[It’s that magical time of year again, the time when applications for teaching positions (starting in the fall) are due. One very common component of those applications is a “teaching philosophy.” “Teaching philosophies” are difficult to write—perhaps more difficult than the ever dreadful artist’s statement. I think the trickiest thing is to really write a statement that says something. I feel like 98% of the teaching statements that I’ve read are essentially the same statement. I attempted not to write that statement over again. The full text is posted below. [There is one part the specifically references some assignments I taught in my 2D class. I think this info is hard to get without the context of the application’s supporting materials—a portfolio of student work and class documents. But please bear with me.]]
I think that the fundamental problem facing teachers of art at a university level is the problem of facilitating engagement and agency among their students—not just an engagement with the specific material of the class, but with the discipline of artmaking on every level. This two-pronged problem of engagement and agency is similar to one of the fundamental problems that I address in my studio practice—how to make readers aware of their activity/position as readers, so that they can engage the text and determine their position in relation to it critically, not as passive consumers but as active agents. The “successful” reader works with and against the text-object in order to come to a new understanding. In the same way as that reader, successful students are aware of their activity/position as students, and can guide themselves through their classes and course of study in a way that will bring them to a fuller (but never filled) understanding of artmaking. The crucial thing is to prepare the student not to be a student.
In beginning and intermediate level courses, the instruction tends to revolve around learning successive steps of technical skills. But how can the learning of those very important basic skills be framed in such a way as to simultaneously develop a critical understanding of their uses? It is more than just coupling a technical objective with a conceptual objective. The class needs to be structured like a mini-curriculum, with a core group of technical assignments and broad conceptual approaches, followed by more complex assignments where the students actively and lucidly utilize all of those core technical skills to develop a more complex, focused, and sophisticated negotiating of content and concept. To give a specific example: in my 2D Design class I taught the formal principles of “Marks/Lines,” “Unity,” and “Figure/Ground” each with a broad conceptual goal: “Form as Content,” “Expressive (Constructed Self-Portrait),” and
“Social/Cultural/Political” issues, respectively. These were then followed by two long-term assignments, “Rhythm/Pattern” and “Time/Change/Motion: Artists’ Books,” where the students were tasked with developing their own content in tandem with the technical/formal objective.
Perhaps most importantly, the series of assignments and their structuring principles were presented as such—the structure of the class was explained to the students, and then reinforced through the guidance and feedback that they received, as well as through a series of reflective writing assignments. As the students progressed through the semester, they were given more and more control over what they made, and most accepted the responsibility and challenge of that control, leaving the class with work that they were incredibly proud of.
And with those core sets of skills and a willingness to engage deeply with the challenges of artistic discipline, the students are ready to move to the advanced classes, where they are given feedback on self-guided and self-motivated work. At that point the teacher needs to intervene less, and to work more as a facilitator—pointing the students to resources to broaden their understanding of critical theory, giving them honest and rigorous feedback, asking them difficult questions that they will probably only be able to answer years later, and fostering engaged discussion and debate in group critique settings. The best thing that an instructor of graduating students can do is encourage and further their momentum, so that after their thesis work is complete, and the brief celebration of graduation has passed, they are not halted, left adrift, but can pick up where they left off, in whatever their new circumstances will be.