Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Limitations of Instructors

10. The Limitations of Instructors

At the 1989 NCECA conference in Kansas City one of the panels was a first ever discussion of student concerns as presented by student panelists. At one point it degenerated into complaints about the inadequacies of their instructors. I couldn’t help thinking of it as whining and told them so at the time.
Yes, ceramics instructors are often inadequate in the breadth and depth of their knowledge. Yes, insufficient departmental funding often impairs students’ ability to follow their curiosity fully. Yes, an education in ceramics is time-consuming and unsystematic. Too bad. It’s not just your teacher, your school, or your particular circle of hell. Even the best-taught students in the world could complain, “Our professors never take us on any month-long field trips to the notable potteries of southwestern England.” Boo hoo. If you feel compelled to study some particular aspect of ceramics, it may well be up to you to find your own way to make it happen.
Shoji Hamada once said something to the effect of, “If you want to know what I know, don’t study me, study the things I studied.” What do you study to become another Shoji Hamada? He had no one instructor or single learning experience. How many teachers and learning experiences did it take to create a Bernard Leach or a Peter Voulkos?
At some point, and this is what graduate school should be about, you need to learn to be your own best teacher. Identify the gaps in your expertise and do what it takes to fill them. Read, travel, experiment, listen, and discuss. How can your instructors ever be experts on your art? They can not give you everything you’ll need to know on photocopied sheets of paper. They can only help by showing you the bits of the puzzle they’ve collected in the search for their own art. The puzzle that is your art will always be different.
On the other hand, if your instructor really is incompetent or abusive, move on! Give yourself permission to do better elsewhere. Do not give yourself permission to be whining, lazy, or over-impressed by the qualities of your own work. Energy, determination, humility, and attentiveness will always be your best instructors, no matter where you end up earning a degree.

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