Monday, March 31, 2014

"Slides" of Sabbatical Work

The last few days have been fairly productive. Not only did I clean my studio and work on finishing one last sabbatical piece, I also had a chance to take "slides" of my work.

my photography setup
To take slides I get up at dawn (literally) and set up a table and a large roll of grey photography paper as a backdrop. I like to start taking slides at sunrise when the light is softest. By the middle of the day, when the sun is overhead, the shadows are too harsh and the slides don't look as nice.

sabbatical work (wall hanging or free-standing)
I set up my camera on a tripod and take a series of pictures of a whole bunch of works one after another. This weekend I took pictures on Saturday and on Sunday. Saturday's pictures are not as nice, probably because I was tired and in a rush. I wasn't planning to take images on Sunday, but there were some awful images from Saturday that needed to be redone and I didn't get all the work photographed.

sabbatical work (wall hanging or free-standing)
The goal with these pictures is to force the viewer to focus only on the artwork, making the background boring, so as not to distract from the subject. If I've got the camera settings right, the background is grey and smooth and without folds, shadows or an obvious horizon line. Some of my backgrounds look blue, either because I was sloppy or because I need photography tutoring.

sabbatical work (wall hanging or free-standing)
The most important factor is that my images are in focus, clear and accurately colored. I try to close down the aperture of the camera and increase the f-stop to increase the depth of field in my images so that most of the sculpture is in focus. The amount of sunlight and wind obviously impacts how well I can do this. The best quality images allow me to share my work more effectively and apply to exhibitions. I have been delaying some applications, in part, because I didn't like my images.

"Scylla Bionica" 2013
Taking good images of my tall pieces and my piece that overhangs the edge was an added challenge this time around. I was actually fairly happy with my earlier photos of the Cerberus piece in the gallery. I can't really see a way around including an edge in this piece since it needs to sit on a raised surface so that the chains hang down.

"Cerberus" 2014
The tallest pieces were too tall for my usual table setup, so I laid down a folded card table on the ground (the ground was damp) and set up the pieces on that, lowering my tripod accordingly.

"Cephalotus Prosthesia" 2013
At the end of Saturday my hands were freezing and my camera battery was dead so I gave up and went in to warm up and sulk. (I wasn't happy with many of my images).

"Pedal/Petal" 2013
On Sunday I must have gotten more sleep because I had a better day taking images. I retook the bad ones and even took some images of olders works that had gotten missed over the years.

bike wheel with an alternate base (neither the base I planned to use, nor the one I will use)

I also started to take images of my latest piece, but realized I had made a major planning error. The base with the bike wheel on it is top heavy and wobbly, causing it to fall over. After fretting a while and taking some make-shift images, I decided to turn one piece into two. The epoxy is now drying, so I'll be able to share images in a few days.

unfinished base for what was going to be a bike wheel piece
If you'd like to see my sabbatical work in person (and probably the two pieces that are being epoxied right now), visit Oak Hollow Gallery in Yakima between April 8 and May 3. And join me for the artists reception on April 12 from 2-4pm. 

Thursday, March 27, 2014

(Still) Finishing More Sabbatical Work

It's spring break, so why not finish some work I was going to finish in January? I didn't get a ton of time in the studio this week, what with traveling Monday and prepping classes and all, but I did get in there today. First I had to excavate a path through this winter's detritus.

My daughter took this picture of me actually working in my studio this afternoon. This is impressive because yesterday no one could fit in my studio.
I plan to spend a bit more time in the studio tomorrow and actually get good quality images of my sabbatical work, images not taken in a gallery with a line between the pedestal and the wall or a window in the background. In order to prepare to take slides, I had to unbox the work that was in Biomorph. I brought it home two months ago and it had not been touched since.

The base in December
The unboxing of work and putting away of bike parts went so well (and my new audiobook is so good) that I decided that I might just have time to finish one last sabbatical piece, the one I didn't quite have time to tackle in December/January.

I cut out circles of paper with a sticky back to attach to the end of the piece.

The original plan for this piece was to have a contrasting material, like paper inside, visible through the openings. I glazed the edges of the cutouts and later intended to glue some paper inside the piece so that the openings were only a quarter inch deep. This was, apparently, not a plan based on actual materials and the physics of my finger joints. So, after what amounted to several months of problem avoidance, I decided that red paper circles covering the openings is a reasonable solution to the problem. A better solution might be to build the piece with a removable end, but I still think of my works as being basically complete objects, even as I interrupt and adulterate the forms with more and more non-ceramic elements.

