Produced by Ideas for Creative Exploration (ICE), an interdisciplinary initiative for advanced research in the arts at the University of Georgia. All rights reserved. For more information visit: http://ideasforcreativeexploration.com/podcasts/
Mark Callahan: Welcome to Feedback! You're about to hear a conversation that took place during the University of Georgia Graduate Student Association Interdisciplinary Research Conference this past spring. The event gave us a chance to bring together faculty from different fields, some of whom were featured in previous podcasts, to speak with one another and with a packed audience of students about critical evaluation across disciplines. You'll hear Jean Martin-Williams from Music, Rebecca Gose Enghauser from Dance, Nadia Kellam from Engineering, Andrew Zawacki from Creative Writing, Mark Farmer from Cellular Biology, George Contini from Theatre and Film Studies, and Mary Hallam Pearse from Art. My name is Mark Callahan and I'll be your host. We'll start by hearing some examples of what feedback looks like in these different disciplines.
Jean Martin-Williams: Well, in music we generally call it feedback and generally it is students playing for each other and giving verbal feedback.
Rebecca Gose Enghauser: In dance it's called critical evaluation or feedback sessions and it generally involves a work in progress being viewed by responders, by community, and a dialogue ensuing. I think the variety of structures in that largely vary amongst practitioners, but there are a couple of formal ways of doing that. We can get into some in more detail.
Nadia Kellam: In engineering we typically have blind peer review, so it's sort of a finished product or close-to-finished product, and you get feedback from your peers which, in engineering education is a small community, so it's not as if you can't figure out who they are. But, blind peer review for the most part.
Andrew Zawacki: In creative writing we tend to call it workshop. I assume that comes from the founding of the Iowa Writers' Workshop sometime in the fifties or whenever it was, and we use that word as a verb too - we workshop poems or short stories or what-have-you. And depending on whether it's an undergraduate class or doctoral class, they're usually three hours, and that can mean anywhere from 3 to 10 students per session, getting anywhere from 30 to 35 minutes to 10 minutes per text.
Mark Farmer: In the sciences, peer review tends to be two things: one, the peer review process for written submissions that Nadia just mentioned, but also at presentations at regional, national, and international meetings. The peer review one receives when presenting data either in the form of a poster or an oral presentation.
Mary Hallam Pearse: And in the art department it's called critiques, or crits for short. There are a variety of ways that this works, but in the MFA program, usually students have individual critiques with their professors throughout the semester, and then they'll do a main critique in the middle of the semester. So, the individual critiques are usually on progress, the main critiques are with a group of students and sometimes other faculty, and then there's usually a critique at the end. They range anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour, I mean, it really depends. The students are getting feedback from their peers about their work, but we're also - it's how the students are talking about their work, but also how the students are writing about their work and the work that they're showing.
George Contini: In theatre, depending on the situation, we either have students who are giving their peers feedback, and it's called feedback, in the classroom, and for the most part in production, we usually don't involve that kind of a feedback session. We have what are called notes which come directly from the director, but if you are using an original piece, interestingly, we would call it workshopping, and that would be a situation where actors involved in an ensemble might be able to discuss the work of the other actors.
MC: How did you learn to give feedback?
GC: By having my heart crushed. [Laughter]
MF: I wasn't going to go that much, but I think just by receiving feedback, that's sort of, I think, how all of us learned how to deliver feedback in our respective fields. How was your heart broken?
GC: I think that we, at least from my point of view, as an actor, because we are the "thing" - our bodies, our voices are the things that are often being judged, we tend to feel, I think, the criticism or critique or feedback a little harder than others. So, it's easy to have your ego crushed when you're actor, and I think it happens to all of us at some point and you all get that review early on in your career, and I talked about that with Mark in our session [Episode 5], where I no longer even read reviews, I put them in a big pile, I look at them six months after the fact. But I think it takes learning what is something that is going to actually help the person, something that's actually going to move them forward in their work, even if it's not necessarily on that particular project. In future work, you like to be able to think that I'm giving you some sort of comment that will help you down the line, rather than just kind of saying, "you suck."
NK: After getting those really bad ones, then you start thinking about, how is this actually going to be received? So then you do start, you're a little bit nicer and try to give constructive criticism, but be honest. I think some of how I learned was when I was an undergrad, I was helping teach science in a classroom, and in there we had to do two positives and a negative for my teaching style or whatever.
MC: What do you mean?
