lessons for students

I spoke a few days ago at the act festival in Gwangju, Korea and as part of my presentation I talked about the School for Poetic Computation and more generally about my teaching style. It was really hard talk to give since the stage was in the middle of an exhibition and on stage I could hear a million other things instead of myself.

Speaking at Act Festival

Because the acoustics were so strange, I wound up having this internal dialogue while I was giving the talk and at some point I thought, this section of the talk should *really* be a medium post. It was basically a list of lessons for students so now I feel compelled to write it down. I probably will expand this out at some point, but here’s a quick recap of those slides:

lesson 1: Everything is about curiosity

This tweet from Mitch Goldstein I think adequately describes what school should be about:

Essentially, celebrating and cultivating curiosity. I have to admit that I don’t really know how to teach this (I am however reminded that there are some great assignments in this book, Draw it with your Eyes Closed, the Art of the art Assignment) but I do try to celebrate it as much as possible. As a practitioner, I try to bring in my own working process and show how curiosity drives the process to the classroom. I think it’s good for students to see teacher’s curiosity and I generally find that curiosity is pretty infectious.

This video from Bjork about taking apart her TV to study it is a great reference I like to share about curiosity:

lesson 2: The world is Hungry for Ideas

Unknown author / cheerios experimenter

As a student it’s easy to see all the project people have done and think, everything cool has been discovered and done before, what kind of impact can I have?

I think it’s crucial as an educator to combat this, to explain that actually, we need better tools, better organizations, better projects, etc and that what exists is 1/10th of 1/10th of 1/10th of a pct of what has the potential to be done. I think you can do this by trying to encourage folks to explore the gaps and fault lines. Lesson 10 also relates to this (see below).

Lesson 3: Questions are key. Questions lead to conversation, conversation leads to learning.

At the School for Poetic Computation we start the first day always with the same activity — sit quietly by yourself for 20–30 mins and write down every question you have about what we are studying. Then, in smaller groups (and then finally in a larger group) we organize and collate these questions, developing a taxonomy. In some ways this is a contrast to typical school term, where you are presented with a syllabus that kind of lays out the answers.

The reason we do this is that invariably questions lead to discussion and talking and we’re really of the mindset that education is basically structured conversation — that the key to learning is talking, and through talking, we can find better metaphors, better illustrations, better explanations to make harder things simple, or explain how a gets to z.

Lesson 4. Together we know more

I’ve stolen this lesson from Andrew Zolli’s principles of conversation (which itself was borrowed from the Pomegranate Center) — a slide he presented at a discussion at Brooklyn Academy of Music a few years ago:

The principle is very simple and clear: knowledge is a collective pursuit. In the openFrameworks community, I’ve been a big proponent of DIWO (ie, do it with others, vs DIY / do it yourself). It’s the “with others” that I think it’s really important to celebrate here. We know much more with others then we can individually.

Lesson 5: Simple and honest things win

In my talks I sometimes show two artworks I saw at the Venice Biennial as a contrast — the first is a high tech artwork which is a giant UFO which you enter wearing a brain wave meter and you experience an animation based on your brain waves:

I waited for a long time to experience this project:

wired up!

But honestly, I didn’t feel anything when on the inside, and it was hard to understand what the point of this very complex and quite elaborate project was (I will admit, it was quite impressive in terms of the sheer number of credits, it looked like a movie!). In contrast when you came out of that space, there was a project called “Enamoured” by a Brazilian artist named Laura Belem with two boats that are facing each other:

You can see two lights on these two boats blinking back and forth, sometimes in sync, sometimes out of sync. It was like they were talking with and over each other. I sat at this exhibit for a long time, watching this communication, and to me the contrast between the projects was really stunning — here was a simple project, very modest, but to me expressing something truthful about what it means to be alive and to communicate. I always try to encourage students to remember that small, honest things can win. We don’t always need a million dollar crazy project, but tiny acts of expression and intervention.

Lesson 6: Artistic practice is research, take that obligation seriously.
You are a researcher.

I’ve made the argument for a long time that artistic practice is a form or research, the same way a car company might have an R&D department to think about cars of the future, artists are a kind of R&D department for humanity thinking about different possible futures. It’s important to take the job of research seriously: to study the history, to take notes about process, to publish, etc. In terms of history, I think it’s crucial to know your field, who came before you and to explore the work of the past. We have a tendency to work and think ahistorically (think about how often you hear about “what a revolutionary time we live in”) and it can present profound limitations to creative practice. Note taking is also crucial — I think the more you approach the creative process as a study vs some sort of magical moment of inspiration, the more fruitful your work will be. Finally, publishing is crucial. Scientists write papers, synthesize findings, etc — artists should do the same. In my case, I use open source as a mechanism, but there are plenty of mechanisms for publishing. I think it’s a crucial part of taking R&D seriously.

Lesson 7: Everything operates at a time scale you don’t know.
You are a farmer.

I’ve found (from over a decade working in media art) that things you do take time and work in timescales that you don’t understand. A project you start one year will come back years later, or an idea you have can only be realized at some later point in your life. I think it’s hard as a student to understand timescale. I try to use the metaphor of a farmer, since it feels to me that things you do one year might have impacts years later.

At eyeo festival two years ago I mentioned to the audience during a talk that at the beginning of every class I tell students, “I adopt you.” After the talk, someone came up to me and he said, “10 years ago, I was in a workshop you gave in Brazil where you said, ‘I adopt you’… I didn’t even recognize you here, but when you said that on stage I remembered that moment. Your workshop is why I started doing what I do now.” When I think about that workshop, all I can remember that it was in a hot and stuffy computer lab, I can’t remember anything else from that day, but being face to face with my former student reminded me that the work you at one time can come back many years later. Plant seeds, tend soil, be a farmer.

Lesson 8: Take the time you need.

How to draw an owl

There’s a tendency in programming education to have these “learn x in y time” type books and approaches. “Learn C++ in 30 days”, “Learn HTML in 24 hours”, etc. It’s important to remind students to take the time they need.

As a side note: at SFPC we are fortunate to have Amit Pitaru as a co-founder and steering committee member, and Amit to me is one of the best advocates for this notion of taking time. I think of him almost as a kind of sherpa for education. check out his talk at eyeo 2013 (https://vimeo.com/69477201) where mid-way through he breaks into a spontaneous discussion of learning.

Lesson 9: Find your team.

me with my team

One of the best things you can do as a student is find and surround yourself with people who are supportive, understanding and help you know your own value. I think that is a crucial part of success.

Lesson 10: The past gets made again

I found this amazing book from 1993 called the art of computer designing:

archive.org version of the book

It’s a pretty amazing book because it’s very fresh even by today’s standards — there’s clever and fun ideas using shapes and geometry:

but the best part of the book is the afterword, where the author thanks a bunch of people and also members of the Bauhaus. He writes:

I would also like to acknowledge my favorites, Russian Avant-garde, Futurism and Bauhaus, whose brilliant typefaces and designs have in many ways shaped my own mind. If the artists of these movements where alive now to work with computers, I am certain they would discover new artistic possabilities. The work of past ages accumulates, and is remade again.

I love this last sentence of the book,

the work of past ages accumulates, and is remade again

It’s a reminder (and license) that the job of every generation is to remake the past.