The Blog

Thoughts from the end of the semester

At the end of every semester, I get to spend quite a bit of time with students who are either looking for help with their final projects, getting ready to go out into the professional world, or who just want to have a good cry because they’re so stressed out and don’t know who else to talk to. And I don’t mind that; not at all. We’ve all been there.

I also spend quite a bit of time assessing what what happened in my class for the term, before I read my student evaluations. I make a list of things I’d like to change, the things I struggled with as a teacher, and the things that went well. Then I make a big map of it and brainstorm a little. I research what other professors are doing, I make notes on post its and I hang them up on top of the map. Then I read my student evaluations, make post-its for student comments, and map them to my own observations to see if they were the same, or totally different.

It’s a lot of work. And it’s a lot of worthwhile work. As a new teacher, I am always learning. ALWAYS.

This term I had quite a few graduating seniors. I know that RISD will have prepared them, via the rigorous “ground it and pound it” foundation & sophomore years, and the intense competition and critique, to do good work. But what I worry about, and it seems to be more acute every year, is the soft skills that students seem to need help with.

In assessing my own performance as a teacher, I thought I’d offer up a little student assessment as well. Finding a job and doing good work isn’t just about the work. It’s also about the “soft skills” of communication, as well as basic accountability. That said, here’s the list…

Show up.  I cannot stress this enough. Even if your work isn’t done. Even if  it’s shitty. Even if you just can’t pull it together. Be present in the work that you’re doing. Be as engaged as you can. Whether it’s your professor, or your boss, or your peers — you’ll get a lot more respect, and be cut a lot more slack when something really is wrong — if you’re known for showing up and working hard.

Be on time.  This should go without saying, but lateness automatically makes me think you don’t care about the work, the class, or have much respect for me, while we’re at it. Lateness is fine with your friends, but it’s not fine for work, or school, especially with assignments.

Be accountable. Be accountable for yourself (see above) but also for the quality of your work. It’s okay to struggle. It’s okay to fail. It’s okay to say “I put a lot of hours in on this, and here’s everything I tried, but I’m still having trouble with it. Can you help me?” But don’t do half-assed work and bring the excuses. OR, if you really didn’t do the work? Fine, then be accountable for that.

Admit what you don’t know. It’s not about looking smarter than other people, or knowing the right answer. Nodding and pretending you know what someone else is talking about when you really have no idea often backfires. The smartest people admit what they don’t know. And then they go figure it out.

Ask for help if you need it. There is honesty and truth in asking for help. It’s brave. And you always end up making better work. Always.

Ask for what you want. The worst you can hear is “No.” Is that really so bad?  But if you’re going to ask for something, be ready to back it up, to show rather than tell, and work your ass off (see above on accountability).

Approach your work with honesty. If you are doing personal work, this obviously applies, but even in professional work, have an open heart about it. Don’t try to emulate something that isn’t right for you, or how you work. You’ll just end up making really generic work.

Take feedback gracefully. This is one I’ve always struggled with outside of my own peer group (i.e. artists and designers). Remember that most people you interact with in a business context never went to art school. They don’t know how to give thoughtful or respectful critique. They also don’t speak your language, nor do they care to learn, but they do have opinions. It has nothing to do with you. When responding to critique, listen, validate that you heard them, and then ask for clarification. If someone says “I don’t like it” and offers little else, you can always say, “Were you expecting it to be more like…” or
“So are you saying that…” to help direct the conversation in a more helpful direction.

That’s it from me. Clara Lieu from RISD has a great book called “Learn, Create, and Teach” that is full of similar advice for students and teachers alike. Highly recommend. Have a great summer, students. See you in the fall!

 

How to ask for help

Asking for help is an area where I constantly struggle. I realize that I am not alone in this problem, and it seems like every time I talk to friends about it, I hear “OH, ME TOO.”

For me, there are two types of help and there are two reasons for the reluctance to ask, and both seem pretty silly.

The first is the kind of help where you need someone to help you do something that you’re not capable of doing yourself, or maybe you’re capable but it would make your life a hell of a lot easier if you had an extra set of hands (i.e. driving yourself home after a procedure, moving a gigantic piece of furniture, bringing a dessert to a dinner party). I have no idea why it’s so difficult to ask someone to bring a dessert to my house, or to say “hey, do you think you could help me pick up this drafting table and get it into the house on Sunday?” (Note to self – really would like a drafting table). I’m getting better at asking, however — especially this type of asking — and I always remind myself that the worst someone can say is no, right?

