Let’s Teach Students How to Guess

Guessing-The-Rosters

Here’s a true story, kind of. I changed it slightly for confidentiality.

Problem:

A lotion manufacturer seeks new technology for dispensing hand lotion in the work place. They are doing well in the home market, but they want to expand their business through stores like Staples and Office Depot. The goal is to develop patented technology associating their brand with commercial use.

Solution:

After noodling it for some time, a friend and I decided dispensers weren’t the issue. We thought it to be a conceptual problem, not a technological one. So, instead of inventing a dispenser, we designed a unique line of office organizers centered around sanitation with the manufacturer’s lotion as the anchor. We submitted the design. The client loved the idea, and we got paid.

How’d we get our idea? We guessed.

Surprisingly, guessing works pretty well for solving complex problems – especially ones less clearly defined. To the dismay of many, guessing is actually a form of logic; one that isn’t talked about much in school though. But it should be. It goes by the term abductive reasoning. You could say it’s reasoning through inference.

When thinking about reasoning or logic, deduction and induction are the types that pop up most. Deductive reasoning leads to definite conclusions. Inductive reasoning leads to probable conclusions.

Deductive example:

All bachelors are single > Sam is a batchelor > Sam is single

Inductive example:

Atlanta, GA is the city with the most mosquitoes > Sam lives in Atlanta > Sam has been bitten by a mosquito

While Sam is definitely single, there is a chance he’s never been bit by a mosquito, even though Atlanta has a lot of mosquitoes.

How, you might ask does guessing qualify as reasoning. Well, it gets you get started and helps you arrive at a better hypothesis. It also helps you draw conclusions leading you in a direction. I’ll give you an example.

Sherlock Holmes often used it. For instance, in the case of “Silver Blaze,” he figured out who stole the horse.  In this exchange Sherlock, explains to a detective how he solved the mystery of a stolen racehorse which should have been guarded by a dog.

Detective: “Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”
Holmes: “To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”
Detective: “The dog did nothing in the night-time.”
Holmes: “That was the curious incident.”

How did that help Holmes?

Holmes: I had grasped the significance of the silence of the dog, for one true inference invariably suggests others… A dog was kept in the stables, and yet, though someone had been in, and had fetched out a horse, he had not barked enough to arouse the two lads in the loft. Obviously the midnight visitor was someone whom the dog knew well.

There are many reason a dog might not bark. By guessing however, Holmes jumped quickly in a direction from which he could draw better conclusions. Without guessing, Holmes wouldn’t have gotten far. And without it, he also couldn’t do that annoying thing where he told a people their life story by judging the smudge on their collar or a torn piece of luggage.
Abductive reasoning is especially good for artists and designers. Their problems are rarely simple. Usually, they are vague. The studio model in which art and design classes are taught promotes this well. Students are regularly give vague problems like, express your feelings. These problems are are actually structured like real-life situations in that figuring out the question is half the problem.

The Most Creative Painting…Ever

Roy Lichtenstein Bananas and Grapefruit

Have you ever thought about which paintings throughout history are most creative? It’s a tough call, unless you are a computer.

Not long ago, a curious colleague of mine started a similar debate among faculty concerning the best work of art, ever. Shortly after considering the matter, it became obvious my decision would be harder than first presumed. It’s tough separating personal interests from overall quality. In general polls, many of my favored paintings wouldn’t even make a top ten list of Twentieth Century paintings. Cy Twombly and Terry Winters are a couple of artists who connect with me. But stacked up against Matisse and Picasso, they are mere drops in a bucket. It’s interesting how my personal preferences can sway my views.

Eventually, I settled on Marcell Duchamp’s toilet which is referred to as Fountain. Much to the annoyance of my colleague. Duchamp signed it “R. Mutt.” My reasoning was Fountain has influenced the direction of art more than any other single work—at least according to me. However, it’s not even a work that interests me. Also, it was rejected for inclusion in the only exhibition in which it was entered. All works in that show were accepted if the artist paid the application fee, which Duchamp did. And it was still rejected.

Objective questions are tough for us because we humans are human; we have many personal biases. But computers don’t. They do what we tell them. And recently a computer was put to the task of determining the most creative paintings in history. Researchers Ahmed Elgammal and Babak Saleh at Rutgers University developed an algorithm defining creativity as “the originality of the product and its influential value.” They applied their algorithm to databases including tens of thousands of paintings. The X axis is a timeline. the Y axis is the creativity rating.  The higher the rating, the more creative the work.