NK: So, say I was teaching a lesson or something, the teacher would give me two positives and a negative, two good things that I did and two things that I could work on. So I tried to take that kind of approach whenever I'm doing any type of review, what are the good things about this, and, what's something you can really work on, because if you just focus on ten things for them to work on, it's too much anyway, they're not going to take much away from it.
JMW: We do something similar to that, because being in music we also have that sensitivity where we are our music, and I try to get the students to help learn that their music should express themselves but anything particularly good about their music or particularly bad doesn't mean they're a really good person or a really bad person, but we use what we call the "critique sandwich," which is the good, then the bad, then the good. [Laughter] A lot of times I find particularly with younger students they are very hesitant to say anything that's even slightly negative, perhaps because they worry that then when it's their turn to go up and play that then somebody is going to say something negative to them. I think more that, I intentionally have mixed groups from freshmen up to doctoral students, so a second-year student might think, that sounded a little out of tune to me but who am I to say that about a graduate student? So I try to really encourage them, that they need to say something critical if they heard something because that's not only benefiting the performer but it's going to benefit them in listening to their own.
AZ: I certainly don't crowdsource my critiques, my workshops, and at the undergraduate level I'm not all that interested in what students want to do, or what they think they want to do, but at the graduate level I do a lot of listening to graduates. I mean, first of all, I'm one of ten people in the room, and a lot of us are roughly the same age, and it's their workshop after all, and reading evaluations over the years I do a lot of thinking about what they need out of this. In some ways I trust that their ear is closer to the ground of moving into the field than my would be at this point, I have my ear to a similar but slightly different ground, and they have a book out or they're working towards their first book or a second book, so I do try to take on more what they see as important, what they need out of their critique, and then sometimes I don't think that's great stuff to listen to, but often I think, I wouldn't have, on my own steam, come up with that.
MF: It's not just you in the arts and humanities who have your hearts crushed. [Laughter] It was 1989, it was my first year as a junior scientist here at the University of Georgia and I was really, this is my first job on my own, outside of being a graduate student or a postdoc, and I attended an international meeting, a big meeting in Vancouver, Canada. As part of my presentation I was critiquing some of the work, I was adding some of my own work, but I was also critiquing some of the work of a giant in my field, Dr. Guy Brugerolle. At the end of my presentation, Dr. Brugerolle, who's a very quiet, unassuming man, stood up and said, "I don't believe a single word you've said for the last thirty minutes!" [Laughter] Which taught me two things: one is to be prepared for that kind of critique and be able to defend your ideas in a public forum, which, again, is really what the idea of presenting at an international meeting is all about, and two, is to never do that to a junior colleague if I ever have the - I have done it to senior colleagues when I think they're equally wrong, but there have been times when, particularly graduate students, have said things during their presentation which I know to be factually inaccurate or egregiously wrong, but I would never embarrass them publicly while you're standing in front of 300 people, so I will take them aside afterwards and say, well, I really enjoyed your presentation - I guess sort of the sandwich, you know - you did a really great job of presenting, you presented incorrect facts, but it was really well done.
MHP: I think how I've learned to give feedback is from my experience in undergrad. I had an incredibly nurturing professor, and then where I went to grad school, they just pulled the rug right out from under me and they didn't help build me back up. So I take sort of both - I've combined both of those approaches, and I really, for me, I feel like my role is sort of a moderator, in a way, during a critique, in that I do want it to be student-centered and student run. It is about their work and, like Andrew said, they're closer to the field than I am at this point in my career, so I really just, from experience - and I think I'm still learning, and that's why I love to be in the classroom, it's because I'm still learning from these students and what they need and I try to meet them where they are.
MC: The reason I asked the question is because it's been difficult for me to figure out where people learn to do this stuff. I'm hearing some different versions here, part of it is based on modeling, and part of it is maybe reactionary, but it seems to be largely a form of social learning, which I think is very interesting for something that has such a huge role in the way that our disciplines work and the way that we teach, and it's something you kind of learn by osmosis.
RGE: In dance there's a lot of learning by osmosis in that way and I was thinking about, I didn't have an undergraduate degree in dance, I didn't have that full immersion, but I know they teach that kind of feedback work in composition classes, where different professors structure it in different ways, use models, invent their own, but a lot of dancers are, like teachers, artists, anxious to, "this is the way we did it, it was really awful and it really sucked and it's really hard and now we're going to perpetuate that on you. Good luck, because that's how it was for me." [Laughter] And the teaching, the apprenticeship of observation, "this is the way I was taught, and yeah, it sucks, it's really hard," that kind of thing. I got interested in the feedback critique methods from my interest in teaching, my interest in pedagogy, and it came through different fields, some background in English, it's like, what kind of person do I want to be, what kind of humane environment do I want to facilitate? As I got into teaching it and facilitating it in higher ed., but I think sometimes it's the field, the harms from the field come in and so we learn these on the fly.