The second type of help is much harder. It’s basically a result of a fixed mindset, where admitting that I need help “means” that I’m ill-equipped to be doing whatever it is I’m doing. And that’s RIDICULOUS. Asking a question about how to do something, or how to handle a difficult situation has nothing to do with how qualified or smart I am, or whatever. It doesn’t. There doesn’t need to be all this guilt and fear and shame involved, but yet, there it is. And I logically know this, but it doesn’t seem to matter, so it’s something that I am working on.

For example, spring semester is winding down and I’m still learning about and tweaking my class. I was having some issues with student participation and I ended up reaching out to some folks I trust to get some help. It felt terrifying. No word a lie. But one of the most surprising (and most validating) things was that every person I asked said, “ah yes, this is a constant problem, every semester.” EVERY. SEMESTER. So it’s not just me! Okay, then! My colleagues’ suggestions were fantastic and I implemented a few of them with some success. And I also learned that there are people I can trust at my school, which is a really great thing to know, higher ed being what it is.

Conversely, I have no problem admitting to my students: when I don’t know a lot about, or lack experience with certain things; that the class I’m teaching is new; and that I am learning from them, and from the class itself as I go along. I think there is this assumption that teachers/professors plan a course, teach the course, and then just keep teaching it like it’s some kind of repeatable, template-driven process, and it’s not. Not just with technology-driven classes, but definitely more so there than a studio drawing class. STILL, one might try something new (or new to them) just to see what happens, how students respond, and how the work either improves or doesn’t. Don’t get me wrong — I’m not winging it. I put a shit ton of effort into what I’m teaching and how I’m teaching it, but the art of teaching (or so I am learning, as a novice teacher) is basically forming a hypothesis about how students will learn something, testing your hypothesis, and then measuring the results.

So this is where I am right now. Benchmarking, tweaking, testing, measuring. Like an art scientist (heh, I wish)! And I’m asking for help where I need to. Funny thing: it’s getting easier to ask every time; mini-failures (I like to call them that because failing is totally okay!) don’t seem so huge; and when I let go of the fear/guilt/shame of asking, I feel like I am more open to learning (DUH).

Only a few more weeks to the semester, and I’m still learning. Beginners mind, and all that.

April showers… and hot lava

Well, so last year I posted all my work in progress stuff along with a couple of blog-like snippets over on Ye Olde Tumblr. And that was okay and all, but I felt like I needed to write a bit more sometimes, and have better control of what I was putting out there. And then there’s Instagram, and most of that doesn’t belong here, unless you want to see a ton of pictures of coffee, wine, and my dog. And sometimes the cat, but he’s a jerk.

And then I also missed the comments and follow-up that blogs provide, along with the ability to do RSS feeds, and send emails re: blog posts. And. And. AND.

So I’m back.

It’s April, and I’m halfway through my semester at RISD, prepping for some fall classes at the Museum School, and generally just hustling my ass off to make my teaching jobs into, y’know, an actual career. I’ve also in the middle of a spring campaign for my non-profit client (love them), and trying to knit myself some socks, and do some drawings.

And. And. AND.

The drawings are kind of fun. You can see where I’m headed over on the Tumblr. I had this realization last year that every kid I knew, of a certain age, understood the concept of HOT LAVA, and it wondered how that could be? How is the game where the ground is made of hot lava a THING? I still don’t know the answer, but it sure is fun to draw hot lava. And it’s also going to fun to make some Gocco prints out of it too, when I get around to it… because and, and, AND.

365 Days of Making

Since I left my job and started working full time on GIVEGIVE, but even before that – long before that, come to think of it – I had been feeling very dissatisfied with my creative brain. Every time I painted, I felt like I was just going through the motions. I liked print-making, but honestly, the way I do it, is just an extension of doing graphic design/typography work. There’s not a lot of hand-skill involved. And I missed that.

So at the beginning of the year, I decided to make myself a little Tumblr for creating something daily. It could be drawing (as it has been lately) or it could be prints, knitting, or even baking a loaf of bread from scratch. It’s just about MAKING, and it’s been fun so far.

