Thursday, May 29, 2008

Reaching Critical Masses...

If you ever need to figure out 30 different ways to say, "Great Job," then let me know. I can direct you to a couple of woodworking forums where almost every project posted receives just such a thing (and very little else).

Can you tell I'm not a big fan of those kinds of comments? Don't get me wrong - I like to hear compliments just as much as the next guy! But non-critical discussion alone does not help me to learn and grow as a woodworker. In fact, a lack of such a discussion can actually lead a woodworker down the wrong path by providing positive reinforcement of improper techniques and poor design.

What really bugs me, though, is that I don't think a lot of people are actually looking for anything other than compliments! Why? I'm not sure. Maybe they don't care about growth? Maybe they grew up playing non-competitive sports and they feel everyone should always be a winner and nothing is ever bad! It is a mindset I think I understand, but certainly don't agree with.

Or maybe they just can't take criticism of their work, constructive or otherwise.

The inability to handle criticism is something I have trouble understanding. But in the pursuit of my Art History degree, I had to take just as many studio art classes as I did art history classes, so that probably has something to do with it. Even though I went to a liberal arts university, our art classes were anything but the happy-go-lucky-everyone-does-great-work variety one might associate with a liberal atmosphere. We had peer critiques of our on-going projects every week and my peers were absolutely critical!

But it was such a great environment for an artist! We had to be fully aware of our decisions in our projects - why we used a certain color, how we performed a technique, where the thought process came from and where it was going. You had to learn to stand by and defend your position, but you also had to learn how to follow good advice! I was exposed to that kind of environment for most of four years. There were many times when I seriously considered adding or switching to a studio major.

It didn't take me long to learn to enjoy that process of peer reviews. In fact, those who didn't learn to work with the process didn't last very long in any of the studio art programs. After college, I was very grateful for that experience. It prepared me for the real world, where my bosses weren't always happy with my work. Believe me - it is easier on the employee and the manager when both understand the definition of "constructive criticism".

Though I am my own worst critic, I miss that peer review process. After looking at the same thing for several hours, it is easy to miss the obvious changes that could positively affect the project. Sometimes it takes a fresh eye to see that. I've tried several different avenues, looking for a new form of peer review, but I don't really think I've been successful - I've joined the local woodworking guild and actively participated in several woodworking forums and websites, but... they don't even come close to the intimacy of 10 people all sitting around a project, viewing it with a critical eye for the purpose of making me a better artist.


Kari Hultman said...

Ah yes, I remember class critiques very well (BFA/Illustration). They were great fun and it did teach us to hone our critical eye.

There is something exciting about deconstructing ours or someone else's work, fleshing out the details, and the whys.

But I suppose it doesn't suit every person's style.

Interesting post, Ethan! But it could use a few more analogies and metaphors (just kidding) ; )

Ethan said...

Hey, VC, I'm always up for writing critiques, too! I don't think I'm a bad writer, but I'm certainly not perfect, either.

I wish one of the community or four-year colleges in this area taught woodworking classes. I'd be interested in taking some, just for the class-room environment and review process.

I've taken classes at Woodcraft and through other venues, and you can't expect to get that kind of feedback there.

Ethan said...
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Kari Hultman said...

Maybe you could start your own group with others who are also open to critical analysis of their work.

I'm trying to work on my writing skills, too. My partner was an English Lit major and I used to have her read over my blog posts. But as the blog has gotten a little more detailed, she no longer understands what the heck I'm talking about!

Ethan said...

I think a Woodworking Critical Analysis group is a fantastic idea, VC! It would be an interesting on-line project to tackle, in any case... There are a few woodworkers in my area who might be interested in such an idea - maybe I'll run it by them. One of them is a website developer, too, so he might have ideas as to how that could work.

You don't want a Lit major proofreading your blogs! You'll end up with all kinds of nonsensical flowery content that makes peoples' eyes glaze over! ;)

(It's always fun to rub an English Literature major the wrong way...)

My degree is actually in Art History, and one of my major professors was a real bear for formal writing proficiency, so I quickly developed a very technical writing style.

As it turns out, I ended up using that skill more than the Art History knowledge and worked as a technical writer for MCI and then at a software company for more than seven years.

It has taken me a while to develop my writing style into something more "causal" and readable; something more suitable to blogging.