While writing my critical evaluations for the PGCE Teaching and Learning unit I briefly mentioned using my own work as material for teaching, and hinted at some of the benefits and difficulties of this. There wasn’t space in the evaluation to get into much depth about it so at the suggestion of my tutor I will expand on this here. The context for this was a discussion of some of the ways I have attempted to create a community of practice amongst my students, aiming to foster the sense that we are all united by a shared interest in and commitment to documentary photography. For me part of the way I seek to do this is to show my own work and to try be candid about the difficulties I have encountered in making it, so that students hopefully understand that difficulties (whether technical mishaps or unresponsive subjects) are something we all encounter, at any stage of our practices or careers.
My tutor picked up on the word ‘try’ in that previous sentence as something worth thinking about more. Certainly, presenting one’s own work as an example and being honest about the challenges that were involved is not quite as straightforward as it seems, and in fact raises a number of issues which cause me to hesitate before doing it. For one I am aware students might seek to rather directly emulate my approach, when what I really want is for them to find their own style and interests as photographers (although of course emulation is sometimes an important part of the process of finding these things). More difficult is the question of how frank to be about the difficulties involved in some of my work. In showing them examples I want to inspire them and make it clear that challenges are not always insurmountable, but I need to think carefully about not doing the opposite, over-emphasising the difficulties of documentary to the point that some of them start to anticipate complications which may in fact never occur.
Equally I feel a sense that perhaps I am sometimes revealing too much, making myself appear rather less than competent by discussing the moments when I found myself stuck or challenged in a project. While I am hardly a believer in the idea that a lecturer should be an unchallengeable sage maintaining and not undermining student’s confidence in your competence in your field also seems important if they are to trust the guidance and feedback you offer. Lastly I sometimes wonder if my own work is actually even the best example for what we need to discuss. Once during a class on writing text to go alongside photo series, I used an example from one of my own projects. My students were (in hindsight quite rightly) critical of the text I had written, feeling it was over wordy and could use shorter sentences. It turned into a useful exercise and I got them to rewrite it (a bonus bit of help for me), but this shows how true it is that we are often too close to our own work to assess it’s real worth and make objective decisions about it.
I’ve found that some of the most useful exercises have been where I have employed my own work without offering any sort of value judgement about how good or bad it might be. One example of this that I use quite often is asking my students to form small groups and edit a 10-photo sequence from a photo essay I shot right at the start of my career, when I was at a similar stage to many of them (the series is also about someone leaving home to go to university for the first time, a topic which resonates with many of them as they have just been through the same experience). Whether the series is good or not is beside the point, since the exercise is really about the power of sequencing and judicious editing. Having ‘borrowed’ this exercise from one of my own tutors I can say that as a student it was a really positive experience to be given the tutors work to sequence. Besides the obvious learning activity, it felt like a moment of trust that a tutor who we all venerated for his professional experience would let us edit and sequence his work. It heightened the sense amongst us that we were all joined by a common practice.
In short teaching by example in this way seems to offer a variety of challenges which need some careful thought, but in my experience, it’s value as a way to form connections with students and foster the sense of a community of practice seem invaluable and it is something I will continue to employ at key points throughout my units.