The Good Student*

*With no apologies at all to Paul McVeigh whose book, The Good Son, is the best tale about growing up in Northern Ireland during The Troubles you’ll ever read, Man Booker Prize winners notwithstanding. On Audible, it’s even better because the man himself is reading it.

So, what does it take to be a Good Student? It’s a question I’m asking myself again at the start of another course, and I’m asking it in the context of striving for that in the past and also observing student trainees of my own doing the same during their clinical placements.

The related question of course, is why be a good student, and part of the answer is that spending your whole time snarking and upsetting apple carts probably isn’t going to endear you to the people who dish out the grades. But then what about originality, creativity, pushing the envelope – surely that’s a requirement whether the subject matter is arts or sciences?

From experience, I know that there are phases to this and the first is about learning the rules of the game. To succeed in terms of the end result, certain things have to happen in a certain order and to a certain level of competence. Compliance is a pre-requisite; no leeway, no argument, suck it up. But then there’s the more subtle, informally contextual rule set which centres on the institution and its culture. What kind of people are successful here – are they outgoing, noisy, challengers of boundaries, or are they the more self contained, studious types who are more likely to warn you they’re about to be a bit different (if you don’t mind) than drop it on you from the top of the physics building? Trainees from two particular clinical courses were, back in the day, characterised as bolshy, arrogant, insular, ‘research types’ (the Institute of Psychiatry), or ladies with flicky hair who all wore Laura Ashley (what used to be the South East Thames course based in Tonbridge).  Having graduated from the first and supervised trainees from both, I can attest to that distinction. I can also say that there was a difference in how they perceived me, the person who observed their practice and who could pass or fail them at the end. Both were anxious because it was important. But the IoP trainees came with a kind of shield that meant they were never going to be like anyone else (except everyone else who came from the IoP) while the others had a kind of earnest openness to being moulded into whatever their supervisor seemed to view as the perfect trainee. Creativity and originality were requirements but only within the bounds of evidence-based practice, which presented both groups with a problem as they had to guess what my bias was in this – the use of cutting edge research to inform practice, or the ability to actually speak to patients.

Actually I wanted both but the point here is that compliance has to be replaced gradually by self-knowledge based on principles, and that’s the tricky bit at the start of any course. When it comes to creative originality, how far is too far for any given circumstance? Is this a staff group or institution that will tolerate unpredictability with regard to rules if there appears to be some kind of genius (I use the term advisedly) behind it?

Right now, like all the new starters on this Fine Art course, I’m trying to figure out the big rules so I’ll at least be doing what’s on the programme and not submitting stuff that bears no relation to it. At the same time, I’m getting the measure of the culture and wondering what my tutor expects or wants of me. I’m also trying to remember, as I always have to, that not much ever came of being a tribute band so I need to ease into being myself because that’s the only student/artist/person I can be and have any authenticity.

So in the interests of said authenticity, here’s a drawing of my cat. Mr Woods was a two-cat-cat-in-a-one-cat-pack whose internal clock drove him to sit on my keyboard and stare into my face at around 3.30 pm every day. His clock ran fast.

Mr Woods sketch painted

Mr Woods. Charcoal on cartridge, coloured digitally in Rebelle3 by Escapemotions

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