AZ: It sounds like dance is really one of the most entrenched, I mean, based on what Liz Lerman was saying when she was here, that that kind of model, "this is how you do it, and you the dancer shut up, and we tell you how this works" is really difficult to overcome. I think that probably exists in lots of our fields, but I don't know, the negative model is a good one, you come away either as the person who was up for workshop and felt like that was completely unhelpful, or as the teacher, the moderator in the room, when you go home some days and think, man, nothing happened today and that's kind of on me. You can't have other people bear the weight for that, so you learn by doing on the fly, you're troubleshooting over the years and re-learning that this kind of approach doesn't work, let's shake it up and do something else. Some days you go in ready to wing it and those end up being the best days, strangely, because your energy just kind of suffuses the room.
JMW: Another thing I try to get my students to do is not only to think about what they heard that they thought needed to be changed, but how it could be changed, so that when they give the feedback, they could say "I feel like your sound gets really pinched in the upper register, an exercise that helped me for that was, Number 12 in the such-and-such book," that kind of thing. Or even we'll have sessions where no one plays, but we'll talk about - I'll divide them up and they all have to come up with fifty different words to describe a good tone. So that it's not just "beautiful" or "good," and then hopefully that will then help them in their critiques but also in their own performing.
GC: That's awesome, I love that. I'm gonna steal that. I think that the idea of technique is so important because it's what I've seemed to develop over the years, is I can only get them to the point of being able to have critique once they're all on the same page, and usually I have classes constructed around, we're going to be studying this particular technique this semester, so then everyone really can just address that first and foremost, yes, they are doing the technique, no, they are not doing the technique, this is what needs to be done to help you do the technique better. And then I think the hardest stretch is then taking that technique and making it into the art. That's when it starts to get wavy and weird in terms of how you address that, because we don't know what's going on inside that person's head, we don't know what they're feeling. I think that's one of the hardest things for an actor, is that people will go "oh, that actor's not showing me anything." We don't know that. They could be torn up inside and they just need to find the technique that's going to help them release that a little bit more. So, I really like that, that's great, thank you.
MC: In this project I focused on what happens during feedback, but I've come to realize that a lot of things happen before and after feedback that are equally, or sometimes more important. I was wondering if you could talk about ways that you prepare and ways that you learn from or record what happened?
NK: In my research group, in our research meetings, people bring something to the group that they want help on. We require them to have some sort of focusing questions, so to have some direction as to what we're actually looking for, and the type of feedback they want to get. It works pretty well for us to actually have that, if we don't have that then it's sort of all over the place.
MC: When are people starting to develop those questions? Is it the day before, or weeks before?
NK: They have to send it out at least a couple, especially if they want you to read something, they have to send it out a couple of days, at least a couple of days before. A week before if it's longer.
AZ: I think it's important for me that undergraduate students coming into a creative writing workshop - this isn't true for grad students because they kind of already get this, they've done an MFA probably before they come to the PhD program, and they're at a different phase - but I want them to know from day one that this is a really artificial situation that we're in. This is not how writing works in the world, when you get up early or write after you put your kids to bed, or you write about what really moves you because you have one life to do this in and very little time to make that happen. At the undergrad level in an intro course, we're going to do fifteen different things over fifteen weeks, and I'm going to ask you to tie one arm behind your back, and this is the place where I don't want to hear about your grandmother, I don't want to hear about how sad it was when your dog died, or even less sentimental events. We're going to do exercises in here, and each one may be different and we might do them over two weeks but you need to suspend your disbelief about the writing life here, because you're going to go on and be writers or not based on some other curve, some other arc to your life, but in here this is like a laboratory, and if it means everyone's going to get eight minutes per session, I mean, it's kind of that cut and dried. That's important, because I think otherwise there's this tendency, especially in creative writing maybe, to think that people come in and work on their magnum opus from day one. I don't want that kind of pressure or that kind of presumption about grandeur. I want this to be really about voice exercises, OK, next week we're going to build this other muscle.
