Issues in Photo-Education

The last post was some pretty pictures, in fact most of them are.  But I said up front that occasionally I would include thoughts along my journey and since although I think of myself primarily as a photographer, I am also a professor of photography.  This blog therefore is about more than just photography, it is also about photo education and that means it also has to be about education.

From what is to me an unlikely source, the Huffington Post, comes an essay on education that totally resonates with me but is in opposition to the district’s and State’s attitudes.

If you are at all interested in education or think it important, then please read that article. It came to my attention coincidental with the ending of a semester in which, in some classes, I saw the most seriously disengaged students I’ve ever seen.  Students who felt it far more important to them to tune out lectures and presentations in favor of email, Facebook, or even texting; students who eschewed the opportunities of a very liberal provision of lab classes where they could ask for input from the professor in an open forum but preferred to be somewhere else… anywhere else.

I would love to lay the blame directly at the feet of the students themselves, after all it is they and they alone who will, in the end, pay for it.  But I truly think in many ways they are simjply responding, perhaps even unknowingly, to the culture our system has both allowed and encouraged to exist and thrive.  In my opinion, what we are doing too often at City (and probably across the state) vis-a-vis fawning after the latest greatest dissertation on educational theory is, to a very large degree, why California has gone from a top rank to a bottom rank in its educational system.

Other disciplines will have to address their own issues, I can only speak to the area I know.  Here I want to focus on, and share some thoughts on, how State educational system policies are often astonishingly counter-productive to practical, professionally oriented photo education.

To me, for example, the imposed concepts of SLOs (Student Learning Outcomes), while laden with potential, are being applied in precisely the same approach as the now mercifully discredited MBO (Management by Objective) business model schemes of the 80s.  In this venue, at least, history has been ignored if it was ever known. The MBO idea was solid – on paper – but apparently on too high a philosophical level for business leaders, just as the SLO concepts are to an educational administration.  The raw data collected in the SLO procedures could go a long way toward creating and structuring courses to avoid missed topics and minimized redundancies; a very positive thing.  But that is used only a by-product at the end and the up-front push is simply towards defining how we are going to force feed “learning” to the students to get the requisite “outcomes” that apparently will bode well for the release of money into the system or accreditation by a bureaucracy already in hot water for malpractice.

But if money, per se, were the answer to the problems of education, the U.S, in general and California in particular would have the world’s best educational system, not one of astonishing mediocrity.  We now spend more per student than anywhere else in the world and have less to show for it.  Why?  Because it does not go directly to the classroom but is skimmed off by a top heavy system and for support for the latest desperate attempt to do something clever to fix things… such as SLOs.

The real disservice to the system by such policies is, I think, hinted at in the Huffington Post piece above; it has forced college level professors to become kindergarten teachers and removed responsibility for learning from the student and placed it on the teacher.  Teachers and professors have rightly–and successfully–fought back against the idea that teachers are responsible for teaching things parents and other institutions are supposed to cover, yet extended open arms to the idea that while it is not their pervue to teach things like responsibility (too politically incorrect) we are expected to take upon ourselves responsibility for something that we cannot control — learning.  We are not subject to the old cliché about how you can take a horse to water but you cannot make him drink.  We are now expected to both bring the water to the horse AND make him drink it.

The problem is that parents and those other institutions have failed to do THEIR jobs and now we stand in the classroom facing students who have not been taught responsibility, who have not been given the mentality or self-worth to expect success of themselves from family or friends, who have instead been taught they are owed something in life and that if it requires some intermediate step, such as learning something, then they are entitled to have that magically implanted in their brains by the system.

The devastating thing for educational success is that the educational system seems to have accepted that view.  And since inherent in that view is the teacher’s role in forcing achievement of those learning outcomes, an incredible array of techniques have been formulated to engage the student, entertain them, occupy them, basically trick them into learning by misdirection that would make a magician proud and sneaking learning into their unprepared and resistant brains, but not, no not ever, by expecting them to put their own energies into the learning process much less being responsible themselves for the outcome.

To the contrary, however, I think if we have to become clowns and side show barkers to lure students into wanting to see the hidden mysteries of knowledge while at the same time mesmerists and mad scientists infusing our own ideas of the topics into brains turned to mush by our antics then we can simply expect the rankings of our system to plummet even lower.

