My Views: Teaching, Learning and Research in Creative Arts education

My colleague Angus Fraser asked me to fill out a questionnaire for a paper he is writing.  As I like to recycle and re-connect content, I’ve pasted my answers below.  All the views are my own and not my employers or departments.

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QUESTIONNAIRE BY ANGUS FRASER

NAME: Dr Shawn Sobers                                       

DATE: 17 Feb 2014

Educational Institution:  UWE

1.     How long have you been lecturing photography, and what areas/topics do you concentrate on?

I’ve been teaching photography full time on the degree since 2006, and taught it before that incorporated into an Art & Media Foundation course since 1999.  I teach general photography, not with a specific specialism.

2.     Can you describe your approach to lecturing photography, and which areas do you prefer to teach?

My approach to teaching photography in tutorial situations is student led and idea led, rather than being led by a genre, technique or (hopefully) my own expectations.  By student led I mean I try to encourage the students to tap into the own interests and motivations, rather than doing projects for the sake of it with no personal interest.  This is not to say that I want all student projects to be personal or autobiographical, as I don’t, but just that I feel it should be on a topic that they have personal interest in, even if they did not realise their interest from the outset.  Work with some soul in it.  If a student seems confident to pursue a project idea with no apparent personal interest then that is absolutely fine, I won’t push it as there is no need to find a personal key.  Whatever works to get the student motivated is the main thing, and usually a personal connection can unlock and a creative blockage. 

I’m less confident in teaching purely commercial styles of photography such as fashion or advertising, or images that are all about the technique with no subject substance.   I can and do teach commercial and fashion, and I know what a good image looks like, but my interest lays more with what the message is the images are trying to portray and the idea behind them, and in this digital-photography era I believe ideas are still the valuable commodity, (along with technical knowledge and confidence of your craft).  When the technical application tends to be the only overriding feature I tend to refer the student to a different tutor for further guidance.

 3.     What do you want your students to learn or take away from your lectures/tutorials?

Enthusiasm and confidence in their own ideas.

4.     What do you understand by the term ‘practice-as-research’, and do you identify your own practice within this term?

I understand the term ‘practice as research’ similar to my understanding of the term ‘Praxis’ – linking theory, practice, reflection and critical learning in an ongoing process.   Through your practice you make certain reflections and realisations (findings) about either your creative methodology or the subject matter, or both, and in the dissemination of the practical work at different outlets those findings would be presented for discussion, and likewise reflected in any subsequent writings about the work.  ‘Practice as Research’ is more than the final creative outcomes existing in isolation, they are packaged with contextual dialogue and enquiry.  

[I add here, not in my original answers to the questionnaire – that reflections on practice process is also connected to your life.  You do not make work in isolation to other aspects of your daily life, they are interconnected and impact on each other. So praxis is as much about how to live and treat each other, and how our personal ethics infuse into the way we think and make work.  Praxis is a deep reflexive process, not all of which will end up in academic writing as it is not always appropriate.  Deeper than the practice and theory in isolation, but the whole interconnected journey of what it means to live as a ‘maker’ in a society you are living in, reflecting and commenting on.]  

So the work can exist in different layers – the final outcomes in a gallery for example for the arts market, then packaged with reflective dialogue for the research community.   I also see ‘practice as research’ as about making comments and having something to say about the discourse you are working in, and possibly more political, and that’s why I link it to the idea praxis.   Not only pumping more images into the world, but also asking and agitating the ‘why?’ question.

5.     Are you actively involved in creating work as a practitioner and if so, can you describe your process when creating work?

I like to work on slow burning projects and let the subject content evolve over time.  A big part of what I do with work through participatory methodologies, involving people and co-collaborators in conversation and co-creativity throughout the making process, so the final outcomes are often, even if not collaborative from a co-authored perspective, that have still been produced through dialogue.  One of my key references  to my working methodology is Paulo Freire and his notion of ‘dialogic pedagogy’.  I try to include participatory ideas in my work to at least some degree, so the work is made with (other) people, not just about them.  This is why I position most of what I do as Visual Anthropology, as the image making is the starting point, not the end point of the process.

