The summer workshop season is approaching, and taking classes and workshops is de rigueur for most quilters and other crafters in the never-ending quest to advance our skills, improve our technique and expand our horizons.
So you’re perusing the course catalogs. You might be looking for something to do with computer-based quilting, mixed-media collage, wearable art—or marketing your quilts and designs. Whatever the subject, you can find a course for it. But as a veteran of continuing education classes, I know how easily and widely these classes can miss the mark. Here, some sage advice, based on hard-won experience, on how to get the most from a class:
1. Be choosy. You don't have to say yes to the first class you find. All sorts of places are offering extended-learning classes today—from universities to professional training schools to craft centers and your local community school system. Before you hand over your credit card, figure out why you’re taking the class, what you hope to achieve from it (more knowledge, a chance to socialize, better technique, the opportunity to relax, a certificate or degree), how much time you can spend on homework and what kind of amenities you’re looking for. For some people, a bare-bones classroom is okay, while others are looking for more refined environs. I recently took a $2,000 class at Parsons School of Design in Manhattan (the school where Bravo TV’s Project Runway is filmed) and I was horrified at the sorry state of the classrooms—most notably the stools with no backs, which we were meant to sit on for three hours at a time! And always, always try and find pictures of the projects you’ll be making and the teacher’s work (on the Internet or in books and magazines): I’ve taken several classes where I’ve made things I’ve hated, simply because I signed up based solely on the catalog description.
2. Google the teacher. I’ve had more than one class go amiss due to an incompetent instructor who excels at doing but is terrible at teaching. (That old maxim, “those who can do, those who can’t teach” is misleading—when those who can also teach, they are often lousy at it or distracted by their day jobs.) At the Boston Museum School, I had an art teacher who was a wonderful artist herself, but lazy about teaching. And at Parsons I had an instructor who, though well intentioned, taught by being overly harsh and even humiliating in her critiques, which served to be demotivating rather than inspiring. As a result I’ve learned to do some research on potential teachers and ask other students what they think of instructors before I commit. You want to find a class and teacher that mentors you, not squashes your natural inclinations—a teacher who allows you to express yourself, rather than dictates you do things his or her way.
3. Glean what you can. Even though I’ve taken classes where I’ve hated the projects, I still try and lean some new techniques and be open to new ideas. For instance, in one class, I found myself making the ugliest dolls I’ve ever seen. I just knew I’d never use them (nor would I be caught dead giving them away!), but I tried to absorb some of the painting techniques the teacher was sharing, discarding what didn’t apply to my goals or feel right to me.
4. Drop out if you have to. It’s your free time and it’s precious, so don’t waste it if you’re not getting what you want from a class—and don’t let someone else waste it. A friend of mine took a Japanese-technique watercolor painting class, but dropped it due to the excruciatingly slow pace of the lessons. I myself finally dropped the Boston Museum School art class when the teacher, rather than bringing one in to show us, suggested that we go to the library to find a color wheel.
5. Take advantage of class connections. One of the great bonuses of taking continuing education classes is meeting people who share your passion for creating. Another is networking about potential organizations, events, other classes and even jobs. I’ve made some long-term friends during classes I’ve taken, people to laugh, problem-solve and shop with, friends who share my enthusiasm for fabric and quilting. And what could be better than that?