Deep Cuts

A return to the classroom, but two weeks ago…

“I’m going in deep!” – Kitchen Knife

A ruined dinner, plenty of obscenities, lots of blood, and three stitches. An old lime with a hard rind had rolled left with the blade still attached. My fingers didn’t stand a chance.

Kinda reminds me of when I decided to leave a solid career and pursue this graduate degree. “I’m going in deep!” I had said.

I’ve had varied professions over the years. I’ve tended bar, waited tables, worked construction, and of course designed some really cool products. My last decade was with a luxury lighting firm in Floyd, VA. You can see my light fixtures in capitol buildings, universities, museums, and skyscrapers. Sections of Disney World and RAMSA-designed residentials are illuminated with some of my thoughts. I’m proud of them. I really am. But I am most proud of the team of designers and engineers I have had the pleasure to train and work alongside. I’ve always had a mind to teach, but they are the reason I decided to return to academia.

The cutting moment happened in late 2017, as the last engineer I had personally hired was reviewing one of my drawings. All documents were required to have a double-check before they were sent to the client. Kevin was now an adept and able to review his boss’ work. Suddenly his bored eyes lit up like Christmas.

“I did it! I found one!!” he exclaimed.
“Found what?” I asked.
“A mistake,” he said slowly. “I found a mistake on your drawing.”
“Good,” I replied in amusement. “Mark it up.”
“Really? Seriously! Where’s a red pen?” He searched frantically. “I’ve always wanted to do this.”
“Do what?” I asked.
“This.” And he drew a deliberate red circle around a misspelled word, his smile from ear to ear. Then he spoke again, “For my first year I was so terrified of the red-lines you made on my drawings. I was always worried I was going to get fired every time I saw them bleed across the page.”
“Well, how else were you going to learn?” I asked. He nodded. “And besides, you rarely get them anymore. You’re a really good engineer, Kevin.”
“I know. You taught me well.”

Straight to my damned heart. They don’t make stitches for that. I know I’d grown kinda hard and crusty, even a little bitter over the years. I mean, look at those forehead wrinkles. Fourteen years of industry work and two decades of cigarettes will do that. But, they don’t protect you from an honest friend. My team and my company were in great hands. It was time to go teach others. I quit smoking. I applied to graduate school. I left the business. 

My wife and I have moved to the area. You can find me in Burchard Hall, where I am working on my MS Arch with a focus on Industrial Design. I hope you’ll help me along with way, and, if ever I can assist you in your own journey, I’ll be there.



8 thoughts on “Deep Cuts

  1. Hi Ben,

    I loved your detailed story. I feel like it is important to let our students know that they are also allowed to critique us and point out when we make mistakes. Students are often hesitant to critique professors and teachers because they probably view them as someone who doesn’t make mistakes and always knows the facts.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Or they don’t critique out of distrust, as in, there may be repercussions for being outspoken. (I hope that’s never the case, but I’d be naive to think it doesn’t happen). As a GTA, I’m in that in-between stage where I’m trusted enough by the students to receive their feedback about the teaching, while also being considered a sorta-kinda teacher. I encourage it, and I learn from it!
      Thanks, Susan!


  2. Thank you for the personal story, Ben. I have always found it a little difficult to set up this mentality of mutual learning with my students. I believe a lot of the separation between the teacher and the students comes from how the classrooms are set up sometimes. Having a podium in front of the room and a lot of seats for the students doesn’t seem to foster that relationship of constructively critiquing each other. I’ve lucked out with smaller classrooms where I can walk around, but it is not always so easy. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on getting this kind of dialogue started in a larger, traditional lecture style classroom.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s a tough one! In this specific case, the employee corrected the employer: the student became the teacher. I took zero offense to it, and hopefully the story shows how proud I was of him. There was a mutual understanding and respect exchanged that required trust. Maybe it’s asking our students ‘what’s wrong with this picture?’ to gauge their understanding of a concept, to provoke a response and engage them. ‘Catch me if you can!’ by providing obvious problems that become more nuanced over time?

