Power Pole Army #2
2007 © mjfulmer

Mid-semester thoughts

[written November 16-30, 2007]

It’s that time of year when I find myself, like many of my teaching colleagues, questioning what and why I’m doing this. Midterm grades have been turned in, major projects have been graded, and the results of more than nine weeks of work is beginning to become clear. And the view isn’t all good.

It’s not all bad, mind you. But I am one of those generally optimistic types who believe that there are some endearing qualities to just about every student who crosses the threshold of my classroom. It’s just up to me, my overly optimistic beginning-of-the-semester-self says, to help the student reach their full potential. And yet…

There it is, the rubric-applied, aesthetically-judged, technically assessed results. In case you did not have prior knowledge, the field in which I teach is graphic design, a.k.a. visual communications, with more “specific” areas such as cross-cultural design, corporate identity and promotional design, publication design, and anything else that crosses my path. With more than 25 years in industry and 10 years as a fulltime educator, I feel fairly competent to assess the quality of the work turned in by students. My theoretical base grows from this practical experience through two graduate degrees that have added depth and breadth to the principles of communication design.

So my reaction to facing the reality of what had otherwise been a creeping feeling of doom, a dark cloud over my dying optimism, developed in several stages.

Stage 1 – Classroom Observation and Gut Feelings

This is the stage where, as the semester progressed, you notice that there are the same students who always pay attention, always seem to get it or ask the “bright” questions, and always take notes! They are there for every class, or if they miss class or are going to be late, they apologize and make up what they missed by keeping in close contact with an equally ambitious classmate.

During this stage, you would also notice the strugglers. The ones for whom the concepts and technical issues seem a bit too complex, and grasping them takes more than a little practice. But they spend a lot of time practicing, will seek you or one of the more “expert” students for assistance, and will relentlessly and tirelessly keep at it until they achieve a very hard won “B” grade. If you could give an “A” for effort, you would. But the measures that are important to success in this course are also important to success in the industry. Effort must be balanced with the skill that is achieved.

And then there are either the “lazy talented” or the “overly entitled” students. Sometimes the same student might fall into both categories. But more often, I’ll see the student who believes his/her work is far better than it really is, aesthetically. And technically it is even more dismal. 

As for the talented-but-lazy, this provokes a different kind of heartache. For here is a student who really could be a star – and while he or she probably already believes that to be the case – their work habits and technical skills are so dismal as to make it impossible to earn a passing or respectable grade. No amount of beauty or fantastic aesthetic can overcome the fact that they’ll need the technical skills to implement their ideas in a manner consistent with industry standards. I’m not advocating they give up their creativity. Just the opposite. I’m urging this type of student to exercise some good work habits and just (please) pay attention!

So, in stage one, I begin to feel torn between that dark feeling of impending doom that my optimism for some talented students has been misplaced, excitement for those bright stars who have been working hard and “getting it”, and an enduring hopefulness for the “strugglers” who have not given up despite their difficulties. 

Stage 2 – The Reality Check & Grading Major Projects

In stage 2, the hopefulness fades into dark chasms, with occasional bright shining moments of excitement as each “finished” project is reviewed in more detail for a final project grade. It is a challenge for the students to balance their aesthetic success with technical prowess, a balance that we’ve been trying to instill in our students from semester one, day one. While many have learned how to make something look reasonably good, their technical skills do not measure up to industry needs and the criteria for the course. Tutorials, demonstrations, lectures, and plenty of time to practice still have not added up to successful implementation. Detailed handouts, explanations, one-on-one assistance have only just begun to overcome the students’ mental wall of confusion over the details for a highly complex project. 

It’s not that we intend for the project to be so complex. It is meant to address the application of a rather complex but important software program to the creation of a book chapter, that contained expected details for publication design. And it’s not that this is the first project of the semester, either. The project occurs in stages, too, allowing for time to develop a plan that maps out how the various details of the design will be implemented. A chapter in a book… with folios, footers, headers, story, headline, caption, image. A project based on some real-world applications.

