Wednesday, June 29, 2011


After a full year at one of the (purportedly) best art schools in the country, here's my admittedly biased but informative "review" of CCA (California College of the Arts).

First, I had no idea what art school might be like or what I might be getting myself in to. Second, I'm a 40-something adult who's already had a successful professional career and who's brain is no longer that malleable or idealistic. I'm also fairly cranky sometimes and love to call Bullshit.

Alrighty - that's out of the way.

I decided to go back to school to *really* learn photography - for reals - after years of teaching myself. Business had been slow, I like to learn, CCA has (had?) a great reputation and they're right in our backyard. Win win win. I took the tour, applied, was accepted and then got my ass handed to me daily for seven months.

Being brand new to art, I had to take the required foundational courses - drawing, color theory and basically, wood shop (D1, 2D and 3D core classes). The 4D core class is not, as I thought, the study of the time/space continuum, but web design and video production.

Thankfully, 17 years in web design & development allowed me to waive the 4D class - not the required units, just that class. I still have to take 3 units somewhere to make up for that, which is bullshit. But onward...

To complete a BFA, the required, full-time semester load is 15 units for most semesters, 18 for a few. If that sounds like a lot, it is. It's a shit ton of a lot. Especially when they pile on the work (busywork) with a fire-hose as if to try to make art school seem like a legitimate academic education, which it isn't. Not when you can bake cookies for your math final. That's not bullshit - a classmate did it.

Still, it's art, and some art, like photography, requires rigorous technique that is best learned through repetition. That makes sense. If I need to shoot and develop 400 rolls of film to get it down, then I'm on it.

The rub is, not only do they want you to burn 400 rolls of film and paint 17 color charts (that you'll never need) and fill up an entire sketch book with what-the-hell-ever and make sculptures out of wood, clay and cardboard - every week - they want all that work to be of the very highest creative quality and craftsmanship.

Really? You want both quantity and quality? Not likely, even with the best circumstances.

I understand the emphasis on the quantity of photographic exercises - it's a science with gobs of technical expertise required. But assigning a photo project then assigning homework on top of that is just stupid. Do you want me to be creative - nay, an "artist" - or do you want me to be a factory worker? Your choice. You're not going to get both - not at the same time.

But still, I tried. I worked my ass off wanting to not just go back to school, but to go back to school and kick ass. I'm happy to say I did OK - I have a 3.6 GPA, which isn't too shabby. I'd hoped to do better, but CCA - sorry, CCB+ - wouldn't have it.

I'd forgotten an important part of school... You don't take classes, you take teachers. Unfortunately, CCB+ has some terribly unqualified, awful teachers. They might be brilliant artists, but they don't know jack about teaching, which equates to a big waste of your time and money. It fucks with your head, too, which is worse.

In some classes, it doesn't matter how hard you work or how brilliant your work is. If they're too stupid to remember where they parked their cars, it's not going to matter.

That actually happened. One of my teachers didn't know where her car was parked one morning, causing her to be really late to class. Another morning she dropped her keys into a storm drain and instead of finding a way to let her class know that she'd be over an hour late, she went about fashioning a key-retrieval device while we all waited (and napped) in the classroom.

At our midterm check-in meeting she made sure to let me know that I had one tardy.

This, from the scholar who after every mind-numbingly boring PowerPoint bullet would say, "Does that make sense?" as if she truly didn't know.

She meant well, but it was her first year as an instructor and she was painfully insecure and ineffective. She made a pretty good babysitter, but she has a long way to go to becoming a solid teacher.

I received almost no useful feedback from her on how to improve my work - she largely ignored me while spending lots of time critiquing work by other students that was often done the night before class. She didn't mind these same students sleeping through her lectures while the rest of us were distracted by their heads bobbing up and down.

This past semester I had a drawing teacher who was so bad, I wish I'd have dropped the class and just watched Youtube videos about drawing. In one night David showed me more about how to draw something than I'd learned the entire semester up to that point. She also had the rude habit of impatiently drawing over your work without asking if she could, while attempting to teach you something, which she didn't.

Her curriculum was disorganized and goofy. Supposed to be a foundational, first-year, never-drawn-anything-before kind of class, she had us using pastels the first day. I'm still pissed about that. But, to her credit, she let me bake a cake for my final. That's right. A cake. For a drawing final. And it was delicious. Got a B+ in her class.

Which brings me to my point... No matter how hard I worked on any project - most of the time I received B+'s. Even projects I knew were A+ quality - forget it. You can't BUY an A at that school, unless it's the art history classes, and even still, you have to show up and do well on the tests and properly write the papers - there's no skating even in the easier classes.