MHP: I think there are a number of different things that I do with the graduate students and sometimes a week before the critiques I'll have them pair up and write about each other's work so that they come prepared and that they have something to say about someone else's work, because I find that when they're first coming into graduate school, they're a little bit hesitant to talk about the work because there are expectations of how they should be talking about the work. I have them do some exercises as well, about their own work, asking questions about their work and bringing those questions to the critique so they can - this is sort of getting closer to their third year in school where they can lead the critique.
GC: I think in most of my classes, it's kind of built-in, I've built it into the daily class schedule, so, again, more group-oriented, the group all works on one thing, we do that for a while, whatever kind of acting exercise that is, then we all sit down and I just start throwing out to everyone, well, what did you discover, what did you feel? And nothing is irrelevant, whatever they take. Somehow whatever they reply to me, I can hopefully take all that, apply it back to the lesson that I said I was going to teach that day, but then also, hopefully, getting the types of insights and even strangeness from them to be able to say, oh, wow, that's weird, hey, let's get up and try what that person just said, let's just see what happens, so that the critique becomes immediately incorporated, that it's not just this abstract thought, oh, what would happen if we did that?
MC: So you would do something over again?
GC: Absolutely, I would do something over again and say, OK, remember what that person suggested? What would happen if we all made our voices really really high and did that Shakespearean monologue? What would happen if we stood on our heads while we did that? Let's try it and see!
AZ: Let's do that now! [Laughter]
MF: In the sciences, similar to Nadia, I think, the way we prepare is to go through a mock court, so anybody who is either presenting or planning to present at a national meeting will first present to their lab group and that's where you receive the most immediate and sometimes the most insightful feedback. Same thing when you're trying to get published and sending a manuscript before you send it to a journal, it's almost always vetted by a colleague. That isn't necessarily a senior colleague, it could be a junior colleague, in many cases the best feedback I get is from people who are a little bit outside of my area because sometimes you get so close to something you don't really see the pitfalls, so that kind of feedback is what I would call preliminary feedback before you really get out on the stage, before you really expose your work to the broader world.
MC: How can someone make the best use of the feedback they've received after that intensity of a session?
AZ: Revenge. [Laughter]
JMW: I'm interested to hear other answers for this because one frustration is I feel like, in the situation I talked about, where students play for each other in a group setting, we get together about once a week, twice a week doing this. The person playing will receive the feedback and then maybe at their next meeting with me I'll say, well, how did that go for you, what did you think of the feedback? " "Oh yeah, that was kind of what I expected." Almost like, then it doesn't matter because it was what they expected, or else they'll say something like, "well, I wasn't really at my best that day." So therefore they discount all of it. Then I'll remind them that frequently at a performance you're not at your best, but that's when the performance is, so I think at least in music we have trouble really seriously taking the feedback and applying it, as opposed to just thinking, well, that was my grade for the day.
GC: I know one of the things, this comes from my personal experience, and I've foisted it upon my class, is that I always tell them just to take everything in, write everything that everybody says, just write it down, don't judge it, don't think about it, don't change the wording of what they've said, take it exactly as they have, and then don't look at it right away. Again, I like to have that simmer time, and I'll say, go put that away and look at it next week, your final draft isn't due for another month yet, so you have time to ruminate on this. Then let them go away, read it, then we'll have that meeting, they'll come in and we'll go point by point, what did you think about this comment? And try to break it down. Try to say, well, you might immediately want to judge that this person was judging you, but what would happen if you did what they were suggesting, and take it like that. I try to just keep it clean and clear, initially.
NK: One of my pet peeves is some people that will receive feedback, they just automatically change. Like a journal article, OK I'll just change that, and they just change it without putting any thought into it. So if you read through, you can tell that someone else's voice it here, it doesn't really work with the rest of the paper or the central theme of the paper - it drives me crazy, that people would just thoughtlessly, OK well if I do that it will get published, I'll just throw it in here and send it back to the editor and be done. [Laughter] Think about it and decide if it makes sense, and don't do it if it doesn't make sense.
AZ: I think that's what's interesting about the word feedback - we keep talking about it like it's a good thing, but in music, except at the front end or the back end of a certain kind of rock song, is unwanted noise - everybody's had that experience, where deployed in the right way, it's beautiful - so I like the idea maybe after a session of workshop or criticism, if you take that feedback home with you, it's like some piece of noise that was interrupting the signal, and so you've got this - either you decide, this person is right, and how can I own the ability to fix this essay or this poem according to what at first sounded like feedback and not music, or the opposite happens and you think, this person is not right about what she said about what I am doing, but now I know why, and I've had to dialectically engage with this, why might she think that, as an audience member, for this book I'm working on, someone else might think that too. Feedback as a kind of interruption to where you thought you were headed seems useful, as opposed to the more corporate - feedback also has a corporate sound to it, in a way, "I look forward to your feedback."
