Photographic Education Think Tank 20/20: Building a Photography Curriculum for the Future

exposure magazine
Jan 16, 2018 · 16 min read

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 a multi-author review of the 2017 SPE Southeast Chapter Conference, held at the Penland School of Crafts in Bakersville, North Carolina on September 29th — October 1st, 2017. Another related essay includes an interview with Ray Yeager, the Vice President of Integrated Teaching International, the Think-Tank which facilitated the thematic workshop sessions that weekend.

SPE SE chapter conference, 2017, Penland School of Crafts, Bakersville, North Carolina. All images courtesy of John D. Freyer

Clayton Joe Young, Senior Professor in Photographic Technology, Catawba Valley Community College

I try to attend the SPE SE conference every year and was excited this that the conference was being held at the Penland School of Crafts. I really didn’t know what to expect of the think tank with Integrative Teaching International. I selected the Service Learning break out group because I wanted to learn what the past experiences were at other institutions in regards to Service Learning.

We started with listing the challenges of Service Learning which includes where to begin with a project, how large a project should be undertaken, finding the time needed to be committed, the openness to take risks, and gaining trust within a community partner. We also shared previous successes that ranged from projects that took one class meeting to semester long projects. We discussed the importance of evaluation though out the entire process to keep the project in check and help achieve a successful teaching and learning experience.

We ended up creating a flow chart to visualize how service learning can be used between an institution and community with outcomes for all involved: the facility, students, institution, and community. One of the largest reflections I took from the experience is how service learning takes educators and students outside of the classroom and within the community. This hands-on learning places in practice what is taught in the classroom and teaches the students empathy and communication skills, which helps prepare them for life after graduation. The faculty can achieve excellence in teaching and add insight to research.

Kally Malcom-Bjorklund, Assistant Professor of Photography, University of North Florida

I was interested in attending the conference to talk about pedagogy. Also, I’ve never been to Penland School of Crafts, so the location was a draw. I wasn’t especially interested in any of the sessions listed, to be honest, but I was a good sport and assumed the programming would be excellent. I decided to join the Service Learning session because my institution is interested in making connections between the university and the broader community. Our Think Tank leader, Casey McGuire, did an excellent job framing our conversation and establishing a structure by which we could discuss our topic. The group was comprised of educators with a range of experience: some have been working in the realm of service learning and community engagement for a long time and have established projects, while others of us had little experience but we were interested in learning how to start. As a result, the dialog was lively and informative for those of us with limited experience, and it offered an opportunity for the seasoned veterans to compare and contrast teaching methodologies, outcomes, and projects.

I feel as though the breakaway session was productive in terms of defining what service learning can do for students, the community, and institutions. The vastness of the topic led to some difficulty siphoning our conversation down to digestible pieces for our final presentation. I received some great resources about service learning through this breakout session. I also engaged in great conversations with people I highly respect, and who have achieved excellent outcomes for students and their community.

I think there is room for this kind of retreat for future regional conferences; however, I’m a classic and I enjoy artist talks. Offering a pedagogy retreat every other, or ever third, year might be good for the members. I’d like to see more session options, and I’d like to leave knowing I have useful tools to bring back to my classroom. The retreat organizer, Marni Shindleman, did an excellent job making the retreat run pretty smoothly, and outside of the sessions, it was a great opportunity to converse with fellow educators about what we do.

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

Enrollment drops over the last several years have been a chief concern for my department, like many departments around the country. A critical issue is a need to find a middle ground between career preparation for our students, as well as traditional, critical thinking and analysis paramount within humanities tracks. In a time of STEM, it’s difficult to ensure students and parents about the viability of an art degree in the job market. We know the value of this education, but it’s a tough sell.

I work at a teaching institution, so how I deliver course materials matters a great deal. I cannot quantify it in hours or days, but I do spend a time evaluating best practices in the classroom. I strive to be responsive to the needs of individuals, as well as to the particulars of each unique class. If I notice a positive or negative comprehension trend or interest, I adjust accordingly. If I have a group of students who are drawn to a certain subject matter or topic, I may play to their strengths or challenge them to push outside of their comfort zones. I find keeping assignments fresh and engaging to be an effective tool, though the students need to uniformly meet finite competencies. In my studio courses, I do my level best to prepare and deliver course objectives in a variety of ways to reach all types of learners. In the end, repetition is the great equalizer in education, but if I can, I design lessons to reach the visual learners, the auditory learners, and the hands-on learners. Group critiques are an important tool to the learning process, but I find my written evaluations of their work to be more useful to the students. I have the opportunity to reflect on what they’ve made, and they have an opportunity to reflect on its success or failure and make adjustments moving forward.

