Sunday, December 31, 2017

Teaching Philosophy
Stephen Robison

My aim is to direct students toward problem solving through technical challenges, creative research and critical discourse. Since there is rarely only one solution, I do not adhere to any single standard of style or content in my teaching. Rather, I strive to provide a wide base of information to encourage students to become free thinkers and find their own way of expressing ideas within the media. In my slide show lectures, I focus on a diverse use of content and expression.  I encourage ceramics majors to delve into other disciplines that may assist them in their own visual voice. Disciplines inside and outside the art and design world are important to begin this path. Students are also encouraged to do research by visiting artists' studios, museums, exhibitions, libraries attend visiting artist lectures and workshops, conferences and other organized field trips.  For instance, I find an unmeasurable value in taking a group of students to an NCECA conference or to show them a local patron’s collection or take them on a field trip to a gallery or museum to discuss a particular artist’s or culture’s use of the media.

Teaching ceramics requires structure and a strong curriculum with clarity for goals and objectives, with assignments that include technical and conceptual challenges and personal writing activities. Detailed assignment sheets and grading rubrics have been helpful to give my students a full understanding of the possibilities for each assignment. My beginning through intermediate assignments sometimes seem ridged but I open up quite a bit of freedom for interpretation so that the final outcome of most assignments is widely varied. I have found students will welcome that freedom and also many times rise to the challenge.  I use frequent detailed demonstrations in class and I create videos for the reiteration of the demonstrations. I also use power point lectures that have images from the historic and contemporary record of specific objects for each assignment. In addition, I include kiln building and glaze calculation projects, health and safety lectures on equipment and materials and reading assignments on philosophy and esthetics. I often use pieces from my own collection to reinforce the object-ness of many directions in the field. Holding an object is especially helpful when it comes to tactile experience and the understanding of physical balance in utilitarian ceramics. I demonstrate every technique within hand building, mold making and throwing and relate these techniques to both contemporary and historical clay work. This opens up avenues to work with abstraction, anatomical, architectural, natural form and utilitarian concepts. It also allows students the individual freedom to fully express themselves in both the sculptural and utilitarian aspects of ceramics. My students are taught the technical skills and given the information necessary to form a foundation from which to make decisions about concept and technique. In an article titled “Teaching After the End,” in the Fall 2005 issue of Art Journal, Daniel Joseph Martinez had been talking with David Levi Strauss about the continuing relevance of Joseph Beuys. He said that Beuys did not say, “‘learn how to cut a piece of wood first.’ He said, ‘have an idea first.’ Once you’ve got an idea, the rest is simple.” I feel with all the skill in the world you certainly can become excellent at the crafting of an object; but without a strong concept you cannot craft an excellent piece of art. Good craft is not always a part of good art. The idea of the piece, however, is not always the starting point. And some very important parts of teaching that really are not simple are the techniques, technical skill often becomes a major part of most good art. Through the execution of certain skills or techniques, a student can also develop an idea or concept. Therefore, I believe that teaching students technical skills can be a springboard for them to develop their ideas. When they learn how to manipulate a material, they can then understand what can be done with that material. Within this philosophy, a work ethic can also be instilled and a student can learn that nothing is more beneficial to the growth of their work than the actual act of working with clay.

I expose my students to what has been done with clay throughout history along with the vast numbers of contemporary artists in the field.  Newer artists on the scene like Roberto Lugo and more established artists like Theaster Gates both make great work that speaks about social justice issues and issues of race. The work of artists like Marilyn Levine, Richard Shaw, Sylvia Hyman and other trompe l’oeil artists expand students’ minds to the possibilities and understanding of the media’s responsive nature. Ceramic work that expresses important topics on LGBT issues as seen in Gerda Wegener’s (a Danish artist work from the 1920’s,) and contemporary ceramic artists’ work like that of LĂ©opold L. Foulem and Mark Burns, or emerging talent like Wesley Harvey or strong feminist work like Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party instillation, all open doorways to ideas for undergraduate and graduate students.

The astounding gamut of utilitarian ceramics around the world along with what has been accomplished and is being done presently with site specific work and installation work, figurative work and design work are all components of my teaching.  Bauhaus designers like Walter Gropius and Danish designers like Mette Duedahl, Eva Zeisel, and Ettore Sottsass all compel students, who find interest in that direction, to embrace strong design elements. When students are exposed to the full scope of ceramics, they can develop ideas in any direction because they realize there is unlimited potential with the media from scale to surface to color to content. These are directions I coax my students toward to find ideas. I stress the most important questions they need to ask themselves when making a piece: Why am I creating it? What is the proposed final outcome of the piece? As they gain more understanding of the history and zeitgeist in the field, a major fire is often lit and students become engrossed in the field and hunger for more. This exposure to the incredible work in the field, along with my dedication to diversity in issues revolving around content, helps me generate an engaging and welcoming atmosphere in the studio.