Link to Tumblr to see…

In with the new

One of the things that I’ve been working on is reframing, or changing my expectations and my mindset, to be a more flexible, adaptable person. For someone my age, this is hard, but thankfully it’s getting easier with the help of a few daily practices and some reading material (link, link, and link).

Daniel Pink’s book was recommended to me by the incomparable Gerry Laybourne. It had been on my to-read list for a while but it got buried beneath a bunch of other books about poverty and trafficking. Needless to say, it was a welcome and refreshing read in comparison. I’m most of the way through it, and will be tackling the exercises soon. Lots of good stuff there.

Christine (my BFF and all around kick-ass broad) recommended Carol Dweck’s book, and there are some golden items in here. The friend who recommended it to her said that it was required reading for all teachers at her institution, so that’s what sparked my interest. As an aside, Christine is a phenomenal writer and if you are at all interested in art – and especially if you are curious about contemporary middle eastern art – you should check out her site. It’s terrific.

Max Daniels, one of my Boston friends and a swell person, recommended Martha Beck’s book to me, and to my friend Sooz. I just picked it up and have barely gotten into it, but I’m finding some words of wisdom and a lot of inspiration/affirmation there. Reading it makes me feel as if I am doing the right thing, going out on my own to create the life I want, and right now I need all the positive reinforcement I can get.

Other things I’m doing to get ready to leap:

  • Editing a bunch of stuff from my apartment. Eliminating clutter. BIG TIME.
  • Organizing my work space. Making it usable, inspiring, and beautiful.
  • Updating my web site (obvs), contacts, and setting up all the forms and documents I’ll need to get started.
  • Taking time to breathe, to feed myself, and enjoy the quiet moments when I find them.
  • Setting goals for myself. Monthly, and year-end at this point. More to come.

Here are a few pics of my workspace. I’m digging it. First pic: My desk & sewing area. Ikea butcher block countertop mounted on desk frame (this is awesome). My TEDxNE badge hanging from the lamp is a great reminder of a personal goal (to speak at a TED conference). Second: GIVE | GIVE nerve center. Plus Surly & ANT (my bikes).

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In general, I feel good. I’ve had many productive conversations with close friends whose opinions I value, and have several more of those scheduled. I’m networking some, but plan to do more of that once I’ve taken a vacation, and I’m doing what I need to do to finish up at my job. I’m actually sad to leave my job, so it’s been difficult to do more than plug away at tasks against a ticking clock. Need to work on that.

Anyway. Lots to do. Feeling good. Looking forward to looking back, as OtR says….

On career evolution & exploration

Last Friday, I resigned from my job as Design Director at Redstar. While I believe in what Redstar is doing and while I enjoyed the people and the environment very much, it had become very clear to me over the past year that it was not where I belonged, and as a result of that feeling, I was struggling in my work. I mean really struggling.

It’s not easy for me to come in, put in my hours, and collect a paycheck. I care far too much about what I do, and my midwestern worth ethic doesn’t jive with that kind of mindset at all. And let me tell you, when you work in startups, there is nowhere to hide. You can’t feign interest in a company where you’re one of a handful of employees, where everyone else is highly engaged, not to mention busting their ass to make it a success. You simply can’t half-ass it. It is just not possible. And because of my inability to half-ass anything, I have chosen to work in startups for the past 16 years.

But I am tired. Really tired. And it was affecting both my performance and my happiness, and the more unhappy I became, the more my performance suffered. Further, I found myself involved with companies that, while fun and interesting, weren’t in sync anymore with what I was excited about on a personal level. So, with a heavy heart and a clear conscience, I resigned.

The more interesting part of the story, of course, is how I got to this place where I was leaping off a cliff (because that’s what I’m doing — I’m not going to another job), and feeling only a little bit freaked out about it.

It started with RISD. When I began teaching, it was like a whole world opened up for me. I was engaged with my students and my curriculum, finding joy in the most mundane of tasks, and experiencing a resurgence in my own creativity and natural curiosity about the world around me. I was literally seeing things differently. And I was a student myself — a novice, learning to teach. I read books and articles on education. I studied the curriculum of other design programs. I took a teaching workshop. I spoke to other professors and started following some educators I admire on Twitter. I networked. I asked questions. I wrote notes to myself. I asked for feedback. I made mistakes and I learned to correct them. And slowly I became a teacher — and a good one, if the student work and evaluations tell the truth.

