Statement for Excellence in Teaching Award (2006)
Statement for Excellence in Teaching Award, solicited by the University of Miami.
For consideration of an Excellence in Teaching Award
Professor of Painting
Department of Art and Art History
I am honored to be considered for this award and grateful to whomever nominated me, but after looking at the submissions of those who received last year's awards I honestly do not feel I can compete with the impressively detailed techniques, charts, graphs, calculations, formulas and elaborate practices presented therein.
I am not a trained academic. I did not go to graduate school. My full-time teaching career only started after 25 years as a practicing artist and critic and I have no complex schematized theory or methodology of instruction. What I have learned about learning derives from intuition, empathy, observation, improvisation and carefully heeded results.
Writing About Art (ART 681)
Writing naturally, "writing like we talk (only better)," is a problem for most of us. We converse easily, but when we try to write we run up against a brick wall. It is as bad among academics as anyone else. Maybe worse.
I insist on correct English, of course, but I also know that students do not learn how to write by rote learning of spelling and grammar, nor do they learn how to write by struggling through 4000 word essays. Furthermore, it has been my experience that instructors tend to tolerate bad writing while concentrating on content and often do not read and comment on papers thoroughly from beginning to end, thereby compromising the instruction of good writing. And, sadly, many of them do not write well themselves.
I take a different approach.
Students get a short document, written by me, called "How to Write better," with "5 Rules of Writing," "10 Rules of Editing" and "7 Characteristics of Good Expository Writing" (please see below, end of document). Here is an excerpt:
Ok, then, why are we going to all this effort? Why do it in the first place?
The immediate answer, for graduate students, is that you are required to write a thesis document to graduate and learning to write better will help you with it.
But, more broadly, writing is second only to talking as a way to communicate with other people, and communicating with other people is how you make your way in life. Almost everyone finds a fairly fluent way to communicate by talking, but writing, for whatever reason, remains awkward and difficult for most people, and our educational system does a poor job of making us better at it.
Expository writing, which we are doing here, is meant to explain and convince. It is not literature (although it can be), and it is not epistolary or self-expressive. Most of the writing you will do, unless you are a novelist or obsessive letter-writer, will be expository writing.
I give a one-page (minimum 250 words) essay every week, not so much on a different topic as for a different purpose with different emphases. Examples:
- Writing about an "art object" - find an object which is not considered art and explain why it could be. Bring the piece or a picture of it to class.
- Correcting a paper - take this very bad student paper, correct it and reduce it to one page.
- Understanding and responding to a statement ("Letter to the Editor") - choose a complex quote from my handout, explain it and agree or disagree.
- Writing a good memo; getting a point across convincingly - Read and understand the described awkward situation involving apparent faculty censorship issues, decide what you want to do and persuade us that this is what should be done.
- Writing an effective short review for a popular publication - review the current show at the CAS Gallery for a newspaper.
- Writing for a museum catalog - rewrite the recent cliche-ridden juror's statement for the student show and make it clear, interesting and positive.
- Writing a promotional memo - take this very poor memo promoting a very interesting academic opportunity and "sell" it to the faculty and students.
- Writing an artist's statement - rewrite the artist's statement that you wrote for your committee meeting last semester. Make it better.
- Writing objective criticism of your own earlier work - Choose a piece. Write in the third person as it you were the instructor.
- Writing about a recent piece you have made that you like - say specifically why you like it and why you think it is good art.
- Writing an organized outline for an MFA thesis document.
- Write a coherent, organized 4-page document, which will incorporate the previous three assignments and be the equivalent of a very brief thesis document at this point in your graduate study. (final assignment)
In every case they must ask: What is different about this assignment? What am I trying to achieve by writing this? How must this response be phrased and organized and set on the page to be effective? What would I think if I got this in my box at school?
Each student reads the weekly paper for the class to criticize, makes notes, hands it in, gets it corrected and returned, rewrites it and hands it in again for me to again correct and grade and return a second time. In this way I create a continual round of back-and-forth exchange and criticism.
