Carlos D. Szembek

Thinking is an action…The heartbeat of critical thinking is the longing to know—to understand how life works.

bell hooks, 2010


The studio classroom is a site ripe with potential. Unlike most other disciplines, studio arts demands physical learning coupled with intellectual exploration. For students to become engaged and prosper, the studio classroom should be envisioned as a site to promote risk taking where artists are taught how to think and create critically. In addition to manual skills, an artist needs to be able to coherently discuss and support his/her work in public. Subsequently, skills should be taught in an environment that seeks to develop a risk-taking routine. But how does one teach a student how to routinely take on risk in such a manner as to not place their whole practice at risk?

Of course, there is no simple formula. The studio course at its most fundamental is a series of demonstrations teaching the implementation and safety of a particular skill set (e.g. metal fabrication, printmaking, electronic circuit building). At the foundation level freshman students should be introduced to basic concepts of 2-D and 3-D design, while also learning about core principles involved in a studio practice, for example, time management, studio upkeep, and critiquing skills. I also believe the foundation level is an excellent time to introduce the concept of working through assignments in teams. In group assignments the students must learn organically to communicate with peers, in the process discovering that a studio practice need not be a lone pursuit.

The sophomore and junior years begin to expand upon the materials and techniques. At these levels I believe the studio course should begin to place the newly acquired skill set within the broader social context, not just the context of contemporary art practice. I believe that students can simultaneously learn a new craft while developing a conceptual voice. Concepts can be formal or perceptual, as well as social, political or narrative in nature. These pointed assignments are meant to encourage the students to immediately utilize their skills for communication. An additional professional skill I push early on is for the students to fold into their time and process the act of documenting their work. Given the ephemeral nature of much of the courses I teach, this documentation becomes their record that will support and promote their careers.

In persuading students to explore content in his or her work, it is key to address each student as an individual. Much time is spent designing project assignments with this in mind. Each project has technical, conceptual, and presentation challenges. Projects are introduced with a lecture showing a survey of work of contemporary artists whose work mirrors aspects contained in the assignment. Often there is built-in latitude in the project that allows a student to select how they will tackle the assignment. The day after handing out a project, I spend the next class talking one-on-one with each student over their sketches about their ideas and approaches. In these individual discussions the assignments can become more tailored to a student’s strengths and interests.

The role of the professor is not only to provide a skill base to the students, but also to encourage dialogue with each student one-on-one and among their peers. In the engaged studio classroom, there are constant changes and challenges, which can lead to frustrating and disappointing developments. But these developments can be readily addressed and learned from. The engaged studio can take on the spirit of a community, supportive, seeking out ways to challenge itself, a laboratory of shared ideas.

Critique is an integral part of my teaching. Students are active in group critiques during which I primarily moderate, covering issues at the end of each session that had not been addressed by the other students. I also attempt to have at least one project, particularly at the junior level that culminates in a public show. These exhibits prove to be memorable experiences for many of my students. From the selection of space through to the mounting of the pieces, a strong group identity coalesces. The show itself also provides an opportunity for many of the students to see for the first time how a general public interacts with their pieces—what worked as they intended, and what perhaps may need revision.  

At the senior level, emphasis shifts to the creation of a coherent body of work. Additionally, the practical need of succeeding away from academia requires that I work with them to create portfolios, artist’s statements, and publicity materials. I stress the importance of establishing and maintaining a community of peers to support and dialogue with other in their careers as artists.

Having studied and worked in the sciences, I have been exposed to a range of pedagogical approaches, many of which vary drastically from those in the liberal arts. However, the relentless focus on accuracy and accountability in the sciences is revealing. In the sciences there is an explicit social responsibility (and ramification) for what one publishes. The assertion by bell hooks that thinking is action implies that the kernel of a critical thought is a passion to understand. My goal as professor is both to incite this passion (the thrill of risk) and to instill in them a methodical discipline (the safety of a routine) to go forth as artists, empowered and enlightened.


Selected Undergraduate Courses taught:

Freshman Foundations: 3-D Design. A team-taught course covering fundamental topics in 3-D design. Assignments included both team, paired and individual projects.

Sophomore Level:

Methodologies (Combined-media sculpture): A course considering how art is made. Different approaches included: research-based projects, collaborations with non-art students, site-based assignments, and projects originating from personal histories. Basic metal fabrication and wood construction were taught.

Synaesthesia (Combined-media sculpture): Focused upon integrating or addressing all the senses. Basic metal fabrication and wood construction were taught.

Robotics This combined-media sculpture course integrated kinetic art with microcontrollers that the students would wire and program, which in turn activated motors based on remote sensing circuits they would build.

Junior Level:

Art in Context Semester-long topics in this combined-media course series included: The Narrative; Gender Issues (co-taught with Art Historian Mary Drach-McInnes); Surveillance and Paranoia. Readings and films were included to provide context for assigned projects.

Multi-media Installation This course also incorporated microcontroller technology within an installation setting. Unlike Robotics, this course focused less on kinetics and more on audience interactivity. The students programmed microcontroller that processed inputs from sensors in an installation triggering lights, audio or video components within the piece. Equal focus was given to the development of a critical approach to installation art.

Senior Level involved year-long independent study that encouraged not only project development but also professional skills involved with assembling a portfolio, contacting galleries and assembling packets for grants and graduate school.

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