Monday, March 24, 2008

Teacher Comforts

I recently heard about an animation teacher’s meeting in one of the NY area schools. For several years in row, the problem (as explained by the administration), has been that the grades are too high and the quality of the student’s work, too low.

As for grades, no doubt there are some animation teachers that grade far too gently. Such a policy may be a sign of general laziness in teaching. For instance, a teacher that passes everyone won’t have defend a failing grade. If everyone passes, there are no confrontations. No confrontations mean less work and aggravation for the teacher.

As for the quality of the student’s work? I’ve always believed that students that needed school the least made the best students. Just below them are the students that struggle and work their ass off just to scratch out a few successful moments of animation. I belonged to that group. Below that group are the lazy masses of students yearning to be left alone. This group went to art school to escape rules and discipline. For them, school is supposed to be a utopian paradise filled with freedoms, while at the same time owing them a quality education.

Teachers have a choice to either allow the student majority to wallow in that malaise or to shake things up. Again, it’s much easier to just attempt to teach the students that seem to give a damn and ignore the rest. By engaging the students this way, year after year, the teacher is part of the problem, part of the status quo that prevents the school’s program from really teaching the students.

Teachers are not supposed to be best friends with their students. Confrontation is important. Part of a teacher’s job is to rattle the student’s into discovering their enthusiasm. A teacher should set the expectations incredibly high for both quality and quantity of work. Students should not be allowed to move on until they master each stage or lesson. When I’ve taught “Intro to Animation” and “Action Analysis,” students had to make changes/revisions to their work week after week, sometimes extending assignments a month later than was originally planned. All the while these students had to simultaneously keep up with the new weekly assignments. Work compounded on some students, but all improved dramatically by the time of the semester’s end.

During the difficult semester, some students had been close to tears or were otherwise noticeably frustrated. That’s okay. A teacher has to push their class. It’s not enough to give an assignment and then, the following week, express disappointment that the class didn’t work hard enough. That’s not teaching. That’s participating in a passive aggressive war. A class needs a challenging teacher that provides a structure and opportunity that does not exist anywhere else.


j.j. sedelmaier said...

Sounds an awful lot like parenting to me. . .

Mike Rauch said...

Wow, what a can of worms you just opened! My college experience (studying graphic design), and current success in completely unrelated creative work (radio & animation) has left me believing that formal education for artists is certainly not the only way, but also probably not the best.

I attended a liberal arts college. (My brother studied illustration at the same school, but is now a self-taught animator) In college, I was surrounded by apathetic students & teachers. It's a major disservice to accept and then pass students who are doing poor work (or no work at all). They finish school with a huge debt, and are oblivious to the fact that they will probably not get any work in their chosen field. In my opinion, the biggest favor a teacher can do for most college students is teach them to draw. It's amazing how many people graduate and still can't draw.

I got the idea at some point that I would have been better off at an "art school". Wrong! From what I've learned, the story isn't all that different there either. I think I would have benefited more from some sort of apprentice situation. I don't know...I'm just glad I don't have to worry about it anymore! It's been really fun figuring things out on my own, or learning from individual people I respect.

Well, you got me started. I could probably go on. I really do think that 1)students/parents/even colleges should stop thinking of college as the one and only logical step towards a career 2)the structure and purpose of a college education probably needs to be rethought at a lot of schools.

Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree with you more. In fact, that reminds me of a life-changing semester at SVA from last year. My first and second years had been wonderful as I had learned much from many of my professors. However, I almost felt empty to a certain degree. It wasn't like these professors weren't doing their job. They were were the nicest and most professional people I had ever met.

However, the first semester of my 3rd year changed not only my entire outlook on art, but animation. . . .the semester I took a class with Don Poynter. Out of all of my professors, Don was the most challenging and encouraging. Don gave me a real world view of how the Animation World critiques their layout artists and/or animation artists in general. At first I was terrified to take his class because I was afraid of taking that sort of risk. I'm SO grateful that I did.

Not to sound mushy, but it was his one on one chats about my progress that restored my faltering love for animation. Don made me fall in love with animation again. Looking at his work and looking at my own progress made me LEAVE my comfort zone and go beyond ALL of my expectations. Don was and still is the most inspiring professor I have ever met at SVA and I can only hope that many schools would hire more people just like him. Of course, that's why he's my thesis advisor.

j.j. sedelmaier said...

(sorry about my abbreviated comment earlier) i think if we all look back, we'll see that the influential forces in our growth were the people (not just teachers) that challenged us and pushed us to go into areas we didn't even know existed. why go to school if you're not going to learn, grow, and also make some pretty stupid mistakes ? it's also a sin to release students out into the world with the impression that they "have it all figured out" and won't confront resistance and adversity. in other words Dave - i agree ! and the parallels with parenting are definitely there !
i'd also like to say that i enjoy your blog and look forward to whatever it is you decide is the issue for discussion !