They are instructed, beyond the usual textual corrections (which are applied liberally; I tell them only half-jokingly that to grade I weigh the blue ink) on the importance of drama, rhythm, clarity, brevity and humor, and, above all, that the writing, however bland or esoteric the subject, must have life, must be effective, must grab the reader and convince. It is suggested to read the paper out loud in front of a mirror or to a friend. Jargon, cliches and "boilerplate" are clearly highlighted and "blue-inked" and it is explained to everyone that recognizing and eliminating triteness and dead usage is essential and why.
Lest this sound too draconian, please understand that the class is conducted with as much good humor and kidding as possible. This breaks the tension and usually takes the sting out of the critical round, which can get quite intense.
Expressive Drawing (ART 102)
ART 102 is a course, originated here about 20 years ago, which I have codified and refined and altered to the point that I am now writing a book about it. it is the exact opposite of ART 101 (Renaissance Drawing) and unlike any class students have ever taken or are likely to ever take again.
The students are asked to forget everything they have learned about making art (for 6 hours a week, at least) and depend entirely on their ability to learn unusual techniques and use their innate inventiveness and imagination, not to make something "right" but to make something "better." I tell them that by the end of the course they will be making pictures superior to anything they will see in media advertising anywhere, and they do.
This is the beginning of the syllabus:
This course will show you that feeling and meaning are in the marks we make. It will teach you to perceive, understand and appreciate abstract work, make informed qualitative judgments about it and develop a vocabulary of expressive techniques to use in art-making.
A mark is not just a mark; it is an expression of you and the conditions present when you make it. As the marks multiply and interrelate the expression becomes a kind of notational, non-verbal portrait of you and the society you live in.
Art 102 is not like the usual academic course. You are not asked to copy and repeat but to imagine and invent. "Answers" are not right or wrong, they are better or worse, more creative or less creative. You will be graded on your ability to come up with inventive and expressive solutions to the problems in the projects, your work habits, your production and the timely completion of projects and homework.
These are some of the characteristics of creative people:
- liveliness and humor
- willingness to take risks
- impatience with the ordinary
- ability to take advantage of accidents
- willingness to work hard without guaranteed results
I discourage the use of art-making tools like pencils, charcoal and brushes and have them find other means to make marks: stamps, templates, sponges, rollers, spray cans - anything that will make a good and interesting mark on paper. Each day they get homework which shows them a new skill and a lesson plan which necessitates using that skill with the others they have learned.
Many students are befuddled in the beginning; they expect to be asked to absorb and regurgitate and be "perfect," not to forget and relearn and be creative. But the procedures, though new and strange, are logical, sequential, progressive and highly structured, and before long they all get into it, start having fun and make wonderful pictures.
The course seems to have good word-of-mouth, and I have lots of architects and film majors in the class, even some biologists who have told me "this is just like what we are being told in our experimental lab class." For one who started as a teenage scientist and then turned to art this is gratifying to hear.
Seminar on Abstract Expressionism (ARH 560)
Because I have written hundreds of articles, most of them concerned with late 20th century art, it is only natural that I teach a seminar which draws on my direct experience with the period I am teaching about.
The class is usually divided between artists and art historians. This may not seem "interdisciplinary" but it is, believe me. The twain seldom meet. Art historians are better at remembering facts, which is what art is to them, and the artists at understanding the art, which is what they must do to make it. There is a distinct tension there, and I try to use it to the advantage of everyone.
Part of my teaching approach is not to talk too much. I have observed that talking at students is a poor way to get information across, at least after the first ten minutes or so. They just tune out. In this kind of course, however, it is hard to avoid. Most students, even on the graduate level, are woefully ignorant of basic history, and 20th century history is the "skeleton" needed to flesh out the art that happened in it. I give them the basic facts so they get a picture of the century by decade, and then talk about the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s in separate lectures, interweaving national and world history and the evolution of abstraction and the artists who created it.
They get regular quizzes to see how they are keeping up. I have discovered, despite some disagreement from faculty and students alike, that the best quiz, and the best way to see what they are doing, is basic multiple choice, as long as each question is carefully written to specifically comprehend as large a chunk of general knowledge of the subject as possible. This is a conclusion based on observation. It also avoids the arbitrary appearance which is unavoidable when correcting and grading essay questions. When I assign and grade writing I prefer it to be done at leisure and with reflection and facts at hand.
