Editor’s Note: This is the fourth in a series of blog posts in which teaching award winners will share their experiences, philosophies, and techniques. To read the previous posts, click here.

Vivian Liddell is an assistant professor of art and a recipient of the 2018 Teaching Excellence Award.

On the desk in my office I have a framed African proverb overlaid with a hand-crafted piece of cloth given to me by another educator. The proverb states: “He who learns, teaches” — but it’s usually the little sample of cloth (not the proverb) that grabs my attention.

Vivian Liddell

Many artists are strong visual learners, and I’ve found that I usually have quite a bit in common with my students in terms of learning modalities: We learn best by seeing and doing and need time to process information and reflect in order to inform our “doing” decisions and directions. Although there is this commonality among many artists that on the surface might seem to make arts pedagogy coherent, there are many more factors that make it divergent and challenging. First, there are the murky stages in the development of any studio practice. How far along are our students? They may have mastered technical skills and created a beautiful naturalistic painting, but do they understand why they’ve made it and how it fits in with the world around them? Western culture has traditionally defined successful artwork not only by its craftsmanship, but also by its originality and even its rejection/one-upsmanship of the artists and art movements that have come before. How do we as art educators create a pedagogy that is responsive to students’ individual technical needs and progress on their own artistic paths while simultaneously encouraging them to take risks that push beyond the boundaries of what we are able to teach them?

One 2014 study of working artists and arts graduates affirms that we need to take a serious look at our institutional relevancy. BFAMFAPhD found that a mere 10% of arts graduates are working artists and that only 16% of working artists actually graduated from an art program. Even more shocking to someone who is teaching or studying art: 40% of working artists do not have a bachelor’s degree in any field. Over the past few years, I’ve made a shift in my teaching practice as I’ve considered how I can better prepare my students for a career that I know from personal experience is not only mercurial but also ruthlessly competitive. I’m still very invested in passing on basic foundational skills, but I’ve become much more interested in what students are going to do with those skills when they leave my classroom. True to the proverb, to reflect on how this change in my teaching has occurred, I first have to look at what and how I am actively learning.

As an artist, my main research is my studio practice. There are many misconceptions around the notion of “artistic genius” that lead folks to believe that an artist is someone who is born with gifts (a myth that is best dispelled by feminist scholar Linda Nochlin in her groundbreaking 1971 essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”). My art practice teaches me every day that this is simply not true. I have learned to establish a schedule for working and to stick to it without exception. There can be no career in the arts if one does not make art; waiting for inspiration to strike will not cut it. Demystifying the habits of a working studio artist has become one of my main goals as an educator. I have come to think of myself more as a mentor and a guide than a teacher — explicitly asking students to think about how they structure their personal lives and how that structure might hinder or assist a career in the arts, and sharing my own experiences with them when appropriate.

I’m trepidatious about incorporating my personal experiences into my pedagogy; it’s not something that I’ve ever been encouraged to do, and it makes me uncomfortable to expose my own vulnerabilities. In March of 2017, I began hosting a podcast in which I interview other women about their inspirations and definitions of art, and how these individual opinions reflect our changing region. At first, I saw this as personal research — not to be mixed with my classroom research — and purposefully tried to keep it separate from my life as an educator (tellingly, I wasn’t afraid of integrating it with my studio practice, which is often one step ahead of the rest of my life). I’m beginning to see that there are many areas of overlap between my lives as an artist, podcast host, and educator, and that all three of these roles might work better for all involved if they were more integrated. Not only do I talk to many artists who have pursued career paths that my students might find inspirational, but the podcast has taught me that the best conversations are not scripted. If I want students to take risks and break into territories that are unfamiliar, I need to be a better listener in the classroom, just as I am learning to be a better listener to my peers through my podcast. And I need to allow open space for students to explore and grow.

My lean toward a more horizontal approach in teaching is informed by my personal experience, but it wasn’t until I read works by educational theorists like bell hooks that I felt validated and emboldened to try new approaches that differed from the top-down classes I dutifully sat through as a student. After reading her book Teaching to Transgress while preparing to teach Feminist Theory and Criticism in Contemporary Art, I started explicitly examining how I could change the overall structure of my classes to better suit my students’ needs. I began to seek out projects and assignments that allowed the students to lead, to explore their own interests, and to become more empowered and invested in their own learning.

Attending professional conferences and paying attention to the advice and work of my colleagues has been another important wellspring of influence and change. At one beginning-of-the-year faculty meeting, my colleague Jennifer Graff introduced UNG’s LEAP initiative. She briefly outlined how the Essential Learning Outcomes, Principles of Excellence, High-Impact Practices, and VALUE Rubrics could be easily integrated into some of the work that we might already be doing. I took her advice, applying for and receiving a LEAP Into Action grant.

This gave me the opportunity to use LEAP’s already existing structure of outcomes and VALUE rubrics to assess students on soft skills like critical thinking and teamwork and made it easier for me to flesh out projects that more closely mirrored my own life experiences as a working artist. I began to finally understand (by doing) the benefits of the backward curriculum design I had read about in graduate school — engineering projects with a lot of open space in the process, but a clear end result. Students have shared with me their fears about taking the lead and/or not being given explicit step-by-step instructions; they tend to get worried when classroom work extends beyond the classroom. At first, I worried along with them. But after a few go-rounds I’m learning to trust the process a little more, just as I embrace the unknown in my own studio practice. As a result, the students have been able to take the lead, working with local community business owners to set up exhibitions and create murals and gaining the confidence needed to pursue these same types of work on their own after graduation.

The takeaway for me — and I hope for my students — in all of these learning experiences is that progress in the arts only happens when there is a risk of failure. I’m still figuring out what that looks like in a classroom setting; clearly my students don’t want to fail. But rubrics that assess risk-taking and teamwork seem like a good place to start.