Michael Borowski, Assistant Professor of Photography, Virginia Tech

It might be surprising that the breakout group discussing technology spent very little time talking about drones, photogrammetry, and 3D printing. Instead our group, comprised of faculty, graduate students, and industry partners, had a productive conversation about preparing for a changing and uncertain future in photographic education. The Integrative Teaching International process starts out fuzzy. We began by questioning what we mean by technology. The responses became so broad we had to start asking, “what isn’t technology?” As an example, someone put out their hand but began to reevaluate considering prosthetics. The body is also technological. Eventually we agreed that inquiry was not technology. Modes of thinking, questioning, and curiosity exist outside the realm of the tools we use to produce things. This led to conversations about how to teach curiosity. Technology makes a lot of things easier, it also encourages less exploration. We talked about getting students past the first page of a Google search, or roaming the library without a clear goal in mind. Similarly, our group roamed this conversational landscape without a destination.

SPE SE chapter conference, 2017, Penland School of Crafts, Bakersville, North Carolina. All images courtesy of John D. Freyer

After lunch we began to hone in. Our group felt that the concepts of failure and curiosity were key to adapting to new technologies in photographic education. We stopped to consider what was missing from the conversation, including some concrete examples of new technology in the classroom. We shared assignments incorporating iPads, social media, cellphone cameras, digital negatives, coding, live streaming, motion sensors, 360 degree cameras, drones, and photogrammetry to name a few. We also agreed that engaging with industry and manufacturers more frequently is a way to be proactive rather than reactive to new technologies. Our morning presentation to the rest of the conference attendees began by imagining a student approaching an instructor asking about a new, and unknown, form of technology. We presented techniques for incorporating risk-taking into assignments. We wrote out the word “misadventure” at the start. Throughout this process of moving from feelings of failure to nervousness and finally excitement, letters were crossed out. First revealing “adventure” and finally “venture.” Adapting to new technologies can be a risky or dangerous journey into the unknown, but one that can also be exciting and generate new forms of knowledge. The goal is not to avoid failure, but rather how to fail most productively.

Ally Christmas, Graduate Student, University of Georgia

As a student in my final year of graduate school in pursuit of my MFA in photography, I attended this conference because it seemed like an amazing opportunity to both (A) broaden my understanding of approaches to teaching in the arts as I am hoping to enter this field in the near future, and (B) expand my network by meeting other arts educators in the region and learning about their specific teaching methods. I joined the ‘Integrating New Technologies’ breakout group because I was especially interested in learning new ways in which technology could be used in the classroom to better equip students for learning, as well as to inspire and increase their passions for learning. Our discussion in the breakout group began with the inquiry: “How do we teach students to deal with the future and the unknown?” This conversation led us in many different directions with regards to how we, as educators, must often rewrite our own playbooks and constantly adjust our approaches to teaching and integrating technology or the otherwise unknown into our teaching practices, for if we don’t keep abreast of new methods it will be much more difficult to successfully guide our students into the future. Some of the most generative discussion threads included:

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

· How do we inspire students to want to go beyond requirements and take control of their own education? Also, how do we train students to be engaged and curious?

· We should be teaching students how to follow inquiries, problem-solve, and research thoroughly, and this all requires an understanding of how the internet can both help and hinder students’ practices.

· Incorporating the Socratic method into our teaching practices, which involves asking open-ended questions (often answering questions with more questions) instead of just regurgitating information back to the students, which encourages them to dig deeper on their own.

· Encouraging risk-taking and a certain amount of ‘failure’, by which we mean to create for students a safe space for experimentation and curiosity in their art practices, because a certain amount of failure (or, “failing forward”) can be incredibly generative for moving forward. This also involves teaching students how to fail in a way that is generative instead of debilitating.

