The Spirit and the Set of Concerns

Last Saturday evening I arrived rather late at a gathering that included The Floydster, where the neighbors were treated to a conversation revolving around what students hand in, as opposed to what is required, in a studio course. A woman in attendance–okay, it’s her house–was appalled at the state of affairs, wondering how things have come to this (“Why, in my day…” is something I have felt as well. I kid myself.).

Apropos of this, I follow a blog I discovered by accident, whilst Googling titles of Thelonious Monk tunes, written by a professor of Spanish Literature at Kansas University; not because I know much about Spanish Lit (although I do now, a little), but because he (the professor) also ruminates about jazz from time to time. Recently he vented quite lucidly about how some of his students miss the point on occasion, and his comments can easily apply to situations that occur in studio courses:

“I assigned an exercise for my translation class: choose a paragraph of English prose and analyze it for style, register, tone… what linguistic elements show when and where it was written. The students were to staple a photocopy of the original, and write a paragraph of their findings (not a list of the elements they found). I recommended that they not choose a fairly bland paragraph of contemporary American English. Of the first four exercises I looked at I found the following problems:

“Two translated the paragraph into Spanish, which I hadn’t told them to do.

Two gave me copies of the book rather than photocopying the page.

One made a list.

One chose a bland paragraph of contemporary American English.

One thought that Virginia Woolf was writing in American English.

Two chose paragraphs that had been translated from another language into English, making them unable to follow the spirit of the exercise.

“I am going to give an A to anyone who followed the damned instructions and did a creditable job of looking at the style of the text. I don’t really want to be grading on students’ ability to implement a junior high school skill: following the instructions. Yet the exercise does not work as well if you don’t follow the instructions and understand why the assignment was designed. In other words, the junior high skill is needed as a prerequisite.”

Similarly, each assignment in the Wonderful World of Photography has a distinct set of concerns. They address issues that are by turns or simultaneously visual (duh), conceptual, formal, subject-related, and especially (because of the extent to which art can be taught) technical; that’s why we spend so much of our time in the darkroom, and why we say that the making of the negative is preeminent. A citizen who simply puts some film through the camera is not a candidate for a superior grade. Nothing is simple when it comes to photography, just as it is in life.

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