“LIFE BEGETS LIFE.
ENERGY CREATES ENERGY.
IT IS BY SPENDING ONESELF
THAT ONE BECOMES RICH.”
—SARAH BERNHARDT
French stage and early film actress, referred to as
“the most famous actress the world has ever known”
and owner of a champagne-drinking alligator
The words of Ms. Bernhardt truly resonate with me and my teaching. We all know that the more we put into something, the more we get out of it. Teaching is no exception. Going the extra distance and providing all I can for my students is a major source of pride for me. I am a hard worker and know I have “stick-to-it-tiveness” in spades, or so I have been told. When I first started teaching I felt that I could craft all of my assignments according to how I would like to be taught. Personally as a student, I learned much independently. I was very hungry for knowledge and sought it out on my own. I was fortunate to have had excellent teachers along the way, but I did not rely on them to take me where I wanted to go. Does this describe all of my students? Certainly not. I honestly believed that by putting myself in my students’ shoes, I could understand them completely. Over fifteen years later, I can see how wrong I was. My new teaching mantra has become: My students are not simply me twenty years ago.
What was I thinking?! They can, and usually do, come from a completely different background, education, culture, language, demographic, generation than me. They have been raised in a time of different pop culture references, technology, etc. than me. Heck, they were all born after I graduated college...yikes. But this does not mean that we cannot also have much in common. This also does not mean that I have lowered my standards in the least. I have learned to make learning easier on those who are not like me. Most will not go on to teach, as I have.
It is these other students, the majority of students actually, who need to gain the same skills in my classes that those self-motivated learners will. Because the brilliant, self-motivated students are the ones who honestly barely need me in the classroom. They would excel regardless.
What does this specifically mean in terms of teaching graphic design? It means that I no longer assign a four-page paper on a topic in the history of design, the text of which they will later use to design a fictitious museum catalog on that topic, and hope for the best. This is precisely what I would have done when I first started teaching in 2004. The results were pretty much always disastrous. I’d become a disgruntled mess spending weeks grading terrible, misguided, partially plagiarized, and disorganized papers. Now, I still assign this paper, but with it I review what a thesis statement is and where it should fall in the paper. I also provide an outline of content points they should cover in this paper, make sample papers available to them, and require them to visit the Writing Center on campus before the paper is due. And what a difference this has made! What I used to think was coddling or what I used to resent doing because “Their English professors should have taught them this, it’s not MY job” I now realize is—teaching. Period. And that is indeed my job, and this job has become a lot more pleasant because I have come to terms with what my students actually need, not what I think they need to learn “the hard way.”
“[an ideal design education is]
A GREAT TEACHER OR GREAT DESIGNER
AND SOME GREAT STUDENTS HANGING OUT.
AN ENVIRONMENT WHERE STUDENTS FIND THEMSELVES DISCUSSING THEIR WORK AND THE DESIGN WORLD WITH EACH OTHER.


I BELIEVE ULTIMATELY THAT GREAT EDUCATION IS
SELF EDUCATION, ESPECIALLY IN THE ARTS.
THE STUDENTS ARE NOT EMPTY BOTTLES 
WAITING TO BE FILLED.

THEY’RE FULL. 

WHAT IS NEEDED IS TO GET THE STUFF OUT.
AN IDEAL EDUCATION DEVELOPS CONFIDENCE, EGO STRENGTH, AND A THIRST TO DISCOVER ONE’S POSSIBILITIES. I THINK A GOOD TEACHER DOESN’T TEACH BUT CREATES AN ENVIRONMENT OR CLIMATE WHERE PEOPLE LEARN.”
—LOUIS DANZIGER
AIGA medal recipient on his half century as a
graphic designer, design consultant, and educator
When I began teaching, I was not certain I had much to offer. Over the years, it has been humbling to hear former students tell me that they have carried my words with them throughout their careers. I have achieved that goal of becoming an internationally recognized designer, but along the way I also became a passionate educator. Some of my students will become professional designers while others will move on to another art discipline and many will integrate their studies into an unrelated field. Regardless of where they end up, my objective in the classroom is to provide a foundation from which students can develop critical thinking, visual communication skills and a strong work ethic. I create an open environment that is responsive to new ideas and unique approaches to problem solving.
I believe that it is necessary for the twenty-first century artist to have competency in a large range of processes including traditional hand methods and new technology. The most effective teaching tool I possess is the dedicated involvement I have with my own design. A November 10, 2013 Wall Street Journal article entitled “A Fine-Arts Degree May Be a Better Choice Than You Think” states that “Of all arts professions, fine artists, writers and composers were found to be the happiest, because ‘the profession they have chosen gives them autonomy, and that makes them happy.’” I want my students to go on and not just make a living, but to make a life. My greatest hope I can have as a professor is to model for them an awareness of the possibilities of a life richly engaged in art and graphic design.

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