My final year in the Masters program, I had the honor and privilege of teaching under one of my favorite professors. Along with a fellow GSI, I co-taught ARCH 201, an undergraduate course that introduced students to basic architectural concepts through hand drawing. Throughout both amazing semesters, one story stands out as my most vibrant teaching moment.
The first few classes each term focused on physical technique: how to properly hold the pencil, body alignment and mechanics, the physical process of drawing. The first exercises consisted of drawing straight, parallel lines across the length of the page over, and over, and over again.
I’ll concede that it’s boring – really boring. But it’s an incredibly useful starting point, because by observing the students in the simple act of drawing the line, we can analyze their posture and instill proper drawing technique. It also establishes early on a degree of almost meditative self-discipline.
Most students (begrudgingly) made their way through the task, but one student consistently did not seem to be following instructions. He raced through his work, completing each line with such speed as to prompt myself, the other GSI and the head instructor to repeatedly ask him to slow down. Alas our requests had no effect; it was as if he cared little for the course, but something seemed… off.
He participated in class. He asked relevant questions. He paid close attention when we spoke, and seemed genuinely interested in the critiques of his work. So why did everything about his drawing behavior say otherwise?
During one deskcrit, I stopped to look over his work, when I noticed he had cauliflower ear – a telltale sign of a wrestling background.
Then suddenly it hit me.
Most students – myself included – draw our lines across the page slowly, adjusting our posture and pressure as we watch the behavior of the line. Too dark, lighten the pressure; curving down, adjust the rotation of the wrist; we make slight adjustments to our technique as we notice deviations in our attempt at a “perfect” line. This student, on the other hand, was relying entirely on muscle memory.
He drew each line quickly, as one fluid motion, and attempted to replicate the lines by drawing each one with the same speed and the same posture. He relied on the feel of each movement being consistent between each line, rather than visually referencing the line as he moved his pencil along the paper. It was an attempt at improvement via repetition, not careful observation.
I asked him, “Are you a grappler?”
He seemed pretty taken aback by the question, but responded affirmatively.
“Okay,” I said, “I know you think it’s strange for me to ask you that – but I think it’s affecting the way you draw. Let’s work with that.” I explained the conclusion I’d drawn, and the difference between drawing via muscle memory, and drawing by visual referencing.
His response was astounding. It was as if he had never considered that there could even be another mindset while drawing – but then, until I had carefully observed him, neither had I.
Immediately there was a change. His efforts were clumsy at first, not being used to slow, precise control, but his improvement was visible even over the course of part of the class. At the day’s end I suggested he practice different lineweights in his notebook. If he could understand the feel of a lineweight, just as he had tried to understand the feel of a straight line, then he could incorporate the way his body naturally wanted to work with the techniques that were expected of him.
He may have never become an A+ student, but he grew substantially over the course of the semester, and I’m confident he tapped deeply into the wells of his personal potential. I’m also confident that the extra attention afforded to him, and the effort to understand how he as an individual was inclined to draw, enhanced his own interest in the class. As an instructor, that is my primary job, after all; to help each student reach their own potential, and not to apply a uniform method or measure of success to everyone.
I’m just thankful I took a moment to first examine and understand, and had not written him off as not interested and not responsive, as I was first tempted to do.