· We should be proactive and responsive (instead of reactive) with incorporating new technologies into our curricula, which requires a certain amount of strategizing at the institutional level. Sometimes we must acquire the tech even if we don’t know how to use it yet, which involves a certain amount of proactive experimentation.

· Utilize collaboration as an inquiry tool. How do we work with others — across art media and across university-wide departments — to problem-solve? This collaboration could expand opportunities for accessing a wider pool of resources (both in people and in technologies).

We also addressed specific technologies that members of the group have utilized to increase the effectiveness of their teaching and to increase students’ interests in participating. A few of these included:

· Using Instagram as a visual note-taking tool. Also, using Instagram as a more informal method of sharing work among classmates (e.g. requiring students to make a separate Instagram account for the class, where they must post a certain number of photos per week that break their usual social media habits, then they are assigned ‘Instabuddies’ on whose images they must comment a certain number of times to give constructive feedback)

· Using an iPad to dissect the composition of images — this involves putting up an image on the screen, then using the iPad as a proxy for students to draw on by circling or labeling different parts of the image (‘negative space,’ ‘rule of thirds,’ ‘pattern,’ etc.).

· Deciding when physical processes/objects or digital screens better serve the students’ interests in projects, and giving them the tools to recognize this divide on their own.

· Shooting in the studio with a live-tethered camera so students can simultaneously act, see, and understand the process of shooting. Specifically emphasizing experiential learning, in general.

As someone very new to the teaching field, I was most excited about our ongoing conversation on failure and the many ways it can be used as a teaching tool. We concluded that experimentation, risk-taking, and creative problem-solving are vital in building a foundation for students to expand on for the rest of their lives, so it’s incredibly important that we help them figure out how to do those things and how to do them well. We are also responsible for nurturing and developing their desires for learning and their penchants for curiosity. Participating in this breakout group and in the overall retreat was an extremely valuable experience for me and I hope to be part of one again in the future.

SPE SE chapter conference, 2017, Penland School of Crafts, Bakersville, North Carolina. All images courtesy of John D. Freyer

Stephanie Sutton, recent MFA Graduate, University of Georgia

I typically enjoy SPE events but I specifically chose to attend this regional meeting because I have just completed my MFA program in May and am fresh on the job market. I had hoped being in these small conversations with working Photo professors would lead to possible networking or alternative pedagogical methods that could influence my teaching portfolio. I chose the Emerging Technology session due to personal interest with my research. I work primarily with photo and video installations and am always troubleshooting solutions to space problems with tech. I found the topic to be what I might most have resources to contribute and as a conversation that would be generative for my idea of the classroom.

We started by defining the theoretical and actual parameters of “technology”. This was a lively debate about where the boundary between organic technology and manmade technology lies (who’s to say the brain or thoughts aren’t a form of technology?). Our conversation then really turned away from gadgets or electronic ideas that are most often associated with technology and instead focused on the idea of novelty and the experience of engaging with something new. This lent itself to a pedagogical conversation by identifying a common transaction between students and instructors: a problem requiring a new solution. We discussed the feelings, as a teacher, that you may feel about answering a student’s inquiry about equipment you’ve never used. There was a general consensus that, when the approach to the solution is coming from an open mind instead of anxiety for the unknown, both the student and instructor are learning the most. We talked a lot about failure and the emotion of excitement versus nervousness.

Because those of us in the tech breakaway session had personal interest in the topic, I feel our conversation about approaching tech with an open mind was a bit of a moot point. Instead, our collective ideas about the emotions associated with novel concepts was a generative brainstorming session that functioned as a foundation for our presentation on an audience that wasn’t necessarily as invested in tech as our group may have been. We found a baseline to communicate from and that experience of ‘peeling back the layers’ was an interesting experiment in group discourse. I was pleasantly surprised where we ended up.

I would’ve liked maybe one more day and a different think tank topic and group so I could’ve absorbed more ideas from more people. Perhaps the pressure to produce a presentation helped strengthen our group’s thesis but more loose, casual (still mediated) time would’ve found more curiosity and creative solutions.

The location of the retreat was positively perfect and Penland was a terrific host. I’d register for just about any event planned here. The intimate think tank model was a nice change from the regional conferences but I did miss having more optional activities available. Alternating years might be the ticket. I’m not sure how much I gained from the presentations of other groups simply because the pressure of presenting clouded any possibility of absorption. The more conversational/light-hearted presentations were the most effective and could potentially be encouraged next time. Thank you!

