CRITS: A student manual (review)

Ray Martin sings the praises of Terry Barrett’s new book on the studio crit.

Published on 30th May 2019 | Written by Ray Martin | Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

A crit is a fearsome thing. It can be ‘gladiatorial, combative and unforgiving’, says Peter Day, who found that students were fundamentally ‘fear focused’ around crits. ‘How can you make a firing squad less scary?’ one of his research participants asked.

Voices such as Jenni Lloyd’s, singing the praise of art school crits, are harder to find. ‘A good crit session is in service of the work — it convenes a group of peers to help in the betterment of the work’, she says, and goes on:

When the work is tangled up in the identity of the person who made it (and I think most work done by committed people is) then it’s easy to feel under attack — and to want to defend the work and the self from those seeking to critique. But this does a disservice to the work and shuts down avenues of growth.

It is not only students who find the crit harrowing: many tutors do too, and they may also be replicating their own – possibly poor – experience of being students because it is all they know. The connoisseur approach still reigns in some of the war zones, despite the requirement to align comments to the assessment criteria – one tutor recently said to a student on viewing his work in a group crit, ‘I don’t like it.’ She made no further comment. (Tutors who care, please seethe at this point.)

Terry Barrett’s 2019 guide Crits: a student manual can help both students and tutors – indeed, without the tutor’s understanding of the huge potential this book offers, it may not serve a student very well. It would be really useful, for example, for students and tutors to agree together to Barrett’s Rules of Engagement for crits or to something like them:

  • Take free-fall risks. Express your views without prejudging them. What you have to say may have that golden perspective that helps us to break through confusion and ignorance.
  • Listen carefully. Focus on people’s thoughts, not on their efforts to express them.
  • Promote democracy. Encourage a wide variety of viewpoints and opinions.
  • Extend charity. Always give your colleagues the benefit of the doubt.
  • Practice civility. Never forget that colleagues have fundamental, inviolable worth as human beings and always must be respected as such.
  • Encourage others to take part and applaud the efforts of those who do.
  • Embrace ambiguity. There is very little closure in life. Most of the solutions we discover are at best tentative and hypothetical.
  • Build community. Constantly seek new ways to perpetuate and expand the learning community.

Some of Barrett’s anecdotes about crits are scarily near criminality in the UK (Barrett, author of Criticizing Photography, is an American academic and teacher). Take the Ceramics professor who broke all the student submissions he didn’t like and conducted crits on what were left, or the teacher who drove over one student’s work. (‘The teacher was crazy, I think.’) One of the most outrageous stories comes from a photography student. For crits, the students laid out their best three pictures against the studio walls. The prof went round throwing the photographs he didn’t like into the middle of the room. Then he nodded at the first of his assistants, who gathered up the abandoned photographs and handed them to a second assistant. His task was to throw them out of the window.

There are positive anecdotes too. One student recalls a teacher who was always able to be completely honest: ‘No matter how we may have failed in certain areas or succeeded in others, we always trusted her because we knew she respected us as human beings.’ (‘Respect’ is an important word in Crits – and quite right too many will say.) And there’s comforting agreement among students and tutors on what makes a good or bad crit.

It’s difficult to argue with Barrett’s assertion that ‘Successful critiques are dependent on effective communication.’ Who, indeed, would want to. It’s also comforting to be reminded to ‘let go of the search for some dynamite interpretation that will make all the difference’, as a Stamford therapist asserts.

There are varied and valuable ways here to introduce effective communication to fear-filled students – maybe particularly useful for explaining the crit process to international students, who may have had no experience of discussion at school and, in some cultures, have learned obedience to the boss, which rather negates the value of a personal view of anything very much. Discussion of these ideas might have a civilising effect on home-grown students too, whose understanding of respectful listening may have been sourced from Question Time – or, really, almost any aspect of the Parliamentary process in this country.

There’s a good section on different ways to run a crit, which Barrett has tried, tested and adjusted in a long career. Also ideas around judgement and assessment criteria.

If there is one complaint to be made, it is this: Barrett is overly optimistic about the potential of tutors who conduct crits. They are not necessarily so humane and, in one unnamed field at least, the brutal approach still has traction. (And there’s another criticism: the title is so wrong. A student manual? This is a manual for tutors as much as students … actually, it is a manual for tutors.)

Buy this book, read this book, think and learn. This book is good. Can it change lives? Oh, yes – if properly used, it can almost certainly improve the university experience of both students and tutors.

Crits: a student manual is published by Bloomsbury Visual Arts (2018) 188pp. ISBN 978-1-350-04158-5 

Ray Martin is a dyslexia tutor, mainly supporting art and music students. She also teaches on PGC and MA courses specialising in creative teaching and is the author of articles on NLP, supporting students, mindfulness and transitioning into university for Autistic Spectrum students.


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