Monday, November 15, 2010

Learning, Teaching, Thinking

If you are one of the 2.3 regular followers of this blog, you already know that I have spent the past semester teaching art at a Very Nice College. This has been a terrific experience for me, and I just can't say enough good things about the creativity and bravery of my students, and the real overall Niceness of this Very Nice College. We are coming to the end of the semester, and I'm thinking about my teaching and how I think I did; I know I learned quite a lot along the way (and I can only hope my students did too).

Before my debut at the Very Nice College, it had been a long, long time since I taught a college-level course ... well, since I formally taught a college-level course; I know a few people from my graduate school days who would claim I pretty much taught every class I was in. I did spend a significant amount of time after class "translating" for one professor in particular. That aside, however, the last time I was officially a teacher was in the 1980s, and I team-taught graphic design for business communications with a tenured full professor who was, frankly, one of the most wonderful people I've ever met. He taught the lecture sessions, and I taught the lab sessions. Remember I said a long time ago? Well, this was back in the days when people used waxers and color key and typesetting machines and all these things resided in the graphics lab. (And fully three-quarters of my massive and loyal 2.3 reader base just went "wtf are those things?" See? I wasn't kidding. Looooong time ago.)

Anyway, this professor was fiercely devoted to his students, completely committed to making sure they got the expertise they were going to need, and passionately interested in their success, even after they had graduated and gone out into the world. I counted at least two former students in his office per quarter, some there just to fill him in on their progress in the world, some weeping or otherwise panicking over something they'd been asked to accomplish at their jobs that they weren't quite sure how to do. He never ever refused to help a former student, no matter how long it had been since they'd been in his class, and no matter how well or poorly they'd performed. The students who had struggled got his time the same as the star students did. He was 100% in it for the students, and I really admired that about him.

He had a really interesting technique in the classroom, however. I'll just call it "scare the crap out of them first and let them like you later."

You didn't talk out of turn in his class. You didn't goof off. You didn't crack jokes. No excuses were accepted--for anything. And god forbid, you didn't fall asleep in his class. Ohhhh no. Every quarter someone had to be the first. And every quarter, he would observe the sleeper, quietly pick up a stack of books he always had on the podium, walk gently to the sleeper's desk, and then slam them down on the desk next to the unfortunate sleeper's head, as hard as he could.

Yeah. There usually wasn't a second person who fell asleep in class.

By the time they got to me, the students were terrified. They thought he was a monster. They would all ask me how I worked with him, how I managed not to be intimidated. They were dreading the rest of the semester.

They didn't yet realize how much he loved them all.

But after the first few weeks, they started to understand. They realized that things went smoothly in class, that there were none of the disruptions and derailments they experienced in their other classes. They realized they had a voice in the class, that he was actually interested in their ideas, and that they were respected for their contributions and points of view. They realized they were actually learning things. By the end of the quarter, they had learned a lot about graphic design for business communications, but they had also learned a lot about how to behave in a professional environment, without even realizing they were learning it.

For my part, it seemed that what the students needed to get from me (in addition to 50 Things You Can Do With Color Key Which Are Now All Obsolete) was confidence in their ideas; the strength to take risks, make mistakes, and learn from them; and a lot of listening. These are, as my 2.3 regular readers probably know, important keys in business, art, and academics.

I tried to always be helpful and to never have attitude about a student's efforts or abilities. A little bit of the tenured professor rubbed off on me and I found myself calmly showing the door to students who showed up drunk, caused disruptions for the class, or didn't seem to be there to work. The students who were there to work really appreciated it. The students who got shown the door got some time to sober up or calm down or think things through and most of the time they came back more serious and ready to work.

At the Very Nice College, I've put my past experience into practice again, and have expanded on it. I have students who are brave and I make sure they are applauded; I have students who are timid and I make sure they are encouraged. I have students who are so talented it's all a cakewalk for them and I celebrate their creativity and brilliance; I have students who struggle and are insecure and I celebrate their determination and their devotion to the "try." And I listen, and respond, and try to be empathetic and helpful. It's college, not some game show where the goal is "stump the student." Just as I want my artwork to make people think, I want my teaching to make my students think--actually think, not just memorize and regurgitate facts and processes and details.

When thinking happens, everybody wins.

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