I have taught at a wide range of different institutions over the past fourteen years—Columbia University, Centenary College, Mercer County Community College, and now Skidmore College—and the population at each of these institutions has been unique, requiring me to think differently about how I design my courses and support my students. Before I came to Skidmore, I was a full Professor with tenure and coordinator of the Digital Media Arts program at Mercer County Community College. Over the eight years I was at MCCC I worked with faculty, staff, and students to shape the program into three distinct tracks, introduce eight new courses, support and update five dedicated digital labs, and coordinate between ten and twenty courses each semester.
At Skidmore I play many of the same roles within a different institutional context, a shift that brings with it new pedagogical and intellectual challenges: while I am still working to define a digital media program and support a digital media lab, my broader goal is to develop a cohesive program for liberal arts students that can function as a piece within a larger interdisciplinary Art department. This goal has been central to my teaching thus far at Skidmore. When I was hired, there were several courses that existed in the Digital Media concentration, but unlike in other concentrations in the Art department, there was not yet a sense of continuity across these courses or a clear progression through them to guide students’ artistic growth. As I taught my first courses, one in Digital Media and Interactive Design and one in Digital Foundations, I spent the semester talking with my classes about their experiences, listening to the faculty in my department, and watching as my students experimented with different media. From these observations, I developed two areas of focus for the Digital Media concentration at Skidmore, motion and interaction. In my first two years I developed three courses across these two areas, AR358: Motion Graphics and Animation, AR264J: Interactive Design, and AR351J: Advanced Digital Media, a course for students to do advanced work in both areas. This past year, I have focused on refining these courses and changing their prerequisites and course levels in order to offer students a more cohesive sequence through the concentration and to prepare these courses for submission to the college-wide Curriculum Committee.
In addition to teaching courses within my concentration, I have also taught courses that are interdisciplinary and serve both the Art department and the larger Skidmore community. Nearly every semester I have taught Digital Foundations, an introductory course taken by students in many different majors and designed to introduce the skills and design principles needed to communicate visually in the digital world. Last year I designed and taught a Scribner Seminar, “Picturing Time,” that explored time through the lenses of history, media theory, psychology, and time-based media.
COURSE DELIVERY & DESIGN
As an artist I am constantly revising, reworking, and reconceptualizing as a way to see my work differently and to uncover a new path or space to work in. As a teacher, I work with my students in the same way, reshaping my pedagogies and approaches based on conversations with my students and the work they create. I ask for feedback from my students in many different forums, including informal discussions in class, my own mid-semester evaluations, and the end-of-semester evaluations they complete for the department and the college. One of the themes I have seen in these conversations is the differing needs of students based on their level of familiarity and expertise with digital tools. Some classes, such as Digital Foundations, are more homogenous in terms of student expertise, while others such as Interactive Design this past semester, which had both first-year students and seniors, have students with a wide range of abilities. I have worked hard to design classes where both ends of the spectrum are productive and fulfilled.
One of the methods I rely upon to teach new skills and techniques is an interactive demonstration that incorporates the concept of play as a method of discovery. I will often teach students foundational skills and concepts within a given digital tool to get them started and then rely upon their experimentation with the tool to both build expertise in it and define its parameters. This methodology not only builds a richer understanding of the limitations and possibilities of a tool or technique; it also encourages students to find their own ways of making digital marks. As a counterbalance to this type of play and a way to reach students who have varying learning speeds and backgrounds, I have built into my classes several layers of support to help students to practice and develop expertise with the skills in my demonstrations. Each week I post links to video demonstrations that review the skills on our class website. I also provide one-on-one support and motivation through teaching assistants who are present during open lab and the two hours I spend in the computer lab on Sunday nights.
Another method I use in my courses is the idea of technological quicksand. In digital media, students often want to experiment and explore skills that are outside of the scope of the class. I invented the idea of quicksand to provide a framework for this type of exploration: if you get yourself into trouble experimenting with technology, you must get yourself out. Through their forays into quicksand my students learn to take risks, be independent, and teach themselves—invaluable skills in a field that is constantly changing and reinventing itself. In my advanced classes the defining philosophy—if you can dream it, you can build it—translates into elements of quicksand in almost every project. At this level I acquire technology and provide motivation and advice to students as they learn how to use new equipment to create their advanced projects. In the three years since I have been at Skidmore, my students have worked with the same iPhone camera equipment used in an award-winning film, technology for scanning three-dimensional objects, a virtual reality system, a software plugin for creating swarms of little drawings, a box for synchronizing video, and a rig created for stop-motion animation. Through these experimentations and explorations, they both develop new technical skills and learn practices that are crucial for artists working in an emerging field.