David B. Levy said...

Wow, great thoughts, all!
And, although I'm not a parent, I can imagine the parenting analogy being true, J.J.

Art education is always going to be a touchy subject because students want the freedom to be "artists" without any interference, but also depend on getting structure and guidance to get their money's worth.

Teachers have it tough because they need to reach everyone or as many as possible.

As for animation schools I think they provide a (very expensive) filter, weeding out many students who don't have a passion for animation pumping through their veins. It's not enough to be "into cartoons.." and a demanding animation education should make that super clear.

Once school is done, students still have to bust their butts to "demand" a place in this business. Without that level of passion they are toast. This becomes the second filter. Not many survive it.

..and reading these comments, I wish I had Don Poynter while I was in SVA.

j.j. sedelmaier said...

"Once school is done. . " is really important. the attitude and sensibility a person has when they start to look for work defines who they are and the impression they leave. talent's important - no doubt - but you also have to have something about you that's going to make you attractive as a potential employee. animation's collaborative and no one who's responsible for ANY type of production is going to want to hire someone who's arrogant or too aggressive - no matter HOW great their portfolio/reel is ! i think you touched on entitlement in a previous blog. the industry doesn't owe anybody anything. it's up to the individual to figure out how to make it work for them. . . one of the best ways to do this is to be a sponge early on and soak up everything you're exposed to. you'll figure out your own special technique if you're patient and passionate about your quest. . .

stephen said...

Here's my student angle....grades at art schools confuse me.

If given properly, they're a good indication of how hard a student works and how much they can improve. But honestly, I'm trying to think of a case when an employer in animation is going to stress grades over a demo reel or portfolio (or attitude, for hurt or help).

I guess an art college is the first case I've encountered where grades are a direct incentive for the student to improve their craft, rather than proof of quality work for future applications to grad schools or jobs. And if that's true, then grade inflation does hurt. At the same time, a poor grade without meaningful feedback can be just as damaging to the student.

Mike Rauch said...

A good grade without meaningful feedback is equally damaging! :)

Tim Rauch said...

I have been extremely happy to have studied things other than "animation" in school. I don't mean to poo-poo any of the programs out there and am sure a class with Dave Levy, Don Poynter, John Canemaker, Pat Smith, or Fran Krause would have rocked my socks off. Still, being a student at St. John's, Mike and I had professors who taught us the basics of visual design and challenged us to constantly try out new techniques, new modes of thinking. I had an entire semester where I (a pencil addict) was forbidden from drawing in any class. What happened? I found ways to become interested in other techniques by understanding what they had in common with drawing. Ofcourse, I still drew constantly outside of class assignments and during that semester came to a new level of understanding why I valued it so much. This kind of broader experience in image-making has led me to take the design of my films very seriously.

Too often students are not reminded that a successful career in the arts is less likely to come from "doing the homework" than it is from creating the assignment for yourself. Curiosity as a student leads to curiosity as an professional and I can think of nothing else so common among great artists as extraordinary curiosity.

And what can professors do? What the professors who impacted me the most all shared was a respect for me as an individual and a real desire to see me grow. You always need someone to give you that boost to the next level, someone who is happy to share the information they have and invested in your success. I don't think there's any one school that has a monopoly on that.

Certainly there's no one way to "make it", except to become fully engaged in whatever situation you find yourself in, recognize the opportunities, and exceed expectations.

Anonymous said...

I've been reading up on everyone's comments and I agree with everyone!

Everyone is absolutely right! You have to make your own success or "make your own luck" as David would say. I also agree with J.J. stating that we should all make "stupid mistakes." I've learned so much from my social/work mistakes....and boy, have I made lots of mistakes!
Now, I didn't receive the best grade in Don's class (not by a long shot), but that class served as a stepping stone. Getting out of that class, I yearned to learn more and I did! I'm not at all outstanding, or even great, but I'm getting somewhat better. :)

One thing I found interesting (this goes out to Tim) was how you mentioned that you had limited drawing in one of your semesters in school at St.Johns. You broke out of that mold and did your own learning -- that's the kind of motivation we all need! That's admirable! Heck, I even need it sometimes. I often have to remind myself of how lucky I am that there are so many positive people that surround all of us animators at school. Then again, if you think about it, even if you eliminate the whole "prestigious art school" facade, it (hopefully)gives people even MORE incentive and drive to learn and create!

Okay, I'll stop rambling now.

Danny Hynes said...

Well said, Dave. Refusal to enable the kids who just want to be left alone would certainly raise the bar. School's supposed to be about learning and I've never learned a thing if I wasn't being pushed. (It would also serve to do away with that nagging chorus-"Man, {insert art school here} was a waste of money, they didn't teach us anything. That school sucks") Anyway, well written as always, and let me just say kudos for not only knowing what to do, but doing it. You're class was one of the most rewarding at SVA.