Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Curiouser and Curiouser

Gratuitous photo, unrelated (somewhat) to the following:
knitting quiver

Most of the time, when one is a teacher of anything, one is well versed in the subject one is teaching. This makes perfect sense right?

There are different learning and teaching styles, as a given, and some teachers reach some learning styles better than others. The kinetic learners (aren't we, fiber people, all?) the aural learners and the visual learners pose different challenges in a classroom situation, and the dance is to find out how to teach them all.

I like being a part of a classroom full of fiber people, the excitement, energy, general goodwill and fun of being with people who like what we all do. I so look forward to classes I'm taking, and teaching.

But what if the learning is not face-to-face, but just words and pictures online? or by DVD? or You Tube? How do you vet a teacher? How do you know someone is not wasting your time? By their reputation?

What about all the learning that goes on between students, not just direct information presented to the class, but the sidelines, the digressions and the personalities in class? I would miss that. Some online classes have the benefit of sharing among the students, but that can be burdensome, chatty, off-topic overkill too.

Knitting is often taught pattern by pattern (take this sock class, or this class on making gloves, this class on this sweater using this yarn, etc.). Does this lead to teachers who have never done original work? I'm guessing so, since I have known some teachers who follow patterns (and do it well), know how to modify patterns to fit different bodies, yarns, whatever, but have not designed anything from the yarn (or fiber) up.

Many people (myself included) learn lots of techniques from following a pattern. Good patterns do just that: the designer has tricks worked right in, shaping, cast ons, hems, tricks, decreases expertly placed, all to help the knitting be more than a cut and sew garment. So is the designer the teacher, then, and the teacher presenting the ideas of the designers?

I've always aimed for teaching the technique, not following a pattern necessarily. I teach spinning, dyeing and weaving, and there are very few patterns, per se. One of the skills we try to teach is the critical thinking needed to achieve a goal (how do I get sock yarn? How do I get that color? How do I make determine how to weave fabric like that?). There are just too many variables to have everyone trying to achieve the same exact outcome.

I have had to create patterns that will teach the skills I want to pass on, so indeed, we are learning from a pattern. My hope is that people still leave the class with enough skills to create original work. That's my goal.

It may not be the goal of the person taking the class though: they might just want to try out a technique and see if they want to continue with it. I get people in classes who never do the technique again. I try not to blame myself for this: I do tend to teach esoteric weaving skills. Not much call for your esoteric weaving skills in this modern world, unless for some reason they happen to resonate, in which case they are then fun, as they are for me, and I'm all about sharing the fun.

As a student though, how do we know how the teacher will be? How do you decide, when choosing a teacher, on whom to trust with your hard-earned dollars (or Euros or Yen)? Do you follow the crowd? Do you take other people's recommendations? Do you decide based on work or articles by the teacher that you've seen or read?

I puzzle through this often. I rarely take a class from someone I have never heard of, but with the internet(s) we *hear* of just about everyone, and mostly in glowing terms. Lately there have been a few snafus where the internet(s) have ferreted out some poseurs (thank you Ravelry), but for the most part, everyone is happy-happy-no-critiques online. So how do you gauge (hah!) the truth through all the fawning?

I've taken far more weaving and spinning classes than knitting classes, and the weaving world is a little smaller. There are fewer new entries in the teaching-about-weaving world than there are in knitting, where everyone can teach someone as soon as they know two things. In fact, I'm signing up for a weaving class next January, at GGFI, just because I want to learn from someone I've never met, never heard of anyone who has taken the class, but whose work online looks fabulous.

It is hard to be a trailblazer, and try out new teachers. We recently had a conference where the organizers wanted to have all new teachers, people who may not have taught here before. Sign ups for the seminars were great (comes with conference registration) but the workshops were under-subscribed (costs extra). By all accounts, they were fabulous teachers, their work was good, their lectures and seminars were well received. But people did not know who the teachers were, what there work was like, how they managed their classes etc, before the conference. If those same teachers came back, I'm sure there would be far more interest and sign ups because now we know, now we have heard, now we have word-of-mouth, now we have testimony.

