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!