Critique classes, or Seminar, as they’re referred to in the Photography department, can be both exhilarating and anxiety-inducing, both validating and momentarily devastating. If grad school was a jelly donut (well, first of all, if grad school was a jelly donut it wouldn’t cost nearly as much), but if grad school was a jelly donut, Crit would be the jelly that holds all the other classes together and is constantly under pressure.
Seminar is your chance to present your work to your peers and professors—the progress you’ve made in the past three weeks, the new questions you’ve been thinking about, and hopefully the even newer answers you’ve discovered. This is where you’re given the opportunity to see if it all lands the way you hoped it would when you settled on the specifics at 2am the night before. The experience can be a bit nerve-wracking; fourteen pairs of eyes staring at you as you sit beside the work you’ve hung ever so precisely on the wall. This is pre-Covid, of course.
If you’re not familiar, there are a few various ways to run a critique. In my experience most of my peers prefer the 10-10-20 format; ten minutes for student responses, ten minutes for professor and students responses, and finally twenty minutes for the presenter to respond to the previous comments and inquiries which up until then they had been listening to in silence. The first ten minutes give your peers a chance to speak about your work without the influence of their professors or the fear of disagreeing. Often times as we work side by side in the studios and printing lab we are privy to the progress our peers make before the professors. Conversations are had, opinions are requested, and what ends up on the wall is not always a total surprise. Once the professors step in, the conversation may shift and students may be less inclined to speak up. This is all very dependent on the class dynamics, of course, and every class is different. That being said, the only constant is that there is no constant, and the suggestions you receive will not always align with your work or with others’ ideas of your work.
What ends up on the wall does not always land as expected, and if and when it does it almost certainly won’t be unanimous. As the old saying goes, opinions are like…well you know—everyone’s got one. Part of the learning experience of graduate school is knowing when to listen and when to ignore your fellow peers and professors, respectfully. Each individual brings with them their own experience, a unique lens through which they view the world. While everyone’s opinions and experiences are valid (for the most part), they are not always helpful. Learning when to follow your own path and ignore the haters is a skill that every artist will have to hone at some point in their life, and crits are an essential practice space. Allowing yourself to be pushed and pulled at the whim of others only deters you from moving forward in what will already be the least straightforward trajectory ever. Take what is useful, and leave the rest. Know what drives you, be clear in your intention, and follow that through till the end.