Some conferences try to balance the old and new teachers and class offerings, and I think that is the key: SOAR usually has someone entirely new along with some tested veterans teaching. GGFI has done this too, even though it is a brand new conference: several road-tested teachers and some that are new on the scene. This gives attendees the confidence to sign up for someone new, knowing that there is also the opportunity to balance that with a known entity.

Spinning is starting to burgeon, and with this comes the You Tube videos, DVDs, classes at local knit shops, a whole new crop of Spinning Teachers. How do we decide who has something to say? Does it matter? I learn something from every teacher I've been privileged to sit with, perhaps off the syllabus, but still...

We need new teachers. We need new viewpoints, new perspectives, new twists on old techniques. Someone has to vet them, and I guess there is a winnowing process of sorts by word of mouth or by work done and seen. There is certainly very little winnowing online. Everyone can be an expert. Until they are not. Then they are the latest cautionary tale.

Interesting. I am working long hours in the studio, and ruminating. Can you tell? Thoughts?

12 Comments:

Blogger historicstitcher said...

Interesting thoughts.

As one with a limited budget for classes, I find myself drawn to classes where the instructor has a long and reputable resume, or comes highly recommended by someone I trust who has had dealings with the particular instructor before.

As a new instructor, my first class was cancelled completely, due to low signups - I am unknown, unvetted. I have skills to share, and teach small groups on a regular basis, but an actual course? No one wants to put out money for me to teach, especially in a slowed economy where every fiber dollar counts.

Are we heading toward an era where certifications such as the HGA and TKGA and such offer become our "license" to teach in lieu of a long resume? Or is it going to be more like politics where the most money and best marketing results in the most exposure and, therefore, a "known name"?

I wish I knew. There are so many indie dyers and designers and spinners right now, and it seems almost random as to which ones get "known" on the internet and which ones are buried in obscurity. It does not seem to be related to quality of product, nor to originality. Some very good designs and fibers and yarns are lost in the overload of choices.

Overload.

Of choices.

You don't have to accept what's in front of you anymore - you can choose from near-infinity via the internet. How do we sift through it all??

8:13 AM  
Blogger Phiala said...

Very interesting. I've been teaching small weaving and other textile classes to a particular audience for many years, but am becoming interested in the broader fiber arts community, both as a student and a teacher. I'm attending both Complex Weavers and SOAR as a student to get a feel for what's out there, but I'd also like to start submitting teaching proposals. I know that I do esoteric fiber arts that are not taught much if at all in the general fiber community, and think there might be interest. I'd be one of those "new teachers", though, despite having a fairly well-known internet presence (at least in the small circle of people interested in esoteric fiber arts).

I've kind of wondered if the teaching slots all go to the "big names", the more well-known and more experienced teachers (though seeing some of the classed out there, other times I wonder just who chooses them!), and if it's hard to break into teaching. I appreciate hearing from someone with more experience, since I'm quite inexperienced outside my own small group.

But all the "big names" were new once, right?

8:13 AM  
Blogger elizabeth said...

I think we all have something to say, however, I don't think everyone should be in a teaching position. I can show someone how to spin and I've taught people how to knit, but that doesn't mean I'm qualified to teach a paid-for course. Maybe someday, but not now. I think teachers need to be well-versed in their subject matter, able to communicate clearly and strong enough in personality to keep a class on track with what they're supposed to be learning (you know how us fiber types can be!). If someone can do all these things, whether they've taught at SOAR or John C. Campbell doesn't matter to me, if I can learn from them and it be an enjoyable experience to boot, then I'm happy with the fee I've paid and the knowledge I've gained.

Speaking of which, I hope to take a class from you at SOAR! Waiting (im)patiently for the confirmation... :o)

8:19 AM  
Blogger Michael said...

I'm one of the relatively-new teachers - although I've been teaching locally for nearly two decades (gosh, has it been that long?), it was just a few years ago that I started getting my stuff out on the Internet, and getting my name recognized on the national scene. I'm hoping that I have enough name-recognition to fill my class at GGFI - I've never taught something that long and intense before. Fortunately, what I've got laid out is basically three classes that I *have* taught before, laid end to end, so it's not too scary.