MC: Marketing research.
RGE: I think it brings up a larger - speaking of discord - an issue about, in terms of undergraduates at least, sitting in a feedback session with a panel of faculty, and then the faculty says, in no uncertain terms, this really didn't work for me - going right to the opinion - and them feeling, coming back with a bunch of feedback, a lot of it is not just observation, but moves into interpretation and opinion, and they go, OK, I agree with some of this but I don't agree with all of it it, but I'm going to get a grade. So it brings up all this nasty stuff about grading, and what's the standard, OK, we have all these standards in what we think will be a good dance. How is that forwarding the field? How is that comporting with making art and being able to break with the rules? There's a lot of real structure here that's pervasive, that's troublesome, and Larry Lavender, who's a scholar and a comp teacher in the Southeast, I share conferences with him, and he talks a lot about this, he articulates it very well, he's written a book on critical feedback [Dancers Talking Dance: Critical Evaluation in the Choreography Class] and tries to talk about the whole nature of this, it should be a whole other talk, but I just think it's really hard for students to be able to - in a discipline where being subservient to authority is really already too pervasive - to be able to go, well, I didn't want to have a beginning, in fact I just want them to come on from the audience - but then to be able to articulate as to why, because there's also just,"cool." OK, fine, but let's have the discussion and try to center it in the discussion, in the dialogue about things and not - they are worried about the grade.
GC: There's something in the handbook in our department that always makes my stomach turn, our grades and how we grade acting classes, and there's a sentence that says, although it is to be remembered that all of our opinions are subjective, here are some things that might affect your grade. That just always makes my stomach turn, and I hate putting that into my syllabus, it just seems like that shouldn't even play, I don't even want that playing in there, I don't want thinking, "well, he just doesn't like me anyway, so I'm not even going to listen to what that teacher says, they probably don't like me." The whole concept of subjectivity, I think, is very very scary to introduce to students.
MC: Well, what about the world of science, of pure logic and objectivity? [Laughter]
MF: Doesn't exist. I was thinking about your comments, Andrew, about critiques or comments that are off-base and I think that's a big part of the feedback system in the sciences. For instance, if one sends off a paper for publication and receives back these anonymous reviews, it's not at all atypical that within one of those reviews will be perfectly valid points that are constructive feedback that should be incorporated into the work. Sometimes that means a lot of extra work. Sometimes it's a reworking of what you were trying to say. Sometimes it's, go back to the lab and do this critical set of experiments that you completely missed. Other times, you get comments that are like, what the heck? And fortunately in the sciences you have two ways of addressing that: first of all, there's the revision of the paper that you then would send back, which hopefully should incorporate those positive comments and feedback that you received, but you also have a letter to the editor, in which there are comments that you've chosen to ignore, and you have an opportunity to explain why you're ignoring them, why you think they're off-base, why you think that whoever this reviewer is, she or he is, clearly missed the point and is asking me to do something that's irrelevant to what I'm trying to get across here. So I think it's learning both of those skills - is a really important part of what's professional development in the sciences.
MC:I hope you enjoyed the first part of our public conversation about critical evaluation across disciplines. What took place next was a twenty-minute group discussion that revealed a lot more about student and faculty perceptions of feedback. It's difficult to hear all the voices on the recording, so we created a transcript that you can download from our website, along with other transcripts and podcasts from the ICE Conversation Series.
Feedback is a production of Ideas for Creative Exploration, an interdisciplinary initiative for advanced research in the arts at the University of Georgia. I'm Mark Callahan. This podcast was produced with the assistance of Fernando Deddos and featured music by The Noisettes.
Part 2 (transcript only)
MC: What kinds of questions, from the panel, do we have for the audience about feedback?
MF: Has it ever made you want to drop out of graduate school?
Audience member: A lack of feedback did. A lack of interaction or any kind of commentary almost had me drop out.
JMW: What is your preferred form of feedback, face to face, written, other?
A: Face to face, for sure.
JMW: Because then there is a chance to have follow-up questions, defend yourself, whatever?