But while the aesthetics of the finished projects turned in by the students often show much promise, the files that are also turned in (or not!) begin to reveal a much more varied level of attention to detail. And even then, it often looks like it was either thrown together at the last minute, or at best, a half-hearted effort to apply the principles and processes that are the given parameters for the assignment. 

It is very hard not to feel offended by this lack of attention to the details. Yet I have to remind myself that it was not “about me,” that the students are not necessarily thinking “I’ll do this to piss her off.” No, in the end, while it is my responsibility to help them learn, it is a partnership. And my partner in the learning process has to be willing to take responsibility for pulling his or her own weight. That includes taking notes, getting an early start, managing their time, looking things up, asking questions, and practice, practice, practice. For some, especially the “talented-but-lazy” and/or the “overly-entitled” in the class, this becomes a demonstration in exercising their free right to instant gratification… without good results.

That said, not everything that is turned in is bad. The strugglers shows signs of attention to detail with moderately successful results. I remain hopeful that these students would achieve even more if they continue their forthright efforts to learn. And the shining stars, the ones who remain highly focused, manage their time very well, take notes, ask questions, and even (G-d forbid) crack the book, succeed in addressing the majority of technical details while keeping a sharp eye on the aesthetic decisions they had committed to in their designs. 

As I go through my grading on a long Sunday morning and afternoon inside my office in the empty art building, I keep my eye on the last project to grade, a design turned in by one of the more diligent students who always manages to “make it happen”… in a very good way.

Stage 3 – The One-on-One Heart-to-Heart

It is a good thing that my class didn’t meet for another two days after the grading is completed, for it provided a little diffusion of my Sunday afternoon frustration. By the time class rolled around on Tuesday afternoon, I was feeling more optimistic and had even developed a plan to turn this experience into a learning moment, while making the best of the rest of the semester. I had resolved to meet with each student individually and discuss his progress. During our meeting, we talked about the details of the project, their planning, implementation, aesthetic design decisions, the stories themselves. 

The project, after all, was called “Family Wisdom” and the stories it contained were meant to be pearls of wisdom from their own family. Some of the stories were quite poignant, others irreverent. Some were frightening or sad, while still others were just plain hilarious. It was heartwarming when a student would take the project farther than just a superficial retelling or fictional family story, and turn it into an homage to their family history.

The meetings were frank, at least on my part. And I encouraged the students to ask questions or explain their own frustrations or concerns. The discussions seemed helpful and were accompanied by specific demonstrations of any problems and how they might be addressed. With the artwork laid out in front of us, and the file opened up on the large screen of my computer, we went through, step-by-step, the specific issues that needed to be addressed.

All-in-all, this stage of development was met with a renewed commitment by many students who had demonstrated some appreciation for the time spent going over the project’s grade and specific details.

Stage 4 – Hope Rebounds, There is still time!

The meetings seemed to help us, both the student and me. For the struggler, it gave them another opportunity to get some face time with the instructor and clear up some confusion on their project’s implementation. For the bright shining stars, who often worked tirelessly, it provided the validation that their efforts were truly successful. 

And for the talented-but-lazy, the meeting allowed for a very frank discussion about the power of impressions and learning partnerships. It’s a two-way street, after all. And we – the teacher and the student – are both just human, and both capable of making mistakes in judgment. The student may be filled with youthful hubris and drawn to somewhat self-destructive behavior… The teacher shares guilt for quick judgment and self-centered misconceptions. In the end, a mutual clearing of the air occurrs and both teacher and student finish the meeting with a mutual understanding about future expectations.

A New Challenge

When I enter my classroom each day, as the semester comes to a close over the coming weeks, I train my thoughts on addressing the rewards of teaching, of enabling learning, and of motivating my students – and myself – and to keep focused on the challenges ahead. I see this as a design problem, one that involves issues of presentation, images, target audience, message, and an eventual best solution. Just like my students, I have a project to design, a project that makes it my charge to find new ways to unravel the mysteries of learning.


Originally published Friday, November 30, 2007



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