Over the past five years, I've taught as an Adjunct Professor of Graphic Design at my alma mater, Daemen University. I've instructed nearly the whole Bachelor of Fine Arts in Graphic Design core sequence. The classes I've taught and developed materials for include ART-219: Graphic Design I, ART-230: Computer Rendering, ART-301: Motion Graphics, ART-319: Graphic Design II, ART-320: Web Design, ART-420: Graphic Design IV, ART-445: Special Projects, and ART-490: Senior Projects. I've covered topics ranging from software basics to design thinking methodologies, typography, composition, motion design, web design, and print design. Outside the classroom, I've completed a grant-funded research project for the institution, volunteered time to promote the design program, and helped several committees within the Visual & Performing Arts Department with administrative operations.
I've had an incredible experience teaching. It may be cliche, but there are few better feelings than the reward and pride that come with seeing a student grow in front of your eyes. While being in front of a class for 18 hours a week lecturing, answering complex problems, and engaging reluctant students can often be taxing, the joy and knowledge I gain from being around students, no matter how apathetic stereotypes make them out to be, is hard to come by anywhere else in life.
II. Journey to Becoming an Adjunct Professor
I didn't plan on teaching until much later in my career. I had intended to work in advertising, become a creative director, maybe start a freelance practice, and then ride out into the sunset as a professor with a tweed jacket and peculiar glasses. However, after a couple of months in the "real world," my professor, Kevin Kegler, reached out to see if I could teach ART-230: Computer Rendering, Daemen's introductory Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator class. I jumped at the opportunity and haven't looked back since.
I suspect my love for education stems from my family. My mom and dad are teachers, aunts, cousins–my grandma was even a substitute teacher. Having the support of my family has always been extremely important to me as I navigate the challenges of teaching, especially when I transitioned to the role so soon after graduation. My first semesters were challenging. Not only was learning how to deliver a captivating lecture difficult, but it was also tough to manage relationships with students. How do you tell people who were just friends four months ago, "Get to class… did you do your homework?... your attendance and participation seem to be wavering." How do you raise the bar without raising stress? How flexible should an instructor be? I pestered my family, friends, and mentors with these questions. In time, I learned so much about what makes a great instructor.
III. The Classroom Environment
The most important thing I've learned since that first semester is that you have to connect with students to get better results. At first, I thought this was a mistake. Becoming close with students may hurt your ability to deliver difficult criticism objectively, you'll overextend yourself as an educator, and the students might feel too relaxed in class– making them aloof during instruction. More often than not, I've learned that connection motivates students to complete challenging work when the times are tough more than the anxiety created by an authoritative instructor. Even psychology research seems to back up my claims. Institutions like the American Psychological Association report that crafting better relationships "is at least as effective as choosing the right treatment method" (x).
To me, a great relationship with a student looks like collaborating with them on their goals, collaboratively defining their strengths and weaknesses to develop a realistic plan to achieve their goals, working with the student to uncover and provide appropriate pathways to alleviate any external blockers (i.e. scheduling, mental health, resources, etc.) that hinder their success, and just getting to know them as a human being. Simply learning what they're interested in, what makes them tick, and finding a kernel of shared experience you can relate to can drastically affect how you guide the student.
The importance of receiving feedback from students in real time also can't be overstated. While this can become a slippery slope, learning that a student's been struggling with your class not because of the difficulty of coursework but because of the lack of clarity in project briefs could significantly impact your course's effectiveness. In this light, I think clarity of communication is essential to a great relationship. If you left the project briefly open to interpretation as part of the lesson, tell them that. If you expect this project to be challenging for most of the class, tell them that and reassure them you may grade this project more loosely. Even if you're upset with their performance, tell them that. There's a significant difference between a challenging class and a frustrating one where students have to read tea leaves to understand the instructor's expectations.
While the big and small learnings are endless to me, one final insight I'd like to share is the importance of making a fun but serious environment. Learning how to get students energized and then be able to channel that energy into a lesson is essential. As art instructors, we can make dull things like a critique enjoyable; we can get students to pay attention to an hour-long lecture on complex topics; and we can take apathetic students and make them invested– it just starts with raising the energy in the class. Opening them up with a daily question to get their critical thinking engines revved up, sharing a story, playing a game of chess, telling a joke, getting some of that excess energy out, and raising their heart rates have improved my students' attentiveness and had them working all 3 hours of instruction and not wavering by the end.
IV. Evolving Teaching Methods
In the past, making engaging instruction stick was all about in-person one-to-one interaction. Today, that's just the start. The technology educators have at their disposal to aid instruction is almost overwhelming. From digital whiteboards like Figjam, Miro, Mural to chat apps like Discord, Slack, and Zoom, content creation software like Loom or generative AI, or organizational/project management tools like Notion, an instructor can be a one-man-band of material generation today. It's no longer just about putting the Google Slides presentation on the classroom Blackboard account; it's about creating more materials for students at a higher quality than ever before.
I often hear instructors say students are incredibly apathetic today. They say things like students don't care enough about anything. They're only in your class because of societal norms and hiring requirements; social media has rotted all their minds, and educators have little hope of getting these students ready for the real world. I tell those educators to look at the production value of a moderately successful YouTuber. When you see how a single person can film and edit practical demonstrations and theoretical discussions, upload the video, promote the video, and then engage their viewers on social media after their audience has viewed the video, you'll see why students think that YouTubers are more valuable than their professor teaching that's been the same material for 20 years. Also, as a reminder, all this online material is free. Making a Blackboard with your materials is only the start; teachers must use technology to encourage students to explore topics and retain information. These challenges make teaching an endlessly captivating problem for me to solve. It's just another user experience problem to provide a solution for.
While there certainly isn't a shortage of challenges for educators after the COVID-19 pandemic, I still look forward to my next time in the classroom after each semester. Creating better relationships and evolving the classroom to fit students is part of the fun of teaching. Seeing those long nights of prep turn into students getting internships, landing jobs, breaking out of their shells at professional events, becoming active in the local community, or even making a small step forward to evolve into a more well-rounded human being has yet to get old. Do you Have any thoughts or questions about anything I discussed, or would you like me to elaborate on specific points? Please shoot me an email or reach out on LinkedIn. I can talk forever.