Crits are commonplace in creative fields such as writing, art and design education but they are not used commonly elsewhere; nor have crits always been used in creative education. Even within these creative fields, crits are not universally adopted as a teaching approach. Given that crits are a form of learning and teaching that’s taken for granted in creative fields, but not in other spheres of formal education, we might say that the crit is neither natural nor universal. In recognising this, it is always possible that we can a) remodel the crit b) come to rely upon it less exclusively in favour of other methods.
What sort of learning experiences can crits offer?
The critique is a live peer-review method of learning. Crits are active rather than passive forms of learning, they require learner and audience participation and, often, a degree of improvisation. A crit is, therefore, reliant on what the participants bring to the process; which is to say it is a form of social learning network.
Since it is an inherently social approach to learning, the underlying structure of the crit assumes that peers are either working on similar projects (e.g. to a ‘brief’, a common inquiry or attempting to engage with the same problem) or that they working with a common set of disciplinary methods. Having some identifiable common ground is essential if people are to learn together. Sharing a common learning journey is what enables peers to understand and offer each other meaningful and informed support. Without a clearly defined common ground from which to proceed, a crit will flounder and fail to provide any meaningful insight.
How/Are crits structured?
Crits (in art at least) are notorious for being unstructured which is to say, the agendas of a crit are often emergent, stemming from the discussion points raised by students and tutors. For many, the experience of this kind of crit is highly frustrating. Crits can meander around subjects and go down rabbit holes that appear to have little to do with what the presenter is attempting to focus on. While crits might have a ‘chair’ or facilitator whose job is to pull the focus back on what is being presented, this isn’t always achieved!
The unstructured version of the crit has its have ancestry in the European Enlightenment Coffee House Model, and resonates with Khairudin Aljunied’s concept of Southeast Asian coffee-shops from the 1940s to the 1960s as ‘domains of contentious publics’. Unstructured crits can be better understood using the Coffee House metaphor, which is to say that they are intentional spaces/time for ‘agenda-free’ discussion.
There are many different modalities of Coffee House crits, each can be combined in different ways (on/offline). e.g.
- Conversation Café – A structured round-table approach for 5–7 participants. Mainly Offline but could be online.
- Stitch ‘n’ Bitch – knitting based chat. On and Offline.
- Agora – an agora with stalls set up temporarily – e.g. Critical Practice at Chelsea College of Art & Design, UAL, London.
- Walkie Talkie – going for a walk while talking (either together or via VoIP / phone call). Different to sitting across from each other to talk. Also healthier. Offline but possibly augmented.
Advantages of Coffee House Crits
Coffee House crits are intended to support ‘openness’; they do so in the sense that they are, nominally, improvisational: a conversation takes place and there’s a ‘natural’ ebb and flow. In this, we have something resembling an ‘open system’ (rather than a closed system).
Within the broader church of Higher Education, Coffee House crits are often presented as marginal sites for more informal learning, opening access to students excluded from whatever the dominant modality of learning might be at a given time. This makes Coffee House crits a form of open access (perhaps), or at least in comparison to otherwise ‘enclosed’ learning environments (the ‘walled gardens’ of lecture theatres and firewalled VLE.) In Europe, educationalists tend to favour such open systems over closed systems – so this makes conversation = ‘good’ (open).
But it’s never that simple, is it?
A few disadvantages of Coffee House Crits
Since Coffee House crits are informal and lack the more formal ‘reporting systems’ of, say, written feedback, they can actually generate opacity rather than an open approach. In Coffee House crits, conversations happen without trackable (minuted) accountability. This is the nature of improvised speech of course – it is so frequently private. It shouldn’t be minuted or recorded, should it? But, since it’s not documented, the Coffee House crit’s voices are not (democratically) accountable. Moreover, the underlying assumption that open structures (and self-directed forms of learning) are ‘good’ is Eurocentric; it doesn’t take into consideration educational modalities based on different philosophical systems (e.g. Confucianism).
