Thoughts on Teaching

My career as an educator began as a part-time teacher of 2nd grade art. A few years later I found myself teaching at Lillstreet Art Center, Gallery 37 ,and After School Matters, all of which are community-oriented programs addressing diverse populations within the city of Chicago. Higher education experience came a bit later as I briefly served as a part-time instructor at the College of DuPage, in Chicago’s western suburbs. Teaching at that time was one of a number of activities I cobbled together to create something like a basic income that allowed me to make and exhibit artwork.

A year or two later my wife, Shannon Goff, and I were very fortunate to have both been hired as adjunct instructors at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Over three years we learned innumerable things working at SIAC. Among the many perks of the place were the ability to pass in and out of the attached museum freely and an opportunity to work closely with colleagues including Matthew Groves, Helen Maria Nugent, Delores Fortuna, Xavier Toubes, and Katherine Ross.

We loved SAIC, but grew uncomfortable with the precariousness of our adjunct appointments. We made a clean break from the city of Chicago, gaining experience at a range of institutions including the Meadows School of the Arts and the Rhode Island School of Design. Over the years the two of us have taught at 9 different programs of higher education ranging from public to private, large to small, overlooked to overrated.

Our lives and our careers changed more abruptly in 2011 with the birth of our first child and our acceptance of two positions at Penn State University’s School of Visual Arts in 2011. While Shannon’s position was a tenure-track appointment from the start while mine was not. Encouraged by then Director Graeme Sullivan, I was able to propose and develop a number of new courses in the school’s curriculum, primarily around the area digital fabrication. Developing these courses was, and continues to be, a great thrill. I was able to work with students from a very wide rage of study and was able to pursue my own intense interests in finding connections between craft, art, design, and technology.

From 2011 to 2018 I was able to teach 13 different courses, 6 of which were courses I originated, having not previously existed in SoVA’s curriculum. Many were one-off special topics courses, but others have become fixed in the department’s curriculum. Over time, it became increasingly clear that the Digital Fabrication and 3D Printing courses were consistently well received and increasingly exciting to teach:

One thing that became apparent over the past several years was that a substantial number of students enrolled in the Digital Fabrication and 3D Printing courses come from areas outside of the School of Visual Arts. The 3D Printing class in particular has attracted a considerable following from students in Engineering and Material Science areas:

These students have added a lot to the course and to my understanding of Art/Science collaborative possibilities. Most of them have not enrolled in an art course previously and may have minimal awareness of contemporary art. However, they often bring a problem solving mentality and a technical savvy that allows for more nuanced conversations and interactions around technology.

In a perfect situation, I’d like to teach courses that were roughly 1/3rd art students, 1/3rd Design students, and 1/3 Engineering students. This would facilitate compelling cross-pollination and would enable students from all three disciplines to engage with collaborative work that can blur disciplinary constraints. The experience using our courses as a bridge between these disciplines has also caused me to reconsider my own education and influences. In particular, I find myself reflecting more on my mother’s work at Bell Laboratories and in the nascent computer industry in the 1960’s.

At the same time that we saw this interest in Digital Fabrication courses developing from students of Engineering and Material Science my own research was well received by faculty colleagues in those disciplines. This was particularly true in the process of developing the custom D.I.Y. clay printer I have used to create much of the recent work featured on this site. I was fortunate to be a part of a few grant initiatives around 3D printing, in particular a grant around the idea of mobile makerspaces, funded by the National Science Foundation. The influx of material and technical support from STEM disciplines has pushed our development of our own approach to clay printing forward tremendously and allowed us to make significant progress rapidly.

In the process of this exploration and experimentation in curriculum and collaboration I would occasionally feel overwhelmed by how fragmented my work at the University could seem at a given moment. I worried that I had been taking on far too broad a range of activities. As is often the case, small collaborations became the impetus for potentially larger collaborations and some potential projects emerged that were quite surprising and in some cases very far afield from my home base of studio art. Some difficult choices were made in recognition of the fact that not all paths can be followed simultaneously.

So, after a period of taking on new things, making new connections, developing new tools and new processes, I found myself contracting a bit in the last year or so. Giving thought to what the priorities should be from the perspective of making art, conducting research, and teaching in a classroom. This is ongoing work.

I can suddenly take a more aerial view of the situation, and move forward with more confidence. A colleague recently retired, making possible a tenure-track position focused on the work, research, and teaching areas I have pursued. After seven years of full time teaching at Penn State I am excited and humbled to have been appointed Associate Professor of Studio Art/Ceramics/Digital Design.

It is surprising to realize it has been 12 years since Shannon and I were first hired as adjuncts at the Art Institute of Chicago. I always feel as if I am just getting started, but the circumstances of a new position underscore this feeling. I’m hopeful that I can pursue a long career of teaching in which my work and research maintain relevance. I’m hopeful that where we are now is something like the End of the Beginning.