Each student then takes an artist and delivers a report, with slides, on the artist. I ask them to make the presentation as a curator might, promoting an artist for an exhibition in front of the staff of a major museum, emphasizing the strengths and interesting facts about the artist's life and work.
This is followed by discussion of the facts and circumstances, and, most important, what they think of the artist's work. Most art history courses avoid discussing why art is studied in the first place: that bit of the human spirit it gets across to us, bringing the best of ourselves back around for us to see and feel and perceive. I don't want the student to just accept the art and take my word for its quality because I am the "expert"; if someone thinks Jackson Pollock is a fraud and a bad painter he or she is encouraged to say so, even to the point of giving a negative rather than a positive artist report. I want them to understand the art, to feel it, to "get" it. I would like, as much as possible, to put them through the process of choosing that history has already done for us. If the art is not deeply understood on its own terms it is nothing more than a string of dated objects stretching back in time, like yesterday's newspaper.
ART 560 concludes with a final exam and a research paper on a topic which must be discussed with and approved by me. My criteria for the paper is: "write something that presents new facts, obscure facts or known facts in a new way. Educate me. Surprise me!" An example, which I will encourage someone to do this semester, is to write a well-supported opinion on the authenticity of the batch of small alleged Pollock paintings recently uncovered by the son of a friend of Pollock's in a warehouse.
Graduate Painting (ART 5/600)
This is where teaching is most strained and delicate, where the fine balance of intuition, empathy, encouragement, criticism and vigorous insistence must be carefully maintained.
Making art is very hard to do. Studio graduate students have decided on a life in art, usually both making and teaching it. They have completed, with some distinction, their college studio work, but they are fledglings, really, and they are putting their egos on the line every time they show a picture to the instructor or the class. Nevertheless they must be pushed to both produce and compete against their fellow students and the artists they see out in the world. It is a sensitive circumstance, and very little can be accomplished by rote.
We have a three-year MFA program. Each year should have its own character. Particularly important is the first semester, before they get in gear. I insist on production, but not perfection - that would be the worst thing I could do. I do not even press for improvement early on, just evolution and change. I ask them, and cautiously guide them, to review their work as it stands, start asking tough questions, look at other artists doing similar pictures, and above all to try something new and different. My comments are often questions rather than directions. More often than not their previous work begins to break down and they become frustrated and discouraged. At this point I tell them that this is just what we expect to happen and no one is going to criticize them for it as long as they keep working hard. When things come apart they always improve when stitched back together, in art, at least. This forces them to improvise and invent, and that is how art gets better. When they understand this it frees them to experiment and increases their confidence.
There are several methods that work well with graduates.
One is a regular crit session in which everyone talks about everyone's work. These sessions need to be critical and frank but they also need to be casual and light-hearted with plenty of leavening humor. It is my job to keep it this way.
A second is to hold off giving direct advice (excepting technical advice, which is always appropriate) until I sense that they want to hear it, that they have come to a kind of blockage or fork in the road and are looking for an answer. Let them build the need. Then, and only then, will I say, "do this" or "look at that," and leave them to work it in. If it is timed right there will be no resistance and there will be a quick and beneficial effect. New ideas have to be planted in season.
A third (and this is true for all art teaching) is to be absolutely concrete and specific. It does no good to talk about the philosophical implications of the figure when they cannot make a hand look like a hand. They need to learn how to draw that hand or do something completely different. The "meaning," whatever that may be, is understood intuitively and enhanced by the skill. And "meaning" is a subject for another kind of class in any event.
A fourth is a negative, in a way. The instructor must never insist that a student radically change the basics of his or her art, no matter how obvious it would be that the art needs radical revision. If the student must go back to the drawing board he or she must come to that decision by self-determination, not by external insistence. Large changes take time and must move on an evolutionary path. Just as in evolution, there will be slow progress punctuated by sudden bursts of inspired change. We know we cannot force it, so we simply provide the nurturing environment and keep pushing. If we are doing our job it will happen in due time.
A fifth, and this seems obvious, is encouragement. Encouragement, however, is tricky, because it is needed most when the problems are the greatest and there is the least evidence to base encouragement on. A little good-hearted prevarication does wonders here, a pep talk, pointing to the strengths and how beneficial it would be to build on them. The important thing is not how happy they are with their work at the moment but to keep working.
