One-to-One-to-Many

This article derives from an informal paper that I delivered at a conference on reflective pedagogy, held at Aberystwyth University in 2017. It outlined the School of Art’s efforts to preserve the essence of individual tutor-tutee exchanges in fine art. This was achieved by recording tutorials in a manner that permitted both the learner and the teacher to revisit and reflect upon them afterwards. Further to this, the aim was to honour the relative privacy and confidentiality of the one-to-one tutorial while extracting generic principles, anonymised quotations, and salient ideas, which might be of relevance to other students. In this way, the tutorial could have an afterlife and a broader field of influence.

I was an undergraduate fine art student in the late 1970s. Modularisation, hadn’t been invented. Neither was there there a curriculum, aims and objectives, or a more than rudimentary timetable supporting the pedagogy of art schools. We were educated through the mode of one-to-one tutorials, mainly. The context of teaching and learning (which, in fine art education, is inseparable from the delivery and reception of such) was an open-plan studio space, much like the arrangement at the School of Art today.

There was no hiding place either for your work or from the tutors and the ears of your peers. Minding one’s own business was not part of studio protocol. We all enjoyed the overspill of the other students’ one-to-one tutorials; (particularly when someone was getting a right panning). In those days, there were neither in-ear headphones to insulate us from the surrounding world nor smartphones to communicate with someone somewhere other than where we were. Our attention was, rather, directed to the milieu of our study and at one another.

The students with whom I shared the studio were individualists; their work, methods, and educational needs were very different to one another, and to my own. This was why we were each taught on a bespoke basis.  However, the diligent students among us could discern from these earshot tutorials general principles and transferable advice pertinent to our own practice. In effect, we each received two tutorials: one that was directed to our particular circumstances and artistic problems; and one which was ambient. In retrospect, I don’t think that the latter was any less effectual than the former.

As an art school teacher, I, along with my colleagues, have maintained the tradition one-to-one tutorials. (We can’t see how fine art practice can be taught other than by this means.) Group tutorials are useful for dealing with common methods, techniques, and demonstrations of practice. But at its heart, a practice-based education is about an encounter between the artist in embryo and the master. However, it’s a mode of teaching that’s under threat; the greater the number of students, the greater the demand on staff time.  With the growing drive towards increased efficiencies in the Higher Education sector, justifying the continuance of this provision will be a task in itself.

Unlike seminars, lectures, and workshops – which may have a vestigial presence in terms of, for example, Panopta screencasts, podcasts, handouts, and PowerPoint presentations – the one-to-one tutorial has no natural residue. It’s ephemeral. (The greater part of my teaching provision has evaporated on delivery.) Like a jazz recital, or a theatrical performance, or the delivery of oratory, it is, and remains, an in-the-moment experience. Unless the exchange is captured technologically, there’s no trace other than in the memory of those who were present. ‘You had to be there!’, as they say. Nothing wrong with that. There’s a dynamic, a tension, and an electricity that occur in the ‘live’ art teaching that doesn’t transfer to the recording. Moreover, the effectiveness of a tutorial isn’t confined to a recollection of its content.  Many of us have experienced tutorials that changed our outlook, or motivated us when we were discouraged, or provided the missing piece in our understanding. And yet, when, years later, someone asks us what our tutor had said, we can’t remember. What we do recall, though, is the emotional memory of the occasion – ‘the rush’. Here, I want to concentrate on a method of preserving and sharing the propositional content of the one-to-one tutorial: those things that were said rather than felt; the repeatable as opposed to the momentary.

While contemporary studio spaces are much the same as they ever were, their occupants aren’t so attuned to listening in on their peers’ tutorials. Attitudes have changed. Students, on the whole, don’t like to be overheard; and, in some cases, are more cosseted about their work than we were in my day.  They regard the tutorial more like a consultation with their doctor than an open, public, and professional exchange. Their peers, for their part, are often sealed-off from the context by entertainment and communication technology. Nevertheless, the discussions between a tutee and the tutor still touch upon dimensions of the subject that have a breadth of relevance and applicability.