I love being a teacher. And I love learning. That was lesson one.

The other tipping point came when Tanja and I started GIVEGIVE. I hadn’t realized that I was capable of half of the things that I do on a day-to-day basis, just trying to get that company off the ground. I don’t have entrepreneurial parents. I don’t have an MBA. I don’t even sew that well (GIVEGIVE is a fair trade fashion brand with a social mission). But I have worked in e-commerce for a long time, worked in startups, and worked in fashion. With Tanja by my side, we decided that we would help each other through the tough spots and ask for outside help when we needed it along the way. And you know what? Our friends and mentors have been more than willing to help us because they support what we’re doing, because they want to see us succeed, and because they love us, or at least they like us enough to spend an hour telling us what we’re doing wrong… and how to fix it, which is terrific.

So, lesson two was that I’m not alone in wanting to create my own company — one with a social mission to create something that elevates women in societies where they are marginalized. Lesson two was about creating something bigger than myself, and that it wasn’t just a desire, but a necessity. Lesson two was about enabling hope to live where it currently has little chance. Lesson two is about giving, not receiving. Lesson two is about taking all of the opportunities I’ve had and applying it to give others a fighting chance.

Note: You can read more about our travels to Nepal and why we’re doing this on our blog, or you can see what we’re up to on Facebook & Twitter

Honestly, I can’t believe how long it took to get to this place where I am ready to let go and take a chance. It is in my nature to dream big for other people, but not for myself. I’m not sure why that is, but it’s something I’m finally allowing myself to do, and it is hard. But being uncomfortable is part of growth, so I’m trying to let go of the lines, drift away from the shore, and see where the winds & the current take me, because it could be someplace wonderful and unexpected.

There’s a quote that I love from Grace Murray Hopper (and if you don’t know who she is, then holy cow, please read up on her. What an inspiring woman.):

A ship in port is safe; but that is not what ships are built for. Sail out to sea and do new things.

I never thought I would be an explorer, but I am learning to be one.

On teaching.

This is a post I wrote in the fall of 2011 about creative a safe space within my classroom, in response to the bullying and subsequent suicide of Jamey Rodemeyer.

. . .

I started my fall semester last week. This year I’m teaching web design and I am truly excited about it. I’ve also been asked to do an independent study with one of the seniors in Illustration and that will be a good thing for both of us. His project is related to sports and social networks, so I’ll be reviewing a lot of designs, wireframes, and their working prototypes. Fun.

One of the things that has been interesting for me, as a new teacher, is pacing. I know that in the beginning of a class, students always feel as if you’re throwing so much information at them (and you are), but I do find that the most challenging thing for me is to balance the information I need to convey to keep the class on schedule, while simultaneously helping them along the way, and answering their questions which sometimes leave me working “off script” and then having to redirect back while still having the class feel cohesive. It’s definitely a challenge.

The other thing I’ve been thinking about a lot, is how to create a safe place for students to ask questions, get help, or to just BE. I know that I teach young adults and not middle or high-schoolers, but it is important to me that my students feel that they can come to me if there’s an issue – at school, at home, whatever. The death of Jamey Rodemeyer yesterday has been sitting heavy with me. No child, no PERSON, should ever have to feel that the only way to get away from people who hurt them is to take their own life. No one. On the first day of class, as hokey as it sounds, I told my students that it was my job to create a safe space for them in my classroom, and I truly believe that. I think it’s important that we establish rules of conduct for our classrooms, and not tolerate behavior that is unacceptable. Hopefully such conduct doesn’t happen, but when it does, it literally takes 20 seconds to address it. It is my JOB to address it.

Twenty seconds. That’s nothing. But it could mean everything to someone like Jamey.

 

 

Oh hello, lovelies.

It’s been a while, hasn’t it?

I’ve been up to a lot over the past year or two, and yet… not. Isn’t that how it usually goes? Since I took my blog down, I’ve learned to print letterpress, moved, taught at RISD for several semesters, changed jobs, and am still evolving in many ways.

But this is still where the magic happens, as they say. So let’s give it another go, alright?