Teaching the Same Animation Class at Hostos and Harvard

Andy London, Assistant Professor
Humanities Department

Summary: In this article, I compare and contrast teaching methodologies I use to teach the identical animation class at both Hostos and Harvard. 

 

Three years ago I was invited to speak on a panel and show some of my animated shorts at BRIC’s Art and Media House downtown Brooklyn. When I introduced myself to the audience, I mentioned I ran an animation program at Hostos Community in the South Bronx. The woman sitting next to me, Ruth Lingford, said she also ran an animation program, but at Harvard. One month later, Ruth contacted me and asked if I would be interested in teaching at her program. Since then, I’ve been teaching an introduction to animation class at Harvard as a periodic visiting lecturer. The animation classes for both my Hostos and Harvard  students are essentially the same, but the experience is different.  But before I engage in any comparison between Harvard students and Hostos students, I need to make clear that both sets of students come to the table with different advantages and disadvantages and that neither group, even with clear advantages– is ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than the other.  Generally speaking, Hostos students go to school and work full time and while most of my Harvard students only need to focus on school. My Hostos students frequently live at home and have to contribute rent. Most of the Harvard students I’ve encountered live in dorms. Hostos students are frequently immigrants or first generation Americans and are the first in their family to attend college. The majority of the Harvard students I work with come from middle to upper class families, and are not the first in their class to attend college.  This is relevant because while my learning objectives for both groups is the same, the circumstances of both groups are invariably different.

 

I have the same goals for both classes. The intended outcome after 14 weeks are (1) for my students to have a more comprehensive understanding of what goes into making a successful animated short film, (2) enhanced creative and technical skill in writing, animating, directing and producing animated short films, and (3) a stronger understanding of and connection to their personal voice.

 

For my Hostos animation class I fill my lessons with modeled activities and prompts. At the beginning of every class, I elicit and write new vocabulary and phrases on the board and require students to use these new words when they give a peer feedback on a project or present progress on a homework assignment. By doing this, my Hostos students retain new terms, while helping their writing and communication skills. I also give assignments with strict parameters and mandatory deadlines. At Harvard, I keep my lessons flexible and open ended. With this group, I’ve learned that too much structure creates boredom and stagnation. Since my Harvard students are able to focus exclusively on their studies, they are frequently willing to be challenged and jump right in on an assignment.

 

At Hostos, I always have my students watch a handful of contemporary animated short films. They examine them for new ideas and techniques that can be implemented into their own work. Before we start, I list the following questions on the board:

  • What animation technique(s) does the film use?
  • What sound elements does the film use?
  • What type of story does the film use?
  • What kind of art style is it?

As they watch each film, I have them jot down brief responses to these questions. Afterwards, they compare and contrast their responses in small groups. As I do this, I go around the classroom and monitor. At Harvard, I generally don’t show animated short films in class because the next morning, the intermediate level animation professor and I invite both classes to an optional two-hour screening that we curate the night before. After each film, the other professor and I hold an informal, impromptu discussion with the students. Once, I tried to model the curated screening with prewritten discussion questions like I do at Hostos. It went over terribly and it was an example of how I need to tailor my approach to my different audiences.

 

One of my assignments for both classes is to make a short animated documentary based on audio interviews they conduct with each other, based on on everyday problems.  The Harvard students animate the Hostos student interviews and the Hostos students animate the Harvard student interviews. I then ask the students from both classes to speak directly with each other for background information that will add more substance to their assignments. The primary learning outcome of this assignment is for the students to enhance their character animation skills. By listening to the voice, they have to imagine what the person looks like and what the person is doing as he or she speaks and animate it. But I also do this lesson to forge an organic connection between these two vastly different groups of students. The results are varied but sometimes it leads to future collaborations.

 

What both sets of students share in common is bouts of fear and anxiety, often in the area of “performance”.  I have encountered Hostos animation students who are afraid to take a subway to Manhattan, attend an industry event or call a production studio to set up an informational interview.  I have met Harvard students with debilitating fears of “screwing up”. Once, one of my Harvard students had a panic attack in class because her animated sequence wasn’t coming out as well as she hoped. She was so upset, I had to escort her out of the room. I ended up buying her a coffee and we took a walk. I explained that I didn’t care how perfect her assignment came out and that I only cared that in the end she learned something. She stared at me as if I were an alien and asked, “What do you mean, it doesn’t have to be perfect?” At Harvard, I never praise how good something turns out. Instead I praise how hard they worked. By taking this approach, I dial back the importance of product and place the emphasis on process. With my Hostos students, I try to demystify their fears and show them a model of “Seeing what they can be”. I routinely bring industry people to my classroom and have them tell their personal story of how they made it in the industry. By running this informal lecture series, students see that industry people are flawed human beings who are both relatable and approachable.

