Art School, Week 15: The Semester Ends

Greetings everyone. This update is going to wander a bit. Sorry about that, but it’s the way my brain seems to be working these days.


My first semester of art school is officially over. I took my art history final exam a few days ago. Now I just have the holidays to push through before the new semester starts.

I have all my grades but one, as well. Straight As so far, which is both gratifying and somewhat mystifying. (The engineer goes to art school and gets As? Really? Hmmm.) The ceramics grade is the only one I haven’t yet seen, but it will show up sooner or later. I am certain all of my instructors are busy with life and family and all the things the rest of us are busy with at this time of year. I can wait.

Aside 1: Exams

Having just taken a final exam (and an earlier mid-term exam) I have some thoughts on that general topic that I need to get out of my head, so you’re stuck reading them. Sorry!

I find it interesting that we still make kids (and weirdos like me who are substantially older than the typical college student) write essays out longhand as part of an exam. No one does that in real life, and it’s not clear the skill is relevant these days.

Even as I write this post here on Medium I make notes about things to add, edit as I go, restructure, and so on. Once the first pass is done I will go back through it for a grammar and spelling check (yes, sometimes I can’t see the squiggly red lines), and I’ll do another editing pass as well. Then, if time allows, I put it away for a while (sometimes days) and come back to it with fresh eyes. That lets me read what is really there, rather than what I “know” I wrote. I generally find a bunch of typos, mouseos, and editing issues in that pass as well. (Alternately, if I am in a hurry, I can try reading it aloud, which often find errors that I’ll overlook just reading it silently. Don’t ask me why.) Only after all of that do I publish (or print, or submit). I assume others work in similar ways. I’ve read enough comments from authors about their work habits to know my methods aren’t wildly out of line.

Also, handwriting is… um… let’s say it’s a dying art. Aside from my signature, I can’t write cursive anymore. I’ve completely forgotten how. Really. Thankfully I can still print, but even that is often illegible. Oddly, my printing seems to randomly switch from mixed case to all caps for no obvious reason, sometimes mid-sentence. Weird.

I actually sent my art history instructor an email apologizing for my handwriting on the final exam. It’s so bad, and she had hundreds of exams to grade. I am sure mine caused headaches, crossed eyes, and much consternation, though I can also guess it probably wasn’t the worst she had to deal with. At least I am a native English speaker. I am sure the essays from some students who have not yet mastered English are even more of a challenge.

But all of this leads me back to my point: why do we still assign essays this way, if the skills needed to produce them on demand aren’t actually in use anywhere else in society? People still have to write all the time for their jobs: email, presentations, policies, procedures, design documents, plans, legal briefs, white papers, ad copy, whatever. And yet almost none of that is written with pen and paper anymore. And all of it comes with time to edit and proofread and work to make it better. (Note: with this paragraph I am looking squarely at my friends Doug, Lori, and Gary — all writers — for their thoughts. I expect to hear from you in the comments.)

My art history final exam was a typical example of how this is still done. It contained a few questions dealing with definitions of terms, and then we had to write three essays, each a page or more long, about pairs of images of art objects. Compare and contrast, or explain how these objects are or are not examples of something. We were given two hours to do it all. What I wonder is, what was being tested but our memories and our ability to compose on the fly?

Testing memory I understand, and it’s a valid thing to test at some level, but I think I’d rather see the fundamental understanding of concepts tested, rather than memory of specific facts. That’s harder, no doubt, but perhaps it could be approached in the nature of the questions asked. Maybe exam questions designed to make students apply concepts to new situations — almost like research in some ways — would test understanding more than memory. I am not a professional educator, so I honestly don’t know. And sadly that idea is probably a lot more work for instructors who are creating and grading tests.

If tests stay as they are, it’s worth asking if the ability to compose an essay on the fly all that useful. Why or why not? (Anyone else want to write something about that?) Good composition — that shows mastery of a topic, and brings up interesting issues and points — takes time, and editing. Scribbled sentences in an exam booklet are probably not representative of what any given student can produce given time and the ability to think and edit. And they are definitely not the kind of thing most people will be asked to produce at work.

But does that actually matter? I am honestly not sure. I may just be tilting at windmills here. Maybe instructors take all of that into account when grading. Maybe they are not expecting a student’s best work, and instead are looking for hints that they know the topic. Those hints may be buried in paragraphs of unedited (possibly awful) text, and hard to extract, but they might be found.

Please note I am not trying to pick on my art history instructor. I really like her, and her teaching. I’m taking another class from her in the coming semester, and I am looking forward to it. The issue is larger than her class, or any specific class. How do we effectively test anyone, on any topic?

Perhaps another part of the answer is that tests could be given as if they were assignments. “Here are the exam questions. You have a week to write your answers and submit them to me.” That lets students really spend time at it if they want to, and edit, and write with a word processor. Of course it also lets them do research, and possibly cheat. Is the risk of cheating serious? And how would it be avoided, or at least detected?

This is complicated, and it only comes to mind because I know I could have turned in much better essays for the final exam if I’d had a couple of days to write them, and could have done so on a computer. Many of my fellow students would probably hate these ideas. Exams are already stressful enough. Why stretch them out over days and days and make them work to produce something good when they can just write something out quickly and be done with it. I have some empathy for that position, being a student myself, but I’ve also worked in computer programming for 20 years, and written a lot in that context. I never had to write something good on short notice in my professional career. Instead I had to write things that clearly explained difficult concepts to those who hadn’t thought them through. That’s a very different thing, and a lot more useful in real life.