3047438-inline-i-fig-1 (1)

According to the algorithm, Roy Lichtenstein’s Bananas and Grapefruit #1 is extremely creative. See the article by Mark Wilson at Fast Company, History’s Most Creative Paintings, Determined By Algorithm. The actual study is here.

So, did the computer get it right?

The Creative Superpower of Active Listening

Andy Peloquin practice-ielts-listening-part-1

Listening is one of the most powerful strategies in your creativity toolbox. And when “active” is put in front of listening, it’s enhanced to the level of superpower. It’s amazing how empowered you become from the understanding active listening gives. The difference between active and just listening, or hearing is that active listening is about being engaged. It’s not passive.

I’ve always known active listening to be helpful, but a recent download from The Great Courses website on Negotiation helped me to understand the full extent of it. The course is called, The Art  of Negotiating the Best Deal by Professor Seth Freeman J.D. From the beginning, he discusses the amount of leverage you gain from listening to someone else. It helps you find innovative ways to find solutions to seemingly solutionless problems. And that’s part of what creativity is about.

By using active listening tactics, you are better able to see what another person really wants instead of coming to preconceived notions of what should happen.

Here are some pointers for active listening:

  • Lean in and give visual cues that you are engaged. Make eye contact.
  • Let the other person talk. When you begin speaking, other people stop.
  • Ask questions to help you understand more in depth. Something like, Can you explain what you mean by that? can help.
  • Be relaxed and open to new opinions. It’s easier to find out what another person is thinking if you are open to them.

A Time of Transition: Thanks to SCAD and Hello to GRU

hot-air-balloon

Today marks a time of transition for me. I’m leaving my friends and colleagues at SCAD to become Chair of the Art Department at Georgia Regents University (GRU).

For the past ten years, I’ve had a great ride as a member of the SCAD community. It’s a highly energetic organization filled with wonderfully creative people, from top to bottom. I’ve built some of my fondest memories there. As an entity, I can only think it will continue to rise in recognition and popularity. My friends and mentors at SCAD are too many to mention. And I wish to thank you all for the wonderful times we had.

To the students at SCAD, I can’t say enough. You are extraordinarily inspirational. SCAD students are like no other. You come from all over the globe and are inspired to innovate any field you enter. I’ve never see work ethic like theirs before. To all of you, please keep in touch.

As of July 1, I’ll begin a new adventure at GRU in Augusta, GA. Probably, many of you have never heard of GRU, so I’ll give you a little back story. In 2012, GRU was formed as a merger of Augusta State University and Georgia Health Sciences University. It was part of a larger effort by the state of Georgia to consolidate the colleges and universities within the state. With an overall enrollment of about 8,500 students, it’s one of four public comprehensive public research institutions in the state of Georgia. The overall goal for the university is to become a top tier research institution.

I’ve been charged with developing a creative community known nationally and internationally as being a leader in the fields of art and design. While there is a lot of building to do, the foundation is already in place. The existing faculty and administration are exceptional. We just have to set the right vision and be disciplined in how we grow. I’m really excited to become part of the GRU family. In the coming years, the art department will be building its brand as a leader in 21st century art education.

Look for updates as we chronicle our journey from merger to leader. And if you have any advice or comments, I’m open.

The Value of Culture

leader

Culture is the underlying mindset determining what we do. Essentially, culture is the sum total of all the belief systems, ways of thinking and patterns of behavior of an individual or group. It’s seemingly invisible and less tangible than concepts like profit/loss. But possibly it’s more important. It is because it establishes our values. And our values determine how we act.

I benefit all the time from the level of diversity among my students. They come from all over the globe. Once, I had nine countries and nine states represented in a room of just twenty students. Only two pairs of students were from the same geographic area. That class also had a range of socioeconomic levels represented. It was amazing. The effect it had on our discussions was that we always had opposing views. And usually, each of the views had validity. That forced us to really think about the generalizations we made. It really hit home that quarter that the more diverse my company, the richer my culture would be.

Culture doesn’t just apply to race or place of origin. It also applies to ways of thinking—conservative or liberal, idealistic or practical. Establishing a corporate culture that is open and transparent means that people are more likely to say what they think. They will come to you with problems. That way you’ll at least know what the problems are. At the end of the day, you don’t have to agree with what other people say or do, you just need to be aware of the fact that their way of thinking may be just as valid as your. From this awareness, you might just find some of the simple concepts related to truth and functionality to be more ambiguous than previously thought. Then you can really start to fix things.

