I teach to empower my students and to enlighten myself, day after day after day.
I started teaching at the college level 6 years ago. The students I work with are overwhelmingly low-income minority students who come out of wildly varying high school experiences, often resulting in poor study skills and underdeveloped ambitions. Many are also first-generation Americans, coming out of immigrant families from all over the world, hoping to find their way. When I first met these students, I worried I’d never find a way to give the entire disparate group what they needed to succeed. Out of this experience, I have come upon the single core element I believe is essential for a successful creative life: the practice of fearless play. The logic is this: if I cannot take risks in my learning, I will never innovate. If I cannot let go of the familiar or secure long enough to make bold conceptual leaps, I will never excel. If, however, I learn to give myself permission to be as bad as I truly need to be at something for a while, I will master the skill and move on to the next one. If I become proficient at this cycle of learning, I will be unstoppable no matter who or what I encounter.
Teaching, in my mind, is full-on activism: I teach to help build the world in which I want to live. To this end, I strive to make my undergraduate classes safe places to be happily terrible at what we are learning for as long as my students find it useful. I append the day’s lessons with what I call Meta Moments, wherein I go over what is informing a frame of reference, what bias I know to be influencing my stance, or what personal experiences are shaping my teaching at that moment. I model lifelong learning for my students by deconstructing my own mistakes with their active input. My transparency earns the students’ trust and they always make huge leaps—once they realize they can. After they gain traction, we build a mutually agreed-upon criticality through frequent discussions.
I work to partner with each student to extract the most meaning out of the material for that particular person. I do not think shared standards are useless, but each student needs to learn how to evince meaning out of the world for himself. I can try and inspire vigor, but I cannot dictate what is true quality for another person. It is as such always an honor to be a part of a student’s journey, and I try to stay fresh and teachable to be of full use. This is why I am steering my career back to being fully arts-oriented: I am an artist first and foremost, and I can be of the most service there.
In my more advanced classes, I model and demand the criticality and work ethic a truly delving artistic practice demands. I engender a culture of open, compassionate, and raucous dialogue as I have seen that students who can articulate themselves clearly and earnestly are by far the most successful in their later careers. I prefer my class critiques to get heated in terms of content and effervescent in tone: there is so much to learn, we may as well have good, blood-pumping fun in the process.
I see today’s art students as being faced with a particularly tough challenge: they have to navigate the supposed chasm between the older art-making techniques and the emerging technologies of today, all while forging a cohesive art practice. My charge is to give my students timeless tools to establish and maintain a healthy sense of perspective in the face of constant, anaerobic change. I want my students to go forth into the world able to apply their art-making skills to whatever life they choose with clear-minded, compassionate alacrity. In this way, I will consider myself a successful instructor and cultural producer.