Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Back to Grumble

It's time to break the blogging holiday.

It's midterm time in our college. Handing out grades is seldom pleasant. I've always tried to drop hints  along the way in hope to get through to some young skulls that unless they step up efforts, their grades won't be pretty.

Invariably, I have failed to impress the ones most in need of my impact-levelling message.

It means right about these two weeks there's much shock and distress accompanied by plenteous tears and gnashing of teeth.

Let me illustrate (exchanges not in exact words for brevity):


Case One

STUDENT A (who accumulates five unexcused absences in half of a semester, emails me on morning the midterm portfolio is due): Hey there, I've been working from home. I'll be done at noon and bring my stuff to you.
ME (email reply):  Your excessive absences are a ground for being dropped from the course. I made attendance policy very clear on Day One. You are not allowed to work at home without first consulting and obtaining permission from me.
STUDENT A (shows up with portfolio an hour later, visibly in distress, tears running): Can we talk?
ME:  Sure.
STUDENT A:  So I have been dropped? How could that be? I thought I was doing good and I actually enjoy this class! I'm so shocked.
ME:  You've missed five classes.
STUDENT A: But... but, I thought I was doing fine. Look, I did this at home and it's turning out good.
ME:  You consider that good?
STUDENT A:  Yeah. Don't you??
ME:  That's the problem.
STUDENT A (tears gushing, voicing trembling):  I can't believe you think it's no-good. I really enjoyed doing it.
ME:  You cut classes, your work is regressing. I can explain why the work is bad. But you miss one more class it'll be all over. I could overlook your performance up to now if you clean up your act.
STUDENT A (looking up with hope through tears):  So, I'm not being dropped??
ME:  You have half of a semester to prove yourself.


Case Two
ME (looking at a portfolio of about a dozen figure paintings by STUDENT B, chronologically displayed against the wall):  Tell me what you think.
STUDENT B (a hyper-sensitive, chronic complainer, cry-at-the-drop-of-a-hat type):  I've made a lot of progress.
ME: You did. But you're still doing just average work.
STUDENT B (with arched eyebrows):  What do you mean?? I think I'm doing so much better.
ME: I'm glad you're doing much better. You would have failed had you not improved.
STUDENT B (in apparent disbelief): Ugh.
ME:  You struggled hard, and you've overcome much. But this is the third painting class you've taken, and I expected you to do better once you've overcome the slump.
STUDENT B (apparently flabbergasted, with a forced smile to stifle emotion, forcing each syllable):  I did. I think I've succeeded. What more do you want me to do???
ME:  You did very well in the Intro class. The still lives you did were very good. These don't measure up.
STUDENT B:  But this is not still life, I love figure. I think figure is more important and meaningful, still life isn't. I want to do figure the rest of my life.
ME:   What's the difference? In still life you learn to see form in color. A bottle is a cylinder, so are an arm and a neck. Still life in Intro ought to have prepared you for figure.
STUDENT B (breaking down in tears):  I don't know what to say to you.
ME:  And that, the tears, too. Where does the tear fit in?
STUDENT B: I'm...ugh, just so...frustrated!
ME: Set your earlier still life next to this self portrait, which would be the better painting?
STUDENT B:  The still life.
ME:  So? Although I disagree that still life is less significant than figure, I won't argue with you. What about the lessons you learned in still life? Your work now shows little evidence you understand color and form.
STUDENT B (still crying):  I don't deny anything you say. But what do you want me to say?
ME:  I guess I'm just telling you that you're doing average work.
ME (again, to myself, silently): You talk a good talk, your work sucks. 


Some context:
College art instructors, it seems, have a special hair shirt in store for us: to tiptoe around criticism, often ridiculously looking for nice things to say about crappy work. The artlings have been told their entire pre-college lives that whatever they did, was wonderful. After all, isn't art whatever expresses yourself? If you can't follow instructions, very well could it be that you're unique and deserve a special delivery. I've conceded to and accommodated Student B's "unique" learning style, avoiding at all costs her avalanche of tears, her constant belly-aching and hand-wringing. I've high-fived her on her minor breakthroughs and suggested ways to accelerate progress. I've halted the entire class so I could paint a demo exclusively for her sake... Whenever I feel my patience straining, I reminded myself of her delicacy and "uniqueness." Her high-minded art talk made me believe somehow I just hadn't found the golden key to unlock her genius.

Must admit, no one to blame but myself. Two bright light bulbs: She ain't no genius, and I ain't her problem.

Feels so darn good to come to terms with truth. Heck, feels even better to tell the darn thing. I have a feeling that the truth-telling session is good for both Student B and me. Her tears soon dried up and I suspect I shall see them less in the future.


Notice something in the two exchanges?
ME: You've missed five classes. You may be dropped. I made the attendance policy clear on Day One.
STUDENT A:  I'm shocked! I thought I was doing good and I enjoy this class!
ME:  This painting of yours is bad.
STUDENT A:  But I really enjoyed doing it!
ME:  You did better in Intro painting still lives. Your current work doesn't reflect what you learned then.
STUDENT B: Figure is much more important. Still life is not. I want to paint figure the rest of my life.

Granted, I speak English with accent. But I couldn't have mangled the messages that badly??