Hypercritical

A budding artist learns his real skill is not artistry, but the ability to critique. I’m blogging this for the next time I introduce iteration as an important cognitive skill — something that requires dedication, time, and a willingness to take risks in order to learn from failures (something that doesn’t often fit will with millennials who fear losing points for not “getting the right answer” on the first try).

Drawing what you actually see–that is, drawing the plastic bull
that’s in front of you rather than the simplified, idealized image of a
bull that’s in your head–is something that does not come naturally to
most people, let alone children. At its root, my gift was not the
ability to draw what I saw. Rather, it was the ability to look at what
I had drawn thus far and understand what was wrong with it.

While other children were satisfied with their loosely connected
conglomerations of orbs and sticks, I saw something that bore little
resemblance to its subject. And so, in my own work, I attempted to make
the necessary corrections. When that failed, as it inevitably did, I
started over. Again and again and again, each time making minor
improvements, but all the while still seeing all the many ways that I
had failed to persuade my body to produce the correct line or apply the
appropriate coloring. — John Siracusa, Ars Technica

This reminds me of what Robert Heinlein says about being a writer. Paraphrasing: anyone can become a writer, but what’s really hard is staying a writer.

The first time I taught a lit crit class at Seton Hill, students felt overwhelmed by the almost-weekly paper assignments. It wasn’t fair, some of them said, that I graded them on the essays they wrote before the class discussions, since it was often only after the class discussions that they understood the topic they wrote the essays about.  This time around, I made an extra effort to front-load the idea that the essays are designed to improve the quality of the discussions. If everybody showed up at the discussions without having first tried to write a paper about reader-response theory or semiotics or formalism, then the discussions would not be very useful. 

I did give the students a chance to re-do one of their ten critical theory exercises, and in general the exercises were going so well that I relaxed a little and let the students write a creative hypertext or a letter to the editor if they wanted to. But the rigor of doing a short paper every week, and committing their initial ideas to paper, before showing up in class, really helped develop their critical thinking skills.  By the last week of classes, after I returned their rough drafts of their term papers, I got confident, satisfied smiles from the class.  They knew what they had to do, and they knew they could do it.  It was very rewarding.

That kind of confidence comes only with practice.