Regular sessions encouraging critical dialog about art, craft, content, philosophy, history and current issues help students to create their own conceptual basis. Students must learn how to write an artist statement and resume in addition to learning how to document their work. Advanced and graduate students must write and give presentations on contemporary artists that help them to contextualize their work and express their aesthetic and conceptual concerns in the written and spoken word. They are also expected to have goals set for entering shows, applying for grants and getting exposure to their work outside of academia.

I also address professional options. Students are challenged to set goals during discussions about what they want to do with their degree. These topics start to enter my lectures around the beginning of the students’ second year. I help them determine what they need to be prepared for graduate school applications or other options such as residencies, apprenticeships, gallery management and non-profit employment opportunities that can further aid in the evolution of their work. I also help them put together a clean, well-read job application. I work with mock interviews so they get a sense of the questions that might be asked of them. It may be inadvisable for students to leave graduate school and immediately enter the realm of teaching, but I still mentor pedagogical skills with my graduate students. I think the experience of being an artist at a residency program might be more valuable to the advancement of their work. They also may be able to gain that average of two years of teaching outside of graduate school that most applications require as a minimum qualification. This kind of mentoring along with my dedication to each student’s development as an artist, demonstrates my genuine concern for the future of each individual. I do not, however, have any sort of idealist notion that each individual student is driven enough to make it as a practitioner of the arts within the field of education or in the professional art world.

The example of an almost feverish work ethic that I invest in my own research is at times contagious. I talk about the need to have a strong work ethic in anything students wish to achieve. It is my responsibility to keep up on my own research as it pertains to my obsession with ceramics and this research can also be a possible avenue that helps me direct students down their own road. The research and production of my own work and a constant show record, along with setting an example with my work ethic, are also definitely major teaching tools. Students need to know that a strong work ethic is essential to being seriously dedicated to their studio practice. If I get several students out of each class that discover the internal drive and dedication that it takes to excel in ceramics, then I consider that class to be a success.  Additionally, if I can make a slight difference in the way each individual student sees the world and views or understands art, I also deem the course to be successful. One major objective in my teaching is to aid in the development of critical thinking abilities with each and every student. This is a lofty goal but I strive for it.

Another of my goals as an educator is to be a conduit of information for students to tap. I welcome students to use me for their professional aspirations long after they graduate.  In this I have been able to create many long-lasting friendships and add to my peer group in the field. Some successful former students in the field I had the great opportunity to teach include:

Adam Welch, lecturer at Princeton and the director of Greenwich House Pottery in NYC, was a graduate student whom I worked with at VCU.

Jessica Knapp, editor at Ceramics Monthly, was a special student I worked with at VCU.

Matthew Armbrust, an active artist, musician and member of the Spartan Art Project was and MFA student at CWU.

Chase Grover was an outstanding graduate student at CWU. His art was focused
in the catalog and on the poster for the Makers, Mentors & Milestones at the NCECA exhibition at the Nelson Atkins Museum in Kansas City.

Seth Charles was another fantastic graduate student at CWU. He is presently teaching at State College of Florida and is a Resident Artist at the Morean Center for the Arts in Saint Petersburg, Florida.

Two exceptional undergraduate students from CWU whom I mentored to go to graduate school in ceramics are Daniel Donovan, a full-time art teacher at Idyllwild Arts in CA  and Lisa Soranaka, who adjuncts in Ceramics at Yakima Valley Community College.

There are so many more former students that went on to graduate school and are professionals in the field that I am honored to have been a part of their education. I show examples of their past and present work on my website.

Presently I have three emerging talents as MFA students at CWU. Drew Liedtke and John Giesin are two graduate students getting ready for their thesis exhibitions this spring. Aveline Layne will be finishing her MFA in spring ‘19. All three have made great strides in their professional development.

Professional development is a key aspect of in my goals as a graduate faculty member and was a major focus of mine as the Graduate Coordinator at CWU.  Teaching graduate students is richly rewarding because the students also become future colleagues. They become peers, both in the field and as they gain insight in pedagogical practice and they also become peers in teaching. Of course, as their professor, I keep a healthy distinction between the two, but I really feel like we are mentoring new colleagues. Mentorship for all my students is rewarding, but MFA and BFA students who wish to go on to receive their terminal degree are the two most rewarding aspects of teaching to me. That is not to say that BA and BFA students who are not as energized to are not as important to me as a professor. They are equally important and I work just as hard helping them with their individual goals. I do, however, push all of my students to take their coursework seriously. Teaching in general is about never giving up on the worst student in class as well as challenging the very best in class. Oftentimes I have seen the worst student, with a few metaphorical kicks in the butt, become one of the best students. Something I learned from one of my teaching mentors was that you need to give them enough rope to pull themselves out of the mud they are stuck in.

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