The following is an excerpt from a letter that I wrote to a student whose work I critiqued via correspondence.
Seek treasure amid ruins. —Rumi
Before I get into the thick of the feedback, allow me to offer you some insight as you take your first intrepid steps toward the impossibly distant horizon of expertise. Of absolutely greatest importance for you to accept is that you’re still cooking. This is a process; it’s a journey. You’re starting with relatively zero knowledge on a subject that has been evolving for thousands of years. You’re seeking to enter a field of practice that demands that one define herself by its culture, and, at your age, it’s likely that you’re only just beginning to get a glimpse of who you are. You’re in a program recognized for excellence on an international level, and you’re in the most psychologically challenging phase of that program. If you could, even for an instant, feel satisfied that you know what you’re doing, it would bode far more ominously for your future than the fact that you feel lost, and that you struggle to succeed. To overcome a struggle, one cannot avoid being made strong enough to survive; to find herself she cannot avoid learning exactly where she is. These are the true fruits of the experience that you’re having right now. If it were easy, you would be robbed of them. It matters not in the least if you succeed or fail at this project, this course, this major, or this stage of education. It only matters that you see it all for what it really is: a chance for you to grow into something more than you were when you started.
Finally, I must reveal the sobering truth that this hill you’re climbing is only one small point in that lifelong journey. There will be many milestones to reach, many new plateaus to strive for. It’s not where you’re standing when you stop to look around that reveals the quality of the stuff you’re made from, but the poise and pluck you demonstrate as you shoulder your burden and climb to the next highest place.
The cornerstone of my teaching philosophy is to provide as few linear answers as possible, and, naturally, no art direction at all. I see the role of educator as being a bearer of experience and guidance on a far-spread journey full of challenges, confusion, and contradictions—not a metered vendor of parceled knowledge. The learner must take that journey, and resolve its many conflicts for herself. The value of the learning experience is in the very having of it, in overcoming its difficulties. Education is a rite of passage.
My belief is that a modular, staged curriculum and course structure should, by design, bear the brunt of preparing students for the demands that our industry will place on them, both of rigor, and intellectual capacity. Each of those stages and modules should effectively build upon the prior, and support next. Every step through the program structure should be deliberate and formulated, while leaving room for spontaneity and flexibility in the learning environments proper. To that end, the balance I hope to strike in foundations is one between rigor, a grasp of basic principles, a strong sense of community, and enriched tastes. Improvement upon these qualities being more or less circumstantial of continued progression. The balance I want to strike with upperclassmen is one between emulation of contemporary trends and techniques, defensible rational for one’s work, thorough experimentation, and the confidence to take on anything. The exact means I employ to accomplish these goals with either group necessarily varies widely, even from student to student. What is absolutely critical, however, is establishing trust through starkly transparent teaching methods, and specific, actionable, and closely considered course and project objectives.