Mixed epoxy and the base with the rod taped in position while the epoxy sets.

After solving the problem of the paper and the openings on the end, I got around to epoxying the parts together. I knew what I intended to do and my plan didn't really change in this respect. The piece is meant to have a blue base with keys, pictured above, and a bike wheel (sans tire) attached to the top of a metal rod going through the middle of the base. I had started to put these parts together when I ran out of sabbatical in January.

the top of the piece

The top bike wheel part will be detachable from the base so that it is easier to transport. I currently have the wheel balanced on boxes as the epoxy sets on the metal piece that will go inside the base rod. Meanwhile the rod is being epoxied into the base. The epoxy takes 24 hours to set, so tomorrow afternoon I can put the two parts together and see how they look. I planned for the top piece to spin, but I may have been over enthusiastic with the epoxy where it encountered the moving parts.

I had extra epoxy so I repaired a couple old pieces.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Classroom Adjustments for Spring (based on NCECA programing)

I just got back from the NCECA conference in Milwaukee. It was nice to see people from college and graduate school. It was also nice to spend some time with my parents. I found a couple of really useful things in the conference programming and saw some interesting shows.

NCECA 2014 conference program

I've been having fun the last few days preparing my new spring quarter Intro to Clay class with some of the NCECA ideas in mind. The class is new to me this quarter. It had been on the books years ago but I made adjustments to it last spring and put it back on the schedule this year. I was on sabbatical in the fall and busy with something else in winter, so this will the first time I get to teach the "new" course.

posters and magazines and bags from the NCECA conference

The best thing I went to as part of the conference programming was a topical discussion called "Immaterial World" led by Sara Parent-Ramos. The online description indicated that we would focus on classroom structure and using new technologies in the classroom, something I am very interested in. Unfortunately the listing in the physical conference program gave the correct title and name, followed by an unrelated description, so attendance was sparse and people were a little confused. Ironic, I think, that those of us using technology to plan our conference activities got the correct description and people looking only at the paper booklet were misled.

the erroneous program description (with my edits)

The topical discussion focused on flipping the classroom and ways to use blogs, online student portfolios, videos, and video-conferencing to support student learning. I went to the discussion because I've started to do some of these things but would like to know how other people are using them. I figured I was just trying stuff out and didn't really know what I was supposed to do. The discussion, as it turned out, felt like a validation of what I am already doing.

When the discussion leader introduced the topic, she asked if the audience knew what it meant to flip the class. I indicated that I was familiar with the term since I regularly flip my Art Appreciation class and occasionally my design class. I explained how my students come to class having done the readings, then, during class, instead of lecturing, the students discuss, present or do a group activity based on their reading. Instead of being the "empty vessels" filled with knowledge by the "sage on the stage" the students are active in their own learning, spending class time applying what they've learned or articulating their knowledge as they present to their classmates. The discussion in class is more detailed and more valuable since the students are building on and refining their knowledge base rather than hearing the information for the first time.

Parent-Ramos then went on to talk about other technologies people are using in the classroom and why these technologies might be beneficial. She made a point of saying that technology should be an means to an end. My mom and I had been having an ongoing discussion about 3D printed work at the conference shows. There seemed to be excitement about this particular new technology, but I saw few examples where people are using it to do something they couldn't do using traditional throwing or hand-building techniques. This is an example of using new technology just because you can.

Printed work by Del Harrow at "Flow" (the NCECA Invitational exhibition). Why couldn't this work be thrown on the wheel?
The next day I went to a co-lecture about work being done at Otis College of Art. They showed examples of work created using a 3D printer, but also talked about their policy: if the work could easily be done using other methods, do it that way. The technology could only be used if it was the most appropriate way to achieve the form. The result was pieces where the technology was the means, not just an expensive toy to replicate existing forms.
Printed work by Christopher Basil Fong. This would be tough to throw or build with slabs.
The other interesting bit of the panel discussion was the conversation with other people using, or trying to use, new technologies or to adjust the classroom structure. I am apparently not the only one to make my poor students keep blogs of their work for class. Lots of folks are putting up videos of their own demonstrations for students, but this discussion was the first I had heard of using video-conferencing in the classroom. Parent-Ramos suggested using video chats to connect classes with artists who are geographically distant. The video-conferencing could be used to introduce students to other artists' work or methods, to demonstrate techniques using equipment not available locally and even to invite a "guest artist" to hold critiques with students at another campus. Exciting stuff! I'm looking forward to exploring more of these options.

