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Statement of teaching philosophy


Throughout my career in the graphic communication program at Western Illinois University, I've been lucky to teach a wide range of both introductory and advanced classes: page layout, graphic illustration, photo manipulation, and web design. Our program dictates that we approach courses from an objective standpoint and with a technical focus: Exactly how do these tools and menu items function? How can we use the software and methods most efficiently and effectively? How can we successfully see a project through the entire process, starting with a client's guidelines and ending with proper delivery of the product?


I try to base every presentation and project around my primary goal of preparing students for successful careers. To that end, I strive to create a real-world environment in the classroom. I ask students to treat lectures professionally (just as they would if they were meeting with a client), but I concurrently try to make sure that everyone interacts on a friendly level, feels comfortable being involved in the conversation, and has fun attending class. I also make it a priority to develop realistic, portfolio-building projects, ensuring that guidelines are practical and each "client's" voice is clearly heard. While these challenges are sometimes met with resistance ("I don't like the topic"; "The requirements don't allow enough design freedom"; etc.), I remind students that any job will involve some projects with tough restrictions; by successfully overcoming similar issues now, they'll be more confident in their abilities when they enter the workforce. Although I sometimes have to invent an on-the-job situation for a project, I attempt to schedule at least one or two real client projects per class. Whether the clients are from the University or area businesses, students realize that they have to set their own feelings aside and embrace the idea of putting an audience's and client's interests first. I believe it's this type of classroom situation -- working directly for a client while creating diverse, realistic portfolio pieces -- that best allows students to begin to excel.

Although I focus on in-depth projects in all classes, I'll also develop tutorials when necessary. For example, I may distribute an in-class exercise involving a more difficult tool (such as the pen or gradient mesh) and spend class time helping students one-on-one; once they feel more confident in their abilities, I'll assign a related project. Because I make it a goal to try to know every student personally, this approach also helps me to identify students' various learning styles and backgrounds. I enjoy discovering everyone's individual interests, and I try to adjust course material to provide them with space to develop their own talents. For example, by completing some projects during the semester that allow for more design freedom, students have the chance to integrate their other strengths (fine art, photography, journalism, and so forth) and be more likely to connect with each piece. I present a detailed grading scale with every project, giving students the assurance that they have met the technical requirements (the "objective stuff" for me) and can spend time refining the overall design to suit their own goals (the "subjective stuff" for them). Ideally, each student will find a balance of having an excellent grasp of technical aspects while still exploring personal creativity and developing a strong design "voice."

An internship is a required portion of our students' curriculum, and I appreciate hearing their employers' feedback and adjusting my teaching approach accordingly. It has been suggested that some of our students need a broader understanding of the entire design process (instead of just knowing the ins and outs of the software, for example), which has led me to require an in-depth planning phase for some projects. Although some students are initially resistant to such a structured approach to planning, many seem to discover unexpected abilities and ideas by trying an unfamiliar brainstorming method. Based on employers' suggestions, I also encourage students to research existing designs to determine what works and what doesn't. In a graphic illustration course, for example, they shouldn't expect me to tell them what logos I like; instead, I want them to explore existing logos, decide what inspires them, and, above all, never steal ideas or just recreate what they see (one of my top "rules" in every class). Because some internship employers note that students have unrealistic ideas about time frames, I create various turnaround times within a class. One of my favorite exercises is to surprise students occasionally with a "design challenge," which is essentially a pop quiz in which a unique design problem needs to be solved professionally during class -- similar to a timed project that some employers integrate into a job interview. Coupled with the longer portfolio-building work and occasional guided in-class tutorials, I hope to expand students' capacity to adapt to various methods of working, as well as to strengthen their confidence in their own abilities.

While I look forward to helping each student at his or her level by answering questions (which has the added benefit of helping me find gaps in my teaching), I ask that all students -- regardless of year in school or level of knowledge of the topic -- be proactive and make an honest attempt to troubleshoot issues on their own first. I find that some students aren't fully prepared to work in an environment where someone isn't willing to solve problems for them; therefore, this expectation that students troubleshoot is sometimes met with opposition. I believe that gaining this type of independence is a skill they must learn in order to excel, and I'm also optimistic that their confidence will extend to a natural desire to better themselves at every turn. For example, I encourage students to share their portfolios with me outside of any class requirement, with the hope that they'll be open to my candid opinions as a fellow designer, not as their instructor. Similarly, just as I guide students to critique one another's work (a favorite activity in my courses, I've found), I make an effort to offer both encouragement and constructive criticism on every piece that I grade.

I push students to see "the big picture" and to work outside of their comfort zones, including by requiring them to use multiple design programs when practical. I challenge students with questions like, "Just because you may be most comfortable with Photoshop, why is that program not the best solution to this particular design problem? What are the benefits of using page layout software for this text-heavy design, and why do we need to know ahead of time how it's going to be output?" Likewise, when students find fault with having to use QuarkXPress instead of InDesign, for example, I suggest to them that satisfying clients should never be about which software or hardware we're using; instead, it should be about how we each use those tools in order to make our own strong, unique design ideas come to life. Ultimately, I hope that students begin to examine their own concepts, allowing these methods or thoughts to evolve as they see fit.

Ongoing goals

Students surely get tired of hearing me say this, but I'll consistently provoke them with the following: "You're confident with the technical skills needed to complete this project successfully. Now, what are you personally going to do to set your work apart from everyone else's? How can you use your unique brand of magic to do what no one else would think of doing?" It's a set of questions I ask myself whenever I create a design, too, or as I'm preparing a lecture or project to present to a class. I remind students that they can't please everyone with each design they do (just as I can't satisfy all students at every step and have learned to value their criticisms) -- some missteps along the way are inevitable, but they need to be truly confident in their strengths and abilities. The development of talents and skills should never stop, and there's room for improvement for us all. I've come to appreciate and embrace being inspired and challenged by my colleagues and students, and I simply hope that students can find the same passion for their own work.


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