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What's the bigger problem for first years: commutes, paychecks, or egos?
Egos and paychecks are neck and neck. Both tend to dissipate within the first couple of months. One rigorous critique will generally simmer that ego right down. Financial anxiety, while present for a lot of students during their entire time in an MFA program, does seem to also calm down once a student gets acclimated to their schedule and expenses.
What are your favorite type of new students?
The nice ones! The more engaged and enthusiastic a student is the more engaged and enthusiastic everyone else becomes. Attitudes are infectious and a positive one can go a long way. My favorites are the ones who are candid, honest and ready to work.
Over the past few years, have you seen the age range of MFA students increase? How has that affected the role you play as an advisor?
I have seen some differences but not to a large extent. I'm one of the youngest faculty members in my department so I sometimes get asked if this is a problem. Generally, it isn't. The older students are typically more focused and can draw upon more life experience for inspiration. The younger students are more fearless and excitable. The key to working with a student of any age is to simply meet them where they are in their development and lead them on from there.
What’s the main difference between MFA students who come to New York from elsewhere and those who have been making work in the city for a while?
The students coming from outside of the city understandably need a little more adjustment time to navigate the city and get used to the pace of things. It's usually not a problem. International students are often the ones who struggle the most with issues of homesickness and adjusting to the unique experience of living in this town.
Do you ever tell MFA students to stop spending time on campus in studios and go see more art?
Yes, in fact, I teach a class based on this premise. However, it's not as simple as just going to MOMA or openings in Chelsea. I encourage my students to go and see a little bit of everything, not to put the most high profile areas of the art world on a pedestal. I make it a point to seek out emerging artists and alternative spaces in order to give the students a better idea of a realistic trajectory after they graduate.
It's also important that students have an idea of what their contemporaries are doing. Often students come in with their point of reference firmly rooted in the past, ignoring what's happening right now. I make it a goal to improve student awareness about art in the present.
To TA or not to TA?
The TA question is a big one. When I was a graduate student, I did a lot of TA work and found it incredibly rewarding. That's not to say that this is the best choice for everyone. It is demanding, scary at times, and a whole lot of work. If an MFA student really truly wants to be a teacher, then I say yes to being a TA. Otherwise, focus on your work.
Feedback: what’s the best way for students to get honest feedback about their work? Do they even want it?
Don't be defensive. I can't stress this enough. The biggest hindrance to getting worthwhile critiques is repeatedly not hearing what a critic or classmate is telling you. This doesn't mean that students shouldn't make their own decisions but they should also really consider the reactions to their work. Graduate school is a unique experience in that you have a captive audience whose job it is to pay attention to your work and try to help you make it better. This doesn't happen often in the real world. Use it to your advantage and learn to see your work as objectively as possible.
Initially, many students struggle with this, and often adopt an "I don't care what the world thinks of my work" attitude. I usually respond to that statement with, "Why are you here, then?" This seems to stem from a confidence issue, but as students get more comfortable with each other and their professors, genuine progress begins.
Do you encourage students to make work that’s completely different from what they’ve been making previously, or do you want them to focus on a series of work?
It's completely a fluid process. In the beginning of grad school, taking risks and doing new things is crucial. Students have the luxury of bouncing any ideas off of a number of people and seeing what sticks. It's entirely okay to fail in this time; in fact, I encourage it. You can learn as much from your flops as you can from your successes. Halfway through, however, it is important that students to settle down and focus, honing whatever they learned through earlier experimentations into something more cohesive and with more weight.