School me in the art of critiques.
September 20, 2012 7:23 PM   Subscribe

What are some good strategies when critiquing in a college art environment?

I've been teaching illustration in an art college for a year now. Prior to that I had no teaching experience and never got a master's degree, so I've definitely learned a lot on how to teach in the past year. However, I feel like I can improve on a few things-- among them is improving my dialogue in critiquing, both when critiquing final work and different stages of the process.

My trouble usually lies in coming up with quickfire critiques; I am great when I have some time to process the work and am quite adept at leading a critique and asking some questions for my students to answer and discuss. But when it comes to sitting down and processing the work in progress one on one, I feel like I could get a little stronger.

I hadn't critiqued work in six years, so I was definitely a bit rusty. Part of what's helped is coming up with questions to ask them, or points to discuss-- like asking about the concepts involved, the techniques they'll opt to work with, formal elements like composition and color, that sort of thing. But I'm wondering if there's other things I can keep in mind when I sit down with them, whether it be questions to ask, points to look at and keep in mind, or other ways to critique/point out strengths and flaws in a piece. It's easier with students who are more engaged than aloof, but I want to make sure I can give the best help and constructive criticism I can to all my students.

So whether you're an instructor or a student (or have dealt with critiquing outside school), please tell me what have you found really useful and helpful!

Thanks in advance for your suggestions!
posted by actionpact to Education (4 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
You say you are good at leading a critique. That's perfect. Could you frame individual critiques the same way? Start asking for your student to answer and discuss. It could add insights to the work while allowing you the time to process the work for yourself.
posted by Vaike at 8:07 PM on September 20, 2012

I always found it helpful for my professors to point me in the direction of other artists whose work I would be interested in that were related to what I was doing, in addition the usual formal/conceptual concerns. Having a little bit of research on someone else's technique or ideas to do while I thought about the issues with my own work helped inform my own opinions.
posted by bradbane at 8:07 PM on September 20, 2012

...the concepts involved, the techniques they'll opt to work with, formal elements like composition and color, that sort of thing. But I'm wondering if there's other things I can keep in mind

If not already, definitely the works' audience - who that might be, why, how to have the work better speak to them, or resonate with the human condition etc. (especially if they're leaning into the my-navel-gazing-as-art rut)

Market issues. Competition. Manufacturability. Brand. The "dirty" biz stuff that turns out to be more important than the artist might anticipate :)
posted by anonymisc at 8:50 PM on September 20, 2012

I teach graphic design at a large urban public university. I went to graduate school at a different large public university, but it had a bit more of the traditional art school vibe. We also have illustration students at my current university that I occasionally work with.

The first thing I want to say is that I have found that time and experience helps, sometimes in unexpected ways. I have found that over time I am learning about what the point of an assignment is. For instance, I just finished a project yesterday with students that was to make a logo. These are senior students, so you might think that they could make a logo easily. Actually, even at the senior level, heck, even as a professional, there is much to consider in the process of making a good logo. Over the number of times I have done this project with students (this is my sixth year teaching), I have learned certain core concepts that I will frequently need to help students with. Sometimes students do also present unique or new issues that they need help with, which is part of the fun of teaching.

I presume what you are saying you are having trouble with is the part of class where you walk around as students work and try to "parachute in" to their process for awhile and give them in-process feedback. That can be tough. It's something I work really hard at, because I think it is actually the most fundamental part of the class. Here are some strategies I have for those small conversations and critiques :

1) Try to sit down with each student in every "work day" class meeting.

2) It's okay to walk around the room and take a little time to reflect on what students are doing before you sit down with someone.

3) If you don't have an immediate comment for the student when you sit down (this is probably 1 in 2 times for me), then let them tell you what to say. To do this, I sit down and say something like "What are you trying to figure out right now?" Students almost always have an answer to this question and frequently it's something that I had not realized that they were grappling with.

4) If a student doesn't want to engage with you, then it's okay to talk about something besides illustration or design. A lot of studies of student success have shown that students do better if they feel more engaged with the class and the material. A big part of that is feeling that they have a personal stake in the classroom, that they are a person that matters to the instructor. I always seem to have one or two students that roll their eyes or sigh whenever I announce a new assignment or project. I target these students early in the semester and make it clear that I care about them as a student in my class. That doesn't mean I will go easy on them or bend the rules for them. It just means I will listen to their opinions respectfully.

5) This goes with number 4 above : it's okay to be the dork. I like to play the role of the dork, because I think a big impediment to being creative is worrying about whether you look cool or not. College age students are still very caught up in whether they look cool, even though they think they left that behind in high school. It's just the things you want to look cool about have changed (and adults worry about looking cool, too, I know). So, when I sit down with a student and don't know what to say about their work yet, sometimes I just start talking about some subject I am passionate or nerdy about and see where the conversation goes.

6) Don't be afraid to have your project have multiple levels. Students are often capable of more than we teachers realize. Add additional layers of research to the project and then engage the students in discussion with what they are researching. If they are researching something you don't know about, have them explain it to you. So, if you start with a "regular" illustration assignment, then add some more conditions to it. Say the assignment is to design four characters for a children's TV show. Now add that the show should be broadcast in a non-US country of the student's choosing. Have them research and tell you about South Africa or South Korea or Suriname. Now add that the show needs a social media campaign. How can the illustrations be changed to fit the student's idea of a social media campaign? etc. etc.

I have been doing graphic design since 1998, when I graduated from undergrad. I've done design for the Web, for print and a little for TV. So, I've done a lot of design. It's important to be a subject matter expert broadly in the classroom. But it's okay for the students to learn about things you haven't done and to bring that back to you. It can give you a really rich dialogue for discussion both one-on-one and in the small and large group setting.

Hope all that helps! Feel free to post more here and I'll try to check back.
posted by Slothrop at 4:52 AM on September 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

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