So much of what passes between the tutee and the tutor is forgotten. The traditional wisdom is that students remember only what was important. My experience tells me that students remember only a small part of what was important. And, what’s of importance need not have appeared so at the time of the tutorial. My endeavour has been to develop methods of encapsulating, conserving, and disseminating the salient content of one-to-one tutorials for the good of both the individual and the learning community. These methods respond to the students’ predilection for privacy and to modes of communication and mediation that they enjoy using, habitually. 

This project was developed in conjunction with another, which I’d begun several years earlier. Since July 2014, I’ve maintained an online and publicly accessible diary-cum-blog that presents an account of my day-to-day life and times as an academic. It was intended, primarily, to raise my level of consciousness and cognisance regarding the nature and fruit of my activities across research, teaching, and administration. Secondarily, my aim was create, as it were, a glass wall through which those outside the School of Art could see into our operations. Each diary page consists of a textual narrative that follows the timetable of my day, together with photographs of salient moments during the same. Increasingly, I became preoccupied by the difficulty faced in trying to both recall and summarise the day’s tutorial engagements. Some days I’d conduct up to twelve such tutorials with as many students, each with a different set of needs and a distinct profile of operations.

What I didn’t want to do is to make an audio recording of the tutorials. The introduction of a technology by the teacher disturbs the dynamics of the discussion; the student tends to proceed more cautiously as a result. Interestingly, the same doesn’t happen when they’re in charge of the technology. Since most students have the capacity to record sound, either on a laptop, smartphone, or tablet, I encouraged them to do so, with a view to reviewing and making notes on the exchange. Few d0, however. For my part, I developed a way of distilling the dialogue discreetly. The approach was very old school. I wrote down, in a notebook during the course tutorial, only those emergent ideas that seemed to be of general import. That way, I didn’t unduly distract myself or the student during the discussion. Furthermore, the exercise actively trained my mind to spot and essentialise salient principles on the hoof. The result was a series of aphorisms (for want of a better word) that obviated the specific context and content of an interaction, while extracting sidelights and principles that might be pertinent to the many. In this way, the confidentiality of each tutorial was ensured. Only the student whose tutorial gave rise to an aphorism would recognise themselves in it.

The focus of the aphorisms is upon general principles, reflections and considerations, truisms and axioms, counsel and advice regarding their work and studentship (as well as upon my own ruminations on teaching) organised within the two concentric fields of activity and experience. The inner-circle represents concepts related to the practice and study of fine art; the outer-circle comprises pedagogical, attitudinal, and more broadly life-encounter concerns. In the tutorial, these two circles interpenetrate, always:

The inner-circle:

Structure
Composition
Style
Process
Materials and methods
Theory and practice
Subject matter
Project brief
Assessment

The outer-circle:

Psychology of learning
Encouragements
Dealing with discouragements and frustrations
Good and bad attitudes
Approaches to study
The fruit of experience
Value judgements
Wisdoms and sage sayings
Art/life dynamics
Values
Chastisements
Identifying weaknesses and pitfalls
Talent and hard work
Nature of teaching
Nature of art
Philosophy of art
Quotes from past students

The following is a typical day’s encapsulation of the tutorials:

  • Any mode of creative practice – however quirky, spontaneous, and instinctual – must submit to a discipline in order to have integrity.
  • Any mode of creative practice is undisciplined when the artist doesn’t know what they’re doing.
  • Any attempt to return to past ways of working, thinking, and being; relationships; and ambitions is unwise. Those things were not how you remember them, in any case. Nor would they be, now, how and what they were then. One cannot rewrite the past by trying to relive it.
  • Nevertheless, there’re times when the past comes towards us (of its own volition) from the future. On these occasions, we should run to meet it.
  • Like many visual art forms, the splendour of the stained-glass window is appreciable only from the inside, looking out. (Make of that metaphor what you will.)
  • It won’t always be like this.
  • I’m content with who I am, but not with what I am.

