Tools, Techniques, and Ideas to Help Any Artist Teach

handbook-featureThe Teaching Artist Handbook tackles a difficult question for which there is no single answer: How does one teach art? Written by teaching artists for teaching artists, the book addresses the problem of how to teach in a field in which methods of instruction are ambiguous and challenging to establish and in which effectiveness is often challenging to evaluate. 

Teaching Artist Handbook, Volume I: Tools, Techniques, and Ideas to Help Any Artist Teach by Nick Jaffe, Becca Barniskis, and Barbara Hackett Cox, with a historical essay by G. James Daichendt. Edited by Nick Jaffe Columbia College Chicago Press (June 15, 2013. 238 pages, $18.37, paperback, ISBN-13: 978-1935195382

Teaching Artist Handbook, Volume I: Tools, Techniques, and Ideas to Help Any Artist Teach by Nick Jaffe, Becca Barniskis, and Barbara Hackett Cox, with a historical essay by G. James Daichendt. Edited by Nick Jaffe
Columbia College Chicago Press (June 15, 2013. 238 pages, $18.37, paperback, ISBN-13: 978-1935195382

Jaffe, Barniskis, and Hackett Cox have created guidelines and criteria to address these problems using their own experiences as a frame of reference for other teaching artists and those considering a career in the field. They tackle their subject from a variety of disciplines: Jaffe is a musician, Barniskis is a poet and freelance writer, and Hackett Cox is a visual artist with an interest in jazz; their experience comes from teaching mostly in public school systems. They introduce the core of their philosophy immediately—the work itself, and the love of art-making, should lie at the center of art instruction.

The handbook starts by defining the teaching artist and differentiating him or her from an “educator.” A teaching artist is a person who understands an art form in a deep and meaningful way, someone who is able to break it down and introduce it to those who seek to learn. In teaching, they are able to draw from their own experience in the medium, using their own art-making process to decide what is essential and important to convey. Unlike teaching in other disciplines, teaching art is not about transmitting facts that students will later be tested on—the curriculum is less straightforward, student growth and productivity less easy to measure. This is where the ability to think critically about one’s own artistic process becomes paramount, because the creation of a curriculum and structure, and their results, are very much tied to the artist’s personal experience and reflection.

A teaching artist must also find ways to make knowledge dynamic—to create the potential for a multiplicity of responses from students, who can choose to apply the information, inspiration, time, and materials that they receive in their own way. Likewise, student work can be evaluated and improved based on responses from the teaching artist and other students in the form of critiques. Critiques are about responding to and discussing work, in which the teacher has no more authority than the students and does not instruct; instead, the teacher initiates and guides a dialogue that can offer constructive feedback. The “effectiveness” of a teaching artist is thus contingent on the ability to foster a community based on equality and solidarity, breaking down the hierarchical teacher-student dynamic as students relate to each other and to the teacher as artists, unified in their passion and drive to create meaning, deeply invested in their own work and that of their classmates and teacher.

The Teaching Art Handbook “teaches” artists how to teach in much the same way—the authors don’t assert their authority in the field or claim to know exactly how art can be taught or evaluated. Rather, they open up a dialogue on the subject, addressing the nuanced difficulties faced by teaching artists and the importance of art in our school systems, sharing their thoughts and experiences, and from this, creating a list of questions to consider and specific challenges.

This book provides comprehensive guidelines and helpful advice, but its significance lies in the fact that it situates the challenges of teaching art within larger cultural issues: How does one teach art in a culture that often doesn’t value art for art’s sake? Our school systems are primarily geared toward teaching students measurable and utilitarian facts and skills as a foundation for their future as part of the workforce—a producer who can help bolster the economy or contribute to our technological edge. The problem is frequently compounded by a school’s funding, which may dictate the curriculum, methods of evaluation, and standards to be met by students and teachers. This book advocates for an emphasis on art and art-making in itself, empowering teaching artists to stimulate slow change in the value assigned to art in our schools and in society.

—Amanda Hickok

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