Recent Sightings: Jewelry Teachers

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By Bruce MetcalfMore from this author

This article series from Metalsmith Magazine is named "Recent Sightings" and here Bruce Metcalf talks about art, craftmanship, design, the artists, and techniques. For this 1989 Fall issue, he talks about jewelry teachers and their processes..


Teachers don't instruct enough about business practice.
Teachers are too concerned with fine art.
Teachers don't prepare students properly to work in production studios.
Teachers encourage an arrogance that makes their students unable to stay long enough at any one job.

For a while now, these complaints have been ringing in my ears. They are heard in a number of different forms and formats, from presentations at conferences to magazine articles to casual conversation. And while most teachers I know don't take these complaints too seriously, the implications do tend to nag at us. Yet teachers rarely speak out in their own defense. Perhaps this is because they realize that these questions of competence are often based on gross misunderstandings of the priorities and inherent limitations of the educational system in which they must function. I maintain that it is the structure of higher education, not the incompetence of most teachers, that produces gaps in students' knowledge.

The vast majority of undergraduate jewelry instruction in America occurs in universities and general-education colleges. (For instance, six of the eight B.A. or B.F.A. programs in Ohio are in universities.) Students in universities and colleges cannot truly concentrate on a studio education, nor can they get a rigorous vocational training. Instead, such institutions demand a broad liberal arts experience, where a substantial amount of coursework occurs outside the jewelry studio. This is not necessarily a bad thing: at least students are literate when they graduate, and they know a little bit about the world. But, in the end, only one-fifth of their education is devoted to their major.

The fact that American teachers cannot prepare their students to become good benchworkers without further training, or to understand business practice, is not entirely of their own doing. These narrow objectives are simply less important than broad technical experience, basic professional practice and a modicum of self-knowledge. For most teachers, there simply isn't enough time offered in the existing structure to cover every single subject well.

Teachers would do a disservice to acquiese to a narrow definition of the field. Many of our critics assume that jewelry and metalsmithing consists of production or custom jewelry making and marketing. This is the ultimate reality, they claim. I wish it was so simple. What about holloware, flatware and rendering? What about all the new techniques that have been introduced to the field in the last two decades, such as electroforming, anodizing aluminum, titanium and niobium, plastic casting or photoetching? And since most of us teach in art departments, can we ignore the conceptual demands of the contemporary art scene? In the end, responsible teachers learn that jewelry and metalsmithing are enormously varied disciplines, and we limit this body of information at our students' peril. To serve only one agenda would be to unduly restrict their potential.

No teacher can determine a student's future. Students many become benchworkers, production or custom jewelers, silversmiths, designers, salespeople, artists or any of dozens of other professions. I know jewelry and metalsmithing students who have become gallery owners, furnituremakers, industrial modelmakers and computer programmers. In the face of such diversity, teachers learn a little humility. They cannot afford to act as if students have only one or two options. It is far more important to teach flexibility and to give the student the ability to teach himself.

In the end, the debate is between the short-term (by which most people mean vocational training) and the long-term horizon. Art schools and universities are constantly pressured to provide an education that is immediately useful, that supplies a meal ticket. Parents ask, "Will this education earn my child a living?" Such insistence on an instant payoff ignores the fact that people change, and careers change, too. In almost every field, the training that seemed complete in 1971 is totally inadequate in 1989.

Instead of learning how to do a particular job, students need to learn how to be adaptable. And adaptability comes from learning how to make decisions and learning how to learn. A student learns such flexibility not by mastering a skill but by facing an intellectual, creative challenge. In the limited time that college teachers have available they must reach how to get a handle on a wide range of techniques, mixed with a little of what is going on in the field. But, more importantly, they must teach how to set priorities and solve problems. They must pose abstract questions that have no certain answer, that demand that the student look inside himself at his own needs and desires before the resolution becomes clear. In doing so, the student learns how to solve different problems while staying true to himself. The process may appear silly and impractical to an observer who thinks education consists of learning how to set diamonds and keep accounts, but it gives the student skills that are far more important in the long run.

The good students will learn. I believe that most teachers despite being faced with the task of providing a good education, often by themselves, in an improbably short amount of time, are doing all right. There are quite a few innovative young jewelers in the United States today who are products of the educational system, and their work is having a greater impact in the mass market every year. The diversity and quality of their work stands as proof of a job well done.

Bruce Metcalf teaches jewelry and metalsmithing at Kent State University and writes a regular column for Metalsmith.

By Bruce Metcalf
Metalsmith Magazine – 1989 Fall
In association with SNAG‘s
Metalsmith magazine, founded in 1980, is an award winning publication and the only magazine in America devoted to the metal arts.

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Bruce Metcalf

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