I love teaching, but I can't say I teach with "passion." Passion is an overworked word, almost an inappropriate one in this context, and it is not a characterization I will blithely apply to my teaching.
I am a professional. My teaching is purposeful, thoughtful and reflective and has specific, clearly stated aims. I teach for my own satisfaction, just as I make art, and I am satisfied when these aims are accomplished, when I feel that I have done something good for my students.
Teaching is also a matter of infinite care and sensitivity, a delicate combination of amiability, respect and authority, a juggling act, more a matter of instinct and intuition than a prescribed method. It is not easy to do well. Sometimes it's like lighting a fire with small tinder in a strong wind.
Good teaching also depends on and derives from one's own personality. I am a naturally outgoing person and I get a big kick out of sharing what I know and what I know how to do and a proportionately greater pleasure when I see that it has taken effect.
Every class is different. Every group has its own personality. We must adapt to this to be effective. Every student is different, too, of course, but it must be remembered that they are just kids. They may have problems which are hard for them to deal with. They may want to be somewhere else. It is up to us to remember what we were like then, respect their individuality and entice them into learning.
Here's an example. Some years ago I had a talented graduate student who was quite self-willed and made up his own mind about academic procedures. If he did not think something would help him learn how to paint better he avoided or resisted it. He was sometimes right, but his attitude did not endear him to my colleagues, and it was also difficult for me.
In the beginning of his second semester he decided that he wanted to learn how Matisse painted. He told me straight out that this was how he would spend the semester and that he wanted guidance but no interference. Because I knew him and his considerable talent and his character I agreed, and I loaned him my expensive volume of the Matisse retrospective.
He took the book and proceeded to paint out of it (and get paint all over it) for the entire semester. He and I were reproached by student and faculty alike. They said "He is just copying" or "he is not doing anything original" or "he is not learning a sufficient variety of methods." But I held to my determination that he knew what he was doing and I continued to encourage him.
He is now a successful art teacher and exhibiting artist here in Miami. He does not paint like Matisse, but what he learned from Matisse is at the core of his procedures. I was right to allow him to "ingest" Matisse, and to give him pointers as needed. He remains openly grateful for everything he got from his graduate experience.
Unbending methods and set formulae are not enough. Good teaching is not always what worked in the past. Like life itself, it is a matter of continuing adaptation to change within an unchanging determination to educate.
[Below is the document referred to in Writing About Art (ART 681) above.]
How to Write Better - Darby Bannard
There are two parts to all expository1 writing: WRITING and EDITING. They are the alpha and omega of writing. This is absolutely fundamental.
5 Rules of Writing
1. If someone asks you what foot do you put forth first from a standing position to start walking you probably have to stand up and start walking to know. Writing is like that. You don't figure it out, you just do it. To write, get a simple theme which can be stated in one or two sentences and then just write. Don't do it right, just do it. Don't plan, just write. Don't have fancy ideas, just write. Preparation will just inhibit you.
2. Get down as much as you can about your subject as quickly as possible. Write whatever occurs to you on the subject just as it occurs. Just get it down. Do not worry about neatness and order. Go from one thing to another and then go back again. It is much more important to develop something sloppy but lively than to try to do it right and have it be stilted and lifeless.
3. Write without thinking too much, like you talk. When you talk you don't talk in complete, perfect sentences, or correctly, or accurately. When you talk with another person you interject, interrupt and react. Write like that. Talk to yourself as you write. Talk to yourself as if you were explaining something to a child, and then write what you said.
4. When your brain jumps to something new don't cross out or correct what you had been writing. Leave it and start a new line. Come back to it later.
5. If you get frustrated, write about that. Write curse words. Write something ridiculous or silly. It doesn't matter. It is just words. They can be fixed.
10 Rules of Editing
1. Editing is the other half of writing. It is cut & paste. The computer makes it much easier now than it was when Mr. Elbow was writing his book 20+ years ago. There is no excuse for not doing it now.
2. Take all passages with related ideas and stick them together in sections without worrying about order. These will be your PARAGRAPHS. Keep them short. Keep shifting sentences around, putting related thoughts together. Sort and cut & paste over and over, adding anything that enhances any section, in any order. Don't fix details and small mistakes.
