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Practice What You Teach

This article originally appeared in the fall 2018 issue of Portfolio magazine. Read the complete issue

The old adage “practice what you preach” is something of a creed for KCAD faculty members. For these versatile educators, creating impact in the classroom means drawing from deep wells of experience in their own professional endeavors. 

For students, the lessons include everything from design/research methodologies and artistic processes to managing client expectations and coping with the psychological impacts of both success and failure.

“When I speak to students about entrepreneurship, it’s easy for me to demonstrate the possibilities,” says Associate Professor and Industrial Design Program Chair Jon Moroney. “I just show them what I do on a daily basis.”

The Industrial Design program’s blend of design and entrepreneurship owes much to Moroney’s own experiences. After beginning his career as a product design consultant, he soon recognized the importance of understanding business principles and utilizing that knowledge to drive his designs. He eventually invested in a number of startup companies and launched several products of his own, including the winter recreation product Sled Legs, and Pretch, a mobile whiteboard system. His experience managing the full scope of a design project, including materials, funding, marketing, branding, and sales, helps his students think more broadly about their own work.

Man wearing skis on his knees leaps into winter funIndustrial Design Program Chair Jon Moroney models SledLegs, the latest in a long line of entrepreneurial endeavors that feed his teaching.

Guiding students through the entrepreneurial process gives them the opportunity to work with other disciplines in collaborative settings. For example, Moroney recently facilitated a collaboration between KCAD, Grand Valley State University (GVSU), and FirstBuild, a subsidiary of GE Appliances. KCAD students worked on crafting full-scale business models surrounding a number of products for FirstBuild. One of the projects is currently moving forward to a crowdfunding campaign and, if successful, will earn students royalties when the product hits the market. 

As part of another ongoing relationship, KCAD students and faculty are working with GVSU and Spectrum Health Innovations, LLC, to design products in a medical device incubator atmosphere. For Moroney, these real-world experiences are critical for students, even those without entrepreneurial ambitions.

“Understanding the broader context of where their ideas are going to be placed helps students become better designers,” says Moroney. “It helps them engage in conversations with people in marketing, operations, and sales; it makes them more effective team members.”

For Mike Dollar, an assistant professor in the Digital Art and Design program who helped set up and now manages KCAD’s audio lab, teaching students how to be versatile and navigate the post-college working world is a top priority. To do so, Dollar draws on his own 20-plus years of experience in managing his own professional audio studio, Dollar Pro Audio, and working with clients from every conceivable genre of music.

Man working at the console of a recording studioDigital Art and Design Assistant Professor Mike Dollar mixes a track at Dollar Pro Audio, the professional audio studio he runs when not teaching Sound Design classes at KCAD.

In class, Dollar focuses heavily on the practical side of working with clients, navigating the psychological impact of equipment and software failures and a host of other real-world issues that can crop up during the course of work in the field. He ensures students are adept at gracefully managing criticism from clients as well as their peers. He also helps prepare them for working across disciplines in larger groups. 

“When I work with clients, I bring that experience, years of doing that, into the classroom and build it into projects,“ says Dollar. “We have revisions and group critiques to help students develop that perspective.”

Dollar also ensures his students are able to work across numerous different software programs and operating systems to help them become as versatile as possible.

“I don’t teach ‘push this button to make something louder,’” says Dollar. “I teach contextually so students can be intellectually nimble enough to be able to jump to another platform.”

Dollar’s time in his own studio enables him to stay abreast of cutting-edge concepts and equipment in audio production. Moreover, it’s also instilled an ethos of constant selfteaching, something he urges his students to practice for the entirety of their careers.

“The ability to self-teach is something that we preach a lot and bring in,” says Dollar. “I’m constantly self-teaching; it’s what we do in audio production because we’re dealing with a moving target.”

Since 2008, Drawing Assistant Professor Danielle Wyckoff has dedicated her own artistic practice to gathering stories from strangers around the world about their experiences with love and love lost. From Grand Rapids to China to Chile to Canada to Denmark, Wyckoff sets up in a public space, such as a park, with a small sign reading in the native language of the country, “Tell me a story about love,” and carefully documents the wide range of conversations that follow. Once collected, the stories are incorporated into Wyckoff’s multifaceted drawings, prints, and installations.

Two women talking together on a park benchDrawing Assistant Professor Danielle Wyckoff talks to a couple in Santiago, Chile for her “Please Tell Me a Story About Love” project.

Wyckoff’s experiences have deeply informed her pedagogy. She intentionally pursues new situations, something she conveys to her students as necessary for artistic growth. 

“I talk to my students a lot about being willing to take artistic risks, which means putting themselves in artistic situations that will allow them to grow and get out of their comfort zone,” says Wyckoff.

Wyckoff also focuses on other practical matters, including how to secure exhibition opportunities and funding for big projects.

“I talk to my students about, number one, dreaming big and number two, finding ways to financially support that dreaming,“ says Wyckoff. “As an artist, they must be professional and able to articulate their ideas.”

Many KCAD faculty are also scholars who present their research in academic journals and at international conferences. For Dr. Karen Carter, a professor in the Art History and Masters of Arts in Visual and Critical Studies programs, research, scholarship, and teaching have always been “intimately connected.”

“That connection has to be there,” says Dr. Carter. “I think it makes it more personal for the person teaching and also more interesting for students.”

Women smiles into the camera from her office deskDr. Karen Carter, who teaches in the Art History and Master of Arts in Visual and Critical Studies programs, poses with “Foreign Artists and Communities in Modern Paris, 1870–1914,” which she co-edited. The book is a collection of scholarly essays exploring Paris as a thriving transnational arts community.

While Dr. Carter’s research focuses on the revolutionary impact of posters on late 19th-century France, she recently expanded her focus to include posters from the early 1920s in the U.S. and Europe. In particular, Dr. Carter examines the posters through the lens of race and colonialism. In bringing her research into the classroom, she saw an opportunity to heighten the students’ learning experiences by accompanying them to the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Ferris State University. 

“They were really struck by how much advertising there was in the U.S. in the early 20th century that today we would consider to be racist,” Dr. Carter says of her students’ reactions.

Dr. Carter recently co-edited the book “Foreign Artists and Communities in Modern Paris, 1870-1914” and has contributed to a number of prestigious peer-reviewed publications. With her depth of experience in the field, she stimulates her students’ curiosity and guides them through everything from best practices for research to finding and applying to graduate schools.

“I think it’s important for students to realize that they’re working with faculty who are doing research, publishing, doing a lot of thinking and reading, and producing their own scholarship,” says Dr. Carter. “They’re part of an intellectual community.”

This nexus between teaching, learning, and doing, says Dean of Academic Affairs Charles Wright, is at the heart of the KCAD community.

“To be creative is to never stop growing,” he says. “And that journey is made all the more fulfilling when we bring others along with us.”