Thursday, December 4, 2008

The B-minus Student of a B-minus Student

35. The B-minus Student of a B-minus Student

In the second half of the twentieth century, particularly after the Korean War, American colleges and universities added a lot of ceramics positions to their Art Department faculties. Some programs expanded, others were newly created from scratch. It took a lot of energy, inquiry and innovation for the people involved. Some of these pioneers started equipment companies or wrote now classic textbooks. Their students took jobs at an even wider array of colleges, and so on. Unfortunately this ultimately led the profession to a danger which faces every academic discipline -- the descending competency spiral.
For the purposes of argument, let’s say that Professor Glenn Nelson of the University of Iowa knew one hundred things about ceramics and dutifully taught them all to his students. One of them, a B-minus student, who might be said to have only picked up eighty of those one hundred lessons, gets a job teaching elsewhere. At that school there is another B-minus student who only picks up 80% of what is being taught. Unfortunately, what is being taught is itself only 80% of what Glenn Nelson taught, so in just two generations through the honest efforts of B-minus students, the new graduate has been reduced to 64 of the one hundred things that Professor Nelson taught. And so on, downward and downward.
But wait, you say, people learn things on their own, during and after graduate schools. New knowledge is created, knowledge that the first professor could not possibly have taught. True, but if the total learned is raised even to 99%, the effect will still be an inevitable decline.
Several years ago a friend of mine earned an MFA from a small university program with just one ceramics professor. Unfortunately, the two of them were increasingly at odds until by graduation time the professor was quite emotionally abusive. Of the lessons the teacher might have taught some were probably withheld, and there is some evidence to suggest that the total potential number of lessons did not come close to Professor Nelson’s ‘one hundred.’
So, despite her best efforts, my friend emerged with an inadequate body of knowledge, serious emotional baggage, and a relatively worthless terminal degree. The good news is that she is doing much better now. Because she could never feel complacent about her degree and the knowledge she received earning it, she has continued to educate herself, to work and to grow. It may well be that she is now more competent than that abusive instructor, though she still sees that as an inadequate achievement. She may well yet be a superb ceramics professor somewhere but it will only be after years and years of work to find and learn the lessons unavailable to her in graduate school.
Now clearly, Professor Nelson knew more than one hundred things about ceramics, and to expect any of his students to have mastered every facet of that knowledge by graduation day is absurd and a little ghoulish. Further, I am not suggesting that only straight “A” MFA students should be offered teaching jobs. Quite the reverse. It’s the graduates who think they know everything, or who believe that they know enough simply because they know more than the people around them, who are the problem.
Arrogance, ignorance, complacency and laziness make for very poor instructors. The humble person of constant inquisitiveness is what will sustain and improve our art and the teaching of our art. Anyone who is just trying to get a job, to get tenure, and to get by with a minimum of effort is a further danger to the profession and a further step in the downward spiral. Only by learning more than our teachers have to teach can the process be reversed. Learn from them, indeed, as much as you possibly can. But also learn from the pots themselves. Each of us needs to learn to be our own best teacher, without the need for schools, classes, or grades. Keep seeking to do more than your teachers thought possible.

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