Exercises: Peer Mentoring

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.

Exercises: Object Based Learning

As part of this blog I’m trying to briefly write up and assess various exercises, workshops and other learning activities I’ve been involved in, either as a teacher or a student, and to think about how they might be improved and reused in future sessions.

Our latest classroom exercise for our core Teaching and Learning unit was to devise an object based learning exercise to be carried out by our peer groups. Amongst my interests are the politics of specific technologies, and also the ways in which information informs the way people read objects (particularly photographic images). Initially I was tempted to give my group a photographic print and ask them to respond to it, before revealing new information about the image and seeing how that information might alter their readings.

Instead I decided instead to try something a little more complex and perhaps risky, particularly given the 10 minutes we had for the exercise. Instead of a print I presented the group with one of my cameras, a FED-2 35mm rangefinder and then asked them to discuss and respond to it in several rapid fire discussions. I timed each discussion to make sure we kept to time and also kept notes on the discussion. After a few minutes I revealed a new piece of information about the camera and the discussion continued, reflecting on how this change the group’s understanding of the object. Full exercise plan follows:


The Exercise

Preamble: The aim of this exercise is to stimulate thinking about how new information changes ones relationship to an object and also to think about how photography is politicised by the ways it is used.

You have 3 minutes, I want to describe and discuss this object based on observation alone.

After three minutes, are some facts about this camera:

This is an updated version of the FED camera. A Russian copy of the iconic Lecia 35mm rangefinder, the FED was the first mass-produced Soviet camera, made from 1934. It’s development was the brainchild of Anton Semyonovich Makarenko, a Ukrainian educator revered in the Soviet Union but virtually unknown outside of it. The cameras were to be made by children under a innovative work-education scheme and through it Makarenko hoped to help make the Soviet Union self-sufficient in cameras. Camera production was zero in 1928, but by 1939 100,000 FEDs had been produced alone.

For the next three minutes, I want you to look again at this object and discuss it again based on this new information. How has your view of it changed, what new insight does this information give into this object, how do you feel about it?

After three minutes, here are a few more facts about this camera:

The initials FED stand for stand for Felix Edmundovich Dzerzhinsky, also known as Iron Felix, he was the head of the Cheka, the forerunner of the KGB secret police. The cameras were made at the Dzerzhinsky Commune in Khrakiv, Ukraine. This was a colony for ‘the rehabilitation of youth’ who were mostly children left orphaned by the civil war and by a massive state engineered famine known as the Holodomor, which occurred between 1932 and 1933 and killed as many as seven million Ukrainians. The camp was administered by the Soviet secret police and overseen by Makarenko. It had 600 inmates by 1934. It was destroyed during the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941.

For the last three minutes, I want you to look again at this object and discuss it again based on this new information. How has your view of it changed, what new insight does this information give into this object, how do you feel about it?

After three minutes, end of exercise.

(Source for all information: The Dzerzhinsky Commune: Birth of the Soviet 35mm Camera Industry, by Oscar Fricke, published in History Of Photography, Volume 3, Number 2, April 1979)


Reflections:

It was very interesting to see how the group (all non-photographers) responded to each new bit of information about the camera, and how it went from a simple piece of photographic equipment, to something that was perhaps politically quite benign and even rather significant in terms pedagogy and photographic history, to finally an object that was the product of a system of state repression, indeed an object made by the children of that state’s victims. The fast pace of the exercise was useful in getting people moving and responding to the object quickly. If I had more time for the exercise I might have added some other stages, perhaps showing an image from the camera or from it’s production (like the photograph above) or asking the group to reflect on how photography was used as part of the repressive apparatus of a state like the Soviet Union. I would also have liked to allow more time for discussion and reflection because three minutes per discussion was very, very fast. More time might also make it possible to produce a visual response like a list of bullet points or a mind map as part of the exercise.

Exercises: Collaborative Curation

As part of this blog I’m trying to briefly write up and assess various exercises, workshops and other learning activities I’ve been involved in, either as a teacher or a student, and to think about how they might be improved and reused in future sessions.

I sometimes hear lecturers in the arts complain that one of the downsides of teaching is it getting in the way of their own creative practices. While I understand the complaint (there are only so many hours in the day) the logical response to this would seem to me to be to look for ways to teach that are mutually creatively beneficial to students and to teachers. Last year a colleague and I curated a large-scale exhibition and have since been discussing an idea for a new one. We thought it might be a great test of this idea of mutual benefit to organise a workshop around this new exhibition idea with our students. We resolved to do a one day workshop with the aim of planning and installing an exhibition on our chosen topic in that space of time.

For the students, we hoped it would be usefully practical introduction to curation and exhibition installation, for us we hoped it would be a chance to try out existing ideas and generate new ones for the exhibition concept we are working on. For everyone it would be an interesting test of the dynamics of collaboratively putting together an exhibition as a large group, something which each student group has to deal with eventually anyway when they come to their final degree show. In preparation for the day we booked a space in the college and collected a small amount of suitable work from artists we knew, some reproductions of materials from the Stanley Kubrick archive (which is based at the college), and also some props we thought would work well for staging and transforming the space.