In my course design, I ground and contextualize technical skills through art and design principles. For example, in AR264: Interactive Design, students learn how to code web pages that are responsive and change based on the size of the window while simultaneously also learning how to create emphasis and contrast through color, scale, and position. In their projects students are faced with the question of how to create hierarchy and meaning in an environment that is changing and has both abridged and unabridged states. These juxtapositions between digital skills and the principles of art and design form the organizational frame for my courses, and I design each section of a course to include a project and grading rubric that focus on a new set of digital skills alongside a formal focus.
I believe one of the most important lessons I can teach my students as a professor is to be comfortable working across disciplines and with artists outside their own discipline. To teach this fluidity, I design my courses to create moments and spaces where conversations can occur across disciplines. In each of my beginning courses, for example, students work together on at least one project. While these collaborations can be challenging for students, I have seen them learn to navigate these relationships in meaningful ways; through conversation and collaboration in the lab, they build connections with different majors such as Computer Science and with students in other classes including Audio Documentary and Geosciences.
Finding their Voice
Throughout the life of an artist there will be many voices offering critique or a different perspective—some louder, some softer, some incisive, and others vague. I have found that one of the most difficult processes for a student is the process of finding their own voice in the panoply of voices that surrounds them. I design my assignments to encourage and motivate this type of discovery. I construct the basic premise of every project with a clarity and conciseness that leaves the details and parameters open to interpretation. In this openness there is an invitation to explore, to take risks, and to try new approaches. In the project I am Here in AR136: Digital Foundations, students are asked to design a map of Skidmore that overlays the physical geography of campus with their own personal mental map of the community. In the maps my students create, I can see the individual spaces and narratives that are important to each of them, ranging from a tabulation of the minutes spent studying to a map identifying personal relationships to a map charting anxiety and depression. In the final project that occurs later in the semester, I give students fewer constraints, leaving room for them to develop connections between their work in other classes and the ideas that surfaced in earlier projects.
Another assignment in each of my courses designed to hone individual student voices is a weekly independent research question, which students answer through journal entries in a blog, drawings posted on the wall of the computer lab, or a digital swipe file where they collect relevant images. Each question begins with the act of observation, asking students to carefully look and study the visual world to find examples of the principles and ideas we explore in class. Although students sometimes find this weekly work frustrating, it plays a crucial role in their developing an ongoing individual investment in their art, and helps them to make research, curiosity, and observation intentional parts of their artistic processes. Through their selections and responses, they learn to analyze the visual material around them and begin to assemble a collection of images and media that they can respond to in their work.
In my classes I give students as many opportunities as possible to use their voice. For our critiques in class I employ multiple modes: the group critique, the individual critique, the peer critique, the user critique, the soft critique, and the self-critique. In each mode students change roles, sometimes listening, sometimes writing, sometimes reading, sometimes speaking. Through each response, whether to their own work or to another’s work, they begin to build a perspective on their own work and how it fits within the discipline.
The feedback and assessment I provide in the moment after an assignment is submitted is a defining factor in the way a student’s work and voice progress. During my time at Skidmore I have experimented with many different types of feedback to find a method of delivery that is clear, helpful, and timely. When I first arrived at Skidmore I used individualized video critiques and Blackboard grading with rubrics, two methods that had been successful at MCCC. After listening to student feedback about these methods and talking with other Art faculty, I have worked to shift my approach in order to be more in line with my department’s use of the in-person critique as a key method of assessment. Over the past two years I have experimented with varying quantities of individual critiques held at different times in the semester paired with a grading system using a rubric in Blackboard, but I have not yet found the most effective combination of these approaches. In the semester after I taught my Scribner Seminar I had an illuminating conversation with Janet Casey, who asked if I had explained to my students why I critique and how I grade in my courses. I realized that I need to explicitly teach students how to understand the role of the critique in artistic practice and how to respond to my critique and rubric. As a result, for the coming semester I have scheduled my first in-person critique for before the midterm, in the days following students’ completion of their first project. I believe that this early intervention, combined with more intentional discussions about grading, will transform assessment from a one-sided evaluation into an ongoing conversation.
