Philosophy of teaching
Teachers/mentors can't make anyone learn.
Successful teachers can address only the following eight activities:
Provide information or how to access it.
Demonstrate skills and techniques.
Enable and empower students with necessary tools.
Motivate and challenge students to excel.
Inspire with examples and actions.
Encourage the achievement of a standard of excellence.
Model appropriate ethical behavior of problem solving and innovation.
Evaluate and assess performance.
That's all teachers can do - teachers can't make students learn. The responsibility for learning and understanding new information is primarily on the learner. A learner determines what he/she will get out of an experience.
In light of media manipulation, terrorism, technological advances, war, and blind faith; it is important to teach skeptical thinking - to encourage students to think for themselves. Teaching independent thinking may be tough, but it is certainly worthwhile, maybe the most worthwhile activity a teacher can impact. My academic goal is to get students to become better thinkers - to think and reason more clearly, more thoroughly, and more often. I want to help develop intelligent innovators and decision makers who are problem solvers, problem seekers, and clear communicators. It is crucial today to provide design students with a thorough foundation in design history, critical analysis, the problem solving process, creative thinking, and persuasive communication skills (as well as computer proficiency and execution skills).
I encourage professional work attitudes: deadlines are strictly enforced, portfolio quality work is emphasized, and students are expected to do whatever is necessary to solve the given design problem. I do not 'baby' students: I am demanding and have high expectations, but the good students appreciate it and say they learn a great deal in my classes. I expect quality work and a high level of individual initiative from students. I reward effort, innovation, and professional execution skills. There is much questioning of the student to encourage further thinking and reasoning - trying to get beneath the surface of 'pretty pictures' to discover why decisions were made. A student's satisfaction and self-esteem are enhanced when a student discovers an answer instead of being told an answer. Requiring students to justify and rationalize their decisions enhances their skills in reasoning, communication, and persuasion.
Good teachers love what they do - they have passion, they really want to be good teachers. Good teachers take risks, they try new things, they see failure as a positive move forward. Good teachers have a positive attitude. Good teachers strive to keep themselves and their students off balance. Growth and learning occur when comfort, complacency, and self-assurance are threatened. Good teachers push and challenge students.
When lecturing, I organize information into orderly lists to allow easier comprehension and recall. I strive to help students understand the information and theories that speak of great design. I use numerous examples and projected images (I have a library of over 5,000 digital images).
Class projects are structured to encourage students to meet client needs (not just client wants), conduct research, clearly state and understand the design problem, and prepare professional comps. To address environmental concerns, Earth-friendly responsibility of specs are encouraged (recycled paper, less metallic inks, and more efficient quantities of printing). Most design projects are assessed in four areas:
• Concept: the original idea, creative strategy, and theme.
• Communication: how well that idea is conveyed with type, image, and composition.
• Craftsmanship: the quality of execution and presentation.
• Presentation: the student's appearance, oral communication skills, and persuasive rationale.
Separate grades for each area provide more specific feedback for the student.
I realize it may be frustrating, but if a student shows me a bunch of thumbnails, I'm not likely to tell them which ones are working or which ones have merit. Some students respond with, "well, you're no help" (what they mean is - "I'm too stupid and/or lazy to decide and I want you to do it for me"). I believe that I help students by not telling them which ones are the best. It helps them become a more intelligent, assertive, and confident decision-maker. Becoming a better designer is about becoming a better decision maker, and therefore, a better creative problem solver. If I decide which ones are good, I deprive them of the process of understanding, analyzing, debating, and concluding. They have most likely been conditioned to 'please the teacher', but if they ever tell an interviewer or client, "This one works because my teacher said so," they may brand themselves an idiot. The student needs to decide if they wish to be fair, good, or great. To be good is not enough if you dream of being great.
Toys and mind games
Since design is creative problem solving, I often tickled student's neurons with a variety of problems to solve. In Graphic Design I (intro course), there was often a mind game due each class period. The puzzles and mind games helped students to see differently, explore options, be curious, experiment, and have fun.
• Puzzle toys: I had a collection of more than 25 puzzles that I kept in a cabinet that I would roll into the classroom. Students would pick one out each week. They had the weekend to solve the puzzle and return it on Monday. I mentioned that if we did nothing else all semester but solve puzzles, they would be better designers.
• Oral scenarios: Bob & Carol are found lying dead on the floor of the apartment. There is a small puddle of water and a cat sitting on the open window sill. How did Bob & Carol die? I could only answer with Yes, No, Maybe, or I'm not gonna tell ya. They learned to ask better questions, not take things for granted, and to think outside of a box.