      I’m currently engaged with a 60+ student classroom as a TA, and I’m just starting to think more about how to engage with such a large group. I walk around some, we lecture some, and we have a creative aspect that requires the students to produce physical artifacts (hand sketching of pre-planned scenarios) which they then discuss among each other for a few minutes afterwards. It requires they ask each other what’s wrong. At the end of the class, we ask for groups to volunteer their discussions and solutions. This may be unique to the design and architecture realms, where an unconventional response doesn’t guarantee failure. I hope that make some kind of sense? These are creative fields constantly open to interpretation. There aren’t necessarily strict rules, more generalized guidelines.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Beautiful story Ben. I’m glad to see the “employer to employee” took on more of a “mentor to mentee” relationship where mutual respect for each other fostered. Which has me wondering on a couple things: do you find it beneficial to carry this kind of relationship into a classroom? Even one that might scale to a high tens of students? Will it be different when you are the instructor versus a TA?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ve been extremely fortunate in my private career to have had interactions on a personal basis. The largest my internal team ever got was eight(!), so it was easy to foster those types of relationships. However, my experiences of having that on a large scale is limited. I don’t know how deep it can go with A) such a large group and B) in a short amount of time (~3 months?). It’s a great question, Tim.

    Last semester, I was the physical avatar (if you will) for a classroom with remote instructors. The class was 33 people. I didn’t get to know them all personally, but I knew each of their first names by mid-October. Hiccups happened early in the semester, and we decided to have an offline pow-wow; not to cut out the instructors, but to separate student frustrations from the looming big-brother image of the screen. We hashed out ideas, came up with a few solutions, and quickly implemented those changes (along with the professors’ later input) within two weeks. Students approached me individually and as groups throughout the rest of the semester with words of gratitude. By listening to the students and proactively addressing issues, we were able to give them a voice.

    Now I’ve a class of 60+, and figuring it out all over again. Walking around the room helps. I’m back to learning new names. I’ve always tried to get to know everyone on some kind of level, whether as simple as the name or remembering a shared moment. The small companies I’ve worked for ultimately become families, and the newest members are the first I’ve tried to say hello to (cue John Prine’s Hello in There). It’s as much relationship building as it is teaching. Just my experiences, my friend. I certainly hope it continues when I become a full instructor. We shall see!


  5. Hi Ben,

    You put together a really great blog post! I was hooked the whole way through!

    The part that connected with me the most were your comments on criticism. It is certainly necessary to receive criticism well in order to learn and grow. In fact, accepting constructive criticism is itself a skill that has to be learned. It is hard to do and hard not to take personally. Do you think there’s any way for students to be made accustomed to receiving criticism?

    I’m a second year PhD student, but ever since my first semester of my master’s program I’ve dreaded every time I’ve had to show my work to someone else. I know it’s not perfect but the thought of someone else seeing that imperfection is terrifying. Receiving a draft back from a professor or comments on a final paper is gut-wrenching every time. Given the variety of experiences you’ve had in your life, do you think there are techniques for those receiving criticism to receive it better? And likewise, are there ways for those giving it to make it more meaningful? There are definitely professors that I work with who are better at giving feedback than others. But I’ve never been able to put my finger on why I think they are better at it than others.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s an awesome question! And I don’t have any solid answer for you. The best I can give is this: Let everyone know from the get-go that criticism is coming, everyone will get it, and it is not personal. How else are you going to learn?
      Criticism sucks. It still sucks. In my story, my engineer found a misspelling, that wasn’t bad. If he had shredded the design of the product, the part I really cared about, it would have stung. As a grad student, I still stress the return of my papers or the review of my designs. And it’s not just me. Our design students are exposed to critiques (crits) in every class, and it happens nearly every week. We print our designs out, post them to the walls, and watch them get picked them apart. It is not to put down the students or their effort, but to provide instruction through the errors (better now than later). Maybe because it is done en masse, and every student sees it’s not just personal, the crits are less public shaming and more group discussion. It doesn’t change how much criticism sucks, but it lessens the blow. I hope this isn’t unique to our field of study, and if it is, I hope this might provide an avenue to try for yourself. I’m still figuring it out myself.
      Cheers, and thanks!


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