On Throwing Fish

When I first started teaching design history, it occurred to me that in order to reward students for finding me in factual error, I could give them a treat of some sort. I figured this would keep me from making incorrect statements and keep them paying attention, for I have noticed that all students are hungry and all people like treats.

I started with candy bars and packs of Oreos, but it turned out that many students weren't all that fond of chocolate. So we settled on little packs of Swedish fish, and we tooled through a number of semesters with this reward system in place before Nikki Juen-- a friend and fellow teacher-- heard me mention the Swedish Fish thing and burst into laughter at the notion of a professor throwing fish to students, as to seals at a zoo. Swedish or no, she thought this a real knee-slapper.

I worried. I asked my students. Did they feel seal-like? Did they feel put-upon, degraded or disrespected by my Swedish Fish throwing? They rolled their eyes. "Keep the fish coming," said a tough guy with tats and a piercing. So I did.

But last week the throwing of fish took on a bigger meaning, as I listened to Yoon Soo Lee talk about methods of critique at the Spring Residency of the VCFA MFA program.

"Teaching," she said, "is not art directing." "Telling students how to "make it better" does not teach them anything but how to please you."  It doesn't teach them how to please themselves, or how to convince a client that their ideas are right for the task at hand.

"Sometimes, if they're really stuck, I'll throw them a fish," she said, "I'll give them a solution. But generally I find it more valuable for them to think for themselves." 

I felt gratified by Yoon Soo's view, because for some time now I have been asking students not to "solve"-- not to give the person whose work is being critiqued an "answer," but to ask questions about the decisions that person has made, and allow that person to explain it.

I believe that students who learn to invent their own work and to convince others about the value of their solutions may have a messier time of it in class, may not create smoothly art-directed pieces that all look like the instructor made them, but will have the satisfaction of truly creating their own work, and will build the confidence they will need to explain their ideas to a client.

There's the throwing of fish and the throwing of fish. Feeling supported by Yoon Soo's lecture, I'll stick to tossing the Swedish kind.