My teaching practice intersects in many ways with service and creative pursuits. Interstitiality and intersectionality are terms commonly used today to speak of the complexities of being in contemporary society, where individuals experience the world from complex and colliding structures and histories. This understanding of the world is especially important in a Hispanic-serving institution like Texas Woman's University, which also serves a population mostly constituted by minority students and women students. When designating my area of teaching focus here I selected the term Intermedia. Not only I chose it because I find it more pertinent to our times and my current student population, but also because it is more reflective of my art practice. Most artists do not bind themselves to one monolithic medium or approach, but rather work between and across media to properly express their artistic endeavors. If current practices manifest this way, why should we limit our students to one category? It is my desire that the courses I implement fit into all concentrations already taught in the department and attract students from all over campus, because critical knowledge and curiosity can and should be shared. I do not want to create one more division or distinct area of study, but instead one that bridges and expands what we already have. My personal interests in the intersections of traditional and new/digital techniques will manifest in new courses in the coming years, on Special Topic courses such as Creative Practices (where through reading, writing, making, dialoguing and observing, students will explore and redefine their own definitions for their practices), and Expanded Printmaking (where software and hardware will create alternative modes for the compositing, emulation, duplication, transfering, layering and repetition of captured and pressed matters onto two-dimensional and three-dimensional surfaces), to name a few.
For the last few years I have purposefully repositioned my role in the classroom away from being the main source of knowledge (even if that is the case). I have also moved the focus on the teaching of skills or techniques away from the center of the learning experience (even in skill-based courses). This decentering does not mean these traits are removed from the course, but that they are purposely deemphasized, and therefore not as daunting to incoming students. My current teaching philosophy revolves around the building of a community that begins in the classroom and extends beyond the boundaries of campus and the timeline of a degree. This community building begins with the set up of the classroom, where the tools of the trade (in my case, computers and media), are positioned in the periphery of the room, while students and I gather around a common table at its center. Every meeting begins with me getting to know my students, while they get to know me. For about five minutes each day I ask them about their previous days, what they have done over the weekend, which courses they are taking, et cetera. Not all students participate every time, but throughout the semester I get to know a bit more about their lives, and should they return for another course with me, we start with that new class with some common knowledge. It is around that table too that I let them know who I am and what I am up to, in terms of conferences and exhibitions that I have been to, places and people around town they should know, scholarship opportunities, travels, and so forth. By fostering this egalitarian space in the classroom, a level of camaraderie builds up, where we are able to speak to one another from a place of trust.
Around this table we also discuss any assigned readings, express project ideas and exchange feedback with one another (pre-critiques). Because we get to know each other to some extent, the posture in critique changes completely. No one feels the need to be defensive or defend others; they begin to understand that hard critiques come from a good place, one that promotes their growth and ultimate success (even if discomfort is part of the process). I have been able to learn many details about my students’ lives, which changed the way I interacted with them. Learning that one student has eight younger siblings, or works a 12-hour overnight shift before the morning class, or changed majors three times, for example, made me a more empathetic teacher. This empathy reflected back through their responses towards me, as they understood the complexities of teaching, practicing art, and more recently, chairing a department, all of which I go through alongside their complex lives (as we all wear many hats on a daily basis). Instead of pushing away or repressing their other selves, the usual compartmentalization they often apply to school work, they incorporate their many facets in their creative process. Alongside this shared knowledge, I adapt each course to benefit my students’ needs and/or situations. It is crucial to perceive the group dynamics. If a particular field trip becomes integral to their project or learning experience (say the traveling Frida Kahlo exhibition resonates with their tendencies or mood), the schedule is changed to accommodate such venture. If a local artist dialogues with someone’s particular interest, I invite the artist to come into the classroom during a critique or workday. Major social and political events enter our dialogues as well, as the classroom should be the safest place for difficult conversations to take place. If the discussion of current events arises, we may choose to visit a site of resistance, participate in a protest, or watch a documentary on the subject.
By taking students outside the classroom, or bringing the outside (art) world into the classroom, an understanding of their role in the future of our art community begins to cement itself. Our students, if they choose to stay in the region, will become our future colleagues and fellow community members. We can instill that sense of belonging early into their careers. This is fundamental, not only for the health of the broader community, but the department’s and university’s as well. While community building is my priority, I still believe that clarity of expression is essential for a productive art practice. This ability to both visually and verbally articulate one’s concepts is developed through demonstrations, supervised labs, writing workshops, critiques, and a variety of projects that are conceptual in nature, but with formal constrains (for example, the creation of a two-channel looped video piece that deals with performance). Each visual project contains a written component. My role then turns into that of being a coach or motivator, where I aim to extract from them what they mean to express, and the best way to achieve their goal and share with others. I introduced a pre-critique/brainstorm session into all my courses four years ago. During pre-critique students present their project ideas to the group, employing whatever materials they have at hand (from a hand-written note, to a vision board, to a series of bookmarks on a browser). We all provide feedback to some extent. If a student is stuck, we help them out of their rut; as such, we all have some responsibility for one another. Learning each other’s creative process also provide students with a greater range of productivity (I encourage them to try someone else’s approach). Pre-critique is fundamental in my context, where most of my students work anywhere between 20 and 50 hours per week, and many are non-traditional students. Normally if a project takes three weeks for completion, most students will begin and end their project the weekend before it is due, often off campus. By inserting a pre-critique (and at least one supervised lab/studio day) into each project’s timeframe, I extend their engagement with a project and each other, which often results in greater depth. It is during the pre-critique we often find out if the skills needed are available, or if the pairing with another student, tutoring, or one-on-one mentoring with me, is needed.
My community approach nicely adapts itself to all levels of teaching, from first year, to all other levels of undergraduate, as well as in graduate studies. By learning how to listen to my students and allowing them to understand my role as facilitator, we can all come to a point of success, or at least discovery, excitement and respect. I always encourage curiosity and the pursuit of questions. While specific course goals must be reached, depending on the course, the notion of failure can be reframed as the arrival at an unexpected point, and not a complete loss of time and effort. Being sensitive to these instances allow me to maintain motivation throughout a course (by encouraging new approaches or directions, by reconsidering what one or others could achieve with some modifications), without letting one’s trajectory fall into chaos or self-defeat. I also believe that my community philosophy accommodates students from diverse backgrounds. By getting to know me, and my multicultural background, which is also furthered by the inclusive presentation of diverse practitioners in lectures (in terms of biographical background, methodologies, and so forth), students incorporate and embrace their subjectivity in the creative process. It is great to walk down the hall and encounter a student from a previous semester. I enjoy learning what they have been up to, and in turn they feel comfortable with asking help if necessary. It is even better to encounter alumni in gallery openings around town, whether they are attending or exhibiting their own work. This is a palpable measure of our collective achievements. It is also a true gift from our profession.
After teaching for over 15 years I am certain that the results from an ideal student-teacher exchange are not conveniently visible at the end of a given semester, nor expressed through standardized evaluations. I consider my teaching excellent through the fact that so many of my former students lead interesting, productive and responsible lives beyond their education. Some have become successful business owners, others have their writing optioned by a Hollywood studio, another volunteers for a community radio. Most of them seem to be very happy, and keep in touch with one another, beyond graduation. In time they become integral members of their creative community and share their perspectives with their new surroundings in very positive ways. Their college education in the arts pave their way to forming a network of like-minded people who fully pursue their professional and personal fulfillment.