The Workshop:

We opened the day with an hour-long briefing on the idea, an overview of the aims and intended outcomes for the workshop and a discussion of some of the common steps one might go through when curating an exhibition, from approaching a gallery or a space through to planning how to show the work and finally installing. Next, we had a visit from Richard Daniels, senior archivist at UAL’s Special Collections archive who showed some original materials from the Kubrick archive. Following that we had planned to break into groups each of which would focus on a particular area of the exhibition, for example groups dealing with press, design, curating the printed photos, organising video. Instead we had an impromptu further discussion and viewing of some of other pre-selected art works, and then broke for lunch.

After a brief lunch, we divided into groups as planned and the students set about developing the space. One group set about planning where to display the art. Another focused-on press and advertising for the show. Another one still decided to gather data and visualisations about our topic and another group gathered and edited video to create several video pieces which we displayed on a flat screen TV and several laptops appropriated from the group. We were on hand to help out but generally weren’t really needed, the students collectively set about transforming the space and after two hours the show was complete and we ‘opened’ it to the public with a few beers. The opening was a nice way to round off the day, and the term, and we even had some curious passing visitors drop in to see what we were doing (the beer may have helped). Finally, we took the show down and cleared up the space.


Reflections:

My colleague and I felt the day went really well for something that was a complete experiment. It clearly helped to be working with a group of very engaged and enthusiastic students who completely got behind the rather strange idea of the workshop (and to some extent ignored our curatorial suggestions, sometimes for the best!). I think we both left feeling like the our original exhibition idea had been reinvigorated by the workshop and given new purpose, and so in terms of the initial idea of undertaking a teaching exercise that benefits student and staff alike it seemed like a great success.

Feedback from the students was generally positive but there were some comments for things to change next time. One was that it would have been good to have a clearer outline for the day at the start, something we had actually included in our initial briefing but forgot to cover because of running short on time. Another was the suggestion that if we ran the workshop again we should plan and advertise it far enough in advance that the final exhibition could actually be advertised around the college to an audience beyond the student group, a nice idea to try and make the exercise as real as possible and get more of a real life audience for the ‘private view’ at the end of the day.

Exercises: Zine Making

As part of this blog I’m trying to briefly write up and assess various exercises, workshops and other learning activities I’ve been involved in, either as a teacher or a student, and to think about how they might be improved and reused in future sessions.

Recently Monica Biagioli, a colleague from LCC’s design school ran a session with my MA students on using zine making as a means of reflection. As the name suggests, the collaborative unit puts an emphasis on students forming connections either within or without the course and then making work through them. The students were in the process of finishing off assignments for this and were at the stage of reflecting on their projects and how they had gone. We thought zine making might be a nice way to both get them thinking about this process and to some extent also slightly reward them after a term of rather more heavy going lectures with something a bit more practical and fun. We also thought that zines with their counter-cultural and sometimes quite collaborative history would be an appropriate medium.


The Exercise:

We provided cutting matts, scissors, scalpels, glues and a mix of papers, Monica brought examples of various zine structures and we asked the students to bring imagery from their projects if they wished. Monica and I began the session with a quick talk through the reasons for the session, and a little on the history of zines. I also emphasized the way zine can be a great basis for developing more complicated books because they allow you to make a large number of experiments very cheaply while still getting a good representation of how a finished book might work. I also talked a little about the extensive zine collection held in the college library. Monica showed some of her own examples to the group, gave them some suggestions for sources of different book structures.

From there we dove in to making. Me and Monica were both on hand to review how things were going and provide any assistance. Having two tutors was great and meant I was able to dive out to print materials for students who had forgotten to bring imagery but wanted to print materials from their computers. We had about an hour for making before the session ended.


Reflections:

Befitting the aim of the session partly being to offer a bit of decompression after a very busy term we intentionally avoided telling the students that they had to approach the exercise in a very specific way and left it rather open to them to explore zines as they wished. Some intended to submit books for their assessment and used the session as an opportunity to try out structures that they were considering using. Some used the session as a way to reflect and explore what they had done over the term. Others went in very different directions and just embraced the idea of cutting and pasting whatever they had to hand in order to make a cohesive little publication in an hour.

In all the session seemed to go well, everyone got involved and I could certainly see the results in tutorials that week. I think in another session, particularly if we were running the same exercise with undergraduates, we might set clearer goals and been more specific about people using the zines they made for reflection (with some clearer strategies and examples for how this might work). I think it would also be nice to build in time at the end of the session to review what people had made and debrief on how students felt the session had gone, new questions and so forth. Even so, considering how open ended the session was however I think it worked very well and would be an exercise I would definitely run again in the future.

Excercises: Drawing Each Other

Like many people I dread ‘icebreakers’ which can often feel like they’re designed to maximise embarrassment rather than dispel it. We did one in our first tutorial for the PG Cert however which seemed like a nice exception so I thought I’d write it up briefly for my own edification and perhaps also future use. In pairs, participants are given a piece of paper and pen each and must then draw each other simultaneously and very quickly without taking their eyes off the other person, i.e. without looking down at the unfolding drawing. The results are messy but also very funny and sometimes weirdly close to mark. Everyone’s efforts are a bit crap, but that’s precisely what seems to make it work and the drawings themselves are something nice to take away afterwards. Here are some of me by my fellow students:

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