University of Washington (Erin)



Sep '08 - Feb '10

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    Learning from Teaching

    By copper_top
    Nov 25, '08 3:19 PM EST

    I have been meaning to post about this for a long time… I swear I started this blog entry months ago and have never gotten around to finishing and posting it. No more! I’ve been TAing a course called Information Visualization and Aesthetics, and I think it’s finally time to go into more depth about this portion of my education. A major reason I went for my MFA instead of just jumping into the industry has been my interest in teaching, and UW has provided more support for that than any other school I looked at was prepared to. Last year I spent one quarter as a TA ‘Intern’ for Design History, which was my chance to watch and learn, and get experience with a big lecture, and one quarter TAing a course called Collaboration and Improvisation (shout out to the design juniors, hope your quarter is off to a great start!). Both these classes were within the School of Art, for underclassmen, and my role was pretty clearly defined. However this quarter my class is in the Informatics program, is mainly being taken by seniors, and I would characterize my role as… flexible.
    Typically with my jobs within the School of Art, the role of a TA is to support the professor during lecture classes by scanning or finding images to contribute to their lecture concepts, handing out and collecting assignment materials, as well as some portion of grading (this varies pretty widely depending on the professor) and running hour-long critique sections. My role in this Informatics class is closer to that of team teacher, though of course the secondary one. This is the result of the professor having a technical skillset which hardly overlaps at all with my skillset: when the class needs support from a design perspective, I give lectures and make up lab assignments; when they need support on the technical or basic conceptual end, their professor covers it. Though this has had the effect of many sleepless nights, Sunday night phone calls to coordinate lesson plans, and a generally very stressed quarter of school, it has been a really great opportunity for me. I’ve gotten a chance that the other students in my program haven’t to develop lecture and exercise content, and see what works and what doesn’t. So when I’m in my first university job, I’ll be that much more prepared and realistic about it. Below, some of the great lessons my students have taught me…

    *don’t spend forever on Itten-style color diagrams if you’re just going to pdf them into a lecture, because the pdf will screw your color sideways and nobody will be able to understand
    *if the students think there are too many assignments to cope with, that means the teacher gets no sleep and no life, because grading them takes about 10x as long as completing them
    * the big difference between designers and non-designers is the capacity for abstraction. When I’ve given lectures that deal in abstract concepts and theories, my students zone out and can’t make the leap to applying the concepts on their own. When I give them rules to follow, they’re golden. The trick is turning concepts into rules…
    *The attention of an entire class on you, the demand for you to instruct, entertain, and generally occupy, can really only be compared to babysitting multiple toddlers. Not that my students have the intellect of toddlers, they are clearly quite bright, but it’s the same level of dependence on you for the programming of their time. Scary.
    *The differences of the human mind are amazing. When I’ve given them what I thought were very prescriptive, totally boring assignments, they came back and rocked my world with the variety in their results.
    *Facebook is wayyyy more interesting than I am. It’s probably way more interesting than you are, too, unless you’re the one they’re all facebook stalking during my class.

    Anyway, big shout out and a Happy Thanksgiving to the Informatics seniors (and those underclassmen who are kicking ass and taking names as well!), and of course to all the lovely archinectors following along. Keep on keeping on.


    • aml

      erin, i completely agree with all your teaching lessons. they also apply to architecture. but in that case i would try to teach them how to turn concepts into rules, not give them the rules. mine were supposed to be designers, but really not all of them were *really* designers. and the programming of time is a huge deal, i agree- and something a lot of teachers didn't get, which made for a lot of wasted time.

      Nov 29, 08 1:59 am  · 

      I think that's the key distinction: designers are there to learn how to turn concepts into workable strategies, and people whose fields just happen to brush design need to jump straight to the strategies. Learning how to implement abstract concepts takes a lot of time, and I'm becoming convinced that the primary success or failure of a design curriculum is dependent on how well it teaches students to do that. I wished for a long time that I could get my students to do it, and the fact that I only have them for one quarter and they would never have a design instructor again is the only thing that made me give up and resort to the quicker fixes.

      That's what separates "us" from "them."

      Dec 1, 08 3:40 pm  · 

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