• Handouts: Find the objects, word puzzles.
Students go to college after years of boring easy classes. They had learned that the important thing is to please the teacher to make a good grade. Most learned to 'get by' with a minimum of effort - they had become complacent. I accepted the mission that I would wake them up, startle them, keep them engaged, and throw them a curveball every now and then.
Watsonisms used in class discussions and critiques
Neurobics describes the attitude of experiencing new activities to broaden one's horizon, expand possibilities, and stretch to new boundaries. Students who do neurobics are motivated to participate in life in new ways. More info.
Continue to work at integrating type and image. Avoid the 'design-by-committee' look (elements that don't relate) or the look that says, "Oh shoot, I forgot to add the type."
Learning is fun - your brain loves to stretch, grow, and learn.
Remember that to not play is to fail, to play is to win.
Ask the right questions - think a moment and determine what you really want to find out - then ask that.
Do things because they're smart, logical, and appropriate; not just because you've been conditioned to do them.
Desire approval from others but require approval of your thoughts and beliefs from only you.
Accept responsibility for the consequences of your actions.
Continue to strive to grow and become a better thinker and problem solver.
Work at acknowledging and embracing fears that are barriers to your growth.
Explore, experiment, and discover; strive to regain lost childlike attributes of curiosity and wonder.
Product names should be easy to pronounce, easy to remember, appropriate to the product, minimally offensive, translate into other cultures, and convey some essence of the product or company.
Every design decision is a compromise between the familiar and the innovative. Great design has elements of both. Innovative work often requires more education.
In this absolute order, design and critique works of design for:
1. the target audience
2. the client (good clients will agree that your solutions are for their customers, not for themselves)
Its easier to tone down a bizarre concept than it is to jazz up a dull one.
It is better to fail while taking a risk than to succeed while playing it safe.
Affirm to your inner voices and psyche that you are confident, bold, assertive, and firmly believe that you have the talent and ability to craft words and images that can make a difference.
Communicate a specific body of information to a specific group of people to achieve a specific result.
The brain will solve any design problem, provided it has a thorough understanding of the problem, adequate information, strong motivation, and a valid deadline.
Fear is the greatest block to creativity. Feel the fear and do it anyway. Fail forward. Its better to fail while taking a risk than to succeed while playing it safe.
Establish the creative strategy concept: destination, goal, result. Memorize it to stay on track.
Vista vision: get back from your work and see it with fresh eyes, to objectively spot its strengths and weaknesses.
The purpose of advertising and graphic design is to change the target market's attitude about the subject.
Designers don't deal with reality, they deal with the viewer/target's perception of reality.
Figure out what is working in the piece, exploit that and minimize the rest.
Attention to detail separates the good from the great designers.
Determine the options available, then explore and select the most efficient.
Every design decision is a compromise, a balance between the familiar and the innovative.
The computer is a wonderful tool, but it is not a crutch, an excuse, nor a designer.
Persuasive communication is achieved by providing strong rationale; using correct grammar and spelling; and being prepared, rehearsed, and able to think quickly.
If a design decision cannot be justified, it must be deleted - or it becomes clutter.
In presentations, avoid: "I feel" "I chose", etc. Keep personalities to a minimum: discuss the work as a strong solution to the problem, rather than a personal preference.
Interviewers look for intelligence, a pleasant personality, clear communication skills, innovative problem solving, a strong portfolio, and traditional and digital execution skills.
Great designers have a passion for great solutions, courageously take risks, possess integrity and enthusiasm, think innovatively, and truly believe design is fun.
My objective on the first day of class was to learn each student's name (in studio classes of 20, not lecture classes of 50). So I shared that with the class - We're not leaving until I learn everybody's name. That put some of the burden on the student by providing motivation for them to help me learn their names. It then became group effort, involved the students, and helped them learn each other's name.