6.     How would you describe your work? What meaning does being a practitioner have for you and what are your priorities as an artist?

I think it is a huge privilege to be in a position where you have the access, platform and confidence to make art works, and a double privilege if an audience engages in what you are trying to do.  For me and my work, the audience isn’t the only key motivator, my own view of the world is also a key driver as I need an outlet to express myself, and hopefully that will resonate with an audience of some description.  I do try to make work that is thoughtful and raises questions and will resonate with audiences, but trying to second guess an audience can be the death of creative work, so you have to make work that is true to yourself.  I try not to answer questions with my work, (particularly in my photography), but to try to raise more questions and start a conversation. 

[As I’m not a commercial photographer I can afford to be nonchalant about the motivation of the audience.  For students it’s a different dynamic and I reflect that in my teaching.]

7.     How often do you create work and do you feel this is frequent enough or too infrequent?

It ebbs and flows!  Sometimes I am really prolific and make a huge amount of work in a short space of time, and at other times productivity is much slower.  I would definitely like to be producing work more often and more consistently spread out, but considering work/life balance, it’s probably healthy that there are gaps.  

8.     Do you exhibit and/or sell your work and if so, do you think this is important?

I don’t ever try to sell my work, but I do exhibit it in various ways.  I think it’s important to get you work out there and seen, otherwise producing work can become too self-indulgent and insular.  I’m not a very confident sales person when it comes to selling my own work, I’d rather have someone believe in my work and take that side of the business off my hands. 

As a freelancer I tend to sell ideas and get the money secured upfront to make commissioned work, but I’m less confident with selling un-commissioned work to a buyer after it’s already been produced.  I think both ends of that spectrum are hugely important, and I’m trying to get better at both equally.

9.     Do you think your artistic practice influences your teaching and if so, how?

It’s important for me, but don’t think it’s essential for everyone.  For me I think it’s important to be able to relate to students about making work, and appreciate what they are going through, and you can also draw on your own first-hand experience.  There are great teachers also who can’t draw on first-hand making experience, but they have a deep knowledge of the industry so they are no less effective in their teaching, but it all comes down to personality.  For me, I know I need to have a personal practical connection with the overall practice of what I’m teaching, even if not the specific genre. 

I think it’s equally important also though to leave your own artistic practice and influences outside of the teaching room, as I know the students can often surprise us with their original thoughts and unique ways of doing things.  We can learn as much from them, as they do from us.  (This is also the ethos of Paulo Freire, I have always believed it, so it was good to eventually read Freire’s ideas and see there was a whole theory behind some of my own whimsical thoughts.)

10.Does your teaching influence your practice? How does it or in what way is it separate?

I feel teaching keeps me on my toes and current.  Advice you give students isn’t always as easy to put in practice yourself, so I try to keep that in mind, and become my own student.  Teaching others is essential for that.

11.Do you think that creating work or being a practitioner has any relationship to the quality of a photography lecturer’s teaching?

No.  Great practitioners can be terrible teachers, and vice versa.

12.What can be done to improve the relationship between teaching and ‘practice-as-research’?

Structured time, initiatives and events to support teachers to still do their practice and research.  We complain in Higher Education (HE), but at least the question is still being asked.  In Further Education (FE) colleges and schools the concept if non-existent.  I would love for Primary and Secondary school teachers to have time and encouragement to still pursue their personal practices and disciplines, as they all have a subject degree before they did their PGCEs and mostly that will be related to the subjects they now teach, so to keep them inspired and current, they also need to get their hands dirty, so to speak.  Same with FE college tutors.   In HE we cannot stop asking the question of the relationship between teaching and practice and research, and that’s also why I feel, as academics, we should try to still make work when possible, to keep the question alive, and show we are still commentators and active in our disciplines, and trying to lead the agenda and debate.

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