The discussion gave me the sense that I am already doing somethings right. This confirmation and the ideas and suggestions from various participants got me thinking of ways I can increase my use of these technologies and classroom structure adjustments. Interestingly, though I frequently flip my other classes, I hadn't really incorporated much flipping into my clay classes. I have the students watch videos, handle pottery, and even read articles outside of class, but I've often considered this as supplemental to the class. Since it was the way I learned, I always assumed that clay class was for demonstration; homework time was for practice. I appreciated Parent-Ramos' phrasing of the issue: she said any information that can be "poured" into the students can be flipped. Students, in this approach, can watch demonstrations outside of class time, and come with that knowledge base. Then the classroom demonstrations are building on a foundation of knowledge, rather than starting from scratch.

new physical resources to supplement the virtual resources we discussed
Another idea brought up in the discussion was that instructor should act as a guide to help the students discover new information and help them navigate the resources. I've prepared some assignments and hand-outs for my students that are a kind of introductory guide to the world of out-of-class demonstration videos, new techniques and new ceramic artistss. I will give the students some choice in what they study outside of class and ask them to bring their favorites to class (or to one of our online resources). I can never cover, in class, everything that might be of interest to my students, but with this approach, the students will bring their own research and discoveries to class. It will be interesting to discover what they they find valuable on their own..

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Milwaukee NCECA

On Wednesday I will be traveling to Milwaukee for the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts conference. I am excited about the conference this year because it is in Wisconsin, where I grew up, went to high school and later did my graduate work. My anticipation might be colored by the excitement I feel about the end of a very busy quarter.
At Madison I fired with wood and salt (because there are so many wood kilns around)

At the conference I expect to see people I knew from UW-Madison as well as people I knew from Coe College in Iowa where I went to college. Of course I also get to see my parents and perhaps a few non-ceramicist friends. The Milwaukee Art Museum seems like an old familiar friend (albeit with a pretty impressive make-over since I used to go as a kid) and I have been feeling nostalgic for pieces, like the Duane Hanson "Janitor" I talk about in Art Appreciation class but haven't seen in person in years. I don't miss this Donald Judd piece.

Milwaukee Art Museum's beautiful new (since I was a kid) building designed by Santiago Calatrava

I was thinking it might be nice to get up to Kohler to see the work up there and maybe do a factory tour again. Kohler has an impressive Arts/Industry program for artist residents who create work utilizing the factory equipment and the expertise of the permanent factory workers. On the tour I did years ago I got to see the ceramics shop where people were filling plaster tub molds with slip and spraying glaze on sinks and toilets. The factory floor is impressive and you get to see what the current artist residents are working on, then there's the gallery with works from an array of past artist residents. Even the bathrooms are decorated by artists in the program.

I got an e-mail the other day from someone saying she saw one of my pea pods in Madison last year. I don't remember showing in Madison in the last 6 or 7 years. This is a wood fired pod circa 2005.

Of course there are plenty of shows in galleries all over Milwaukee. One of the best parts of the national conference is that there are tons of ceramic shows in the host city and nearby locations. I think southeastern Wisconsin already has some pretty strong ceramic artists, studios and galleries, but maybe I think that because I'm familiar with the area. The NCECA shows in Seattle were good, especially the NCECA Invitational at the Bellevue Arts Museum, but overall there seemed to be a lot of non-ceramic work on show in a lot of galleries. Maybe I just felt that way because it rained and I got wet and cold and crabby. In Milwaukee I know there will be good show, but I can also get up to Kohler, down to Racine or over to Madison to see good art.

Near the end of graduate school I started using more underglazes (in wood kilns, high fire kilns and low temp electric kilns).

