Notes from the VisCom Classroom: My Eight Tips for Teachers

If you teach, you may have a mental list (or perhaps even a written one) of teaching tips — things that work in the classroom and things that don’t. Here’s my attempt at writing down a few of the things I’ve learned over the years as a photography instructor. These are in no particular order; hopefully they will stimulate some thought and discussion down the road.

1. Ask questions. One way to engage students is by asking them questions. Sure, you can lecture at them, but if you think back to the last time you were lectured at, I’ll bet it wasn’t all that rewarding an experience (unless it happened to be Al Gore’s climate-change movie, but even that had graphs, charts, and home movies.) You can use questions to get across much of the same information you would in a lecture, but you are getting the students engaged in the process — and also letting them do some of the heavy lifting!

2. Ask questions that don’t have simple answers. I always start my photography classes by asking the following questions: What is a photograph? What do we need to make a photograph? What are photographs used for? What do photographers do? Although these may seem like trivial questions, they inevitably lead to lively discussions in the classroom. For example, if a photograph is “a picture of something,” how is it different from a drawing or a painting? If a photograph is “a representation of reality,” what makes one photographer’s work different from another’s? Do we need an idea or subject matter to make a photograph? Can a photograph cause us to buy something, stop a war, or save an endangered species? Do photographers “take” or “make” pictures, and what’s the difference? What roles do photographers play in the visual-communication industry, and why do some make tons of money while others make hardly any? As you can see, the discussion can go off in dozens of different directions.

3. Ask questions that don’t have right or wrong answers. Sure, you could ask your class when photography was invented — a few students would know, some would get the decade or century right, but most probably wouldn’t have a clue. I find it more interesting to talk about the inventions that predated photography — the camera obscura, the first lenses, the camera lucida — and then ask: why did it take so long to invent photography? This leads to a discussion of the development of a stable recording medium, the negative/positive process, film-based photography, digital photography, and on and on.

4. Don’t be afraid of silence. If you are going to ask lots of questions, there will be many times when you don’t get an answer, at least not right away. Silence is not a bad thing. In fact, it’s probably better than yammering away. Sooner or later, one of the students will take pity on you and say something, and then off you go.

5. Turn off the computers, cell phones, PDAs, iPods, etc. Students seem to thrive on a constant barrage of stimuli; in fact, I think they’re addicted. If there’s a computer on, they’ll mouse around. If their cell phone is on, they’ll text-message. None of them would be caught dead reading a book or a newspaper in class, because that would be rude. But they don’t associate these electronic distractions with rudeness: to them, being interconnected is like breathing — it’s something you do 24/7. So at the beginning of the first class, I tell them I’m going to teach them the most important thing about using a Macintosh: “Click on the Apple icon, then drag your mouse down to Sleep.” Amazing, you mean you can turn the thing off?

6. If it doesn’t flash, beep, blink, move, or have audio, forget it. If you are of a certain age (as I am), you might be content to sit in a darkened room contemplating the drama of Robert Capa’s moment of death picture, the poignancy of Dorothea Lange’s migrant mother, or the composition of Joe Rosenthal’s flag raising on Iwo Jima. These and other photographs from the past may even have inspired you to become a photographer. With today’s students, however, the slide-talk — like the chalk-talk it replaced — is a risky proposition. First of all, most students are sleep-deprived: they’re taking a full load of classes plus working part- or maybe even full-time. So putting them in a dark room will lull them to sleep, especially if you provide soothing commentary. Second, without context (why are these photographs important/meaningful/provocative/inspiring?), the images are just, well, old black-and-white photographs on the screen. And finally (see “Turn off the computers…,” above), students live in a full-color, surround-sound, interactive world. Jump in, it won’t bite! If you want to get really inspired about what can be done with multimedia, check out Brian Storm’s MediaStorm Web site.

7. If you use a textbook, make it a damn good one. When I was looking for a text book for my Photovisual Communications class, I ran into two problems. First, many of the books that were supposedly “completely updated” for digital photography seemed to have the digital information tacked onto a previous, film-based book. Second, most of the photographs were, shall we say, uninspiring (to be polite). Now here’s the deal: textbooks are expensive, students don’t like to buy them and schlep them around, and most of the information in them is available for free on the Web — check out Ted’s Photographics, for example. And if they don’t have beautiful, inspiring photographs — what’s the point? Finally Marti Saltzman, publisher of Lark Books in Asheville, North Carolina, sent me Jeff Wignall’s book, The Joy of Digital Photography, which was exactly what I was looking for. The book is up-to-date, lively, and full of inspiring images (and no, I don’t know Jeff personally — this is unsolicited praise!).

8. Use the critique process to full advantage. I believe the critique is where most of the photographic learning in my classes takes place. Critiquing is a difficult process; students feel they are being asked to pass judgment on each other’s work and be judged in return. Also, they need to develop a method and a vocabulary for critiquing photographs — this isn’t something anyone is born knowing how to do. So I ask my students, “What do we want to know about the photographs we are going to look at?” Then the students and I discuss some of the possibilities: What’s actually in the photograph? What action or story is portrayed? How are the shapes and forms arranged and related? What moods and feelings are being expressed? What is the style or genre? What themes, or keywords, can you associate with the image? What is the overall effect? I then give them a handout they can use during the critique, starting with the simplest task (describe all the objects in the photograph, exactly as they appear) to most complex (evaluate the image’s overall effect). This way, every student, no matter what his or her level of expertise, can participate in, and hopefully benefit from, the critique.

[tags]David Weintraub, teaching photography, photography courses [/tags]

2 Responses to “Notes from the VisCom Classroom: My Eight Tips for Teachers”

  1. Thank you very much for this orientation!

  2. great series of articles! I teach high school digital photography and there isn't that much current info from teachers sharing their practices.

    a question...could you describe your critique process a you show pics on the projector or prints? do you yourself critique every photo? how long do you spend on each photo? if it harsh are you?

    thanks again...I look forward to future posts

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