Why I chew gum from under classroom desks
It is 1987. I just finished my PhD and moved to Edmond, Oklahoma to teach at the University of Central Oklahoma. Growing up in North Texas, I either didn't think about Oklahoma much or I heard jokes about it. But I came up excited to begin a career. That first semester, I was asked to help judge an annual high school art competition called Young Talent in Oklahoma. Cool. That should be fun. Later, I found out that one of the other judges was my major Professor, a former Chair of the Department of Visual Arts & Design, and now a Vice President at the University of North Texas. The judging was a lot of fun. Prior to judging, my students and I took on the job of designing the graphic materials for Young Talent - a poster, a banner, name tags, and a catalog of the work by the winners. We worked with the Young Talent steering committee. During this process we proposed several innovative concepts (a triangular catalog, a shorter acronym - YT, rather than YTIO). But every time we proposed a new idea we were met with these comments: "That's not the way we did it last year." or "That's not how we've been doing it." and other similar attitudes. And these were arts people. Damn. I soon learned that there is a culture of status quo and playing-it-safe in Oklahoma. While its getting better, there is still this acceptance of not rocking the boat. Another Oklahoma mantra: "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." (Great designers use the mantra, "If it ain't broke - break it. It can always be made better.") This pervasive attitude of stifling innovation frustrated me. As a student pointed out in class during my first semester teaching in Oklahoma, "Watson, here in Oklahoma, we strive for mediocrity." The other students nodded their agreement. Not 'settle for mediocrity' but strive for mediocrity.
So, my mission for teaching in Oklahoma became clearer - I had to work at chipping away at this attitude of conformity for the sake of being 'safe'. I tried many methods in class to motivate students to be uncomfortable in the directions they took their thinking. Staying comfortable meant staying within the established boundaries that lead to more of the same, rather than progressing towards growth and innovation. Oh, the other judge, the one from North Texas, commented at dinner after a long day of judging, "Jim, I've never heard so many comments about 'That's not how we've been doing it'. What's going on here?" I told him I didn't know but that it had frustrated me also. It wasn't just my perception - others had noticed it also.
Life is unpredictable. I would strive to nudge students out of their comfort zones. Growth doesn't happen inside the comfort zone, only when we step outside of and beyond that safe boundary. While my methods might be unorthodox, I found them to be more effective. I typically had students for only one studio class and often felt a sense of desperation to reach them with the greatest impact. Chris, the DJ character from Northern Exposure, said: "I am the chaos in the order of the universe". I'm not quite that grandiose, but I see myself in that role sometimes - to help students adapt and respond to unforeseen circumstances. Having to respond to and deal with weirdness is where growth and learning happens.
Its time to chew used gum
During Graphic Design 1 class, typically made up of freshmen and sophomores (the uninitiated), I would reach under a desk, find a hardened wad of gum, pick it off, and hold it up - giving time for students to go, "Oh yuck." "Gross." "Don't chew that." "Don't put that in your mouth." - Its simply not proper to do that. So, of course, I had to do it. I would put the hard gum in my mouth and begin to chew. The cries of repulsion got even more vocal. Some students said they might throw up, others looked away, many did the wrinkly nose disgust expression. Exactly the way I expected and hoped they would react.
I would then look dumfounded, like, 'what's the big deal?' And then realize that maybe students were disgusted because I hadn't offered it to others first, to share as we had been taught in elementary school. So, I would then ask, "Oh, did you want some?" And I would pull it out of mouth and offer to those who were looking most incredulous. They would recoil and emphatically state, "No, I don't want any of that!" And more cries of "Gross."
We are conditioned to believe and therefore to behave in certain ways - we've been trained/brainwashed by our parents, the government, the church, and the mainstream media. We often don't think about our responses, we just react out of habit. Habits are dangerous for a designer. They inhibit creativity and innovation. They hinder our ability to see our surroundings from fresh viewpoints. Students responded to my gum chewing strictly from conditioned response, a habit. Once they calmed down, I would ask why that bothered them so much. "Its got germs." "Its dirty." "Its been in someone else's mouth."
I then informed them that none of those were the real reason they were repulsed. The real reason is they were behaving the way they had been trained to behave. They didn't think about it. They didn't reason. They didn't see with an open mind. They just reacted out of habit and conditioning.
I then discuss the reasoning.
• Germs? Nope. Germs require a warm moist environment to survive. Underneath a desk is neither. Imagine if germs didn't die? But they do, they die if they are not in the right environment. There are more germs on the student's hands than on that gum. But their hands didn't gross them out.
• Dirt? No. Not under the desk. Dust can't even settle up under there. The underside of the desk is quite well protected. The coins in the student's pockets probably had more dirt on them than the gum.
• Someone else's mouth. I ask if they've ever given/gotten some tongue action while kissing. Of course, they have. Isn't that someone else's mouth? And, remember, the germs are long dead.