I haven't looked carefully at the shows (that's what the plane ride is for, right?) listed in the NCECA materials, but I also know that there are ceramic studios and galleries and kilns scattered throughout southeastern Wisconsin in Cambridge and Johnson Creek and Paoli

At the very end of graduate school I fired in low temp electric firings in anticipation of no longer having access to wood kilns after school

The other day I was looking at the NCECA program online and notice some familiar names. On Thursday at 11am in Ballroom A, my graduate school colleague, Ryan Myers will be giving a "Process" carving demonstration. Ryan currently has a show at Artisan Gallery in Paoli. That afternoon in the same room, Michael Schael, a potter from Cambridge whose wood kiln I fired when I lived in Madison, will be doing a throwing demo at 3pm. 

Since graduate school I've fired primarily low fire with bright underglazes in my home studio.

On Friday at 9am Jarred Pfeiffer, who was an undergraduate at Madison when I was there, will be on a Student Perspectives Panel in Room 102. At 4pm Mark Skudlarek, whose work I've admired since I was a teenager, will be giving a "Process" demonstration in Ballroom A. Mark makes big coiled vessels and other wood-fired pottery. He has a huge wood burning kiln big enough to walk into. When I was in high school we would visit Voyagers Jewely in Cambridge to see the unusual jewelry, beautiful retired greyhounds and Mark's pottery.

I'm sure I'll take pictures and have more to say about the trip and the exhibitions after I get back from Milwaukee. Clay folks, if you're going to Milwaukee, I look forward to seeing you there. Wisconsin folks, I'll be at my parents' for a couple days after the conference if you want to get together. 

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Final Report vs Final Paper

My winter quarter of the crazy teaching load is almost finished. Next week is finals and though I usually finish my grading mere hours or minutes before the deadline for posting grades on Friday afternoon, this year I am leaving for a conference on Wednesday. Though I have more students and more classes, I have tried to arrange the grading to be done by Wednesday morning.

Actually, the final grading has been interesting. This quarter is a doozy because I am teaching three Art Appreciation classes (with 29-35 students in each). Most quarters I assign a written paper about a a contemporary artist for a final project and spend finals week grading papers (and tests and critiques and other assignments). This quarter I nixed the paper and instead built the same information into an oral presentation. Each student meets privately with me for ~10 minutes and talks to me about the contemporary artist they've been researching all quarter. The requirements are almost identical to the written report, but after they present (about 5 minutes for most students) I have a chance to ask follow up questions.

gratuitous picture of sabbatical work (from the last time I was allowed near my studio)

I was worried, at first, that the oral reports would be too easy or that it would be hard to determine who knew their artist and who didn't. I was pleasantly surprised by both how fast and easy the oral reports are to grade and how clear it is who knows, not just their artist, but the class terms and concepts as well.

I have always preferred a written paper to a final exam because the students have more time to prepare and are less likely to make silly mistakes like filling in the wrong bubble on the Scantron. The silly mistakes they do make, like forgetting to spell check or not starting until the night before, are entirely preventable and/or an essential skill for college and life.

My sabbatical work will be on display at Oak Hollow Gallery in April

I have always required a one-on-one meeting with me before the paper was submitted. The students research their artist all quarter long in very short, weekly, graded assignments, then write a draft of their report and bring it to class where they have short "writing conferences" with classmates. The idea is that the classmates can help point out errors or missing information. All the drafts can get read and discussed at least twice in 50 minutes, far less time than it would take me to read and discuss them all.

After the students have a chance to make revisions on their drafts, they schedule a "conference" with me. I read their paper and make suggestions to help improve their writing. I think the conferences with me are very valuable and fun, too, because I get a sense of what they understand and I can help them clarify things they almost understand (or don't understand at all).

So this quarter I rolled the paper and the private conference into one assignment. I kept the student "writing conferences" but had the students present to their classmates as practice before presenting to me. The classroom was pretty noisy that day, but I think the practice was useful and students got some helpful feedback from classmates.

The show at Oak Hollow in Yakima opens April 12.  I'll be posting more about the show later. 

About half the students have now done their official artist report presentations with me. Some were better prepared than others, of course, but what was particularly striking was how useful the follow-up questions were. One requirement I have always had was to use citations correctly. I have students quote and paraphrase and give the source information. In a written paper, a well-placed quote can be very helpful in supporting what the student is trying to say. It is hard sometimes, though, to know how well the student understands the quote they've chosen.

