Thursday, December 20, 2018

Forty Years #31: Teaching at Rivier College: Part 1

I taught Art 221: Introduction to Calligraphy at Rivier College (now University) for four semesters starting in the fall of 1984. I was recommended by Deb Partington who was leaving her position there. Most of the students were studying graphic design. Calligraphy was a required course that preceded typography. I also had some students from the community including an ER nurse looking for relaxation and stress relief and a nun sent by her order to learn calligraphy for signage. Here's what I wrote in the syllabus:

Calligraphy has been defined by Edward Johnston, who has been called the father of modern calligraphy, as MAKING GOOD LETTERS AND ARRANGING THEM WELL. This deceptively simple definition describes the work for this course, and indeed, a lifetime if one chooses. Layout and design–arranging them well–will be considered as important as making good letters. And because letters are used to make words, the connection between the meaning of the words and their presentation will be stressed. 

The teaching was a challenging experience. While I had taught a couple of Adult Education calligraphy classes (a big difference between 2 hours once a week for eight weeks and 2.5 hours twice a week for 13 weeks) and swimming for the Boston School Department (although very different both are physical skills that are learned and perfected by practice), I was starting from scratch in many ways. Because I had learned calligraphy from books rather than class instruction, I didn't really have a model for what to do, or not do. The Art Department at Rivier was very supportive, especially the head of the department at the time, Sister Theresa Couture. She had faith in me while I struggled with my new role. My teaching developed over my time there and was helped by a workshop on teaching calligraphy with Marsha Brady at the Innovations Conference in Hoboken, New Jersey in 1986. She taught a lot about organization and presentation. One of the most helpful things I learned was her insistence that every teacher should be able to do calligraphy left-handed. I was then able to give concrete suggestions for left-handed students and understand their struggles while I showed them that it was possible (and that I wouldn’t take left-handedness as an excuse for poor work).

My presentation of the material changed over time. By the end I had a program that started with cutting Roman capitals from black paper. I felt it was helpful to grasp letter form and spacing before introducing the pen. We then learned basic Roman caps with a speedball B nib so we could focus on the letters without having to worry about the pen angle. Next came Uncial, followed Foundational Hand and Italic. I also shared some of the philosophy from Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind and words by and information about a variety artists such as Ben Shahn and Robert Henri and the jazz singer Mabel Mercer. The students did four projects per semester, some of which I'll be sharing tomorrow, and assignments and exercises between each class.

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