Joining the Conversation
One of the primary interactions that students have in my classes is with the artists that worked before them. Students engage with the work of artists both living and dead through visits to exhibitions, artist lectures and visits, artist’s books, and video resources. They read artists’ writings and manifestos and the critical and theoretical texts that defined the times in which these artists lived and worked. After they collect and sift through these sources we pull the material into the present for debates and discussions of how these voices from the past inform their work and the current moment. Our exploration of the loop as a form of media in AR358: Motion Graphics and Animation exemplifies this approach. We begin by considering Lev Manovich’s 2001 media and game theory text “Loop as a Narrative Engine” in relationship to loops found in different media across history, including Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s seventeenth-century marble sculpture Apollo and Daphne, the late-twentieth-century Mobius House designed by UNStudio, and animated loops created by contemporary artists and game designers. With a critical understanding of these precedents in mind, students create their own animated loops as a way of responding to the thought and work that has come before them.
In my classes I also ask my students to look outside their own work to the cultural conversations and voices that are shaping central practices within art and media today. For example, in AR264: Interactive Design, we discuss the history of intellectual property and the theory behind patents and copyright law as well as the newer concepts of authorship proposed by Creative Commons and open source digital projects. In AR358: Advanced Digital Media, students in animation, video, three-dimensional modeling, and interactive design collaboratively curate conversations and select artists and writers around topics they are interested in, including authorship, materiality, and failure. It is my hope that as my students learn to engage and author these conversations, they will take an active role in shaping the culture and politics of digital media and art.
MOTIVATION & MENTORING
In my office I have a round table with two chairs—it is at this table that I have had some of the most meaningful conversations with my students. We have discussed projects, planned their schedules, discussed personal tragedies, and talked about their futures. Through these mentoring and advising conversations, I am able to see my students more fully, and they conversely begin to learn about my life and work outside the classroom. My office is also the place where I hang work prints from projects I am working on, and my conversations with students often turn to the art I am making and the challenges I have encountered in my process. Seeing me in this context provides a model of a working artist and allows them to imagine how they might approach their own lives as practicing artists.
My conversations with students around this table have also influenced my own practice. One of my conversations with an independent study student about new technologies and media inspired me to start experimenting with augmented reality in my work. A conversation with an advanced digital media student led me to discover a new device for displaying my work. Moments such as these have encouraged me to start collaborating with students in my own art practice. For the past two summers I have worked with students in the Summer Collaborative Research program and as a Tang Summer Mellon Faculty Collaborative Research Fellow. These experiences have transformed me as an educator and as an artist: in seeing my students as equal collaborators, I have also come to see our education as a two-way experience, with each of us learning from the other.
My office is also the space where I learn new technologies and where my students see me wrestle with cords and gadgets. The pace of change in technology forces me to constantly learn new skills and experiment with new forms of media. My curiosity and enthusiasm fuel my explorations—since I have been at Skidmore I have learned how to use AfterEffects and Premiere Pro, create parallax scrolling and three-dimensional web environments, synchronize multiple channels of video, and use simple augmented reality. I work beside my students to learn how to use the technology they need for their senior show. I learn new technologies using online tutorials, books, coding forums, workshops, and user manuals. Keeping my skills current is one of the biggest and most difficult challenges in my field, but it is in those moments when I have been struggling with technology for hours and have failed a dozen times that I am reminded of how daunting digital media is for my students and how important even a small success can be.
In digital media one of the best ways to gauge student learning is through the work students create in a class. It is in the moment when the senior Art majors truly move beyond the classroom for their Senior Thesis Exhibition at the Tang Teaching Museum that I can see best the work that we have done together in their time at Skidmore. In each piece I can see the texts, demonstrations, and discussions that influenced their choices and shaped their final work. In the past three years I have worked with sixteen students on their work for this show—three in my first year, five in my second, and eight last year—and each year I have had students among the ten percent of seniors who receive honors for their work in the show. I have been impressed and humbled by the expertise and quality of their work and the range of different voices they represent.