Tuesday, February 16, 2010

we are all connected.

there is building not far from the building in which I work that is being gutted. It is one of many venerable mills and warehouses in this area that were built along the Erie Canal over a hundred years ago when it was a thriving thoroughfare. Now, like so many of those buildings, it is a derelict relic of a time so far gone that many people don't remember it even existed. This particular building is slated to become condos and artist galleries, to be given a new life now that its former life has ended, which I think is great.

I was approached by someone involved in that to take some of the big old beams that are coming out as part of the demolition process and turn them into benches that will ultimately be put in front of the building. It is a great idea, and a project I am excited to be a part of.

I spent Saturday in the shop with two students who were interested in being a part of this process. We had a great time, and for me it was relaxing (though tiring) to be in the shop for a solid day of moving wood around.

We spent a little time before they started designing looking at the old beams, reading as much
history as we could from them. We talked about what the mill building was when it was built and thought some about the people who built it. Though the wood was obviously mill-cut, the final shaping for installation was done with hatchets, in some places, which speaks of a time when carpenters had hatchets in their tool boxes.

When I cut off a sample chunk and resawed it on the band saw, the beautiful grain of the Douglas Fir was revealed, and we spent
some time smelling it and looking at it, and talking about fir and
where it comes from and how it grows and all of the things that were made from it. We looked at the difference between the hundred-year-old patina on the outside and the fresh golden color of the inside and talked about that contrast. Finally, after all of this, they started to design these benches.

An interesting thing occurred: Though I was careful not to insert myself into the design process in any way, the design that the students came to looked very much like something that could have come off of my drawing table. Here is an in-progress dry-fit of some of the parts:

The lines are clean, the material is simply presented and the history of the wood is honored. These students have different design styles from each other and from me, so this turn of events was unexpected. Which got me to thinking.

Is there something inherent in a reverence for history and an excitement about historical material that has a universal aesthetic? Could it be possible that, given an appropriate understanding of the provenance of the material, there are design choices that everyone would make?

This is a dangerous line of questioning, of course, implying that there is a pre-determined design path. But I can not help but wonder. I can not help but wonder if we all took the time to really get to know where we came from, to really look thoughtfully at all of the processes and chains of events that brought us to this moment, this Now, if we would not stand in more of an accord with regards to where we are going. If everyone all together made themselves aware of the history of our making, of the history of our building, of our governing, of our belief systems, if that would not help bring us together and unite us in a more thoughtful process as we figure out what kind of world we want to move through, and what kind of world we want our children to move through. I think it might help, at the very least.

So this is my assignment to everyone I meet up with today: Find one thing that is near you right now and really look at it. Think about how it came into your life, and then think about how it got to wherever you found it. How many trucks across country, how many miles on a container ship from Asia? What are the raw materials? Where did the petroleum for the plastic come from? Who got it out of the ground? Where did the tree that provided the wood (or the paper pulp) grow, and who cut it down? What kind of processing plant created it, and who works there? How do they work? What is their life like? What about the person who sold it to you? What is their life like? What is important to them? After thinking about all of this for a few minutes about one object, look at all of the objects in your house and realise that there is a similar thought process about all of them. Even gum wrappers. Even dish soap.

Boggles the mind.

Friday, February 5, 2010


the least pleasant part of being a teacher is the ritual of grading. I have always made jokes about colleges that don't give grades, but as an educator there is some merit to the philosophy. The students here seem to be really fixated on grades, some of them so much so that when and "unfair" grade is assigned, it can prompt angry emails, heated discussions, even tear-filled office visits.

This led me to do a little reading about grade inflation, and about what people think about it. One of the colleagues that I am teaching with this semester said that he has even noticed it in himself over the past five years, that at some point a "C+" became a "B-."

I absolutely understand this trend. Never having taught a class in which grades could be evaluated by raw data, I can't speak to the process for grading, say a 100 level math test, or a "names and dates" type history test (though I do not know if such things still exist). All of my teaching is done in a studio setting, and involves in-depth, exploratory conversation with each student. While I love this process, a side effect is that I tend to get emotionally entangled in each student's journey, which makes me more compassionate toward them than perhaps I should be.

One conversation that comes out of this line of observation is the one about "process over product." Is it more important that the students learn to apply a critical, thoughtful design process to each design challenge, or is it more important that the end product look good? Depending upon which side of the bed I get up, my answer to this changes. And this is not what I am writing about this morning.

This morning I am more interested in evaluation in general. A grade is an evaluation on a really comforting level. We understand where "B" stands next to "A" after all. We understand that "Average" is perceived as "Bad" while "Above Average" is perceived to be "Average." This all makes sense. But these are all external judgments, and though they may apply within certain constructs, they are all pretty arbitrary constructs. I was reminded recently of how I felt about "success" as a set designer when I first moved to New York, that the yardstick went from "anonymity" at the bottom end to rave reviews in the Times and the Voice at the top.

It is a construct for evaluation that is as valid as any other, I suppose, but it was so freeing when I decided that it no longer applied to me, that I would rather be evaluated based on whether a line that I spliced held, or, when I got to graduate school, whether a chair held the person sitting in it in a comfortable way. In some ways it is a shift to a system of evaluation in which complete anonymity is at the top of the yardstick: If the user does not notice that they are successfully using the object, if it functions so perfectly that there are no issues at all, then it is at its most successful.

Of course, it is a little disingenuous for me to imply that I don't have an interest in being published or recognised publicly (I only just now notices that "published" and "public" share a root. I will have to look in to that later). And there are external evaluation processes that matter to me a great deal: Karen's approval being one, my student's successes being another. But I think I am shifting as I get older toward processes of evaluation that value experiential success over opinions of observers, for the most part.

I have been talking to a couple of the students here about how little their grades will matter when they get out and are working. A client is not going to ask what grade they made in Sophomore Design. Or choose another designer because that grade was a “B.”

The other side of that, of course, is that as we have no other commonly accepted evaluation criteria, a great many other decisions are being made based on a student’s grade. The most important of these is financial aid: In a time and at a university in which the price tag for an education at the collegiate level is sneaking towards $200 000, financial aid is a necessity not just for students from working-class backgrounds. Even the very privileged students that we tend to have here often rely on some kind of financial aid, which is often heavily dependant on GPA.

Which comes back to being emotionally tied up in the process of our students. And to what an education is really for. As a Program, the Interior Design faculty got together and re-wrote our mission statement. We talked a lot about what kind of graduates we wanted to produce. Not once did the subject of GPA come up, not once did we even think of using that rubric as a useful yardstick. We came to the conclusion as a collective that we want to produce “curious and critical thinkers.”

I love the process of inquiry. Most of what I do as I stand at a student’s drawing table is ask them “why?” They are beginning to notice that, too, and some of them are asking it themselves, which makes me very proud. I feel like the most important thing that I can teach them is to look in the face of all of the dogma that bombards them (religious, retail, political, social) and to question question question to make sure that they think it is valid. That is the real success as far as I am concerned. And in the end, that is what I want to evaluate.

But it is not something that one can do once and then be finished and get a grade. This inquiry HAS to be an on-going process. When we stop asking questions we stop thinking for ourselves. And this is what I am confronting in my students: That they do a great deal of work until the deadline, but then they want to stop and move on, to put the project in their portfolio and never look at it again.

So this morning I have been thinking about how to evaluate them in such a way that they continue to question. What system can I use as an educator that encourages a continued critical inquiry while simultaneously providing a useful and compassionate comment on a student’s progress?

I am still working on this. I have a feeling I will be for some time to come.