Thoughts on the attraction of teaching
I have been teaching (at Yale, mostly, but lots of other places less consistently) since 1966. I have always been interested in explaining things and I think that is part of my attraction to the role. But there is another reason, and that is the vague feeling of obligation to pay back, to take the experience of professional practice and give back through the school of your choice.
The benefits to the teacher are many. The need to prepare and present a lesson really focuses your head and forces you to isolate the key ideas that lead to mastery of a discipline. Teaching also keeps you in touch with the culture as it changes. Each year a new crop of students carry the latest versions of what’s out there. Some things change, some things stay the same. And of course the most visceral aspect of teaching is the sensation of connecting with the students, and those great moments when you can see the concept click and out comes a totally clear, totally original expression that knocks you out.
Teaching and mentorship
The idea of mentorship seems to me an “unofficial” (or at least unspoken) aspect of teaching. Certainly at Yale, nowhere is mentorship mentioned as an obligation of the faculty. Mentoring is just a natural by-product of teaching. There you are, in the middle of a bunch of students hungry for information and for a model of how to be a designer. When I think of my own experience as a graduate student at Yale, my teachers were inevitably models of the professional life I aspired to, and mentors to varying degrees.
The principle responsibility of a teacher is to engage students in a sequence of experiences in which are embedded key lessons. While the individual project or problem is a vehicle for a specific set of ideas or issues, in a larger sense it should prepare the student for all those problems they haven’t encountered yet.
But students learn more than lessons from a teacher. For better or worse, they also learn values and attitudes, the logic of criticism and methods of communicating with people. The teachers that I encountered at Yale (people like Paul Rand, Herbert Matter, Norman Ives, Brad Thompson, Alvin Eisenman and Walker Evans) presented a wide range of these qualities to consider
But while professional values and personal life styles are delivered more or less automatically as a teacher reveals his or her self, mentorship implies a more active position, taking a positive interest in the development and well-being of one’s students. From my experience as a teacher, I think this happens unevenly. Some students seem more engaged, more compatible with your own point of view and end up having more lasting relationships than others.
It’s hard to gauge one’s influence as a teacher (or mentor) while you are in the middle of it. It is interesting to find out, often years later, through an un-expected encounter on the streeet or at an event, how influential a course, a project or even just a casual comment proved to be in the life of a particular student.
Teaching and hiring
One great advantage of teaching is that it keeps you in touch with the best and the brightest who are entering the profession, and frankly, gives you a first shot at enticing them into your own studio. It’s like having a semester-long interview. Sometimes it works. Over the years, some of our best designers at WGBH, the public broadcaster in Boston where I worked for 35 years, have been drawn from the schools where I and others in our group have taught. Then a relationship that started out as student and teacher gradually evolves into a relationship as colleagues.