The attitudinal, life-related, and pastorally orientated aphorisms are valued just as much as those related to the art and professionalism. The aphorisms are, subsequently, bulleted on my Dairy page after the prefix of ‘Principles and observations derived from the day’s encounters’. I was concerned that the ‘voice’ and ‘tone’ of the statements and, indeed, the whole culture of aphoristic pronouncement, was either too authoritarian and moralistic or belonged to age and outlook that was remote from the students’ own. The style of writing combines and adapts proverbial and didactic mode of expression derived from classical and biblical wisdom literature. Therefore, I was more than surprised when I received comments from students, posted to my blog and in emails, encouraging me to continue with the practice and sharing practical ways in which they’d benefited.

Their contributions included:

  • It helped me remember the important points we discussed at my tutorial.
  • It drove home what you were encouraging me to do.
  • It made me aware that other students had problems to.
  • It showed me the bigger issues surrounding my work.
  • It helped me to distil principles from my practice.
  • I gained a sense of imperative.
  • It’s like we all have the same issue really.
  • Clearly my problems aren’t big in comparison to those of some other students.
  • I think now that I understand how I can be better prepared for tutorials.
  • Made me think that it would be good idea if I made notes after my tutorials too.
  • Art is a way of life, isn’t it?
  • I keep coming back to the observations and principles weeks after the tutorial. They really helped me to think through my practice more deeply.
  • It’s like having an extra, online tutorial. Brill!

The provision enabled students as learners, as well as rounded human beings, to: realise that they weren’t alone in their struggles; learn from the experiences others; absorb more from, and better reflect on, their tutorials; and comprehend how — in the small as well as the big things — their metal was being tested. The provision enabled me, as teacher, to: think much more essentially, summatively, and philosophically when conducting one-to-one tutorials; view the tutorial at the point of delivery as but one part of a continuity of discussion that extended beyond the bounds of the engagement; and conceive of each individual tutorial as a part of a communal experience. Thus, the process of recording the tutorial changed the nature of learning and teaching, positively. Both the students and I were conscious that we were, together, crystallising ideas and principles during the tutorial. And some students, rather than rely on my own encapsulations, began to make their own notes during the tutorial.

The accumulated list of aphorisms have, over the last two years, built into repository of observations and principles that can be accessed via my Diary blog*. Furthermore, it disclosed professional and pedagogical values associated with the School of Art, and me in particular. The Diary, along with the ‘principles and observations’, were posted to the School’s and my own Facebook pages. These posts also served to endorse the sense of community among individual students undertaking modules in fine art.

There were several unexpected by-products of this dissemination. It attracted an audience from outside the school – principally recent alumni, as well as parents and carers of either intending applicants or those who were presently studying with us. Recent alumni appreciated the provision, because it linked them to a process of education that they’d experienced and still hungered for. But this was more than an expression of nostalgia. Having left the womb of the School and begun to breath unaided in ‘the wicked world of work’ as artists in making, the tutorial distillations provided, variously, ideas, approaches, ideals, and encouragements that, some remarked, eased their passage to independence. For them, the publications were a continuing education and a distance-learning resource, of sorts – one to which they’d contributed, indirectly, when they were studying under me. The parents and carers experienced the glass-wall dimension of the project. They and their charge could, tokenly, and from the perspective of one member of staff, enter into the day-to-day operations of a range of modules covering fine art and art history from BA, through MA, to PhD level. The project, in this sense, became an adjunct to the School’s recruitment and promotional activities. It offered a greater level and more detailed exposure than a prospectus or website could ever deliver.  Moreover, it was kinetic rather than fixed resource – continually deepening, growing, and mutating.

These days, as academics, we don’t have enough time to do even the essential tasks. Therefore, my commitment to the project had to be time-efficient, straightforward to implement, fruitful, and, as importantly, fulfilling. The process of distillation has, over the months and years, become faster, as well as more integral to my tutorial delivery and daily ruminations on various practices. As a learner from my own teaching – an identity that’s becoming increasingly important to cultivate in the autumn of my career – the project has been enabling. The process has made me conscious of patterns of thought, the multidimensional nature of one-to-one teaching, pedagogical emphases, ethical imperatives, and personal values, that would otherwise have been present but, perhaps, not noticed and acted upon. Like every good practice in education, it has benefited both the teacher and the taught.

*  The final Diary post was published at 16:00 GMT, Tuesday, September 4, 2018.

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