It’s important to recognise that such Coffee House crits tend to be driven by what is being presented for discussion. In art, there are forms of critique that only allow for discussion to filter through or revolve around the work presented. The silent crit – for example – prevents the presenter from speaking. The presenter must remain silent for the duration of the crit and listen to what’s being said about what they have presented for critical scrutiny. The idea here is to make the crit structure perform as a type of ‘authentic learning’, mimicking what is perceived to exist in the ‘professional world’. In a gallery, the artist is not present to discuss what they exhibit – so, the rationale goes, the work should be able to ‘speak for itself’ in a crit situation. Of course, this is something of a misnomer. In the ‘professional world’ works of art are never presented apart from some form of ‘interpretation’ or educational intervention – ‘signposting’ how the idealised conditions for reviewing the work. We need to recognise that crits are educational practices, practices that do not have, nor need to have, an exact equivalent in the ‘professional world’. The primary purpose of the crit is to support learning.
There’s an underlying assumption in the coffee house crit model that learning is foremost dialogual. In art and design, we know all to well that this is not true! There are, of course, a wide array of sensual elements involved in learning – so why privilege dialogue? In doing so, the coffee house crit may exclude some participants more than others. In this, linguistic assumptions underwrite coffee houses in ways that are all too often not addressed; the dominant language (e.g. English) used will enable those that speak that dominant language and disadvantage those who do not.
Ableist assumptions also underwrite the coffee house crit model regarding its emphasis on interpersonal interaction. This doesn’t stop to take account of neurological disabilities, specifically deafness, ASD and ADHD, that make it really difficult to talk to more than one person and/or cope with coffee house ‘noise’.
Finally, given that coffee house crits are live, we really need to consider who can and can’t take part in something that is, essentially, synchronous (automatically excluded if they can’t make the time set).
The “Problem of Crits” as a vehicle for Problem Generation
How/Do crits support learning? This is – in its own right – a research question that we continually return to in the MA Contemporary Art Theory programme I run in Edinburgh. There’s no simple answer to this so-called ‘wicked question’. Rather than simply follow the unwritten constitution of the Coffee House crit that we inherent in art, we seek to understand the crit more fully as a learning technique used in a wide array of disciplines and practices, to subject the ‘crit’ to critical scrutiny. We try to learn how to conduct crits by taking part in crits regularly, and by (radically) revising our crit practises. What might that look like?
Coaching or Critique?
Crits are supposed to be supportive of your learning – but, perhaps they aren’t always? You need support that is constructive and insightful – a little like having a mentor perhaps? Could that kind of support be akin to coaching? This is a line of inquiry we have pursed in my MA programme this past year.
Coaching is a distinctive practice in its own right, with its own rich body of theory and many different approaches. Coaching offers structures that are shared and that are subject to critical analysis by coaching communities. In this, it’s very close to counselling and psychodynamic practices, which share and build upon well-tested structures and skills of attentive listening and carefully considered response. At the same time, coaching is a practice; you need to learn it by doing it, and you (hopefully) get better at it the more you do it. Drawing on coaching has been useful as a way of creating common ground for the structuring of crits.
Coaching can make its way into a critique in explicit ways. For example, we might decide that a crit should become an Action Learning Set. Action Learning Sets is a research method that can be adopted wholesale and followed routinely in lieu of the unstructured Coffee House approach. Equally, coaching can become present in more implicit or subtle forms. For example, this year we have also experimented with ‘clean feedback’ methods, a Q&A technique borrowed from ‘Clean Coaching’. We have then adapted the clean approach to conduct peer-review crits asynchronously using Miro as a virtual studio that resembles the ‘Open Space’ model of design.
There was an Old Lady who swallowed a fly…
Researching and playing with the crit format has suggested that there are many benefits to generating more explicitly structured or scaffolded approaches to learning though forms of live peer-review. Even the simple act of peer-generating crit etiquette in the form of a mutually agreed convenant, can help a great deal to provide crits with focus and purpose. What I have found, however, is that peer-generating crit etiquette is not enough, in its own right. Even with very clear ground rules regarding endorsed and prohibited behaviour, a crit can fall apart if it has no discernible context.