What’s Luck? It’s a Lot of Work!

8284135952_0dde18e2fe

I’d like to tell the story of one of my recent students. We’ll call him Pedro. Actually, his name really is Pedro. He gave me the OK.

Pedro and I met last quarter when he was a student in my creativity class. I was fortunate last quarter, as I am often. I had an exceptional group of talented and diverse young people in my classes. Besides being talented in their fields, they were also eager and positive.

As one of the many social experiments we conducted throughout the quarter, I had them make lists of things in which they were unlucky. These topics included stuff like clumsiness (tripping over cracks in the sidewalk), forgetfulness (losing keys), inability to meet people, or not doing well in certain subjects. From these lists, each of them picked a topic to work on over the weekend. The goal was to change their luck. Surprisingly, it’s not that hard to change your luck. You just have to try.

I believe public speaking was on Pedro’s list of unlucky things. And it was shortly after this time that Pedro made the decision he was really going to change his luck and become a more effective communicator. For Pedro, this wasn’t that easy because being from Brazil, English is his second language. And like many students new to the U.S., English is not just a second language. It’s a distant second. That makes public speaking all the more difficult. Additionally, Pedro’s isn’t comfortable speaking in front of groups.

On his own, Pedro persisted in trying to overcome hurdles associated with public speaking. He made himself contribute during class on a regular basis. Over time, he became more confident speaking in front of groups and also more persuasive. He worked hard to improve his pronunciation of English words. By the end of the quarter, he became a leader who could clearly communicate his ideas to others.

A main driver for Pedro’s inspiration was that he needed an internship over the summer. It’s tough getting an internship if you can’t communicate well. And as fate would have it, he got nothing from the job fair. Maybe, he was unlucky. Pedro however, decided that wasn’t the case, he just hadn’t worked hard enough.

He approached me after the quarter and asked for help. In the past, I’ve been surprisingly successful in helping students get internships in industries where I have absolutely no connections. My advice is always to do a lot of work. For Pedro, I asked where he wanted to live this summer. He said Brooklyn. So, I told him get at a map and define an area around Brooklyn. Then look up every design firm within those boundaries. After that, he was to cold-call every firm and inquire about an internship. After each call, he was to send his portfolio directly to the person on the phone.

Pedro marked an area larger than I had instructed. Instead of Brooklyn, he chose all of New York. He looked up tons of firms and spent two days calling. I think he said he got forty NOs in a row. But just when he was depressed and downtrodden, someone said YES. The best part is that this is a dream internship. The company is awesome with a great staff of interesting designers. This is actually a preferred company for him. Now, he’s hooking up a deal with the Brazilian government to cover housing at a NY university.

Is that luck? I don’t think so. Take some time in the next week to list the things you are unlucky at. Then pick one, and change it.

Creativity Tip for Old People: Hangout with Young People

 

Men-Mature

One of the main reasons I teach is to be around young people. I know as I grow older, I become more practical. I’m less apt to take chances or to embark on new endeavors. I also moan and groan more. But as a professor, I’m forced to be around hordes of energetic individuals (students) who push me to be more open, less judgmental and less grumpy. In turn, my students help me to seek out new opportunities where I normally wouldn’t. They help me see possibilities where I’d normally see dead-ends. In turn, they make me more creative.

Too often, we worry about the troubles kids bring and don’t focus enough on the benefits of youthful behavior. Here are some beneficial qualities of young people:

  • They are adaptable
  • They are eager to learn
  • They are enthusiastic
  • They learn quickly
  • They are tech savvy
  • They want to make a difference
  • They like challenges
  • They are aware of trends
  • They embrace change

On the flip side, another benefit associated with hanging out with kids or young adults is they get to be around you. Young people need mentors as much as old people need energy. It’s a two-way street. Young people gain valuable life lessons from emulating mentors. Over time, we’ve lost many of the apprentice/mentor relationships in education due to the heavy reliance on testing as our main source of assessment. Constant interaction between generations brings some of that back.

We all benefit from relationships that cross over generational boundaries. Older people become more flexible and younger people wiser. If your personal or professional networks don’t include young people, I encourage you to begin adding them.

