You Have to Give to Receive

When I first started teaching photography, I also curated my first show of photographs.  At the time I was really enthralled with the new power I’d discovered in teaching, and so put together a show of photographs about teaching.  It was called Precedence:  Emmet Gowin and His Students.

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Working in the darkroom tonight making proofs, I got to thinking more about my own teaching.  About 10 years have past since I curated this first show, and now I have much more of a foundation as a teacher.

So, as many of you might know, when one applies for a teaching in job in higher eduction in the arts, one is often asked to write a statement of teaching philosophy.  A number of years ago, I wrote this for an application (and I still like this statement):

For me, teaching is largely an intuitive process, and very much an improvisation.  Unfortunately, these are ways of thinking that are not easily explained.  Each of my students is unique, and I try to approach my relationships with them in the classroom as such.  I find teaching to be an improvisation grounded on my own understandings of photography, the unique character of each student, and the collective character of the class as a whole.

As an artist, I think there are several things that I find important to communicate with my students.  First and foremost, I think it is important to model in my own work the standards I set for students in the classroom.  It is important for young artists not only to see the work of more mature artists, but also to see the dedication it takes, and the struggles inherent in the creative process.  I try to make something of my own work — my successes and failures — evident to my students.  To set this example, I treat my teaching much as I treat my own studio work, with a seriousness of pursuit, an insistence on quality, a committed believe in communication, and with an humility and an openness to new experiences.  These are qualities I expect from myself, and therefore from each of my students as well.

I also see the creative classroom as a platform for self-discovery as much as a way for relaying technical and conceptual information.  My hope is that by the end of each course, my students leave knowing more about themselves and their own motivations.  As an artist, I believe it is essential to understand one’s unique relationship to the larger world, and as a teacher I serve as a catalyst for this kind of discovery in my students.

Finally, I try to make my classroom a place where everyone can be treated with good humor, but also feel strongly challenged and motivated.  In class discussions, I try to discuss each student’s work individually, responding to the energy and care with which it was made, and treating the work of each student equally.  Along the same lines, I find it important to develop some kind of personal relationship with each of my students, so that I can look for something of their personalities in their work.

Over the past few years, teaching has become an important part of my own creative process.  Continually, I find myself renewed by the energy my students bring to their work, and further challenged by having to articulate my own thinking about photography and the creative process.  Each semester, I hope that I learn about each of my students as individuals, and that I am able to let their discoveries help me learn more about my own beliefs and motivations.  I always consider myself to be both a teacher for and a student of my students.  I consider it a privilege to be an educator, both for the opportunity to influence a group of people dedicated to their own creative and intellectual development, and also for the creative influence I constantly discover working with them.


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And now I offer a toast to those of you I’ve taught; I’ve learned a lot from all of you.

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I’ve posted a few websites of former students below (and these are just a few that came to mind, no exclusions are intentional….).

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Sarah Bader; Jennifer Link ; Joel Kuschke; Kevin Kline; Christine Serchia; Jennifer Kloth

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