“Hulk Smash!” I thought to myself as I dominated critique after critique. It was April of 2020, penultimate critique sessions for Advanced Animation, and after 9 years of teaching digital arts, I found myself reverting to teaching behaviors I had worked hard to get away from. I could argue that this was a pandemic-related necessity, but it didn’t change the fact that I was valuing the growth of the work over the growth of the student, and I had likely destroyed the hope of that cohort trusting any critique process with me or each other.
Critique is a focused analysis and interpretation of a work-in-progress or finished piece. This analysis can hit on technique, connect work to history or theory, and reflect a viewer’s experience back at an artist where it may support or collide with intention. It is a mainstay of studio art education, and is a core component of courses, especially in the upper division.
1. Improve work in production through feedback, interpretation, and perspective.
2. Exercise and improve analytical skills of participating students.
As a student, I considered myself to be very good at critique. I could engage in useful questioning, deliver persuasive arguments, bring up diverse theory, and ultimately support and validate the aims of my fellow students. As a new professor, these skills were not beneficial. When the same questioning was coming from a position of power it was not received as supportive. I found quickly that critique had become about me delivering feedback to students, meeting the first goal of critique without approaching the second. I was spending hours in the studio talking, and I was exhausted. Worse, some students saw it as a public dressing-down, and strove to avoid it. While I had spent a lot of time learning how to critique, I had never considered how to teach critique. Over the following 9 years, through discussion with colleagues and experimentation, I developed a set of tools to help me better instruct critique.
- “If you are speaking, they are not” – a phrase taught to me when I was an ESL instructor. (I should speak as little as possible to steer discussions and open new areas of inquiry)
- Modeling critique using professional pieces, or work from previous students (with permission)
- Use critique games, especially in lower division courses. TAG, Peer-Critic/Advocate, Questions Only, Student-led critiques. Make the process feel playful. Lower the stakes.
- Set learning objectives based on critique. Give the students rubrics for critique expectations. Adjust these throughout the curriculum as students develop.
- Track critique participation and growth. This was complex enough that I built myself some database software ‘Critique-o-Matic’ so students could get running feedback and early intervention if they refused to participate at all.
- Use asynchronous processes where possible. Use tools like Syncsketch, Padlet and Adobe XD all have useful tools for feedback.
- Stay flexible. Every cohort is different.
In the sudden move to online learning, I found that I was no longer using most of these tools. Maybe it was the prolonged silences over video chat, or the knowledge that some of my students had such spotty connections that it made traditional conversation impossible, but I took over critique. The more I talked, the less they did, and by April I was exhausted, and my students were disinterested. It required a pivot, and development of new tools.
- Separate critique from due dates. Give students time to view work and comment asynchronously before a synchronous critique.
- Use appropriate platforms. In my case, I use 3: One for audio/video discussion, one for viewing animation together (Syncsketch or Sync Video), and one for text chat (my students chose GroupMe).
- Choose which students mics are unmuted (Only the one being critiqued? Only a critique leader? Only peer advocate/critic?). Everyone else communicates over the chat. Mute myself whenever possible.
- Use breakout rooms as warmup. Give them specific questions to answer. Bring them back for larger discussions where they repeat, expand on, and defend what they discussed privately.
- Pick emojis to have special significance. (“Today we’re using 🍡 when we agree with a point made”). Helps group bonding.
- Take breaks
I come out of some critiques elated and others exhausted. However, the students are more engaged with the process as a whole and are showing substantial improvements in work as it nears completion. As I put my course together for next semester, I’m writing brief notes about which tools I tried and how I felt each critique went. I’m ending each note with a reminder: “Stay flexible. Every cohort is different.”
If you’d like to talk more about critique, get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jeremy Speed Schwartz is a Learning Experience Designer at CETLOE. In his free time he makes experimental tofu and paces competitively.