Over the past few weeks I have been thinking about how I can draw on a range of sources when considering a more holistic approach to group critique. The notes that follow are rough thoughts, which began with considering Susan Orr’s study ‘Critiquing the Crit’. This has been extremely useful for me, not least as this study takes a broad look at what the crit is in all forms, and presents a wide range of findings as to the problems with crits according to student and staff interviews. I had thought I would build on this study, however it rather helped me realise that my study looks into a more specific aspect of the crit, namely the emotional aspect which ‘Critiquing the Crit’ only briefly points at. Below I outline some problems with the crit structure, then (in italics) have taken the relevant points from Orr’s study, and finally some thoughts as to how I can re- structure my own crit session; thinking about observing without evaluating.
Problems with the current crit structure.
The crit too often exists as an aspect of the Fine Art curriculum which escapes the scrutiny and responsibility in terms of teaching methodology. Though common factors are established; a group of students with one or two tutors engaging in discussion of one or two pieces of each students work, how this dialogue is structured is too often lacking – resulting in negative student experiences.
There are many formats of of crits, though this study specifically looks at the Group critique. Building on the research done by Susan Orr ‘critiquing the crit’ and my research conducted in the form of questionnaires with my own students, I am looking for ways to improve student experience by taking a more holistic approach. I begin this study with identifying some key aspects of the group critique which need to be addressed:
– Confusion as to the purpose of the crit, and of how to begin to think about works critically.
– Students taking criticism personally.
– Students lacking the skills to give critical feedback constructively, being scared of upsetting other students.
From Critiquing the Crit
Emotional impact of the crit
q Many contributors talked about the emotional side of crits.
q There was a feeling that there is already a lot of stress in A&D students for variety of reasons including dyslexia and crits can add to stress.
q Some staff had the feeling that students who feel uncomfortable with the crit format do not turn up and this has negative impact on their work. Lack of participation could be a self protective strategy on the part of some students.
q However others report that there is no evidence that students mind the public nature. There is also an unexplored question of gender difference.
q Others questioned the extent to which quiet students benefit from crits and also pointed out that crits are difficult for shy students.
q It was suggested that in year one students are nervous about crits at the start, then at level two this eases off and by level three they get very nervous again.
q If the crit is summative rather than formative, then it can have a judgemental tone which students find difficult. The crit can also become about the student rather than the work and the two can get confused. This relates to ipsative nature of much A&D feedback/assessment and, as indicated below, this is the kind of feedback students regard as legitimate.
q Many talked about a tradition in art and design of what they saw as the bad crit where staff behave like prima donnas and indulge in fairly personalised criticisms of students’ work. This was often combined with a lack of concrete advice/help. ‘I wonder what we learn from a tutor who provides only undefended opinions? ‘
q Some felt that, in the past in this tradition, the vast majority of crits did not comprise constructive critique that was well-argued. More often it was vague or self-absorbed: comments such as: ‘I like it – don’t change it’, ‘I don’t like it – do it again’, ‘that’s crap’, ‘I can’t visualise it, so you probably shouldn’t do it’, ‘Can you resolve it more – more or less?’ ‘There’s something in there, but it’s not what I thought’. These were perceived as comments that helped no one understand what was good or bad, or what needed to be learnt in order to improve. This can leave students feeling helpless.
q Some felt this unproductive tradition was in decline while others felt it still operated on some courses.
q This did not preclude a belief in being challenging but one contributor pointed out that teachers need to understand difference between good and bad stress.
Language and feedback
q Many contributors referred to the danger of using difficult language that students do not understand. These are often words with a specific meaning in the context of the discipline. Our glossary and the related staff development material in section 3 aim to address this issue.
q Another criticism was of comments like ‘needs to be better’ rather than advice. This was felt to be exacerbated by shortage of time.
q The term ‘crit’ is a problem since it easily gets confused (by both staff and students) between critique and criticism in the exclusively negative meaning of the word.
q Staff often use norm referencing vocabulary by comparing one piece of work with another student. There was some feeling amongst students that this is not fair. They expect ipsative comments based on their own previous achievement, personal circumstances etc.
q Some contributors felt that students are often not encouraged to question accepted dogma, although this seems to vary with level of course.
q Another issue raised was an ideology of teachers not wanting to interfere with the creative process therefore not saying much at all.
Two key organisational challenges faced by crits were management of time and management of student involvement.
q Crits often become atomised to one student at a time, even if the original intention was to discuss over-arching issues, so there is a danger that it becomes a series of mini-tutorials
q Strong students dominate. The overtalker is as much of a problem as the undertalker.
q Questions to the whole group don’t get very good responses.
q Some crits are completely teacher dominated. Sometimes the problem of the strong dominating applies to teachers as well as students.
q Poor organisation combined with lack of time can lead to teachers barely looking at some work, whilst spending large amounts of time over others.
q Crits improve student confidence and get students used to critical judgements on their work. This helps develop skills in critical thinking.
The student perspective
Findings from our student focus groups suggest:
q Students can feel that the lecturers don’t tell them what they want and if they do, they often change their minds. Students sometimes feel they get mixed messages. Staff might say one thing in a tutorial and then say something else in a crit.
q Students dislike crits that feel negative, where there are no compliments, where students do not give their ideas and are not asked to contribute. ‘Taking part is what makes it fair…giving and taking feedback’.
q They like feedback to start with the positive. They don’t like lecturers to use shock tactics. They shouldn’t ‘diss you to your face’. Some crits feel like an emotional attack.
q Some students feel that when asked to write the crit self evaluation during the crit, they switched off.
q Students often can’t remember a lot of their feedback. But they remember the feeling it gave them. ‘They are saying blah blah blah and you’re hearing ‘that is shit, you’re shit ’
q Students do not like it when all the time and effort that goes into the work is not recognized.
q Silence by teachers is taken as negative feedback.
q The students like passing around of sketch-books/research-books to get everyone involved.
q Students would like to have more peer feedback. Students feel this allowed them to gain even more ideas as to how their work is viewed by others and thus other interpretations. However, there was recognition that getting different views of one’s work can be hard to cope with.
q Students felt that student involvement could be an issue. ‘the main problem [with the crit] is the part of students involved. If they are unwilling or unable to take part fully then the process is very undermined’
q Feedback helps students to get through ‘the stuck moment’.
q Some students felt that crits helped them overcome shyness.
Suggestions outlined in this study;
– Role playing different roles to see different viewpoints etc
– Glossary of terms
– Recording learning, suggestions of a variety of ways of doing this. Eg paired scribing, students taking notes on their own work before and after the crit…
– managing the crit space – e.g. horseshoe so students can see the work and each other.
– language – ensure everyone understand the terminology used in the group.
Recognise the emotional side of being critiqued and ensure crits deal with the positive as well as negative. Silence is taken as negative feedback. Students don’t remember the words but they remember the feeling the words gave them. More negative comments from teachers lead to less student input.