The pandemic was an inflection point that raised questions around the systems and processes that undergird our lives at every level. In the classroom, defining structures had to be suddenly reimagined, and the ways teachers and students connect, how work develops, and the role of relied-upon classroom structures were all fields for creative reimagining. For professor Analia Segal, coordinator of the sculpture and integrated practices major within undergraduate fine arts at Pratt, this moment initiated a shift that, while it could appear simple on the surface, became a unique opportunity to make lasting changes.
It started with a familiar concept, one easy to take for granted—the deadline—and evolved into an interrogation of the meaning of the word itself, which for her had begun to resonate ominously as two words—dead_line.
As a way to support students through the sudden, dramatic changes of spring 2020, Segal decided to remove all assignment deadlines. It was a means of accommodating the shifts imposed by physical distancing, with uncertainty as to what might happen. To her surprise, all of her students completed their work before the semester ended. “We’d been replicating a teaching methodology that we’d had for hundreds of years,” Segal says. But removing that historically fundamental element in the learning scaffolding, didn’t stifle her students’ progress. “The desire to fulfill their goal was much stronger than anything else.”
This spurred what Segal calls “a forensic reading of the syllabus,” homing in on the language that forms the framework and expectations for her classes. Segal, who hails from Argentina, looked to her first language and Latin American/Latinx identity to begin this work. She replaced the word deadline with the Spanish translation, entrega, which also means “offering.” This milestone is the time when the work is ready to be offered and shared with others, an idea that Segal says “resonates with the concept of ‘hospitality’ from Derrida and ‘linguistic hospitality’ coined by Richard Kearney.”
Next, Segal removed the sequencing of assignments, allowing students to approach them in an order that aligned with the ideas they were developing. The critique then is embedded throughout the course, set by students on a shared calendar, versus scheduled for everyone at set intervals. Segal conceived of this as “a way to nurture synergies” and encourage, as she says, “a more fluid dialogue between the thinking and the making, and have the student become highly aware of their individual process, being in tune with what I call their ‘inner compass.’”
For Helena Chappell, BFA Fine Arts (Sculpture and Integrated Practices) ’23, Segal’s framework generated a sense of fulfillment beyond the satisfaction of meeting an assignment deadline. “It lets you sit in the discomfort of being unsatisfied,” she said in a conversation with Segal—who interviewed a number of her sculpture and integrated practices sophomores and juniors to facilitate research around her new approach. Chappell reflected that this helped to move work forward, following the qualities of the work that resonated and discard what didn’t.
The classroom structure also spurred Chappell to organize her time in a way that brought her closer to the work itself. “I felt like I owned my work more,” she said.
Kael Frank, BFA Fine Arts (Sculpture and Integrated Practices) ’24, echoed that sentiment: “It helped me get better about taking my own plans seriously.” Frank chose to follow the assignments in the order that they were written, seeing a meaningful arc in the way they were arranged.
Several students remarked on how the framework opened up space for research and facilitated experimentation with process and materials.
Roni Hagai, who attended Pratt on exchange from Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Israel, observed, “It allows you to start the work . . . and let the work evolve more naturally. . . . I could let the work take its own path.”
For Luca Rekosh, BFA Fine Arts (Sculpture and Integrated Practices) ’23, the fluid framework can also change the scale of the vision around the work, and give students an opportunity to learn firsthand what it will take to achieve it. “It allows me to come up with grand schemes and work through that process—work on something, leave it, work on something else, come back to it. I’ve been able to experiment a lot because of it,” Rekosh said, adding, “I got a lot out of seeing people’s processes, and seeing how they work through things.”
Kai Barker Dennett, BFA Fine Arts (Sculpture and Integrated Practices) ’24, agrees. “We can all feed off each other,” Dennett says, noting that the unsequenced critiques can encourage that as well as a new internal rubric for assessing the work. “When we’re all presenting on the same day, we’re usually judging off how much the work fits the assignment,” while Segal’s framework “doesn’t force us to think in the metric of, ‘I wasn’t successful in making this—it’s not as “Balancing Acts” as that person’s,’” referring to one of Segal’s sculpture exercises. Assessment and discussion becomes more about the work itself.
Ilayda Celik, BFA Fine Arts (Sculpture and Integrated Practices) ’23, told Segal that the critiques were particularly eye opening. “I’ve learned the most from seeing people present,” Celik said. “They expanded my ideas around the mediums that are accessible in sculpture.”
“For those things to happen, there has to be a level of trust, in each other, in the classroom—then failure can happen, experimentation can happen, and finally structural transformation happens,” Segal says. “The assignments are a springboard, portals that allow them to experiment, take risks, engage in a collective intellectual growth and jump into the unknown of the creative process.”
This pedagogical research resonates with Segal’s artistic practice, which includes examining the ontological nature of touch and diasporic issues of inhabitation, from the physical to the digital. It is also part of a larger project, which Segal calls “m_OTHER tongues,” work that has been supported by the Center for Teaching and Learning, through which Segal has participated in several faculty development committees including, most recently, Radical Pedagogies and Deep Dive Community on Participatory Education, and the Faculty Research Leadership mentoring program through the Office of the Provost. The project explores language as a bridge, diasporic cultural production, and ideas around identity and citizenship. (Segal was recently selected as a Fulbright Specialist, which will take her to the Universidad Politécnica de Madrid in Spain to build on the work she is doing at Pratt.)
The overarching goal of Segal’s work in the classroom is to foster a more “multilingual, multidimensional, multisensorial community,” she says, using language as a tool to dismantle old hierarchies and build something new for a new generation of student artists. Even before this recent exploration of language in the classroom framework, Segal has emphasized the term citizen when she refers to her students. That idea of student as citizen takes on new meaning in the classroom ecosystem Segal is developing, exploring the porosity between art and society.
“Teaching and learning side by side puts the relationships in motion in a different way,” Segal says. “The collaboration and reciprocity among the students becomes a key element that gives them agency and responsibility to their own learning. The students’ relationship to the academic system and how they can embrace and operate within it changes. It opens up diversity and inclusion—when you have something that functions with different energies circulating, instead of one, it sets a profound path of equity in motion. The teaching and the learning is happening as a rhizome—assignments in the syllabus are conceived as an ‘ecology of experiences,’ a series of interconnected concerns. I’ve used ‘re-languaging’ and ‘re-thinking’ as a methodology to review the teaching and learning scaffold and work together to envision a new one.”
Read more stories from “Start Here” in the Fall 2022 issue.