Wednesday was probably a milestone day in what might be the first stage in the future development of the college. I spent all day with students from the foundation course who have opted to take the fine art specialist route. They came up from Vernon Street to the fine art area in the Blenheim Walk building and I worked with them in the first year studio.
Historically foundation students went away from Leeds in order to broaden their experience of life, however when I taught on foundation most of the students were from the area of Leeds and its surrounding towns. Over the last twenty years things have changed and what was a trickle of foundation students from outside the area has become a flood and Leeds is now much more student friendly as a city. Several of the smaller foundation courses have closed and many of the new art and design degree providers will now accept students directly from ‘A’ level. This has meant that foundation courses if they are to survive have to on the one hand ensure they are able to develop portfolios of a quality to get into those degree programmes that still insist on foundation portfolios, (and these tend to be the older, better courses as well as of course University of the Arts London, Goldsmiths and Glasgow School of Art), and to become large enough to make themselves economically viable.
The degree course at Leeds College of Art is seen as a ‘new’ course. It has therefore not really been on the radar as far as foundation staff were concerned, it had yet to prove itself. However how long does it take to prove that a course is good and what does the proof consist of? For several reasons there has been no real connection between the two areas, something that has always grieved me, as I spent so many years working with fine art foundation students and now several years helping to develop a particular ethos for the degree course. There are as with all courses faults, but the course is now maturing, the student body gets stronger as application rates get higher and we can be more selective. This is perhaps something foundation students were in the past worried about, they might be a strong student on foundation and go on to degree and find themselves amongst weaker ones. That element of competition needed to move things on to a higher level would therefore be missing. The other issue of course is the fact that the course is in Leeds. Well the reality is if you are not in London you are in the provinces. Saying that, Leeds has developed a much healthier arts scene over the past few years and there are many more opportunities for students to engage with an arts community whilst they study and immediately on graduation. At the end of the day, if people want to go to London they will, there are still many MA opportunities down there and the fine art course now has a track record of sending people on them.
The new reality is also of course a financial one. Students applying to arts and humanities degrees now have to pay full fees of between six to nine thousand pounds. There is no matched funding from government so everything depends on this fee income. Foundation courses come under the umbrella of Further Education and therefore are under a different funding system, however the income per student is only a third of what a degree student brings in. So the reason for keeping hold of the foundation course shifts slightly. It can no longer operate exclusively as a feeder for out of Leeds courses. If it starts to operate more as a feeder programme for the degrees it will help the college maintain good levels of application and therefore enable it to survive through a time of heavy education cuts. This of course is a two-way contract, if degree courses don’t meet targets, they will close, if they close the college closes and the foundation programme with it. So the real call is are the courses offered at degree level of a good enough standard to support this shift? The best of them are. Students are sharp enough to see what is happening and application rates for surface pattern, graphics and fine art have remained pretty good. The degree shows are comparable to others, some of the best work being exemplary. I would like to see more studio space made available for more ambitious work, but the workshop facilities are good and above all the educational philosophy of the course has at last started to flesh itself out. This is a philosophy centered on embodied thinking. It is not a conceptually driven programme, it supports the idea that artists are makers and that thinking starts with doing. However as an understanding of this has deepened the theoretical understanding of how concepts develop through making has deepened, paradoxically this understanding now driving more conceptual work. In the end this is about confidence and although confidence is easily destroyed, at the moment I think it is strong enough to offer foundation students something worthwhile.
The day was spent unpicking the processes of the critique. Ten foundation students spent the day with seven third year fine art students and myself. The third year students were interested in developing teaching skills, all of them considering whether or not to go into teaching. Therefore right at the start of the day I had to open this out to everyone to get an awareness of and agreement to what was happening. Both sets of students needed to get something from the day. The foundation students are about a month into specialist area and rather than give them something extra to do, the day was constructed to help them to become more aware of the possibilities for practice already inherent in their nascent development. Some had sketchbooks/notebooks with them, others nothing; but that didn’t matter as the sessions were about opening out possibilities from any information presented.
I had made sure the third year students had re-read a handout on the critique and that they were clear that we were looking at possibilities. I also added to this handout a list of strategies for ideas development.
During the day there were also two planned breakout sessions, the first a tour of facilities and the second a tour of the studios, both led by the students.
One brave foundation student volunteered to go first and I opened the crit out to everyone as a model for the others to follow, telling them that once I had taken the lead, I would go away for a while to let them get to know each other and to see if they could handle the situation as both learners and facilitators.
The first part of this was a how to listen and check for understanding session. The foundation student presenting had a small notebook, perhaps six or seven pages of notes, most of which were written and a small diagram. He spoke about three separate ideas he had. In order to get everyone to understand what he was getting at I had to keep throwing back at him what he was saying. “Do you mean this or that” or “from what you have said I understand the idea as being like this or that” etc. This takes a while, but is worth it because we all get a much better understanding of where he is coming from and what sorts of ideas these are.
Each idea is then unpicked. What are the concepts, what are the materials, what type of practice is this? Etc etc. The idea is to then take each component and then brainstorm around it. The students quickly get their head around this and are very good at coming up with suggestions, however if these suggestions start getting too off the wall, I remind them of the focus, “we are trying to open out these issues” etc. All the time I keep checking back with he student who presented, “Is this helping?” is there another aspect you want us to open out etc. The final stage is to remind ourselves of the different ideas emerging and to play a few games with them by mixing and matching. Perhaps one concept applied to a totally different materials idea, or a performative response applied to what were a series of ideas surrounding the construction of an installation. Finally the student is asked to ensure any notes taken are written up so that he understands them. During the course of this more and more students join in and in particular the foundation students are starting to have as much of a say as the fine art third year. I can then talk to them about how facilitation and engagement are part of the same experience and that they both have responsibilities to the situation. Educational situations don’t just happen, they have to be constructed. After checking with the third years that they have got the situation under control and the foundation students that they are happy with it I leave them to it for a while.
When I come back they are all engaged and the rest of the day follows on from this pattern, I take moments out every now and again to check people understand the learning, but they all seem happy and ‘get it’. One foundation student has to leave at dinner-time but says before she leaves that it has been really rewarding, the processes and strategies to help overcome creative blocks she particularly found useful.
Once it was all over and the foundation students left I had a feedback session with the third years and they had found it useful as well. It would be interesting to perhaps unpick the learning situation more often, as better use of listening and checking of understanding skills would lead to much better communication amongst the group as a whole.