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What We Talk About When We Talk About Work

Cyrus Highsmith • editorial

I learned everything I know about teaching from reality television.

My official job title at Rhode Island School of Design is Senior Critic. I like to say that I earned it by complaining a lot and getting older. All joking aside, I have no training in how to be a critic. I learned a lot of things in art school, but that was not one of them. Standing in front of a roomful of people and talking about someone’s work can be difficult for anyone, from a first-year student to an experienced teacher.

Lately, I have been watching The Great British Baking Show. I’m not interested in cakes or pastries. I pay attention to how the judges do their jobs. I’ve learned a lot from them about how to be a critic.

Week after week, baker after baker, the judges critique each participant’s output. Sometimes there are tears, but overall the atmosphere on the show is supportive and positive. The critiques are straightforward and informative. They focus mostly on three criteria: first impressions, use of materials, and technique.

First Impressions

The baking show judges often start by examining their first impressions of a piece. Usually, first impressions fall into two parts. One is about expectations—does the piece look like the thing it’s supposed to look like? The other is about craft—does the piece look sloppy or well-made?

When you present something to an audience, they’ll have expectations about what it should look like. The creator has a choice about whether to work within those expectations, play with them, or subvert them entirely. Most of the time, creators work within them. However, in order to do any of them well, you need to have an understanding about the kind of thing you are making. The intent needs to be clear.

The level of craft is the other important part of a first impression. A high level of craft means all the details are working together to reinforce the creator’s intent. If some of the details aren’t helping, the craft needs some refining. If some details are actually working against the creator’s intent, the level of craft is low. In other words, it looks amazing, it looks ok, or it looks sloppy.

Use of Materials

The baking show judges aren’t entirely focused on the end product. They meet with each contestant while they’re baking, to ask questions about their plans, often regarding specific ingredients. They want to know the baker’s goals for flavor in the finished piece. If the flavors don’t come out as planned, the baker is told they need to make better their use of materials.

Results matter but how you get there matters too. Even if everything comes out fine in the end, smart use of materials and resources is important. Improvement requires self-analysis and reflective skepticism. When questions about use of materials are framed correctly, the critic can help foster critical thinking skills.

Technique

When something is overdone or underdone, too dry or too soggy, the judges let the baker know with direct language. However, these comments are usually accompanied by supportive remarks. Finally, they give specific advice on how to improve. To paraphrase one of the judges, “it looks fantastic and the flavors are coming through nicely but it needed more time in the oven.”

A critique that focuses too much on technique is tedious and can alienate the students who need help the most. Ignoring technique entirely robs them of important knowledge and skill. The right balance comes from sticking to the basics while also trusting the students to learn by doing. Everyone makes mistakes and that’s part of the training process.

Conclusion

The baking show judges’ criteria will be familiar to anyone in art school. Unfortunately, being stuck in an endless, soul-destroying group crit is probably familiar as well. I don’t think giving a good critique comes naturally to anyone.

I use the baking show formula in the classroom and I make a point to explain it to the students. We don’t always follow it exactly and it doesn’t always cover every base. However, it’s helpful to have something simple to fall back on. Talking about our work is important. Talking about how we talk about our work is important too.

Of course, no critic is 100% objective or infallible. The judges on the baking show are no exception. The last part of their process usually acknowledges this with comments like I love it, I never liked that flavor, or the famous handshake.

There’s room in a critique for subjective opinions, reflection, and personal experience. Being brief and saving this until the end helps provide proper context. Often, this makes it all the more meaningful, as well as enjoyable, for everyone.

Jessica Helfand and Michael Bierut also have some interesting things to say about The Great British Baking Show. Listen to episode 111: The Great British Crit of their excellent podcast, The Observatory.

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