Message to arts students (notes)

When I am not doing community media type work, my day job is teaching photography degree students. As with all teachers, you start to see patterns over the years in feelings and behaviour from which one can draw some ‘universal’ lessons and advice and guidance.

As head of 1st year, here are the notes for a presentation I plan to give to the new cohort in September, to give them a sense of expectations and conflicting feelings they may experience in the first year. Not sure it will be in this exact order. Will see how it looks & feels. Comments always welcome.

I admit in an anti-Friere approach to writing this, as there is an ‘us & them’ tendency in how this is written. Hopefully I have absolved myself somewhat in point 4. below.

I found these points quite easy to write for formal education students, as there is a structure that is set and repeated year after year, so ‘universal’ themes can be identified for advice and guidance. It would be more difficult, if not impossible, to write these for participants of Community Media education activity though, experiencing learning in the informal education sector – as hardly any two projects are the same, and the system and structures reinvent themselves with each new pot of funding.

Here goes: Message to 1st year art, media, photography & design students.

We don’t remember you from your interviews. There is no legacy we are expecting you to build on. Now is the opportunity to reinvent yourself and be who you want to be, and not continue to be who everyone expects you to be.

You all have a varied range of experiences and expertise, but you are all here for a reason and that is all that counts. Having an identical set of entry skills requirements would make for a dull class of students. Listen to each other, learn from each other and share with each other, but don’t fear or envy each other. You were all interviewed and you all arrived, like competitive sperm in the womb. Now it’s your gift to make the most of being here.

You don’t know everything otherwise you wouldn’t be here, so try not to be too resistant and listen to advice and guidance, and don’t be afraid to take creative risks and work outside your comfort zone.

Also we don’t know everything either otherwise we probably wouldn’t be here also. Teaching is also about co-learning, so be prepared to take ownership of your ideas and to engage in conversation and critical debate about your creative decision making.

You have to work at finding answers, and also accept that there is not always necessarily a “right” answer to be found. Research is a necessary part of the creative process. When you are a professional you can do research in your head and it will be second nature, but now that you are in art school, we ask you to play the game and write it down. We have to grade you, so we need to base it on ‘evidence’. I won’t apologise for this as you will thank us the in 10 years time.

This is not school. In the first year if you don’t turn up for sessions for the first 6 months or so then we will chase you down as we recognise living away from home for the first time can be a time of self discovery. But in the second year it is up to you to be the responsible adults that we first saw in you in your interview. If you need me to repeat this point, then is probably best you leave now and save your money.

You will no longer be top of the class as your were in A-level. You will need to grow a thick skin and take on board criticism of your work. You will learn by doing, which is the only real way to learn arts practice at all.

In a couple of months you may start to question yourself, your creative ability and your future. That is natural. Please talk to someone about this, one of your tutors or student support. Please remember that the creative process can be painful and scary, but in the interview we saw in you your ability to succeed. We do not set up anybody to fail.

First year is largely about trying to support you to have the confidence so have the skill to achieve strong research as second nature. So in 2nd and 3rd year it doesn’t need as much effort but you are still producing strong results. Writing things down on paper is a life skills. If you are not confident at writing, now is as good a time as any to try and conquer this fear.

Be personal with your work. Have an opinion. Read the newspaper. Understand what makes you tick, and don’t be embarrassed by it. This is important for both issue-based and non-issue based work. We don’t expect all your work to be political and save the world, but even if your work is about public toilets then we expect you to have an opinion about them.

Don’t be the critic on your own shoulder. There will be enough people wanting to censor you when you leave this place. Be brave and be honest and make the work you want to make. Don’t make the work you think we want you to make. We have had our time to make work. Now is your time.

Listen to your heart and not so much your head. Logic can really mess up a good creative project and trip you up at the last hurdle.

Photography is difficult because it is so easy. Don’t take it for granted or underestimate its power. Any literate person can write ‘To be or not to be, that is the question’, but that does not make them Shakespeare. Likewise photography. Don’t just see things, start to look at them also.



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