Yesterday, during the string of student presentations, I wrote down part of the quote, particularly if the student used phrasing or words I wasn't sure they understood. After their presentation, I asked the students to explain the quote or define the word. Some were confident and were able to clearly explain their quote and even elaborate. It was easy to score these students high for their reports. Other students fumbled and demonstrated that they only had a vague idea what their source was trying to say. I was surprised, though, that some of the students simply told me they had no idea what the quote or the word meant. Some sheepishly admitted they should have looked it up. One told me that she didn't know the word and it didn't matter because it was just a quote.

Listening to and grading the reports has been much more enjoyable than reading papers. Partly it is nice to listen, take notes and then ask questions. Partly it is easier for me to mark a low score after having given the student a second chance to explain, and partly it is fun to hear what the students have to say about their artist after they finish presenting.

The show in April features work by photographers, so I won't be showing wall installations
With several students, I would guess that I got more information out of the student because of the relatively casual format. One student, in particular, was able to tell me a lot about the artist's method, but might have left that information out of a written report. Several students revealed understanding of class terms when I asked follow-up questions but had left that information out of the report itself. And, as would have happened with a written report, too, some students didn't do the report or barely knew their artist's work.

Next quarter I move back to a more manageable teaching load with only one Art Appreciation class of 35 students. However, I'm thinking I might keep the oral presentation format for the final artist report. I've also been thinking about how I might incorporate the presentations into class time so that students might benefit from hearing their classmates present.

Maybe next quarter I'll be able to find time to get in my studio again 

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Noticing Dead Birds and Numbers in Trees

On my way out of my classroom building everyday I walk towards a set of tall glass windows that are adjacent to the doorway. In the bushes outside the window as I was leaving one day, I noticed a bird which seemed to be suspended in flight.  The dead bird seems to be caught in the dead branches, but its wing is outstretches. The rest of the body is hard to make out and at first I thought it couldn't be a bird; it must just look like a bird.

I'm curious how the bird ended up like this. I'm even more curious how many people notice this bird that is only about a foot away from a heavily trafficked hall and entranceway.

When I asked some of my students if they'd seen the bird, they said they hadn't, though I've been fascinated with it every day for weeks. It takes me a few minutes to pack up all my class materials and lock the classroom door after the students have left, so perhaps I see it because my view is not blocked by the crowd.

The surprise of seeing this bird right outside the window reminds me of our retired photography instructor's thoughts on seeing and being aware of one's surroundings. There is a tree near the entrance to his building that has a mark on the surface that seems to form half a heart shape when you look at it from the right angle. He liked to point it out to students in his class and ask if any of them had ever seen it. Usually they hadn't.

Yesterday, on our way to a reception at Larson Gallery, my daughter pointed up in the air over the bookstore and said, excitedly, "nineteen!" It took me a moment to realized that she was pointing at three long seedpods hanging from a branch over the building. One of the seedpods had curved across the other to form the shape of a number nine. It was backwards, but still, she noticed the number shape. As a kid learning to read, she is always pointing out numbers and letters in fallen sticks, pavement cracks and tree branches, so I was relatively well prepared for her exclamation this time.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Adjustments and Impacts of a Heavy Teaching Load

This quarter, due to some unforeseen circumstances, I am teaching more classes and a lot more students than I normally teach during a given quarter. The increased student load in particular has been a major challenge. I am teaching three sections of the same class in the morning everyday. The course capacity is 35 so I started the quarter with about 105 students and 3 straight hours of class in the morning. Twice a week I have my clay class in the afternoon with an additional 20 students. The clay class is 3 hours long, so twice a week I teach for 6 hours with a half-hour for lunch and switching buildings.

The teaching itself has actually not been too much of a challenge. For a few days I would forget to prepare for a later class and have to run back to my office (in a different building) between the morning classes or hurry to prep something while the afternoon class was getting their wheels ready, but now I am fairly adept at packing up everything I need for four classes right when I get to campus.

