Statement of Teaching Philosophy – or Reflections on my former self as teacher
When I first had the opportunity to teach at the university level as a graduate student in 2002, I fashioned a rudimentary Statement of Teaching Philosophy. I knew that I wanted to teach; indeed, I had made a point of plans for a future career as a university instructor part of my extended letter of intent for graduate school in the first place. Having been in the graduate programme for less than a year, however, (and not too far removed from my experience as an undergraduate) the reality of why I wanted to teach, what I thought was the best way to teach, and how I might go about executing that plan, confronted me like a brick wall.
Teaching in a university meant “being a prof”. For many young art students, “being a prof” looks pretty tempting. Professors had interesting tales to tell, and weird and amazing offices and studios full of materials, tools, books, and ephemera. Professors had exciting exhibitions to prepare, and drawers and drawers full of art. Once or twice per week, they would drop in to the main studio and overwhelm us with all the things they things they knew, and most importantly, with their passion for their field. In retrospect, however, this was not the case with every professor I had, but the ones who fit this description (despite my complete ignorance surrounding the many, many other things that they – we – do) stayed with me, and they became the model of the thing which I hoped to become. Even now, as I continually alter and adjust my approach – and notwithstanding the fact that it took a long time to fully articulate – the principles which I derived many years ago are the same as those that guide me today; Accessibility and approachability; Expertise, and; a belief in the Value of Work.
Accessibility and approachability
My belief in accessibility and approachability as a professor remain strong to this day, but my attitude has shifted slightly from my earliest days of teaching. Early on, I maintained an open-door policy, at all times, and felt tremendous guilt when I was not available to my students due to meetings, appointments, or time needed for my own research. I felt that in order for my students to succeed, they needed me to leap from my desk chair, and run into the studio at a moment’s notice. Part of me still believes this, but I have learned – often from those heart-wrenchingly “selfish” times when I had to keep my door closed, or be off-campus for a period – that students need autonomy. Sometimes, they need to work things out for themselves, or with their studio classmates (in the greatest sense of the Printmaking studio community), and sometimes, they need to fall flat. When I first came to that realization (and maybe again in typing it here), I was aghast, and a little ashamed.
In reflecting again, however, on the teachers who have impacted me most in my life (at the university level, or even in elementary and secondary school), the ones who took an individualistic approach to helping me learn – sometimes on my own, sometimes with a little (or a lot of) guidance, and sometimes entirely “under their wing” – taught me the most. As a teacher, and as a human being, I have come to the realization that moments can only be extraordinary, when there are other, less extraordinary moments by which to measure them. Students who are constantly “served”, in the “all-pleasing-customer-service” sense of the word, are rarely served intellectually, emotionally, and artistically. As an artist, I love what I do, and I want nothing more than for my students to feel the same kind of passion as I do (even if it is not about the exact same thing), but regardless of my desire, no one can make that decision for them. I can help them, I can push them, I can challenge them, but ultimately they have to do it themselves.
In Printmaking, there is no substitute for technical expertise. Printmaking artists are often accused – and with good reason – of being obsessed with the technical minutiae of their media. Using the word “accusation”, however, is problematic, as it implies that technical obsession is ill-advised, and to be avoided. Perhaps obsession, in the dictionary sense, is unhealthy, but most artists and academics, (or anyone else who has the privilege of combining their passion with their daily routine) would likely admit that they wouldn’t have it any other way.
Printmaking is highly technical, as I have established, and I would draw an analogy between learning and teaching the panoply of methods and approaches contained therein with that of a foreign language. Proficiency might be the goal of the world traveler who needs to be able to buy train tickets in a far off country, or have basic intercourse with the local population, but without a deep knowledge of the language and culture, any hope of meaningful communication is lost. The metaphor can be extended further to encompass the disparity between the so-called “Master Printer” and the “artist”; artists think and create, printers execute instructions. This divide is exaggerated by the widespread illiteracy around “limited edition prints”, and “signed” reproductions, but that is a different discussion altogether.
The point to all of this is that an instructor of Printmaking needs to be an expert technically, so that his or her ability to communicate (content, theory, criticism, emotion) is not mediated (let alone mitigated) by a set of processes that sometimes appear to have a will of their own. This is particularly important as it relates to passing along that knowledge – or teaching – because if a student doesn’t come to understand that his or her message is going to get lost in the medium without an ability to control the medium in the first place, all efforts are for naught.
The Value of Work
In his book “Shop Class as Soul Craft”, Matthew B. Crawford argues not simply for a return of the respect for tradespeople (the so-called “blue-collar” class), but more importantly, he makes the point that manual work is highly intellectual in nature. He goes on to suggest that if the United States – in its current economic state, and obsession with jobs lost “over seas” – would only reconsider the seeming well-defined schism between the intellectual class and the working class (specifically those in the trades), they could find themselves on the road to self-sufficiency, if not recovery. The work of plumbers, carpenters, and mechanics, he argues, is both rules-based and problem-solving in nature. He is, himself a PhD in Political Philosophy from the University of Chicago, who, after a lifetime spent working on cars and motorcycles in his spare time, decided to leave the academic world to run his own motorcycle repair shop. (Incidentally, this was neither a mid-life crisis nor a “retirement dream”; he left his academic life behind almost before it began.)
While he and I differ on a few points, most notably the subtle-but-apparent jingoism of his approach, I feel strongly attached to the sentiment around the intellectual value of work. Working with one’s hands is almost never a simple matter of brute force. Where brute force is needed, human beings have a long history of inventing new tools or techniques to get the job done, and at the very least, they look for the biggest, strongest individual available, should no tool or technique exist. But beyond that, most “manual” work demands skills of problem-solving, deduction, and highly complex algorithmic reasoning. Very rarely, Crawford points out, is the source of a motorcycle backfiring a loose screw or dangling bit of wire, out in plain view. The ability to “see” the problem – or even know the best way to begin looking for it – is a complicated mixture of experience, intuition, and rules-based training.
Printmaking is much the same, with the added complication being that the fundamental pursuit of artistic creation is to communicate in some way. In a previous Statement on Teaching, I assert that “anyone can learn the mechanics of ink on paper, but intention is what defines art” – which I still believe – but in light of my more recent thoughts, I am somewhat paradoxically situated. Intention does define art, but without the capacity to communicate that intention (whatever the intention, however it needs to be communicated) the "art" fails. To ascribe a purely mechanical function to the method of production in Printmaking is at odds with the intangible, (but nonetheless, real) elements that almost any artist will tell you they experience when making their art; creativity, inspiration, intuition…the list could go on. The fundamental work of the Printmaker then, is more than a list of rules.
In thinking more and more about my career in teaching, and re-evaluating my previous ideas and assertions, I am brought back to a statement that I first made when applying to teach a course during graduate school: "Above all, I believe that artist-academics with a love of art and teaching are absolutely essential in the university environment”. This statement rings as true for me today, almost ten years later.
Without the passion, there is no point.
My original 2002 statement, as well as my 2007 statement can be read, here.