So, any reason they come up with to be disgusted can be disproved. It just leaves the correct answer - they were disgusted because they were supposed to be disgusted. Society brainwashed them with enough propaganda to react exactly as they did. As perfect robots. My job as the motivator to growth was to encourage students to react less and think more.
I am still intrigued by cultures that regularly eat insects as part of their routine diet. More protein but we have been conditioned in the USA to be disgusted by that. Me too. Yucky. Gross. Dirty.
I do mention to the class, after the lesson sinks in a bit, that I don't chew used gum in front of kids or outside of the classroom. There have been semesters when I could find no gum under the desks (I guess I had chewed it all). I would have to check first and then plant some gum there in order to present the episode of the used gum from under a desk.
Later a student emailed me that she was blown away that I would actually chew the gum. Then she was more blown away when I explained the rationale. It changed the way she thought and responded. Hallelujah. That's why I did it. It worked.
Other quirky classroom stuff
Bad hair day
For most of my teaching career, there was a fad of wearing a hat - usually a baseball cap, and often, to wear it backwards. Whenever a student wore a hat - and it was usually on the first day of class - I would ask why they were wearing a hat indoors in class. Most students answered with I don't know. I said, well, think about it. Why would you choose to wear a hat? Still, I do not know. So, I told them. I can think of 2 reasons why you wore a ht today.
1. Everyone else is doing it, it's the style, the fad, the trend.
2. It was a bad hair day.
But, neither of those reasons is valid. A bad hair day means you woke up too late to do something about your bed-head. That's a symptom of poor time management skills. Great designers are multi-taskers and manage time to prepare themselves for the day. Doing things because everyone else does means you're not thinking for yourself. You are following, not leading. Great designers are great thinkers.
Yes, most students didn't think about it. My job was to encourage students to think about it. About every decision they make. To hone the mind.
While checking the printout roster on the first day of class, if there was a name that seemed confusing (like 'James - do you go by Jim?') I would ask what they preferred to be called. Sometimes, the student would answer with, "I don't care." I would say, "You really don't care?" - "Okay, then I'm going to call you slutpuppy." I have no idea where or when I came up with the name slutpuppy, but I used it almost every semester. One time, a GD1 grad came by to visit and asked which student in the class was named slutpuppy. A student raised his hand. "That's me." They both laughed. The lesson became apparent when the student would finally object to being called slutpuppy in class. I would say, "So you really do care what I call you." "Yes, I guess so."
Often, I would ask a student a question, calling them by name, but looking at a different student. That seemed to make both students uncomfortable. Some students would have fun with it and laugh or play along, but others would correct me, as if I was really stupid and didn't know their names (I learned all their names during the first day of class). Finally, the class acknowledged that it was all a game, as much of life is. To play is to win, to not play is to lose.
Oh, You're no help
I realize it may have been frustrating, but if a student showed me a bunch of thumbnails, I wasn't likely to tell them which ones were working or which ones had merit. Some students responded with, "well, you're no help" (what they mean is - "I'm too stupid and/or lazy to decide and I want you to do it for me"). I believe that I help students by not telling them which ones are the best. It helps them become more intelligent, assertive, and confident decision-makers. Becoming a better designer is about becoming a better decision maker, and therefore, a better creative problem solver. If I decide which ones are good, I deprive them of the process of understanding, analyzing, debating, and concluding. They have most likely been conditioned to 'please the teacher', but if they ever tell an interviewer or client, "This one works because my teacher said so," they may brand themselves an idiot. The student needs to decide if they wish to be fair, good, or great. To be good is not enough if you dream of being great.
The real world
I often hear teachers and consultants tell students about The Real World. Where is this place? I assume they mean the world that they will encounter outside of school. But school is a major part of the student's real world. Referring to a separate world outside of school suggests that there are 2 distinct realities. Just not true. I make a point of avoiding that phrase and replacing it with work environment or professional work or on-the-job. I do not want to deny that college is a real world and I want to clarify what they will encounter when they go to work on their career.
I did not accept late work.
In a professional environment, the client or printer, or advertising medium is unlikely to accept late work. My job was to prepare students to succeed as professionals.
The power of zero
The very first presentation in the semester I would simply ask for volunteers to go next - no predetermined or assigned order - they had to volunteer. We would always run out of time and some students wouldn't be able to present. I would talk about the next homework assignment and then casually mention that those who didn't present that day would get a zero. "A zero!" "That's unfair." "We ran out of time." "I didn't get a chance to go." and on and on with the bullshit. Some students got very upset, "I've never made a zero." They would get mad at me. I'd say, "Why me? Did I ask you not to go? Did I tell you to wait until class was over?" We would talk about it and they eventually, but reluctantly, came to the conclusion that it was entirely their fault (in the USA we are conditioned to play victim and blame others for our shortcomings - students have learned that lesson well). They did have a chance to go but simply chose not to. That's the game. You don't play, you lose.