A: Less trying to figure out the nuance of, did they really mean to sound that harsh, or...
JWM: ... or was it a joke?
A: I think the process for me was I would always get very defensive, and then I'd go home, and then I'd wake up and go, oh that person was right. That was always the process that I knew would happen. Well, maybe not right, but at least worth considering.
AZ: When it fails, even after the morning after, you still think it didn't work - how often is that because, there was such a panoply of options on the table in the critique, that you felt like, well, there are eleven people in here, nine of them spoke, and they had nine different things to say, and maybe three of them were faculty members, who were hashing out their own "whatever," and so you go home and think, I can pick one of those nine, or two of those nine options are commensurate - or not. How often does it devolve? Is that a good way of thinking about why and when feedback fails?
A: I've definitely experienced the paralysis of that, where I don't even know where to start. I think it goes back to some of the things that Nadia mentioned, there's almost a "battered graduate student" thing that happens after a certain series of feedback, where I don't even know what I'm saying. I know I need to be respectful, they wrote me a three-sentence reply to my four-page paper, I don't know where I'm at in this, I want to be respectful but I don't know if I can be - I think there's a huge piece of this where, I don't want to do this to my students when I become a faculty member, but I want them to run through the gauntlet, but I don't - I don't know if I'm taking this in a different direction but, I'm really curious about the hierarchical aspect of it.
A: I think it's also really important to pick and choose, from my own personal experience, I just had my "half-way" critique last fall and I had five faculty critiquing my work and it was five different voices that were very diverse, and I had recorded it and I went back - and I've also found that it's really helpful to record criticism - because I was able to go back and listen and really pull what was the most important and most helpful criticism and you have to take some things with a grain of salt and weigh out what's going to be the most beneficial to you in the end.
A: I always think that finding that voice that you trust the most - I think back to my critiques and conversations - there's those people that you can really trust their feedback and criticisms and you have to seek out those people and find the ones who you can trust their input, because in study, criticism, feedback, there's a lot of stuff that comes out that you take with a grain of salt, and it might not be pertinent to what you need, but there are those voices you trust.
GC: So where does that trust come from, for you?
A: You know, that's a good question, I don't know, it could be intuition, it could be from the respect of their wisdom, their experience, I can't pinpoint it.
A: I find that people that are able to give me the hard criticisms, in a way that's productive, those are the people that I find myself trusting most often, because they're able to guide you in a way that you're able to prove yourself without totally breaking your heart.
MF: I think that's an important point, I was thinking, just having someone who agrees with you is probably not that best person. Certainly the one member of my graduate committee who probably did the least in terms of directly impacting what I was doing because she really didn't know my field that well, but who did the most in terms of forming me into a scientist, was a different person. So I think the other thing you need to think about is that mixture of people. The people that were able to directly help me with the research questions and the techniques that I was using were certainly valuable, the other committee member, who really could care less about those things, really taught me how to think like a scientist - between them, that kind of feedback really helped shape me.
A: I think being critical of criticism, personally, is like a turning point, that whole process of disagreeing with a disagreement that's being pushed at you I think is the best way to strengthen your own argument. Be receptive of it, but also be able to push back, so it's a two-way street.
AZ: I think students sometimes underestimate the kind of pushback you actually want as a faculty member. There are students who want to know what the answer is and how do I get there and what can I do to convince you to give me an "A" kind of thing, but I think most of the time that comp exam and dissertation defense and critique - as a faculty member, that gets boring after a while, frankly, on a kind of ego-centric level, my ears perk up when someone says, actually, no. I'm not hurt, now we can actually have a conversation, it's going to be the best for you, and also for me, now the next thirty minutes of my life are actually interesting.
MC: And what kind of questions do we have from the audience?
A: When you're in a critique, what do you find to be the ideal student? What is the ideal situation in which a student can act, or engage in a critique?
MHP: I really think when they're open, that's my ideal student - I look at it like an ideal dance partner - there's this motion and movement that happen where no one is stepping on each other's toes. They're open, and receptive, and engaged in the conversation about feedback with their work, but also giving. So when they can kind of let go of their egos - because you can feel it, when people are so defensive, you just walk in the door and, oh boy - so, for me, it's that openness.
A: Do you find that students come to you prepared for feedback, or is it a totally new experience?
