Dear students: Why you need to go down that hole

I’ve put off writing my column Dear Students because I didn’t particularly feel inspired to write for my second batch of students – mostly because they didn’t know where they were going and I, as a teacher, could not help them get to where they wanted to go (precisely because they didn’t know where they were going). But with my third batch of students though, for a class that began earlier this month, coupled with going away, and with new thoughts and ideas – I felt compelled to write again. I can’t lie that I’m inspired by the energy of the class. They’re a bunch of bright students who were willing to communicate their ideas and thoughts, and who were open to not knowing where this experience will take them. And so my thoughts for this season are for them, and any student around the world who might find this useful.


Teaching in-person has been an interesting experience so far. I’ve done it for a year now, and with each batch of students it’s a hit-or-miss. It’s one hit and one miss so far. And with that miss, I ask myself why – was it because I wasn’t good enough? Or was it the materials? Was I clear on the goal of the class, and what the outcome was? Could I do better?

The answer might be yes to all of them. Or perhaps it’s the other way around. I’m not going to debate who is right or wrong here. I’d rather improve myself and brace for challenges as they come. I don’t know what’s going to happen; I can only prepare for the worst and hope for the best. I make sure that I have fun regardless of who came along for the ride.

And it’s this attitude that I want my students to have: the fun of exploration and the joy of discovery and surprise. The guts for glory, the willingness to accept defeat; and the hard work that goes into unravelling a mystery. The experiments that might amount to something big, or fail miserably when it doesn’t. It’s a 50-50 chance of having something great; which to me is pretty amazing. Surely it beats having a 0% chance of succeeding (which is exactly what happens if you sit still and not do anything about it.)

But an observation of almost 60 students so far has led me to an interesting point: that a big percentage of students are afraid of the unknown. Before they strike out and do something, they want to be reassured that it will either: earn them high marks / gain approval from their teachers / applauded by their peers. All of which points to gaining an outside reaction, rather than satisfying an internal interest.

And that irks me a little.

Maybe it’s a lack of confidence. Maybe it’s a more realistic way of thinking about assignments (I only have X amount of time, so I don’t want to waste time on something that would be panned).

But the thing is, if you’ve put your heart and soul into something, would it be all that bad? Would it be so bad to believe that you can do it – putting together your passion and experimenting with new ways of expressing your ideas and thoughts that would not only benefit you, but others as well? Would it be so bad to reach for the stars? Or go down a rabbit hole just to see what’s on the other side?

Would it be so hard to try?


For those who may not be familiar with the Dear Students series, it’s a column that I have on my blog where I unload my advice to college students. It’s inspired by the in-person class that I’m teaching at a local college, and it’s an opportunity to write down thoughts that I didn’t manage to send out during class, or as an interesting observation about the class that I wanted to share with you. So whether you’re a student or a teacher, I’m sure some of the things I write about would elicit interesting responses, and I most welcome your thoughts!

To read past Dear Students posts, click here!

[Illustration: Looking down the rabbit hole. Millicent Sowerby. Illustration from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll; Chatto & Windus, UK, 1907]

12 Replies to “Dear students: Why you need to go down that hole”

  1. Larry Keyes says:

    One of the great things about being a student is that you have a little more slack to experiment and to follow you passions regardless of whether there is “commercial potential” (whether that implies approval by peers/teachers, high marks, or actual customers). Also a good reason for a “day job” is to be able to develop your art with less financial pressure.

    But if there is one thing that I took away from the Work-Art-Play course it was to get stuff “out there”… in order to gauge the reaction of the outside world, and so that you are just not talking to yourself. This was a strong and powerful message.

    You never know unless you try, and you never will know unless you produce and show.

    1. amy says:

      Exactly Larry! There’s so much to learn from each project no matter how small. The key is to keep pushing, no matter the outcome. xoxo

  2. Do both. One, find a marketable and viable style of illustration that gives you a steady stream of income. Second, always have a second, third, fourth and fifth type of illustration style that you are developing for yourself(that inner curiosity and sense of play) that may one day develop into a viable additional stream of income. Keep it fresh by always having multiple pots (styles) on the stove simmering. It works.

    1. amy says:

      YES YES YES! 😀

  3. sf says:

    “All of which points to gaining an outside reaction, rather than satisfying an internal interest.”

    So true! I bet many had been trained to do so, especially in an educational environment where every assignment, course has a deadline, and expectations to score. Somehow, kids lose the motivation and courage to try, experiment. Even if they can’t explore their real interests in their course work, they should be encouraged to explore it in their free time, a little every day. Everyone should try to find one thing that they love doing and pursue it either as a career or a lifelong learning thing despite how real life turns out 🙂

    1. amy says:

      YES sf! I think there needs to be change, especially in the way how many believe that doing what they love is a big risk. They need to turn it on its head – the bigger risk is to not pursue what you love instead.

  4. Meijie says:

    I agree with sf. As kids we are taught to do to have good result, not so much to discover or to find our inner interests. Having been where your students are right now, I remember how my lack of self confidence would tell me to just do the assignement and try to shut up any inner will to try something new.
    I wish I could go back there now… I have so much I would want to try!
    Maybe it could be part of your grading, a few point/percentage of the grade being related on the risk and the will to experiment the student put in.
    I love all your questions and blogging… It force me to think about things I never contemplated 🙂

    1. amy says:

      Hi Meijie!

      I think that’s true so for so many of us who wish who could go back and let ourselves go a little bit! The time as a student is one of the best times of all to experiment and sadly because of the pressure to do well it backfires too.

      Thank you so much for the kind words too! x

  5. John says:

    At the start of every year and continually throughout, I remind my pupils that they are allowed to make mistakes, they are even expected to make mistakes. We don’t operate a grading system so maybe the pressure is off as regards a final product/outcome but lots of praise, even for the smallest things, seems to work just fine.

    1. amy says:

      I do agree that the absence of a grading system takes a load off John! And yes praise works tremendously well too, in my experience. 🙂

  6. Christi says:

    I agree with Meijie’s comment, “I have so much I would want to try!
    Maybe it could be part of your grading, a few point/percentage of the grade being related on the risk and the will to experiment the student put in.” But I would keep experimenting as separate assignments. For a student, going to school is their job. The teacher is the boss. The successful solution is the portfolio piece and/or grade. For example, staff graphic designer would not spend all his/her time on a technique he/she had never done before. The student has a limited number of hours in which to complete the assignment, as does a professional. I suggest including mini assignments before each larger assignment. The assignment would be prep for the upcoming major assignment. You would require that the student present five new looks as small sketches/icons/experiments. They get a grade for showing that they experimented. Then, you give the assignment. If staying on schedule is an issue, assign “Experiment A” for Assignment A on the first day of class. Present the “Experiment B” for Assignment B at the same time you assign Assignment A. That way the students are given permission to experiment and receive points for experimenting without the danger of interrupting their potential “portfolio” piece. I have to feel “protected and secure” in order to “waste time.” Students who are goal oriented toward winning a job when they graduate are going to feel like they are throwing that away, if they don’t have “permission” or a “safe place” to experiment.

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