3. Then look over all these sections and see what is working, what sounds good, and what each section is about. Don't decide what you should have written, decide what is good about what you have already written. Look for a thread that works through everything and then string the sections up on it in some kind of sequential order. Don't sweat it; just make things follow as well as possible. This will be the SKELETON of your piece.
4. Then go into your paragraphs and fix all the bits and pieces of incomplete sentences, bad grammar, misspelled words and all the rest. Adjust the meaning and phrasing slightly to flow easily and well. It starts getting easier now. There is always a sense of satisfaction at this point.
5. Cut out all words and phrases that do not contribute meaning, clarity or force of expression. Shorter is always better. Every word cut is a weight lifted. Be extra tough on adjectives. If it is clever or cute but has nothing to do with the subject, cut it out or put it away. It will always come back better later. This is not literature. In good literature every word has esthetic weight. This is why War and Peace and Moby Dick can be great books despite their length. In expository writing brevity is strength, less is more. Expository writing is meant to explain and convince. A superb piece of expository writing is E = mc2.
6. Then when you get all the ingredients prepared and in the pot start cooking it. Fiddle with the language. Fine-tune it. Cut and recut. Read sentences out loud and see if they have energy, rhythm and force. See if they connect. See if the paragraph has a clear declarative opening sentence and takes it to a conclusion. (Use lots of paragraphs.)
7. Read it aloud and see how it sounds. Can you add a better, more original or more dramatic word or phrase? Is there a beginning, middle and end? Does your writing convince you? Will it convince others? Be critical and skeptical.
8. To achieve true clarity you must recognize SLUDGE. Most official writing is sludge: fuzzy, brown, soggy, warm. Boring. Trite. Opaque. Sludge disguises dishonest thinking. Listen for words and phrases which are all show and no meaning and words and phrases which have lost their meaning through vogue use or by being overused to disguise unclear thinking.
9. Use a dictionary and thesaurus, all the time. You have them on your computer. Put the icons right up on your desktop where you can see them. Use them!
10. And, finally (nobody ever does this, of course) throw the whole thing out and start from scratch. There is no better way to improve anything you have written 100%.
Ok, then, why are we going to all this effort? Why do it in the first place?
The immediate answer, for graduate students, is that you are required to write a thesis document to graduate and learning to write better will help you with it. Furthermore, writing is second only to talking as a way to communicate with other people, and communicating with other people is how you make your way in life. Almost everyone knows how to talk, but writing, for whatever reason, remains awkward and difficult for most people, and our educational system does a lousy job of making us better at it.
Expository writing, which we are doing here, is, as meant to explain and convince. It is not literature (although it can be), and it is not epistolary or self-expressive. Most of the writing you will do, unless you are a novelist or obsessive letter-writer, will be expository writing. These are 7 characteristics of good expository writing:
1. SHORT. Fewer words and shorter words are more likely to be read, more likely to assure that the reader will finish reading and thoroughly understand what you have to say.
2. CLEAR. Always make every point and description crystal clear. Read it. Be honest; would you understand it?
3. SIMPLE. The more difficult and complex a matter is, the more necessary it is to be simple. Never write more than you need to make a clear point. If the subject is complex, find a way to divide it up into "chewable" units: paragraphs (keep them short), sections with headings, etc.
4. PRECISE. Make a clear statement that leaves no doubt as to what you mean. If you find this hard to do, you may need to reformulate your thoughts.
5. LOGICAL. Don't leave your reader scratching his/her head. Make your points seem obvious and reasonable, not intricate or "profound."
6. ORGANIZED. Make sure one part follows another in a sequence. Let the explanation or argument build. Design the page so it is easy on the eye and doesn't have a "difficult" appearance.
7. DRAMATIC. Jazz it up. Invent original phrases and analogies. Avoid "sludge" at all costs. Give the writing pace and rhythm, something that will sound good when read out loud. Infuse it with energy and forcefulness. Make it funny. Make it enthusiastic and convincing. Make it interesting.
1. A setting forth of meaning or intent; a statement or rhetorical discourse intended to give information about or an explanation of difficult material.