One of the many challenges that students encounter after graduating from a creative course is how to continue to get useful feedback about their work. Speaking from my own experience as a student, you can become very comfortable with the routine of showing work to tutors, which can leave something of a void once the formal opportunities for that end at graduation. Getting frank and helpful feedback remains a problem for many photographers throughout their career, and a marketplace has inevitably arisen for these types of services, ranging from the paid for portfolio review to the emergence of ‘photography consultants’ who offer photographers bespoke career advice. These are fine if you can afford them and think they are worth the money, but what if you can’t, or won’t, pay?
In 2014 I began participating in a peer mentoring group composed of nine other photographers who would meet regularly to share work in progress for feedback, ideas and encouragement. In 2015 I applied on behalf of the group for a grant from the charity Arts Quest to scale our activities up. We received their support and subsequently met six times in as many months at The Photographers Gallery, and continue to meet now albeit slightly less regularly. This experience convinced me that peer mentoring could be a useful alternative to these paid for opportunities for advice and feedback, but when I began teaching more regularly in late 2015 it also got me thinking about the possibility of employing elements of peer mentoring methodology in the classroom. The activities of a peer mentoring group seemed like a way to potentially boost student’s analytical and critical skills, develop good feedback practices, and prepare them with a model of how to continue to get creative feedback after graduation.
Peer mentoring is typically employed in universities as a way to help newer students adapt to the general circumstances of higher education, and benefit from the advice of peers in other course year, this is how it is used at UAL for example. There is quite a bit of literature and theory on the benefits of this practical mode of peer mentoring, but less about artistic peer mentoring, which in my experience operates quite differently. Artistic peer mentoring groups tend to be much larger (ten members is quite normal), usually with one committed organiser although sometimes this is a position which rotates amongst members. The hierarchies in artistic peer mentoring groups also tend to flatter, with many peer mentoring guides and practitioners arguing that groups with members at a similar professional stage to each other are often most effective, and this was certainly what we found. A flat hierarchy tends to encourage a sense that all voices in the group are equally valid. Peer mentoring groups also tend to run on a tightly moderated schedule, simply because of the number of people involved, whereas one-to-one peer mentoring sessions can often be more fluid and free form.
The conventional model of artistic peer mentoring has strengths and weaknesses, but it is probably already clear that it has some similarities to the format of the university crit or group tutorial, and this seems like a potentially good opportunity to introduce elements of peer mentoring practice into the university curriculum. There are of course also divergences from the group crit, most evidently in the lack of a ‘tutor’ and the expectation that commentary comes from all participating members of the group. Many artistic peer mentoring methodologies place an emphasis on carefully thought out approaches to feedback and this again seems a useful thing to re-employ in the classroom. One method I was introduced to by artist and peer mentoring facilitator Chloe Cooper, involves escalating levels of feedback. Initially participants simply view the image presented for critique and make completely observational comments about it. From there they are invited to provide feedback on different facets of the image, starting with things they like and proceeding through to things they are confused by or which they think could be changed. Critically at each stage the person receiving feedback is asked if they want feedback about the particular aspect of an image which has caught the reviewer’s eye, so there is always the option to reject feedback if it seems like it will not be useful (most artists have probably been in the position of receiving totally unhelpful feedback about an element of a work which is clearly not possible to change).
Employing and teaching such an approach to feedback seems useful in the classroom, as while we might often invite students to comment on each other’s work they are not necessarily versed in the delicate etiquette of doing this. Students often veer on the side of only saying nice things about the work of peers, but most teachers have probably had the experience of a student being overly, even unhelpfully critical of a peers work. Discussing useful feedback strategies and introducing a system where critical feedback is invited by the person showing work can help give students a framework for feedback and criticism, and also allows the person receiving it to have a certain amount of agency in what feedback they receive. While I have employed elements of peer mentoring in classes and discussed the concept with my students it is something I would like to formalise more directly into the curriculum. This is something I am thinking about as I rewrite my second-year documentary unit ahead of next year’s classes, and it is also something I might pursue further as part of the independent project unit. For further reading and a practical guide to setting up a peer mentoring group Arts Quest has a good section on their website.