Monday, November 10, 2014

the challenges of Judging

I spent the weekend in Texas, as one of three judges at the Texas Furniture Maker's Show.  First, I want to thank the craftsmen for having invested so much in their caring workmanship and exploration of design. And I want to apologize if  I offended anyone by my critique or by overlooking the qualities of their work in the competition. With a limited amount of time to review work, and with a limited number of awards to give in distinct categories, we faced challenges.

Much of the work was amazing, but judging such an exhibit is likely not something I will ever do again. The problem, is much like what we see in public education. There are no real clear assessments for quality of design, and when it comes to technical qualities and various levels of craftsmanship, it is hard to find an objective measure to rank one distinctively different piece against another.

In public education, standardized testing has become their answer for assessing results, and at the furniture show, we judges often fell back on surface effects, to attempt to find an objective measure to achieve a ranking, one fine piece vs. the next, just as in education where standardized testing looks primarily at surface effect.  For instance it is relatively easy to run your hand across a finish and discover that it was not given as much care as the finish in another piece. In education, you can test for some things easily, like comprehension in reading and math, but those tests never reveal the more important qualities that lead to success.

Yesterday we had a critique in which judges and makers walked through the exhibit and discussed the features that led us to choose or ignore each one, and that may have been informative to most, but it was also awkward being put into a situation in which we had to explain our choices and rationalize our oversights of particular works.

Participating in such shows requires a bit of perspective. Participation should be based on the desire to learn, not on the desire to win, and most of the participants in the critique wanted greater insight into how to make their own work better.

Some of the work simply displayed excellence in the making of traditional designs, and those were the ones that gathered our higher marks. When an artist does something purposefully different in an effort to stand out, it is also at the risk of wowing one judge and leaving others scratching their heads. That was a situation we faced with some of the more innovative work.

My own suggestion is that craftsmen take judges and the process of judging philosophically. There is an inevitable arbitrariness to the process. One year in a show, my work was awarded best of show, and the next year, I wasn't let in at all, and so we must not take a panel of judges too seriously or allow their comments to detract us from our creative paths.

In public education, finding a way to rank children seems inevitably cruel and short-sighted. Individual craftsmen may have the opportunity to enter next year. Children are marched unceremonious into life based on no clearer standard than their ability to test well.

On the flight home to Arkansas, a young couple with their child, Ellen, were in the seats across the isle. I had noticed Ellen at the airport earlier as her mother and father took turns trying to keep her in check. She was young enough to toddle like a drunken sailor. She was bright, active, and her parents were lovingly engaged. Would I need a standardized test to determine her future or to sort her, one child against another?

Would it not be best that we simply love the work, and love the children and not spend too much time attempting to measure one piece against another, or one child against the next?

Today I have work to do at school preparing for classes.

I want to thank the Kerr Arts and Cultural Center for allowing me to participate as judge and for hosting my presentation on furniture design. They and the craftsmen of Texas put on a first class show.

Make, fix and create...


  1. I see that you are thinking about evaluation of students. Standardized tests tell us very little of import about student learning. It is no wonder that they also tell us very little of import about the performance of any given teacher. There are many good reasons to evaluate both learning and teaching. We know how best to evaluate student learning (eX: the little girl in the airport). So, let's go to work and use meaningful ways to evaluate teaching. Hint: the methods and procedures have been in place in California for many years.
    They are in the CA State Education Code and are not hindered in the least by tenure. Nor do they rely upon standardized testing of students. Keep fixing and learning!

  2. Judging work like that becomes a decision that is as personal and subjective for the judge as it was for the craftsman. Not an easy job at all.