I don't remember what the project was in the Intro Graphic Design 1 course, but it was important that I make a clear statement about the value of punctuality. John quietly snuck into class about 15 minutes after we had begun the presentations. He knew he was late - he came up to me after class to ask if I was serious - would he really earn a 0? Yep. He pleaded - what about the amount of work he did and the time that he spent on this project. He got mad at me. He was upset and almost in tears. But, he finally had to acknowledge that he had screwed up. It was his fault. He accepted the zero and the fact that his course average would be an F. But then, he stiffened up and in a determined assertive voice, he said, "Watson, I am going to make an A in this class." I hope you do, I replied.
From then on, John was a different student. He was never late to class again, he never missed a deadline, and he did good very work. It became clear that he was busting his ass and that he had raised his standard for quality work. We both watched his course average rise slowly during the semester. By the time of the final project, by golly, John had an A average in the class. Later, I told him, John, do you realize that zero was one of the best things that could have happened to you. If I had let you turn in that first project late, you would not have had the motivation to kick butt. He agreed.
I have learned from 30 years of teaching that a zero is a powerful motivator. If I had just told a student at the end of class that they needed to be on time, it wouldn't make much of an impression. Dropping a grade 10 or 20 points makes no impact. But a zero - the symbol for nothing - carries a lot of weight. (Later in the semester, I would delete those zeros, the point had been made, and the zeros were then unnecessary.)
Don't bore me
If a student presentation became boring, I would pick up a newspaper and start reading. One time, a student commented on how rude that was (although not nearly as rude as her saying that to me in front of others). I explained why I did it - If, at the end of the presentation, I had said that it was a bit boring - well, that would make almost no impact on the student. They would nod and maybe agree but all they cared about is that their presentation was over and they were just a few seconds away from being able to sit back down. But if I make a scene like reading the paper or doodling, or turning to talk to someone - that makes an impact. One time, a student bored us all so I read the paper during his presentation. Some in the class were aghast that I would show so little respect. (Boring listeners is also not very respectful.) Later in the semester, during another presentation, that same student was completely animated with no monotone speaking voice. We were all amazed. Afterwards he commented, "Watson, no way was I going to let you read a newspaper again." Good, it worked.
Ew, that's gross
At some point during a discussion in class, I would belch, hopefully loudly and disrupting. Of course, I could keep a straight face and play dumb, like, "What's wrong." Students gasped, chuckled, and voiced their disapproval. It was mainly because I would drink a Diet Coke in class and I was dealing with the carbonated bubbles in my system. But it knocked out of whack the expectations that students had and they didn't know how to deal with that. Education is creating situations that might be uncomfortable and encouraging students to learn how to deal with those that they don't anticipate. This lesson also explains why I would say the word fuck in class.
During 30 years of teaching, the most common excuse for not meeting a project deadline was, "I didn't have time."
I would ask, "Did you sleep last night?" Of course, they did. I then pointed out that they obviously had time. After some disgust on their part, they would admit, they actually did have time. What they really meant was that the project was not a high enough priority among all the options: eating, sleeping, socializing, games, work, laundry, and homework.
We constantly, throughout the day, make decisions and choices on how we spend our time - we prioritize that time since there is rarely enough of it to do everything we want to do. I have time to iron my shirts, I just don't want to. “I'm not going to edit your résumé, because it's not a priority." “I don't go to the doctor because my health is not a priority." If these phrases don't sit well, that's the point. Changing our language reminds us that time is a choice and we can waste it or we can prioritize and use it efficiently.
Changing one's attitude from the lie "I didn't have time" to the more accurate and honest "I chose to do other things that were of a higher priority" is quite liberating. If we don't like how we're spending an hour, we can choose differently.
While purging files and fotos, I found this note from my high school art teacher, Ms. Hudson. She heavily influenced my teaching philosophy, as evidenced by her suggestions - Think and contemplate. Have a reason for everything. Be critical.
Below: My grandfather and one uncle were college professors. My grandfather received this telegrammed job offer for Assistant Professor in Electrical Engineering at the University of Wisconsin for $1,500 in 1905: