Monday, May 4, 2009

Photo I: Information Overload?

Before I get to specifics about spring semester, I've been thinking a lot about what is taught... and what should be taught... in a Photo I course. In my classes (and those of other effective Photo I teachers I've observed), here's briefly what is covered:
  • Camera operation: exposure, control of motion via the shutter and depth of field via the aperture.
  • Printing/output: a basic introduction to techniques for bringing the image from the camera to printed form, whether darkroom-based or digital (and sometimes both, depending on the structure of the course)
  • Aesthetic and compositional issues: subject choice, point of view, framing, lighting, etc.
  • Conceptual issues: finding avenues for personal expression via photography; what will the student photograph, and why? What ideas does the student want to address in the work?
That's a lot of material, and I didn't even mention a host of other topics I touch upon briefly... like my quickie introduction to photo history (though I'm sure my students would say that one isn't nearly brief enough). At times is seems like too much material... but I'm at a loss as to how it might be condensed. As I tell my students, photography is a sequentially-based process: your ultimate success is based on proper technique and good results at each previous step in the process. In other words... great prints don't come from poorly exposed negatives. I believe Photo I students must get a thorough introduction to the essentials they will need for further photographic study... so is information overload unavoidable in Photo I? I'd love to hear from any potential readers who might have thoughts on this subject.

A related topic: in my current position, Photo I is a requirement for all fine art and graphic design majors. The course also attracts students from interior design, architecture, and various other majors across the campus. This diversity of experience and interests among the students has been one of the real joys of teaching the course this year, but raises a question: how does one make the course relevant and effective for such a diverse population of students? I know I'm begging the question a bit here, as I firmly believe that Photo I is an essential course for anyone entering a visual/creative field... but how do we give photo majors the medium-specific foundation they need and reach out to undecided students, without overwhelming the hapless sculpture major who is simply there to fulfill a requirement?

Questions, questions...

The best laid plans...

Wow... it's been quite a semester. As I write I'm sitting on my front porch, enjoying the weather after a spring rain, and catching my breath from the term that just ended. I had genuinely intended to keep up with this blog on a regular basis, discussing things as they happened, but we can see that didn't happen! I have about three weeks until summer term begins (I'm sure there will be posts about this soon... I'm teaching two sections of Photo I in a five-week term!), and I hope during that time to play catch-up with my blogging.

In other news: the summer term will be my last in my current position, which was a one-year, visiting gig. Knowing this, I've been job hunting all year in what turned out to be a lousy market. I'm one of the lucky ones this year, as I'll be moving to accept a tenure-track position in the Midwest. More about that later, I'm sure.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

First critique results...

One of my main reasons for starting this blog is to keep better records of successful (and unsuccessful) aspects of my assignments and teaching strategies. I just finished reviewing the work from our first critique...a short assignment called The Scanner As Camera...and wanted to share a few thoughts.

First, the assignment: it's meant as a quick introduction to the computer as an imaging device. Though this is something most of my students are very familiar with, they (usually) haven't thought of using a flatbed scanner in this way. Basically, they use the scanner as a camera, capturing images directly on the glass. It's simple, direct, and in many ways is the 21st century equivalent of a photogram. Like the photogram, it is simple and quick to do. Also like photograms, it can be very challenging to get results that are truly interesting and unique. One problem in particular is achieving any real sense of depth in the image (by nature of the scanner the images produced tend to be rather flat)...and avoiding what I call the "bunch of stuff tossed on the scanner" syndrome.

I borrowed this assignment from a colleague when I began teaching here (with permission, of course) and I think it's been pretty successful so far. This semester I had some very nice results, in fact. For non-photo majors, I find this is a nice entry to the world of digital imaging that allows them to bring their own ideas and ways of working to the photographic medium; for photo students, it's a nice reminder that photography isn't just about zoom lenses and megapixels.

One question I've been considering about this (and other) assignments: how many examples from past students should I show? I've got mixed feelings about this...does showing examples increase their chances for success, or limit their chance for independent discoveries? Perhaps that's a topic for a future post...

Saturday, January 24, 2009

First class, first post...

Much as I do on the first day of class, let’s start with some mundane things that I must state before we begin in earnest. Keeping a journal or diary has always been awkward for me, and I’ve never had much luck sticking with it for long. I’m hoping this new format (a blog, as opposed to an easy-to-misplace paper journal filled with intimidating, blank pages) will encourage me to keep at it. A recent change in employment (I’m now half way through a 1-year Visiting Assistant Professorship) has made it more important to keep a better record of what I do in class; not just so I can remember the wonderful experience I’m having, but also so I can better refine my approach to what I do in the classroom. I imagine this blog will sometimes be rather dull (How long did a certain lecture take? How well did students respond to a particular assignment?), but I hope it will rise to the level of “marginally interesting” at times, too…

Speaking of the first day of class: I go over the syllabus, course policies, and supply list. I do my best NOT to read these things word-for-word, but feel I must verbalize at least the main points. I emphasize that the syllabus is a contract between teacher and student; it states what I expect from them, what they can expect from me. I also try to give them a glimpse of my personality as a teacher (at least as I perceive it): someone who expects discipline and hard work, but who also has a sense of humor and wants them to enjoy what they’re doing. With that in mind, I have a few jokes, practiced and refined over the years, which usually get some laughs. I also try to give them a clear impression that I won’t tolerate laziness or mediocrity. In some ways I think I’m trying to cultivate a reputation for being a somewhat wacky-but-lovable, demanding-but-understanding taskmaster. I wonder if my approach is working?

Studio classes at my current institution run 2 hours 45 minutes; this semester, my introductory spiel on the first day ran about 2 hours. Whew!