I'm looking forward to getting to meet you in person at SOAR - I can't be there for the whole week, but I hope the weekend will allow enough chances to hang out and visit when you're not swamped with teaching!

10:57 AM  
Blogger Caroline M said...

It is an interesting thought (which is after all why I visit here, I usually go away with something to ponder). Not all experts are good teachers, it doesn't matter whether it's the fibre arts or physics - you can be at the top of your field but unable to inspire others.

I can look at a knitting designer's published work and I might love their designs and the clever tricks in the patterns but that doesn't tell me whether they will be a good teacher. It's no use having all that knowledge in their heads if they can't get it into yours.

I feel lucky that it's not a challenge that I have to face given that my choices are so limited.

11:24 AM  
Blogger Valerie said...

Interesting reflections..... made me think about the two weaving classes I took in the same week back in April.

The first one was put on by a shop, and we came home with an almost finished project. That's what most of the participants wanted. (In 28 years of weaving I've never taken a weaving class where that was the expectation.)

The second class was with Jason Collingwood...and I'm still "soaking up" the fire hose worth of information on 4 end unit weaves...So many ideas and concepts to integrate into my understanding and skill set.

Now I'm getting ready to spend two weeks at Penland weaving with Randy Darwall. When my non-weaving friends hear my excitement, they ask what kind of "project" (meaning finished item) I'll come home with. And a finished item is the last thing on my mind. I'm hoping to come home with notes, samples, ideas, and concepts.

So my point? It's not just different learning styles, it's also the expectation of the learner. (Which is why I suspect so many knitting classes have a finished project built into them.)

People who take a class as a "make and take" want to have all of the thinking done for them. They're not going to be happy in a class designed to teach them how to think.

5:50 PM  
Blogger Theresa said...

Thought-provoking post. I have to admit being a bit of a JMM groupie, but I have also learned a lot from sister students and brand new instructors as well. Thanks for getting us thinking about the teachers of the future.

This post inspired me to write about the same issue on my blog. I'd be interested in your thoughts.

Theresa

7:18 AM  
Blogger Deanna said...

I thought a LOT about this when I was program chair for my guild. It's a struggle to find good teachers. Most of the online lists of fiber teachers are out of date at best. And, as you said, most are only described in glowing terms, so it always felt like a gamble each time we wrote a contract.

Most of the teachers we hired were wonderful, so it was easy to add to the glow. One very well known teacher decided to change the program topic at the last minute, without mentioning it to me. If I were still program chair, I would probably not hire her again.

And one teacher had been reported to be very knowledgable, but not a good teacher. I hired her anyway, and members of the guild were wary, but she gave a lovely program and taught an excellent workshop.

So I'm not sure the answer, and I love the way you bring up these very thought-provoking issues - even if we don't resolve them, shedding light on them helps a lot.

8:17 AM  
Blogger Abby Franquemont said...

Ah, my. There's far more here to be said than I think I could ever fit in a comment.

Last year, you talked me into SOAR, and I remember writing a scholarship application saying "I'm looking to figure out where I might fit into the larger community of fiber teachers and writers and so on." In retrospect, you must have been laughing; it seems clear to me now that the answer to that question was, "Oh, *you're* here. Well, get to work! Don't just stand around!" ;-)

And so, I have been trying to get to work. There is far more work that could be done than I could ever get to. I've put aside self-deprecation and admitted I have things to teach -- something I was perhaps reluctant to do because of how much I still want to learn. But I've made the leap to thinking of myself as a teacher, rather than as someone who could potentially teach a few people a few things now and again.

I would not have made that leap yet without your urging, and I am incredibly grateful for that urging and all the support and advice that you have given me in the course of making that mental transition. It is an emotional thing as well as a purely practical one, putting oneself out there and saying "I can speak authoritatively, and teach, about this."

A good teacher in my book is one who is confident about the subject matter, but not above question; one who can explore unplanned things as needed with a student or group of students; one who can find the hook and make the learner feel passionately inclined to learn and strive; one who is more than prepared, ready to handle overflow, unexpectedness, and direct a group... and one who is able to accept that sometimes there'll be a situation or a student that s/he couldn't help (but maybe someone else can).