The major challenge has been getting all the non-teaching work done. I have taken over department duties in the wake of my colleague's retirement. I have also started the tenure process, which requires meetings and writing from me. I am now doing the departmental scheduling and planning a trip in March. I supervise four student workers in the clay studio and my office was moved to a different building last week. On top of this I have also worked fairly diligently to find and hire new faculty to make up the shortfall from a retirement, an illness and a general lack of depth in our adjunct faculty pool. These, and a variety of other minor duties, tend to consume much of my time in the office but I also have roughly three times the grading I would have during a "normal" quarter.

Sadly, the fact that I seem always to be rushing from meeting to meeting, obligation to obligation, means that I am not very accessible to students in my office. I think I have only talked to three of my advisees this quarter, probably because they can't find me when I am not teaching or at a meeting. I get the sense, from my Art Appreciation students, that they wish I had office hours in the morning between classes, because they aren't always on campus in the afternoons on the days I am in my office hours.

There are limits to how much energy one can sustain and how many hours one can stay at school. I have always been pretty strict with myself about not bringing work home. I try to reserve grading and paperwork and class preparation for school hours. I might stay a bit later, but I won't bring it home. This approach works well with a limited number of students, say 40 some students in studio classes and another 35 in Art Appreciation. This quarter, however, there has never been enough time at school. I had to make a decision between staying at school for hours into the evening (my home schedule doesn't allow me to go in earlier) or bringing work home.

For most of January and February, I have been grading for an hour in the morning before my daughter wakes up and an hour in the evening after she goes to bed. I still try not to grade when I am with her. Sometimes I'll sit with my husband after her bedtime and grade while he watches TV.

I wouldn't want to repeat this quarter--like, not ever--but it has been an interesting quarter for comparison and I've noticed I have developed an efficiency in grading that I haven't needed to have before. When there is a manageable amount of grading, I am very careful about checking and double checking answers and considering every possible nuance the student was trying to communicate. This quarter, I have changed a few assignments to be faster and simpler to grade. I can also grade some of them quite quickly because I don't pay attention to nuance; if the answer is mostly right, I give them the point.

Another major change I made this quarter was in the structure of my tests. In the past I have always sent the students to see public art on campus or art shows at Larson Gallery. The tests were done in the gallery but the students could also take them home to finish or type their answers. The questions were all short answer, requiring the students to identify and explain or describe their answers based on works they were seeing in person. I've used these tests for several years and I find they give me a pretty accurate view of what students know and how they understand it. I can sometimes get to know individual students better as I read their answers. This type of tests privileges complex, thoughtful answers but allows the students some flexibility in knowing exact terminology. These tests also require a great deal of time to grade and usually I need to go back to the gallery to check answers. It probably takes most of a week to grade a set of 35 tests and students often write about things I didn't notice when I first wrote the test (since the tests are written anew for each changing show in the gallery).

This quarter I was loathe to change the tests, but it was clear I couldn't spend three weeks grading each of the three tests--at least not if I expected us to do anything else in class. So I compromised. The tests this quarter were done in two parts. The first part is a take home test in the gallery with a limited number of short answer questions. The goal of this first part is to encourage the students to look at the works in person. The next day they have a multiple choice Scantron test asking questions about the work they saw in the gallery. Pictures of the works they saw in the gallery are projected on the classroom screen to accompany their questions. After the students are done with the test, I can quickly run the forms through the machine to grade them.

The test is efficient and approximates what I want them to get from a written test in the gallery. It is an assessment of what they know, but, unfortunately, I don't like it as much. One problem is that students misunderstand the questions more often in this type of test. Writing the test is a little trickier, since I have to try to anticipate how they might misinterpret my phrasing. I have thrown out a couple of questions after the fact because I could see how they might be misunderstood. But beyond the potential mistakes, my gut feeling is that students, overall, don't perform as well on multiple choice tests as they do on written tests. It seems counterintuitive, since communicating through writing should be an added challenge for the written tests.

I have trouble articulating exactly what it is about a multiple choice question that causes problems for students. Not knowing the exact problem makes it harder to adjust for it as I write the test. A piece of the problem may be that they don't understand the terminology or phrasing that comes from my example (or the book's example), but, since I want them to know the class terms and understand what they read its hard to know how to account for discrepancy between Scantron test results and written test results.

The current classes have one more test this quarter. It will be interesting to see if more practice will improve either the way I phrase the questions or the students' ability to approach the test questions. Teacher friends, what do you do to create efficient, useful and accurate tests in your classes, especially when you have a lot of students.