Over the summer break I was asked to make new syllabi for the three foundation (2D, 3D, and Introduction to drawing) courses at SVSU. I designed each course with the assumption that students would arrive in the first class with no knowledge or experience in the subject matter. In the past I had always been hesitant to start in this manner out of fear that rudimentary exercises might insult my students. For my 2D class my first formative exercise was to cut out a 4" square piece of illustration board with a utility knife, mark off a 3" square with a 4H pencil, and adhere pieces of black magazine clippings onto the 3x3 surface with a dry on dry rubber cement application. I demonstrated all steps of the project, especially cutting the black magazine clippings on a bevel so that no white paper under the printing surface would be visible. The assignment asks students to perform this task with very careful measuring and cutting; the understanding is that they should be incredibly well crafted.
I am so very glad that I took the time to do this simple exercise. Almost all of the students in this class had major difficulties cutting a straight line. I had to demonstrate this skill multiple times in order for students to understand the principles. I realize that in past years I may have assumed that students came to the course with far more knowledge of basic procedures than they actually had. This may have alienated students or made them feel bad. I feel like it is much more constructive to have a student fail and struggle on a simple exercise than for them to face the same challenges on a larger project. My task now is to encourage my students by explaining that skills may look easy but are actually difficult until mastered, not unlike watching a master potter throw a pot.
60 Second Office Hours
I decided to stress the importance of office hours to my students. There are two reasons I wanted to do this. First, new students do not have any experience with office hours. They do not know that their professors are their advocates, and some even see the relationship between student and teacher as adversarial. The second reason was to support the university's declared mission of increasing rates of student retention.
This is what I did. During the last 30 minutes of class on the first day I had the students follow me to my office and line up in the hallway. One by one they knocked on my door. I asked them to come in and have a seat. I then told them something like the following face to face (I was very surprised that all of my students made very strong eye contact): "I had you come to my office so that you would know where it was and so that you would feel welcome here. My office hours are right there on my door and also in the syllabus. I want you to do well in my course this year and all your courses here at SVSU. If you have any problems in my class or other problems that are making it difficult for you to succeed here at the university please let me know about them. I may not have a solution for you immediately but I will try my best to direct you to someone that can help you. I'm happy you are here." I then offered them a chocolate or pencil and sent them on their way. Most, if not all of the students, seemed really very pleased with the experience. An added plus was that my department chair saw all of these art students in the hall and he was able to introduce himself as well as actually meet and advise a few students.
UPDATE 9/8/2014 - I have already had students stop by for regular office hours in the first two weeks, which is actually quite surprising to me.
9/16/2014 - I continue to have a high number of office hour visits compared to all of my previous semesters teaching as well as students who stop by outside of scheduled office hour times.