Alec Kaus, First-year MFA Candidate in Photography, University of Georgia

I attended my first SPE conference in 2013, and I’ve made every effort to attend each subsequent conference since. Though my membership is young and I’m still relatively new to the organization, my experience at the SPE Southeast teaching retreat was markedly different than what I’ve come to expect from a regional conference. By breaking the traditional format, the retreat gave our region a chance to come together and discuss in frank terms the issues facing photography and photographic education today.

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

As a first-year graduate student (and the youngest person in the breakout group) it was an incredibly democratic experience to participate as equals in a roundtable discussion about large BFA programs and their problems with artists and educators far more experienced than I. They frequently asked for my input, recognizing that I was the least-removed from the student perspective they sought to better understand. Graduate students are in a unique position to bridge certain gaps between undergraduates and faculty, a fact not lost on the thoughtful minds in the group. From academic turf wars to disciplinary silo-ing; uninvolved faculty to resource scarcity; forgotten foundations to redundant prerequisites; a great deal of problems were discussed, but none were without a creative solution. It’s amazing what a small group of dedicated minds can develop over the course of one day together.

I’m very fortunate to attend a program that rigorously prepares its students to graduate not only as strong artists, but also as thoughtful, flexible, and dedicated educators. And it was personally incredibly satisfying to see the professor of my pedagogy class at UGA, Michael Marshall, awarded Honored Educator. The program at UGA encourages critical, divergent thinking, and my time there thus far prepared me well to keep up with the group in discussing current problems in large BFA programs. Returning from the conference, I now have more tools to critically examine — and be a more thoughtful, active participant in — my own education.

Christa Bowden, Professor of Art, Washington and Lee University

A group of about 15 faculty and graduate students came to the liberal arts breakout section from a variety of institutional settings, from small private liberal arts colleges, to liberal arts programs within larger public universities. Our group started with a fundamental question: “What should a photographic education within a liberal arts context look like?” We began by brainstorming together a list of the advantages and challenges of teaching photography within the liberal arts. Opportunities for interdisciplinary collaboration, both by faculty and by students, emerged over and over as one of the most positive opportunities for teaching photography in a liberal arts institution. Budget constraints emerged as one of the most prevalent challenges, along with finding ways to encourage students to take risks with their work. Throughout the day, we broke into smaller groups to discuss our challenges and possible solutions. However, our findings by the end of the day were inconclusive, realizing that we came from such a wide variety of institutional situations, advantages, and challenges that it was impossible to find a one size fits all plan for photo education in the liberal arts.

A number of us decided to spend a few hours of the afternoon discussing specific assignments and other aspects of our individual curricula that work well for us. Because many of us are the only faculty members in photography at our institutions, this provides us an excellent opportunity to understand the overall picture of our photography curriculum and outcomes. For example, we are able to observe first-hand how an assignment or teaching technique in one course might pay off (or not) for students in a subsequent course. Our conversation about our individual courses and assignments could have continued long into the evening, and we realized that we needed a lot more time than just one day to cover everything that we wanted to discuss. So to conclude our breakout session, we created a Facebook group dedicated to discussing photography curriculum within the liberal arts. Our plan is to use this as a space as a resource for sharing syllabi and assignments, to ask questions, and to give advice and recommendations.

SPE SE chapter conference, 2017, Penland School of Crafts, Bakersville, North Carolina. All images courtesy of John D. Freyer

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.

With contributions from:
Michael Borowski (Virginia Tech), Christa Bowden (Washington and Lee University), Ally Christmas (UGA), John D. Freyer (VCU), Alec Kaus (UGA), Kally Malcom-Bjorklund (University of North Florida), Michael Marshall (UGA), Marni Shindelman (UGA), Stephanie Sutton (UGA), Ray Yeager (ITI / University of Charleston), and Clayton Joe Young (Catawba Valley Community College)

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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.

Interested in submitting to Exposure? Read our submission guidelines here.

Find out more about SPE here, or learn about the many benefits of membership here. Join with other thought leaders in the field and add your voice to the direction of the organization. Find out more about the 2018 Annual Conference “Uncertain Times,” to be held in Philadelphia, PA here.

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