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My aim as an educator is to give my students an appreciation for the technical and conceptual possibilities of clay. I embrace the challenge of addressing craft together with concept; my own experience as a potter synthesizing functionality and content has inspired me to focus on these two aspects as individual facets of a whole. I believe studio-intensive practice is the key to success. Ceramics is a process-oriented medium and the ceramic studio provides a natural site for learning in action. I avoid giving out “the rules”; I encourage students to freely experiment. I facilitate risk-taking paired with mindful vulnerability-the ability to cast fears aside.

One popular class workshop has students assemble wheel-thrown components made by the other members of the class. There are no guidelines except a minimum number of seven pieces to be assembled. In addition to meeting the technical challenge students develop a greater sensitivity to varying treatments of the material, and strengthen their own ways of working.

I introduce students to the breadth of the ceramic field, and expect them to discover its depths independently through individual and group inquiry. My slide shows include as much variety as possible in contemporary and historical work, particularly covering traditions and artists from non-Western sources. I emphasize the impact ceramics has had in historical events, the role it plays in archeology, and its significance as a durable reminder of cultural exchange. I have deeply researched and enjoy discussing the role of porcelain in trade between Asia and Europe and the development of the ceramic industry. Each culture has been feeding into another, back and forth, for millennia, a living illustration of trade, conflict, and technology.

Every student comes to the classroom with a different set of experiences and interests and I encourage each of them to pursue specific goals while through hands-on work, ideally allowing space for unexpected results. I want to know what other types of classes each student is taking, what sort of experiences they have in clay, and what they hope to get out of the class. Once I have a map of each student’s interests I can navigate the group through common points of interest while locating sites of individual curiosity.

Critiques are a learning opportunity for all present, not just the person whose work is being reviewed. I provide a structured format for beginning class critiques; for example I might invite everyone to make two comments, one positive and one constructive suggestion. This format encourages each person to consider all aspects of a piece, successful and undeveloped, enabling the student to develop a sense of her taste and interests while keeping an appreciation for that which is different. I work to nurture an open classroom dynamic with each student’s thoughts being given equal time and value.

I assess the effectiveness of my teaching by continually checking in with my students. I give written evaluations at midterm and finals. In my grading I consider levels of ambition, both technical and conceptual. I discuss content in the work with the class as a group and with each individual to assess their degree of reflection. I strive to be in touch with the overall class enthusiasm and energy to keep a vigorous momentum as a group.

The scope of ceramics often requires those of us working as specialists to narrow down our ways of working. For me one of the greatest joys of teaching is introducing students to the wide range of possibilities, and being inspired by their discoveries.

Sarah Gross

Teaching Philosophy