Updates in ArtPulse Magazine

1-defineart2014_alfredojaarexhibition_jm_01

My essay on Alfredo Jaar is now in the Features section of ArtPulse Magazine. I’d appreciate it if you’d take the time to click over there and check it out. It never hurts to have some numbers when they post my work. He’s a fascinating artist.

Also, the new edition is in newsstands with my interview with Angel Abreu. He’s one of the members of Tim Rollins and K.O.S. He’s got a great story. I thought this one had been printed a while ago, but it just came out.

Can Art Schools Teach Students To Be Artists?

o-ART-SCHOOL-facebook

The other day I saw a post on LinkedIn asking if art schools could teach their students to become artists. I meant to comment on this, but instead viewed a few more posts and lost the original one asking this provocative question. The answer to it is, “yes” they can and do.

The question as to whether someone can be trained as an artist is an old one. It gained a lot of momentum when James Elkins published “Why Art Cannot Be Taught: A Handbook for Art Students.” However, most people who use that book to fuel their argument haven’t actually read it. They just read the title. As Elkins does regularly, he lobs a philosophical grenade into the conversation to get it roiling.  In the end, he never really answers the title of his book. I’ve even heard art professors say “no” to this question. My immediate response to them is, Why do you have a job?

Art is like every other domain; if you learn how to do it better, you can do it better. The myth is that there is some supernatural, mystical ability artists must possess to be classified as real artists. In reality, that mystical ability is determination. As a comparison, kids all over the world learn to play soccer. And we assume that a kid can become a better soccer player if he/she learns the skills related to playing the game. We know they won’t be the next Ronaldo or Messi. But we still consider them soccer players.

The problem with art may come from the fact that we also associate the term artist with exceptional skill: He’s a culinary artist, or with a type of mysticism or deception: She’s an artist with cards. But being an artist means doing art-type things: painting, sculpting, designing, playing an instrument, or any number of other art related activities. The more you work on related skills, the better you’ll get.

Let see how some of the top artists of our time learn to be artists.

  • Jeff Koons: BFA fromMaryland Institute College of Art
  • Brice Marden: MFA from Yale
  • Bruce Nauman: MFA from University of California
  • Cindy Sherman: BA from Buffalo State College

Of course, there are others who didn’t finish their degrees, like Jasper Johns. He did attend art school though. But neither Bill Gates, nor Steve Jobs finished their education.

The main problem with art education is teaching students how to maintain an artistic practice. That’s more about practical skills like networking and maintaining a small business. My institution, SCAD does this very well. I keep in contact with many of my past students and they say SCAD prepared them to succeed. They work hard and work to get art related jobs. When I look at what they are able to do, and the lives they live, I’m amazed. But in the end, a greater portion of those who succeed are the determined ones.

A Preference For The Loss Of “Distance” When Viewing Art

Close up of a Rembrandt

As a painter myself, I choose to view paintings from about six inches. Above is a how I’d view a Rembrandt. If you speak to museum docents, they can tell exactly who the painters are. Painters stick their face right up next to the canvas peering intensely in every direction. What we painters are trying to see is how the paint is applied and layered. We want to steal any secrets our colleagues might be hiding. It’s all very analytical.

Strangely, that process is called distancing. Being so close the painting and looking at the physical properties, I’m not as likely to experience the transcendental properties of the work as a whole. Allan Casebier states there are two types of distancing: attentional and emotional. Attentional distancing has to do with what you are and aren’t paying attention to. Emotional distancing is more about how you are feeling in relation to the work. They seem like they point to detachment, but not really. A viewer can be very honed in, but yet still be distanced.

Historians and theorists tend to believe that distancing is the best way to objectively observe a work of art. That way you can be more critical of its quality and placement in the long history of art movements.

But something gets lost in the distancing. For the longest, I haven’t responded to paintings in the same way I did as a student. Back then, paintings would overwhelm me. I remember seeing Cy Twombly’s retrospective and being in utter awe. I think my jaw actually sat agape. Now however, I’d probably analyze the work for a brief period of time and rush right up to see how he applied his crazy paint. It’s almost like by being an expert in the field (in my own mind) I rob myself of the emotional impact of the work.

So now I’m into installation art. I think I am because I’m not a specialist in that domain. Even though I’m interested in how the work is created, I become much more engaged in the transcendental nature of the work itself—for now.