Monday, 11 June 2012

The Mild Inquisition


It's that time of the year again: assessments, exams and tests. Sweaty, fast paced students with red cheeks, sometimes from excitement, sometimes from crying. Entire exhibitions that are built in less than an hour, than quickly replaced by another one. I cannot help feeling like a machine in these days. A big, bad judging machine that shatters dreams and gives hope at the same time. Of course that's a natural feeling after assessing 20+ students in one day, but I remember vividly how it was to stand on display, waiting for the Spanish Inquisition to visit. That's how it was called in those days and very understandably so. For often the group of teachers that visited the exam to give judgment on the past semester had competing egos, arguing over the head of the student who stood a little dazed and confused on the sideline. The teachers were busy judging themselves and each other, instead of the student. Much has changed over the past decade or so (although I hear stories that on some faculties it still exists) and teachers nowadays are very aware of their role and function during these assessments.

It remains a big issue though: how to assess photography (and all art forms for that matter) in higher education? In 'normal' HE institutes there are very strict rules in how to perform tests and exams and the rule of 'transparency, validity and reliability' is key. In other words; if another teacher performs the same exam on the same students, the outcome should be the same and the exam is a good representation of the knowledge and/or skill that was given during the course. In higher art education those things can be applied, but there's always a factor and input that cannot be considered that way. You want the students not to reproduce what they were told, but to alter it, to make it their own. And if that happens, how do you assess that?

Yet there is a big consensus when we speak about the progress of the students when we come together to be that mild inquisition. We rarely totally disagree and this form of inter-subjectivity is key for assessing. Yes, we all have our own opinion on the work of the student and sometimes that differs from teacher to teacher. But if we come together and talk about the student as a whole (knowledge, attitude, skills, the whole shebang), we agree, often within seconds.

It's a strange thing though and remains almost mystical to me after all those years; you enter a classroom where the students present themselves and immediately I think 'yes' or 'no' (there's the machine again…). It happens more and more that I don't think those two words and often it turns out that those are the more interesting students. Somehow they can confuse me and I really have to dig deep to understand what is shown and told. At that moment there is no judgment, and I start learning from the student. Bliss!

Robert Philip is a photographer and course leader at the Utrecht School of the Arts.

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