Can You Think-Tank Your Way Into Revitalized & Relevant Curricula? Talking with Integrative Teaching International’s Ray Yeager

Are you an SPE member that has only ever attended the annual conference? Did you know that SPE has EIGHT chapters throughout the United States, and further that the chapters have their own conferences in the fall, often in a city that’s within driving distance of any SPE member? The chapter conferences are often more intimate and more tightly focused events than the main annual conference is in the spring. If you have ever wondered what goes on at these events — and whether it would be worth your time, money and energy to attend — we’re here to give you some context. The following is an interview with the Ray Yeager, Vice President of Integrative Teaching International and one of the facilitators of the conference’s Think-Tank at the 2017 SPE Southeast Chapter Conference, held at the Penland School of Crafts in Bakersville, North Carolina on September 29th — October 1st, 2017. Other ITI facilitators included Rae Goodwin, Casey McGuire, and Thomas Albrecht. A second related essay includes a multi-authored review of each of the themed workshop sessions.

Penland School of Crafts, Bakersville, North Carolina. All images courtesy of John D. Freyer

I first heard of the idea for this conference in 2014, at that year’s regional event in Greenville, SC. Potential sponsors for upcoming conferences are scheduled years in advance, and Marni Shindelman of UGA had already volunteered to organize 2017. But when we started talking about it, she said she wanted to change up the normal format and create a smaller, more focused event centered on pedagogy — she jokingly called it camp for photo nerds. I’ve attended many regional conferences in the past, and I think they’re a necessary complement to the national conference. However, in past years I have noticed a trend towards larger and larger conferences, essentially following the same model as national. So a smaller, more intimate gathering held enormous promise.

Fast forward to this fall, when we met for our SPE Southeast Chapter “Retreat” at the Penland School of Crafts. This particular format couldn’t have come at a better time — with SPE in a crisis, both financially and ideologically, all regional accounts were frozen earlier in 2017. The chapters all began with a zero balance for 2017’s regional event. Fortunately, the small size and simplicity of our conference made it easy to do on a shoestring. Marni Shindelman was essentially a one-woman planning committee, with some help from various participants and her industrious graduate students at UGA. She had arranged for Penland School of Craft, in Bakersville, NC, to host the event during a downtime in their normal schedule, so participants would stay on- site in the cabins at Penland and take all of their meals there. A small amount of institutional funding was provided by UGA, and Joshua White of Appalachian State University furnished some funds from his institution. KEH Camera stepped in as well as sponsor of the event. The fee for the conference was modest, $65 per participant, and we all paid Penland directly for room and board.

Partnering with Integrative Teaching International (ITI), an organization which runs think-tanks addressing art foundations education in higher education, Shindelman had planned a small (less than 100 participants) weekend getaway in which we would address the core mission of SPE, education in the format of a think tank. Her introduction for the event stated:

Photography programs have had drastic changes in the past twenty years, from the inclusion of more conceptual praxis, diversified practices, and technological changes; the program of today looks radically different from its predecessors. How can we teach students with eyes to the future? How do you teach technology and practices that don’t exist yet?

In her welcome address the first evening, Marni talked a bit about her inspiration in planning this retreat, and the formative experiences she has had in connection with SPE. She elaborated:

The farther I get in my teaching career the more I see the need for us to gather together as educators, artists and colleagues to talk about the art of teaching. No one tells you how isolating teaching can be: you spend your days in a classroom, with your peers in parallel rooms next door, or across the country. We sit alone in our studios and work. These times when we gather become fewer and far between and more precious.

The schedule was simple — welcome dinner and introductory talks on Friday evening, including a presentation by the Honored Educator, Michael Marshall of UGA. Saturday was spent in morning and afternoon sessions of the breakout session of our choice, with a bonfire Saturday night, and Sunday morning, each group presented a synopsis of their session at brunch before we all went our separate ways. The four breakout groups were:

Service Learning & Community Education — Examined the integration of service learning into programs and community involvement in experiential learning.

Integrating New Technologies — Investigated new technologies and tackle the question of how to teach for technology that doesn’t yet exist.

Art School or BFA Programs — Discussed the unique needs of larger photography programs within art schools or departments.

Photography in the Liberal Arts Curriculum — Addressed the needs of photography or art programs within a larger liberal arts institution.

In-process workshop at the SPE SE chapter conference at the Penland School of Crafts, 2017. All images courtesy of John D. Freyer

While many of us naturally gravitated towards our particular area of focus or expertise, there was no requirement to do so. Each group had one facilitator from ITI, and typically numbered around 8–12 participants. The makeup and focus of each group was fairly unique, and the presentations on Sunday morning ran the gamut from hilarious to enlightening. Personally, the highlights of this event were in the small size, the remote setting, and the collaborative way we worked throughout the day. Unlike the larger conferences, where we all seem to spend our time moving from lecture to presentation, passively absorbing information, and spending our free time catching up with old friends, at Penland we were forced to mix and mingle, and to actively participate in the events of the weekend. New ideas and connections were made, and I think most of us left feeling invigorated and inspired. After the conference, I had the opportunity to speak with Michael Marshall, the Honored Educator. Marni Shindelman characterizes him as an incredible leader and colleague, and in her introduction, she noted, “He has a talent for understanding programs in their entirety and knowing what is needed. I learned this even more a few years later after I took over running the photography program at UGA. I saw the back end of the curriculum Michael had built for the program; one that was smart, cohesive, forward thinking and flexible. It has the ability to bend to the needs of students, our school at large, the industry, the contemporary art world and to the fluctuating numbers many programs have seen over the past few years.” In the planning stages of the conference, the idea had been for various members to serve as the facilitators of the breakout sessions. However, the use of professionals experienced in facilitating this kind of sessions helped everyone, as Marshall noted, “Although we’re teachers we’re not trained in facilitation or system thinking.” Given SPE’s challenges in securing enough attendees at conferences, and potential large changes on the horizon, he offered:

I wonder if the future of SPE is going to shift to facilitating more regional, focused events — this is speculative, but it seems rich with possibilities for exploring other formats. The opportunity is even greater at regional level to explore other formats, and support faculty, dialogue, research, and teaching.

On his participation in the Service Learning Breakout Session, he observed the importance of a clear definition of the working concept — he discovered there were lots of differences with how people defined Service Learning. It made him more aware of the particular expertise he might bring to a discussion like this, but the importance of not making assumptions based on his previous experience.

In-process workshop at the SPE SE chapter conference at the Penland School of Crafts, 2017. All images courtesy of John D. Freyer

I was curious, as well, to hear from one of our facilitators at the conference, to get their perspective. Ray Yeager is the Vice President of Education for ITI and was the facilitator of the BFA / Art School breakout session. He shared some thoughts with me recently via email, reproduced here:

I had heard glowing reports from a colleague about the ThinkCatalyst workshop with FATE 2017, and was pleasantly surprised to see that we would have a ThinkTank style session at SPESE. How interdisciplinary would you say most of the participants of your conferences are?

Typically, participants at ITI’s workshops and events come from all disciplines and have various backgrounds and levels of experience in higher education. ITI attempts to bring together emerging educators, master educators, and administrators from around the country to create a nice mixture of contributors to the sessions. The best way to identify innovative approaches and creative practices is by bringing together as disparate a combination of participants as possible to discuss and share their ideas about art education in the 21st century. ITI is continually reaching out to new individuals and growing our community of educators, change makers, dynamic mentors, earnest learners, and advocates. That is why we were excited about having this opportunity to work with SPE this fall.

I really appreciated the professionalism and ease with which you handled our panel. Is there a specific set of training / required format for Think Tank moderators? How much leeway are you given with the content?

At all ITI sponsored events, we try to create an environment of inclusiveness and respect. Everyone’s views are important and contribute to the discussion. In my experience, it is sometimes the comments that come from someone who hasn’t said much but has been thoughtfully listening that makes the most profound change in the conversation. By having respect for all views and encouraging everyone to participate, the sessions are guided in a fruitful direction. The topics for the sessions are the starting point for the group. They lay the framework for the discussion. Facilitators are given the latitude to allow the conversation to wander where it will to discover the unexpected but still return to the original topic. At times, the original notion of where to go with the topics changes direction and the facilitator must be able to recognize and adapt. For me, this is the most challenging yet rewarding part.

SPE SE chapter conference at the Penland School of Crafts, 2017. All images courtesy of John D. Freyer

What do you think the real value is of these sessions? What’s been your experience after following the events and subsequent results?

In my experience, the facilitated discussion sessions at ThinkTanks and ThinkCatalysts, have been an impetus and inspiration for improving art pedagogy. This dynamism and excitement is what drew me to ITI. During the sessions, participants are encouraged to openly rethink and reimagine how we can improve art instruction in higher ed. It is refreshing to be an active contributor in the discussion. Many times, at traditional conferences you listen passively to a selection of presenters and then have about 10–20 minutes of questions and discussion. But this experience always feels rushed and unfinished. An important dialogue that was just getting started, commonly ends abruptly and unresolved. ITI’s facilitated discussion model creates a level of immersion that requires the participants to be actively engaged in the process. And due to their length and duration, allows an in-depth examination of the complexities of the topics discussed. The returning participants hopefully inspire their colleagues with new ideas and excitement. And, in a sense, become the “pied pipers” for their departments.

I think this one of the most important legacies of this kind of event. I’ve been in touch with several of the participants, who agreed to share their various experiences here with Exposure in a related essay. Enjoy!

The SPE Southeast Chapter includes: Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia

There is a closed Facebook group “Photo Edu Think-Tank,” and any member of SPE who is interested is welcome to join.

Lauren Greenwald is a visual artist working primarily in photography and video. Ms. Greenwald received her M.F.A. in Studio Art, with a minor in Museum Studies, from the University of New Mexico and her B.A. in Art History and French from the College of Charleston. She is currently an Assistant Professor of Studio Art at the University of South Carolina.

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The above essay has been brought to you by the Society for Photographic Education, as an article published within Exposure, its flagship publication. SPE is a nonprofit membership-based organization that seeks to promote a broader understanding of the medium in all of its forms through teaching and learning, scholarship, conversation and criticism. SPE has Affiliated Chapters with events and conferences in every part of the continental US, with Chapters developing internationally, and has been instrumental in fostering community and career growth among photographers, lens-based artists, educators, students, and the broader community of image makers.

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