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. I had no formal training in teaching, having never taught a course in graduate school or received any official certification of any kind.

I had the tremendous good fortune a bit later to be invited to teach, along with my wife, Shannon Goff, as an adjunct instructor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. For three years we learned innumerable things there. Among the many perks of the place were the ability to pass in and out of the attached museum freely and to work closely with colleagues including Matthew Groves, Helen Maria Nugent, Delores Fortuna, Xavier Toubes, and Katherine Ross.

We loved being at SAIC, but felt agitated about 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 mine was not. Encouraged by then Director Graeme Sullivan, I created a number of new courses that explored interests of mine and gaps in the curriculum.

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. I really enjoy introducing new classes as well as teaching in a range of techniques and processes and studio areas. However, it has become clear that the majority of what I do falls under the heading of Digital Fabrication and 3D Printing, as the chart below illustrates:

I’m incredibly grateful to have had the opportunity to explore all of these areas and also to have been able to develop curriculum around art/tech/craft hybrid interests. Prior to my arrival at Penn State I had primarily considered myself a teacher of Ceramics and Sculpture - but my role here has obviously shifted toward something quite different, which has been as surprising as it has been invigorating.

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. At first it seemed our near neighbors in Architecture would be likely to have an interest in these courses, and they have. However, the 3D Printing class in particular has attracted a considerable following from students in Engineering and Material Science areas, as illustrated below:

These students have been enjoyable to work with. While they often have not previously taken art courses and may not have much awareness of contemporary art, they do 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 allow a really interesting cross-pollination and would go a long way toward keeping students from all three disciplines engaged and challenges and prepared for collaborative work that stretches easy definitions. The experience of trying to use our courses as a bridge between these areas has caused me to reconsider my own education and influences and in particular to reflect a lot more on my mother’s work at Bell Laboratories and in the nascent computer industry in the 1960’s, before she departed the workforce to raise children.

At the same time that we saw this interest in Digital Fabrication courses developing from students of Engineering and Material Science I was getting more involved with faculty in those areas, particularly in developing designs for the custom D.I.Y. clay printer I have used to create much of the 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 which was funded by the National Science Foundation and on which I was a Co-Lead Investigator. The influx of material and technical support from STEM disciplines has pushed our development of clay printing forward tremendously and allowed us to purchase a significant amount of equipment and materials.
On occasion I would feel overwhelmed by how fragmented my work at the University might feel and I often felt as if 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 different pathways became clear as did the reality 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.

One recent development has allowed me to take more of an aerial view of the situation, and to move forward with more confidence. When a colleague recently retired the School of Visual Arts suddenly had a tenure-track opening for a position that overlapped with the work, research, and teaching I had been involved in for the past several years. I was offered the position and accepted it - Associate Professor of Studio Art/Ceramics/Digital Design. A title that is aptly confusing and inviting.

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 emphasize the feeling. I’m hopeful that I might have a long career of teaching and that my work and research might maintain relevance throughout. I’m hopeful that where I’m at now is the End of the Beginning.