 

Unlike at Harvard, with my Hostos students, I do emphasize the finished product. I focus on assignments that get to a final project because I want those kids see that with diligence and perseverance, they can make something amazing. When a student does make something beautiful, I have the student share it informally with the rest of the class.  And the result is a wonderful series of events.  They finished something that they started, they built their self confidence and they get the respect of their peers.  I don’t have to do this at Harvard because the students come to class day one, knowing the importance of deferred gratification. Instead, I keep the assignments short and focus on the importance of process and trying new ideas, and being uncomfortable with new techniques. For example, I’ll have students skillful in drawing with a number two pencil, challenge him/herself by animating in clay.

 

I learned early on, Harvard students are generally solid writers and adept at being persuasive. It started with a Pulitzer Prize winning apology note for missing one class. The note was so convincing, it made me disregard the fact the student’s life-threatening, deeply contagious illness was only a stuffy nose. However, ten Pulitzer Prize-winning notes in, I became more wary and tightened my attendance policy. I don’t have the same problem at Hostos. Writing and organizing thoughts are frequently a challenge for my students, therefore I slip writing into almost every assignment. This can mean writing tasks like  jotting notes, paragraph-long director’s treatments, typing up and posting short reflection papers, etc. Later  in the semester, I have students take one of these low-stake writing assignments and turn it into something more significant like a compare/contrast paper based on their reflections of two animated short films. At Harvard, I assign no paper. The student’s email responses to my technical and creative notes are sometimes several pages long and more thought out and organized than a research paper. The only writing I do with them is having them develop their animated short film concepts and this is done primarily in oral presentation form.

 

Family obligations and commitments are a constant obstacle for Hostos students. In 2011, I hired a Hostos animation student to assist with a TED-Ed educational video. On his first day on the job, he shook my hand a thousand times and thanked me profusely for the opportunity. The next day he didn’t show up. It turned out he couldn’t work that day because he had to massage his grandfather’s neck. Leaving me little choice, I told him to tell his grandfather to find somebody else to massage his neck or I would have to hire another animation student. So he got his older brother to massage his grandfather and he hopped on the subway. Students miss classes or show up late to take care of relatives, drop off a sibling at school, or accompany a parent at court all the time. As a result, many fall behind and even drop out because it becomes too hard to balance, job, school and family. The only effective countermeasure I have is requiring my students to use production calendars. I make them block out the dates and times they need to be animating and hold them accountable. This way when a family member asks them to do something at a crucial time in the semester, the student can use the production calendar to give them some leverage.

 

Harvard students are very comfortable with competition and innovation. If I give them a ten-second long animation assignment, they’ll come back the following week with one-minute long films and ask what Oscar qualifying film festivals they can submit them to. Also nothing can be too challenging. I could hand them a roll of toilet paper and they’ll manage to animate on it. Conversely, my Hostos students, though often massively talented, are not as comfortable with taking artistic risks or competing. I address this by modifying my Hostos animation syllabus to include activities, lessons, and events aimed at inciting friendly rivalry and rewarding innovation.

Over the past eight years, I’ve tried to create an environment where Hostos students feel supported and can take big emotional and creative risks so they can grow into working artists. I do everything from get  supply donations or build animation equipment. I visit local art high schools to lure hungry students to our program. I get alumni and recent grads to mentor current students. I started and run an annual international student animation festival where I invite Hostos Media Design alum and current animation majors to watch all the submissions and select films. I organize informal get togethers where Hostos alum and current animation majors share and workshop new films they are working on. And most importantly, I make the lessons, the material and the overall experience of my classes personal. After all these years of working at Hostos, I’ve learned if you’re going to push hard, you have to build the student’s self confidence and get them to trust you. At Harvard, I don’t do any of these things. There’s no reason to. They have the equipment, the emotional support and an innate understanding of the importance of competition and innovation. At Harvard, my job is mostly to facilitate.

 

On the surface, Harvard students and Hostos students are vastly different. But I find if you can dig through the barriers of class and race, they’re not that different at all.  If you provide students the tools they need to make whatever they need to make, emotional support, creative and technical support and a sense of healthy competition, they are almost sure to succeed whether they attend Harvard or Hostos.

 

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