and one lone finger on the mouse.
So for the third week, I asked the students to bring physical prints. We spread them out, and we moved around the table, reaching across to resequence the prints, suggesting edits and groupings. It felt much more alive; we were all physically and spatially involved with the work.
I’m not suggesting that you revert to an analog classroom. I’m saying that ignoring physicality and space is also ignoring energy.
Lightening up. Back in the mid-nineties, I taught a class on user interface design. I was always on the lookout for ways to encourage brainstorming, so when I happened to meet an improvisational theater actor, I invited him to lead us in a workshop. The students paired up—one representing a technology that had a specific personality, the other representing a user—and performed a series of hilarious encounters with a sleazy elevator, an arrogant ATM and an empathetic alarm clock.
I was delighted with the session, because it brought concepts like empathy and arrogance into the vocabulary of interface design. But as I look back at how the students learned, I see that a big part of the workshop’s success was that we were playful. Ideas came and went spontaneously, with no time wasted on preciousness.
My ideas versus theirs. As I write this column, I’m a month away from teaching a new class, where I’ll be collaborating with students to develop work for an upcoming museum exhibition. My challenge will be to strike a balance between implementing my own ideas and encouraging the students to change them. I want to be open to surprise, but also make sure that the work is right for a very specific (and public) destination: the museum. How do I create a classroom atmosphere to support both?
I don’t know the answer yet, but I’m excited to find it, alongside the important array of considerations—time, energy, support, pacing and more—that are all beyond the syllabus. CA
© 2012 W. Richmond
Editor’s note: Wendy is the author of Art Without Compromise*.