As an educator, I’m approached by students, alumni, colleagues, administration and outside parties through email…a ton. In fact, a big part of my after hours is spent on replying to all sorts of issues. Some big. Some small. Never anything in between, interestingly enough. But, the big ones are the ones I’m really proud of because it’s usually a moment where I can address a significant issue that relates to the professional development of my students…
…emails that provide a teachable moment that happens out of class, out of the designed curriculum and with no current place in my class itinerary: teaching in real-time, as I like to say.
I put a lot of care into every thing I do and, although trying to be informative, my secondary intention with these well considered emails is to impress upon my students the power of words and the value in articulating thought through written form. EMAILS THAT KICK ASS are a collection of such correspondence…cut and pasted directly from my Outlook box, but with names changed to protect both the innocent and the guilty!
*PUSHBACK* is the kind of conversation I often find myself having with RIT and non-RIT colleagues alike; turning to respected coworkers and associates to 1.) find unique solutions to unique problems and to 2.) find healing in the age old practice of bitching and moaning behind closed doors. In this case, I had developed a very unique and challenging learning opportunity with an internationally-respected colleague. So unique and challenging that it brought upon a very confrontational interaction with a student who refused to be held accountable to the overall requirements of the educational opportunity - even before getting started with the work. [Contrarian] is best described as a student who believes that s/he knows it all already; that their creative interests takes priority over the educational objectives and requirements within the course s/he has enrolled in with me; and that my obligation to hold her accountable to those things are perceived as "adversarial" and "constrictive".
The following excerpt is my attempts of thinking through this very particular situation, examining its impact on what education is all about, and finding a way with my colleague to straighten [Contrarian] out...in both the short and long view of what it is we’re all engaging here in higher education.
The one thing I've learned about working with [Contrarian] over the past couple of years is that cloudy thoughts and unresolved consideration are part of the package when it comes to [Contrarian’s] budding studio practice... in the intentions behind and the execution of their work. You're right...once s/he just gets going things will reveal themselves along the way to them (and easier for me to point out to help communicate our case). I’ve had [Contrarian] re-approach their proposal twice now after our review of the very first one. Even as foggy as most of this 4th proposal is, it's the closest s/he's ever been to communicating a coherent idea to pursue. Progress, if you ask me (!).
I didn't copy you in on a follow-up email that I sent [Contrarian] where I thanked them for the revised proposal. In that email, I mentioned that s/he and I will have to chat face-to-face when s/he's back from break about Part II of the exploration regarding distortion, transparency, and language. It's been difficult for me to keep [Contrarian] on track and committed to an idea over the past few years...but maybe this project will be easier for me to tighten the level of accountability with them since you are also involved.
[Contrarian] is the kind of student who makes creative decisions based on what technical experience s/he'd prefer to expose themself to. S/he's a hard worker, but is only content in conducting research in studio that is "fun" or "cool" or will give them some sort of preconceived edge over their colleagues. Instead of listening to what their work needs of them, s/he has a history of approaching creative activity without a sense of curiosity. S/he’s made the mistake of thinking that artful engagement means working towards a defined endpoint. With such a rare and unique learning opportunity such as this one, it would be a shame to let the ideas we’ve helped [Contrarian] develop go by the wayside because they're not "cool enough" or “fun enough.”
My hope is that the break will allow [Contrarian] to be less resistant to my studio conversations about this project once back in studio. I'm exhausted just thinking about it already...
Pray for me,
I just wanted to let you know that I had a very disappointing conversation with [Contrarian] regarding the nature of their current research/objectives in our collaborative project. Everything I anticipated has come to fruition...and culminated in a very adversarial resistance to the idea of carrying on. [Contrarian] is most certainly not opening themself to the nature of this exploration. In turn, I had encouraged them to reach out to you with the concerns s/he had approached me with. As it stands, s/he'll continue this work because it’s required within this course (half-heartedly…if that much), but refuses to acknowledge its value and its contribution to their artistic growth. Aside from the absolutely disrespectful tone towards me and accusations of a lack of competence, it breaks my heart to see someone so closed to a bigger picture of what creative activity is truly in service to. Whether involving glass or not…
Look forward to an email from [Contrarian] soon.
I think these are great thoughts. Thanks for helping with this. I'm sure the three of us will be talking more about this issue during (and perhaps long after) the critique...
[Contrarian] is a difficult student in that s/he's so certain that s/he "knows" exactly what s/he needs, how everything works, what everything means, and what is best for them. The premise of this project is certainly challenging their preconception of just about every facet of what s/he thinks s/he's involved in by being within an art/glass college program. And because it's challenging [Contrarian], s/he's struggling; and because s/he's struggling, s/he feels inadequate; and because s/he feels inadequate, s/he thinks this is a stupid project.
In turn, I've given [Contrarian] permission to dislike the project. S/he has my full support in that. However, I also told them I'm still holding them accountable to not only see it through, but to identify what IS valuable in this learning experience. That the value of a project like this may very well have NOTHING to do with glass for them; that it could be mostly about becoming aware of [Contrarian’s] own tendencies, preferences, limitations, or standards as a creative person and/or a human being (for better OR for worse, really…identifying personal faults or flaws is not necessarily [Contrarian’s] thing…).
The most important thing for [Contrarian] to realize is that s/he isn't an artist...I hope you don’t mind taking that language out of your response. Instead, it’s important for them to know that s/he's an art STUDENT. There's so much more intellectual work s/he needs to go through to establish any sort of foundation to build a budding artistic practice upon. The fact that s/he doesn't "understand" what the goals of this project are isn't something I think any of us can clear up for [Contrarian] more than we already have. That's work s/he has to do. Asking questions is good (and s/he does it a lot, but mostly to get out of stuff s/he’s not into...and fights with the reasoning to no end…), but s/he's asking important questions to everybody BUT their own self. Again, S/HE has to do the work. If your response - and our further conversations with them - doesn't demystify this thing, I don't know what else can be done.
What we do within a material studies program is never just about making. It’s thinking about how to think. It’s learning about how to learn. [Contrarian] has yet to see that. My only hope is that s/he can sooner rather than later. It would open so many meaningful doors for them…
Thanks for your help…and good luck,