Silent or otherwise, crits are not only driven by what is being presented for discussion, but also by how it is presented and by the context wherein it is being presented. In my MA programme we have approached contextualisation by practically adaptating Japanese ‘Nishida philosophy’ – which proposes everything is implaced within a “ba” (field). Such Ba can be physical or conceptual. We can think of the basho as a shifting context (such as time spent as a student in a University) or set of moving constraints (like the subtly changing rules of a game over hundreds of years). Either way, what we do / what we are is something implaced within a larger field. This means that staff and students on my programme consider what everything we do to a) be part of a larger context b) to be a context that hosts other, smaller contexts. (To illustrate: imagine a series of Matryoshka nesting dolls stretching infinitely in either direction, becoming ever larger and ever smaller. Each babushka doll would all be a context for another and each would have its own larger context.)
Acknowledging the where factor, or the ba, of any given crit involves a deepening understanding the context that your presentation takes place in. No crit is without a context; even ‘unstructured crits’ harbour a ‘hidden curriculum’. The context might be explicit (i.e. the set ‘brief’, the Common Inquiry or the ‘problem narrative’ that learning is driven by.) Even if there is no easily discernible explicit context, there will be an implicit context – that being the common set of disciplinary methods shared by the cohort taking part. You need to pay careful attention to explicit and implicit contexts – this is what should drive your facilitation of the crit and keep your own learning on track. Drawing participants’ attention to the explicit and implicit contexts you share will also ensure that the conversations that emerge do not stray too far from the focus of the crit.
When you are presenting in a crit, it helps to locate your own development within shared learning contexts. But how might you narrate such a story? Well, one approach that often works well is to start with a broad perspective, then move inwards: from the macro to the micro. A way of visualising this is to imagine you are using a telescopic lens to zoom in and out of the work you are presenting. Sometimes a telescopic lens will reveal granular detail, sometimes it will pan back and allow us to see the project in a panoramic vista.
The macro would comprise the broader discipline in which you are working and the contexts that it is situated within or in relation to; this is the implicit context and can be very broad. What is that macro context for you? Can you present it in such as way that you are able to situate your own work clearly within it? As you zoom in, you might start to discuss more ‘micro’ concerns. The explicit context would become more visible and important as you zoom in. This is where to address the brief/Common Inquiry/‘problem narrative’, placing it in relation to that broad vista where you began. As you zoom in more, you start to address your own contribution – what are you doing in this space? Pan around the work you are doing and show in detail what is emerging. Having done this, you can start to pull back again moving out from the micro to the macro. In doing so, you should be able to see and demonstrate how you’re own contribution is impacting upon and changing the contexts within which you are working.
Once you have painted rich picture of the contexts you are dealing with, the question of how to present or facilitate your crit is so much easier to answer. Feeling that you are starting to master your domains should lead you to acknowledge that the presenter actually has great deal of control over the direction that a crit could take. Being aware of the power bestowed upon the presenter-as-facilitator is vitally important when your work is the subject of a crit. The crit really should function in a way that is useful to you in terms of your own learning and development. With this in mind, it’s helpful to carefully plan for your crit and to give some consideration to how you host the critique and focus the attention of your peers on what you want them to address. You can do this implicitly – by using ‘teasers’ that will encourage them to ask more about things you really want to discuss in more depth – and explicitly – by simply stating clearly exactly what you would like to address in the discussion. The more frequently you present, the more skilled you will become at implicitly structuring call-and-response with your peers. This is a key facilitation skill that takes time to develop and will come with practise.
When it comes to learning, a vital thing is to think not only about how and where you implace your own work, but equally about what sort of field you are generating. The context of your work is akin to a habitat; habits develop in relation to specific habitats. If we want to change our habits, we need to also change our habitat. Changing the context by making your own contribution to it is a higher learning goal that’s always vital to keep in mind.