I don't think that you can certify someone to be those things. You can probably teach someone ways to do a lot of those things, but prove that they do? Not so much. I think the only measures of teacherly success that matter are 1) do people want to hire you to do it, and once they have, do they want to hire you again? and 2) do a majority of students get either what they hoped to get, or something they find of equal or greater value, from taking the class? Would they take another? I don't know what, other than word of mouth, conveys that.

5:50 AM  
Blogger Lynn said...

I come at this discussion from the other angle: I'm a student. Oh, I've taught a few friends how to knit or quilt, but I've never taught a class.

Over the years, I've learned how to learn, which is to make whatever class I take into what I want from it, regardless of what the teacher thinks he or she is teaching. I don't mean I take it over and force the entire class to do what I want - not at all! In general, I take classes that are, or can be, more process-oriented than product. Once I understand the process of knitting/weaving/quilting/spinning, I can follow most patterns with only a book or two (OK, I admit I buy damn near every book out there) and a good shopkeeper to help me out. And I can design my own stuff, if I want to. More fun that way, I think.

However, I think many students are more afraid (of what, I don't know; of life, maybe?) and want to know exactly what they are going to produce and then to reproduce it exactly. If I were ever to teach a class, I would like to teach people how not to be afraid of their own creativity. Maybe a series of exercises, starting small and moving slowly into uncharted territory. I like to flatter myself into thinking that might help some students learn to laugh and enjoy life!

By the way, I'm hoping to go to SOAR and you and Ms. Franquemont are two of the teachers I've asked for, in large part because I think you two have so much to offer (yes, you too, Abby!). I hope I get to go!

4:36 AM  
Blogger Linda said...

I read with great interest your comments. I have been a teacher more than a student but am always open to new experiences from both angles.

One class several of my friends and I took was with a well-known (in New England) person. She may have been a self-promoter - we were less than taken by the instruction - felt more taken in. Yet the class was repeated two weeks later with the same instructor and there were people who raved about it. What may work for some may not for others.

What we all want for instructors are people who are organized and can get you jump started from the moment of their opening comments.

It is my understanding that there are 'process' people and 'product' people. They are not necessarily going to be satisfied with the same class.

As an instructor I like to have booklets of additional information for after class reference. I like to have my materials prepared and layed out when people arrive. I want to inspire them to go beyond what they may believe are their limits and be charged up to go home and stretch those limits as far as they can.

While many of my students have told me how much they had gotten from taking a class with me - it DOES get back to that old 'name recognition'. In exploring a possible teaching venue with someone I had known for some years and who had seen my product and information and comments about my classes she set me back a bit when I asked about how she paid her teachers. She said, "If so and so was teaching I would pay her XYZ and charge students ABC for the class but if you were teaching a class I would charge the students zyx and give you abc because no one knows you."

Hearing this really makes you think twice and then some. If you believe in what you teach and feel you really are worth what you might be asking perhaps this kind of venue is not the one where you should be looking to teach.

Word may not travel fast but it does travel. I recently was asked to teach a workshop and asked about my fee. There was no question asked, no horrified gasp - they had heard about my class from others who had taken it and wanted it. Bottom line - they were happy with the class. I was happy with the recognition of my teaching. It was very rewarding to hear comments during the class from the students about how much they appreciated the preparation and the organization and to hear their excitement at what they were doing and hoped to do on their own after the class.

It is exciting to teach, to pass along enthusiasm for something I love doing, to know I am making a difference by teaching. One day maybe I will have "a NAME". Until then I have to be satisfied with just having "a name" and making a difference in small circles. But as the pebble dropped into a pond makes ever-widening ripples - the circles may grow.

12:27 PM  
Blogger patns said...

I too have struggled with the "name" issue and think I've finally figured it out. It's not so much the length of time you've been teaching or how many classes you've taught or to whom you've taught them. It isn't even about being published. It seems to be about the originality of what you teach. The uniqueness of your idea. When you have something new to communicate, the name follows.

1:01 PM  

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