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Teaching Tips: Disappear


Henry Horenstein

Henry Horenstein

One of my hardest challenges is to get students to talk honestly in crits about their photographs and photographs by other students. Some classes have a couple of chatterboxes who dominate all talk; others totally shut up and look at the ceiling, if they see you looking their way.

Years ago, I asked my class for advice on how to get them to speak up. One student told me I should disappear. “The more we see of you,” she said, “the less we’ll speak our minds. We’re afraid to sound stupid.” I decided to take her at her word, and below is the technique I came up with. It works equally well with beginning and advanced students, though the level of conversation is hopefully higher with the latter.

I can’t disappear totally, or I’ll miss the discussion. Instead, I move to the back of the room, behind the students. As they stand looking at work on the wall, I sit down, trying to be as inconspicuous as possible.

Before I “disappear,” I assign a student to begin a discussion and suggest that other students chip in. I tell them to talk about anything. They can point out a particular picture they like (or not), comment on the technical qualities of the work, or respond to the ideas the photographer is trying to get across. I’m looking for anything that might get a discussion going.

Sometimes the initial comments are weak and lead nowhere. But usually someone else chimes in, and a discussion begins. I hardly ever interrupt, unless the discussion is really going nowhere. I figure that some talk is better than nothing, and might bear fruit somehow down the road. Most of all, I want them to feel free to get used to expressing themselves, and not worry about being cut off or disrespected by me. It’s important to create a safe-feeling atmosphere, or the crits lose their meaning.

After 10 minutes or so, I usually step in. I walk to the front of the class, comment on some of the discussion, and then put in my own two cents. I take what I heard in the initial discussion and expand on it. This lets the students know what they said was worthy, and can help them feel more confident when making comments later. I try to stay open to a discussion here, but usually that ends things and we’re ready to move on. The student whose work we discussed initiates the discussion of the next group of photos, as I again disappear to the back of the room.

By the way, I try to time the discussion, so it lasts only 10 minutes. That way everyone gets more or less equal time. And I try to limit my following comments to 5 minutes. In more advanced classes, I usually go a little longer — up to 15 minutes from students and 10 minutes from me. But I think it’s important to be rigorous about giving each student equal time and not letting crits go on and on. (OK, I admit I’m not always as rigorous about this as I preach.)

One unexpected advantage of this method is it makes my job in crits easier. During their discussion, which is relatively unaffected by my opinions, I often hear what’s really on their minds, directly or indirectly. And I can respond specifically to these matters. Technical issues are probably the most obvious cases. When they talk about someone else’s technique, I can usually tell if they “get it” themselves. And that helps me focus my comments, and hopefully be more helpful to them.

Henry Horenstein, founding publisher of this site, has been teaching photography for almost 40 years. He is currently a professor of photography at Rhode Island School of Design. He is the author of the widely used texts Black & White PhotographyBeyond Basic PhotographyColor Photography, and coauthor (with Russell Hart) of Photography. Monographs of his own work include AnimaliaAquaticsCreatures, Honky TonkClose RelationsCanine, and Racing DaysVisit his website.

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