Mapping Learning Reflects on RISD’s Essence
Mapping Learning, a series of public talks and workshops reflecting on RISD’s core mission, has been stimulating dialogue among students, faculty and staff this fall. The series kicked off at the RISD Museum on October 2 with Pedagogies Past/Present/Future, a rousing panel discussion on pedagogy featuring faculty members Rachel Berwick (Glass), John Caserta (Graphic Design), Shawn Greenlee (Foundation Studies) and Cas Holman (Industrial Design).
The panelists spoke about the diverse paths that led them to RISD. Berwick learned how to teach on the job at Yale, where she earned her MFA, while Caserta, who also studied at Yale, got his start in graphic design as a professional journalist. As a professor, he attempts to create a supportive learning environment in which students can figure things out for themselves.
Holman takes a similar approach, working alongside her students and supporting their research. “My goal is to steer students toward discoveries without completely taking over the process,” she says.
As the son of a teacher, composer and sound artist Shawn Greenlee sees his work in the field of education as a calling. He orients his practice most closely with the experimental Black Mountain College approach, but notes that he pulls from different schools of thought to meet the various needs of his students.
For Greenlee and the other panelists, the keys to success are flexibility and attention to the group dynamic of each class. “I try not to get too attached to the syllabus,” Greenlee notes.
There was general consensus that it’s important to get students to actively discuss each other’s work rather than passively listening to the professor’s opinion. “It’s important to dismantle the hierarchy,” Holman notes. Caserta completely agrees. “Students are learning from each other in studio all the time,” he says. “Teaching is just inserting one more experienced person into that mix.”
A follow-up Mapping Learning discussion on October 17 led by Woodrow Wilson Fellow and Author in Residence Paula Crawford reflected on the ultimate goal of critiques and how they differ in RISD’s various departments. Assistant Professor of Painting Craig Taylor, Director of Partnered Research Daniel Hewett and Photography Department Head Eva Sutton anchored this discussion.
The group agreed that the main purpose of critique is to help students develop their own inner voice – as a valuable guide not just through their years at RISD but throughout their lives. “School is the opportunity to form that voice in your head – to learn to ask the hard questions,” notes Hewett. And as Crawford points out, critique is not the final verdict on a student’s work, but rather a marker along the continuum and an opportunity to push students out of their comfort zones.
“The most important thing is figuring out what you’re trying to say as an artist,” Sutton says. “Students are learning the relationship between intention and result, and their work becomes more informed over time.”
As the lunchtime discussion came to an end, Taylor noted that it can be more difficult to critique a fine art project than, say, architectural drawings since the objectives of any given assignment may be less clear. And despite the fact that critiques should always take place in a “safe space,” the process is inevitably quite personal and potentially sensitive. But as Sculpture Critic Jane South notes, “our job as artists is to use personal expression to tap into the universal human condition.”
The Mapping Learning series continues throughout this academic year. The next discussion will take place on November 12 in the form of an AICAD Conference on New Paradigms in Teaching and Learning.