JMW: I think for a lot of undergrads it is a new experience, particularly here, for instance, in my field and probably all the performing arts people here, they may have been real stars in their high school, and maybe spread kind of thin because you're the one who can really do this, and then they get here and now one of many who can do that - so I've found that what I really have to get past with both them and graduate students is this idea of "right" and "wrong." And if somebody makes a criticism of something, does that mean either the performer was right or critique person was right? But that it's not right or wrong, it's toward better art and communicating that art. So it's a matter of, is the message you're trying to get across through your music coming through or not, it's not wether it's the right message or not - because if it's your message it's the right message.
GC: I think, at least in acting, we have have issues between the academic setting and the professional setting. In the professional world, for instance, if you are given a note, or feedback, you're expected to act on that and you're expected to take it down, and we want to see it in the next run-through or the next rehearsal. The most common thing with young actors coming in is, so I'll be giving notes and I'll say, I didn't like the way you crossed up stage right, could you cross up stage left instead - before I've even finished, that person is saying, yes, but you don't understand, what I was trying to do there is - and I have to always say, right up front, in this notes session I just need you to listen to what I'm telling you I heard and what I saw and then we can go from there, but you have to listen first, you have to take it in first. And I think that's what the crucial thing is, just to listen, before we can even take the next step.
A: How often do you let your students critique your work?
AZ: For me, never, but it's not about hierarchy, it's about, I don't want to waste your time going over my work - I mean, I would love that, I'd do that all semester if I could, but - so, it's really about deference, and thinking about what you're here for, and what you paid for, and what you're going into debt for - talk about me some other time over a beer or something, but not in a class.
MHP: It never happens - I do have students who come to my office and ask, can they talk about my work and want to hear about it, and that's fine, but it's really not for the classroom. But I think there are two very distinct approaches to critique in art, and I look at them as the "West Coast" and the "East Coast." On the East Coast, they're like, gonna just tear you apart, beat you down, it's the worst form of boot camp ever, they're like, it's a boxing match, all this stuff happening with egos. And on the West Coast, it seems to me that it's more student-centered, and that's where it, for me, what's important is to level that playing field, that's why I feel my role is as the moderator, in a way, and not like, you guys don't know anything, and I'm going to tell you all of this information. My role is to help you discover who you are and what your work is about. So I'm not - think there are people who do it differently, of course there are, but it's not so much about my work.
MC: I understand in theatre, why that hierarchy is important, because it is an ensemble work - if everyone goes off and does their own thing, the ensemble might fall apart. But, are there some benefits to "leveling the field" and having a more open exchange between students and teachers?
GC: Just from my personal experience, luckily most of the time, as performance faculty, we're directing a show, or possibly acting in a show in our department, so the students do get to see our work, and one of the things that has been wonderful for me is, you know, sometimes artistic stuff can be real esoteric, and you're telling them, oh, be a butterfly, and they're like, what the hell is this guy talking about, how do I be a butterfly? But for me to be able, because I teach a specific acting technique, for my students to be able to see me apply that has been incredibly rewarding, because I can't tell you how many students come back to me and go, oh my god, I totally get it now, I get what you were saying, and I immediately see the change in class - I see them grasping the concept, tearing into it physically the way I want them to. I'm alway jealous of the music faculty because they always seem to be doing stuff, and they get to perform all the time, and because of our schedules, we don't get to do that as much over in the theatre department, we direct, and a performance opportunity maybe comes up every three years or so. But if it can happen, we always talk about it in class at least, and I like to come in with questions. I like to say, don't be afraid of tearing me down, but here are the things that I was interested in, did this work for you? And take it from there.
RGE: In choreographic processes, as faculty and having students in my works, I'm like an open book, I can't help it, that's how I work, I just talk out loud about my process and say, OK, we're going to try these three things, and I bet none of them will work, but I'll go in to four and five and six, I feel like I've noticed, I have this natural proclivity to start talking about the process while they're in it, so sooner or later they start giving suggestions, they start taking on my thinking process and start helping me solve the problems, which they're more than welcome - everyone's more than welcome to suggest. So it's an open lab, and it's natural for me, but I feel like it's helped them to see how some - how one person goes about this, it's not this magic stuff, it's a bunch of mistakes and trial and error and tools that you apply and break down and - open that up completely to them, and then I feel free to say, yeah, not so much, not that suggestion right now - there's a really good push and pull because it's in this process. And I also advise them in their work, and I can say, well you know, it's like when we tried this exercise when I was choreographing, so there's a bigger plate to pull from.