Aside 2: News

No really, this section is about the news. I found myself in an email discussion this last week with a friend from the US. She asked if news (TV, newspapers, radio) in Canada had a more international perspective to it than we see in the US. I had to admit that I really don’t have a good answer for her, and that got me thinking.

How we consume news is changing. I can’t speak about the habits of Canadians with any authority, but I know what I do, and I know what my family did when I was growing up. Back then we used to watch the nightly news on TV pretty regularly, and my parents always got one or two newspapers delivered. Those sources imply that someone — a producer and an editorial staff — were picking and choosing what was presented for consumption. They set the pattern and tone, and their choices made a big difference in what was seen as important.

These days my life is totally different. I don’t watch TV at all. We have no signal source, just an internet connection. We don’t get a newspaper either, at least not in printed form. (My wife does get the Washington Post on her tablet, and she seems to like it, so there’s that.) Even radio news is limited in my case. When we lived in the states I had NPR on the radio all the time, and kept up to date on many things that way. Here, since I take transit almost everywhere, I have much less exposure to radio news. The CBC is good when I hear it, but that’s not all that often.

Instead I get all my news through various feeds. The Google app on my phone, the Google news app, some blog and news sites I track with an RSS reader, and a bit through Facebook (though I hate that as a source). What all of those sources have in common is that they are subject to algorithmic — not human — oversight. If I click on some article, that reinforces my interest in whatever the subject of that article might be. If I don’t click, that one gets no such reinforcement. Accidental clicks are indistinguishable from deliberate ones, by the way, which is interesting. Also, I get to select — and rule out — new sources.

And thus are bubbles born. We all walk around in an information bubble of some sort these days. Some bubble walls are pretty permeable, meaning the person in question is open to new or contradictory information. Other bubbles might as well be built of out sound proof brick. Nothing gets through that isn’t from an already approved source, and changing sources takes work, so why do that?

My own bubble is semi-permeable, I think. I’ve told my feeds to exclude the really far right and left news sites, things that are crazy with a quick look. I don’t need to hear from Alex Jones on the right, nor the anti-vax nutjobs on the left. Flat earthers need not apply.

And every time an article shows up in my feed from a news source I have never heard of, I try to figure out what that source is. A search for “source name bias” will often find something. If not, I look for an about page on their website to see if they admit to some agenda up front. (And that can be tricky, as agendas can be hidden with weasel words.) Failing that I look at the topics they cover and their current front page. Usually I can pick up a significant slant one way or the other somehow, and if I see one, they’re out.

As a result my feeds tend to contain middle of the road, generally reliable sources, with a few outliers that I have let through the gates but whose articles I eye carefully as I read them. Most obviously partisan sources are not to be trusted, regardless of party.

Am I doing that right? Should I be letting Fox News and Mother Jones and the “aliens are among us” sites though too? I think not, but I am open to the possibility.

And then we get back to the question my friend asked about Canadian news. Does it have more of an international take on things than US news tends to have? (For my Canadian readers, you need to understand that US news sources often fail to admit the rest of the world exists. And even among the subset who admit to that, they often don’t think the rest of the world is all that important.) How does Canadian news do on that? I am honestly not sure.

I can say that my news feeds are moving to more and more Canadian sources over time. They were all setup originally in the US, and so are US centric. but now I get a lot of articles from Canadian newspaper sites and publications. That said, they are still subject to my own bubble’s filters, so is what I see a real representation of what they produce and think is important? I don’t know.

There is a fair amount of coverage of US politics, but that only makes sense. The US is a huge trading partner, and I am sure that when Washington coughs, Ottawa gets the flu. But beyond US coverage, I honestly couldn’t answer my friend. My own news consumption habits don’t let me know an answer for certain, and I told her so. Beyond that, the conversation spawned all kinds of angst about whether my news consumption habits are actually right or good. I wish I knew the answer. Please comment on that if you have an opinion.

The Rest Of Life:

A few email holiday greetings have arrived by email, and we appreciate them. We are actively discouraging snail mail — at least for this year — as our future location is entirely unknown. Too many variables we have no control over.

The weather has been nice: a few degrees above freezing and mostly overcast or rainy. Vancouver is still my kind of place. I see my friends back in California are worried about fire weather around the Santa Cruz Mountains once again. I hope you all get plenty of rain and some cooler weather soon, though I have to admit the 14 day forecast I just looked at is totally dry. Stay safe down there!


  • — From Jennifer. A lovely sculpture site with a number of interesting works in metal and resin, among other things. Try this link for a slide show that you can watch for a while.
  • — from Sue. Another sculpture site, this one featuring a stone carver. His specialty seems to be treating stone as if it was something you can pinch, fold, and cut, like cloth. Very interesting work. He’s got a lot of photos up on Facebook as well, but you probably need a login there to see them. Chase the link from the article above if you’re interested.

That does it for this time around, and for the semester. I am not sure I will write again until next year, as there are plenty of distractions in the coming two weeks. If I am MIA for a bit, don’t worry. Regular writeups about the next semester of art school will resume once the first week of class is over, at the latest. You are welcome to send me email, though, if you miss me that much in the meantime. (Finding a good shrink in that case might be a good idea too. Just a suggestion.)

Happy holidays everyone!

Sculptor/Artist. Former programmer. Former volunteer firefighter. Former fencer. Weirdest resume on the planet, I suspect.

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Jeff Powell

Jeff Powell

Sculptor/Artist. Former programmer. Former volunteer firefighter. Former fencer. Weirdest resume on the planet, I suspect.

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