I believe we all are the sum of our positive and negative experiences, and the people we’ve encountered in our past and present lives. As a teacher, I know that both my good teachers and bad teachers helped to shape my teaching style and methods. There have been instances when one of my teachers would do or say something, and I would think: Wow! I gotta use that when I teach! With other teachers, I would make note to do the exact opposite. It is with this in mind that I would like to publicly share what I feel was the defining moment in crafting my teaching style—the hallmark of which is proving direct, brutally honest, critiques of student work.
It was my senior year at the Atlanta College of Art and, as was the prerequisite before graduation, I was required to have several members of the faculty, as well as my department head, provide final critiques of my portfolio, an exit review as it were. My reviews were going well and, if my memory serves me correctly, I had only one review left, that from my department head. I had this gentleman as an instructor once or twice and, to be fair, I was not a fan of his teaching, or his lack of knowledge about what he was teaching. It was either that, or I was a typical, arrogant, slack student at the time, aspiring to be a professor.
At any rate, back to the review. I presented my work, and his critiques and suggestions for improvement were good—actually they were better than good, they were awesome! So much so that it led me to say to this professor:”I would like to thank you, this has been one of the best critiques you’ve ever given me.” His reply: “Well it’s a lot easier to critique you now, because you’re not a student in my class. I mean, let’s face it, you’re a big guy!” As a side note, my department head was an average height, average build kind of guy, I, on the other hand, am 6 ft. 4”, 300+ pounds. It suddenly occurred to me that my department head had never given me an honest critique before because he was afraid of me. Ironically, I had never wished to cause this man any bodily harm, until he uttered those words.
Let me take you now to years later, to my first day of class as a professor when I made this telling declaration:
“I’m going to call roll now, and this will be the last time you hear your name from me until you’ve earned it. If, by the end of the semester, I am not calling you by name, it’s not that I’m bad with names; it’s that your work sucked, and that’s not my fault. At times I may appear friendly, but I am not here to be your friend, I am here to teach you. In fact, if you can’t stand me, it makes grading your work a lot easier. If you ask me for a critique, I may ask you for “permission to be blunt.” If you feel that is something you cannot handle, do not give me permission. We will now take a 30-minute break. So, those of you who feel the need to drop this class may feel free to do so.”
All of this is to illustrate that telling someone that their work is okay, when you really think it’s subpar, or even worse, as in “utter crap,” ultimately, does more harm than good. Conversely, if the work is good—even if you hate it, perhaps, especially if you hate it – even if you hate the fact that the very sight of the work singes your cornea and sucks your will to live, you need to tell the student that it’s good!
Hence, the bottom line from my perspective: “It is far better to simply be honest, or to simply be quiet!”