A: Often times, some of the best classes I've taken, some of the classes I taught, we're based on art history methods or things I was already researching, so often times a professor would teach a class based on something he was writing his book on, so you learn from each other - I think the best class I taught is when I learn from my students, I think that's what you hope as a professor. So it might not be that they're criticizing my own work, but they're helping me with my research.
NK: In my research group we do - yesterday I gave my keynote for the research group and they gave me feedback, and it's better now - so we definitely do in our research group, not so much in my classes with freshmen, teaching design, because it wouldn't really make sense.
A: I felt - I hadn't been in a class where there was the Critical Friends process, and - it made it feel very authentic, and that's where I felt like I really became a grad student, listening to how she [Kellam] prepared, and that she genuinely took our feedback. So it gave me some confidence, that being part of this research cluster - it gives it authenticity, I think, and also seeing the process that the professionals go through before conferences, it gives me more insight to it that I wouldn't have had, and I appreciate that.
AZ: I think this is really important, about the playing field thing - in a graduate class, really different at the undergraduate level, where trying to level the playing field too early would be a terrible thing to do, not because you need to maintain your authority, but because they want you to have some authority, they're looking to you for some kind of structure, that over time, maybe they graduate to some place where you can have coffee together, and they think that's cool. But at the graduate level, it's not like for the working artists that run critiques, that it's any different for us, and we talked about this when Liz Lerman came, that the forums or fora for us as practicing artists are fewer and fewer as we get into this academic setting, but students need to see that the playing field is already level - I mean, I ask myself these questions every day I can get to my work, and so there is a very real point where, I have nothing for you here, this is like, welcome to making your work, this is like the question that's constantly at issue, based on your work as it changes, your life as it changes, your money as it comes and goes, all these kinds of material concerns mean that this field that we've got in the class here is already - I mean, if you need me as a director of a program or a faculty member to be a mentor to you at a particular point, I'm here for you, to offer the advice that I can. Otherwise, I'm going to assume that we're in this together, and the issue of the grade is a lot less important at the graduate level - it really is about moving people into the next phase. I remember as a graduate student, it kind of hit me one day, wow, these people that I idolize and they're all kind of famous and they're doing this incredible stuff - they're also, when we leave here, they go do what I'm doing. They just make it look easier, I just assume it's easier because, they have gray hair and nice suits, but actually, they're going through the same thing.
A: What do you do when a prodigious talent comes through, and you're like, I don't know what I can offer you, I don't have feedback for you - what do you do when you don't know how to give feedback?
GC: If you're developing a good mentorship role with them, if that's one of the things you want to have, I think it's getting to really know them, getting to know where they're coming from, what they haven't done yet or what they haven't explored yet - I mean, we all have areas that, I'm brilliant at this, or, I'm not going to touch that. So if we're only seeing the brilliance - not to knock them down, not to say, yeah, check the ego at the door, it's to say, you do this really well, is there something else you'd like to explore? Let's look at that, let's expand your range a little bit more and see what we can come up with there. A typical example, we get students who are great musical theatre performers, who have amazing voices, but musical theatre acting doesn't necessarily require the depth that one might need in another type of acting, and so you can say to them, while I love the work you do as a musical theatre actor, now let's see if we can refine some of that so that you can approach Shakespeare, or you can approach Mamet and have the same beauty and focus that you do when you sing.
A: I think that's very applicable in the fine arts because a lot of us come in with a certain area of concentration, whether it's painting or printmaking or ceramics, and you get here pretty much knowing that one medium and then grad school is a time that allows getting wild and dabbling in everything, and so that's a thing that we're all advocating for, breaking down those barriers between disciplines, because you might get there and be a fantastic painter, but you might not know anything about printmaking or ceramics, so to be able to cross those disciplines even in the school of art - it's becoming important to leave here being an artist, and not just let this one thing -
JMW: I think too, that talent is a really small piece of the puzzle really, and that sometimes someone that is very talented has not had the benefit of learning process and how to really learn something at a very very high level. So, for example, if you have a violinist who is very talented, they still have to put a lot of work in to learn the Sibelius Violin Concerto, and they have to learn a lot about music theory and the history of the piece to really connect that way. So a lot of times, it's wonderful to get somebody who is really talented, it's like, great, we don't have to work on all of these things, but looking more at the big picture and just, how to manage that talent, how to interact with other people, all of those kinds of things, how to set goals you can really reach, then it's exciting that way.
Recorded on February 28, 2014.
Transcription by Lisbeth Wells-Pratt and Mark Callahan