Unfortunately in the vocational arenas such as mine, we have a model of the world awaiting the students which is hard-edged and cut-throat, take-no-prisoners competitive; and if they enter it expecting to be cajoled and entertained into success, expect to have clients, to which they are entitled, trucked to their door by a compliant government or school, they will simply and quickly be eaten alive.  Yet many of our students, like others, have come to expect being spoon fed, to be entertained, to have the teacher be sufficiently exciting and colorful to compete with their smart phones and Facebook. I will never forget once being called to the Dean’s office to answer a complaint by a student.  When I got there the Dean asked the student what they wanted of me.  The student said, “I just want him to tell me the secret to being a success and leave the rest of that stuff out of it.”

The Dean looked at me for an answer, which itself surprised me.  So I told them, I HAD told her the secret: it was hard, continual, never ending practice at mastering that “stuff” she dismissed, but did not want to hear.  She wanted to be injected with a success serum, vaccinated against failure, have meds to time-release knowledge into her mind while she was doing stuff far more enjoyable.  The system not only wanted that too, it wanted professors to devise ways of lessening or removing the pain of the injections for shot wary students.

If we all give in to that, if we follow the dictates of the latest feel-good, warm and fuzzy mandate in order to get a good outcome on the SLO gameboard, worry more about our own “reviews” on the websites, our students will enter that real world and never see the disastrous failure coming straight at them.

So, my question (for which I do not have an answer) is, how do we properly play that game?  My discipline’s world of professional photography, thanks to the digital revolution intersecting with the information revolution interacting with a technological revolution is a perfect storm of chaos; it is changing DAILY.  In reading the forums and blogs, the simple truth is NO ONE really knows where we are in our evolution today and will not seriously even speculate on tomorrow except in the broadest terms.  And yet as an “applied” (meaning “vocational” – though that word is out of favor at the moment) program we are charged with preparing our students to walk into “tomorrow” and be viable members of the profession and a world that none of us, nor anyone else out there, is able to specify and define.

To even hope to keep up and try to match data points and trends to guide our students requires critical time now mandated to other tasks designed for the world of teachers not professors as defined in the article. Curricula creation procedures ask us about a course’s assignments for critical thinking while the reality imposed by state policies makes that too often simply irrelevant. It would at least be more honest if it asked what we would do to entertain them, to compete with TV and movies and the latest videogame, to describe how we would make this given course not an educational opportunity but a 3-ring circus masquerading as a classroom. .

The students, meantime, are largely clueless… they have been taught to be clueless on their own and to expect us to provide the thinking for them and simply give them the bottom line.  Our stars are the older students seeking to perhaps alter careers or to expand options because they come from a world of reality where they were taught or have already learned the hard way their futures are their own responsibilities.  But high schools, at least the ones that provide us our incoming students, seem to have completely failed at that, if they have tried at all.

So, as the article notes, there is a natural disconnect between the entitled students and the real professors left.  The student, increasingly, is in school not for the love of learning, but to get a credential – a credential to which they feel entitled but which is simply an obstacle to their real goals – an entry level job with a CEO’s salary to which they also feel entitled.  But real professors know that education is not about grades, it is about growth and enriching one’s life.  And they know too that it is a process of acceptance on the part of the learner not of imposition on the part of the teacher.

The REAL success of a school is not how many students they have transferred or graduated or “completed.”  The proper measure of success is the number of students whose lives have been enriched and whose personal, educational, intellectual, social, and spiritual growth has been enhanced by the experience.  Education is less about learning per se than it is about learning how to learn.  Life will provide the real learning experiences; our job is to prepare the students for that life where far more than grades are at stake.

Sometimes the frustration is nearly overwhelming.  But education is, in my opinion, the most powerful tool to secure a people’s and their country’s future continuance, much less growth.  What professors do not need, even more what education per se does not need, is a state/administration trying very hard to turn them into educational entertainers and removing from the student, the responsibility for their own success.

So why do I do it?  Because it is the ultimate art form.  The rush that comes from knowing you have just produced a powerful work of art is incredible.  But the rush that comes from knowing that a student is now a success in their career and in life in at least part because of having passed through your class or workshop is even greater.  It is a way to pay back and pass on the lessons from a myriad of mentors, teachers, and professors whose input allowed me to live a fulfilled and blessed life doing what I loved.

My rules for life, love, everything are simple:  1.  Show Up,  2. Pay Attention,  3.  Pass It On.  I can not always claim to have been a poster child for the first two rules. Teaching, however, allows me to directly address that third rule.  And when it works, when a former student sends a “Thank You” or credits you with some small bit of aid in their lives or careers, when you just see them being successful and doing stuff you know you taught them, then you know you’ve done at least something good in your life.  It makes up for huge portions of the BS you have to wade through to do it.

It is just that it would be so much easier without the BS.


About ndking

Commercial Photographer and Professor of Photography at San Diego City College
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