In my digital photo class, I killed myself on the first project and received a B+. When I asked why only a B+, I was told I could have done more. Isn't that true of almost everything? How bout a little something, you know, for the effort? It was almost technically flawless and perfectly executed based on the requirements, but yet, I could have done more...

On another project I absolutely nailed it - totally killed, above & beyond amazing - and got an A-. The grading sheet had no negative comments whatsoever - all glowing remarks. I again had to ask for the input that would allow me to understand how one might attain an A -- not an A+, no one's being greedy here -- just a good, solid A.

Only then did she tell me that some of my prints could have been better or something to that effect. Honestly, I'm not sure she really knew because she never made notes in class so I'm not sure she even remembered whose projects were whose or how good or bad they may have been. She was another first year teacher (in an upper div class). She was better than others, but not great.

I did have a few good instructors in a few classes that made it all almost worth it. I say almost because CCA is really fugging expensive. And I don't know why. I don't know why CCA can charge almost as much Stanford and get away with it.

CCA's retention rate is 72%, compared with 98% for Stanford. CCA's graduation rate is 50%. Stanford's is 95%. Stanford charges about $38K a year, and CCA about $36K.

Sure, CCA and Stanford are two totally different schools - but, which degree is going to help you get farther in life? And why are so many kids (or 40-something adults) not graduating from CCA?

Could it be, the product is just too expensive and not really worth it? The overall value of CCA is suspect. It's a teeny tiny campus with under 2,000 students and a 9-1 student-to-faculty ratio. And there are never enough classes to choose from to build a good semester schedule.

Stanford has just under 20,000 - that's twenty *thousand* - students, has a huge campus and a 10-1 student-to-faculty ratio. RISD costs the same as Stanford but also has similar retention and graduation rates as Stanford.

What is costing so much at CCA? They're definitely not spending money on tampons. Is having a glass blowing facility really that expensive? Is that even a job anywhere anymore, except maybe at a Shakespeare festival?

Seriously. Why is CCA so expensive?

I would love to finish the rest of my BFA photo program and have that degree in-hand - proof of all the hard work and commitment, but at the same time, given the sub-par level of instruction in most classes (so far), the ridiculously high unit requirement (which means more money for CCA but not necessarily more knowledge for you) and the overall cost (in time and cash), I'm not sure it's worth it. As of now, I'm not seeing the value.

When I first went to college so many years ago, starting at De Anza in Cupertino, which by comparison is almost free, the classes were rigorous, the instructors whip smart and they couldn't have cared less whether we showed up to class or not. It was our time and our money. When I transferred to San Francisco State I expected to be slammed by "real" college. What a surprise - De Anza was harder - a much better school in many ways.

At CCB+, attendance is mandatory or your instructor can fail you - after only three absences. If you're late three times, that can be counted as an unexcused absence. Even if the student body is mostly comprised of immature freaks who couldn't get into a real school (myself included), they're not going to give anyone the chance to rise to the challenge and be expected to act like an adult. The babysitting culture of high school continues in the first year at CCB+, which is disappointing.

But next semester will show me a little more of what CCB+ might have to offer. I'll be in more advanced classes - all the foundational shit is behind me - and I'll be in a writing class (if I can add it - of course it was full when I was able to register). I hear nothing but good things about the writing program, so I'm encouraged about that.

In the meantime, I need to continue researching vandal-proof tampon/pad dispensers and decide if this is really the path I want to stay on.

I'd hoped to find knowledge as well as inspiration, and maybe even a mentor somewhere - someone who might want to take an interest in my work and help push me in one direction or another. So far, no one seems to give a shit unless you're late on your tuition - then you're going to hear from someone.

If you're thinking about going to art school, realize it's pretty much like any other school but likely has a shit ton more pretentiousness and bullshit than you might want to pay for. But you can also bake cakes and make pretty pictures instead of writing boring term papers.


Anonymous said...

Very enlightening and well-written, as always. If they dare to B+ you in the writing class, call me. I'll start to flame them on college evaluation chat boards worldwide.

nootsmaak said...

lol - oooooooh that's GOOD to know! And thanks for the kind words - it means a lot.

I'm one of dozens of "kids" struggling to figure out what the fuck CCB+ is all about. We all came in with high expectations and have largely received a metric ton of bullshit in return.

Unfortunately, these views are shared by a significant amount of students and we're not the type to struggle quietly. Nothing may ever change there (talk about a bubble of academia - whoa betty), but if someone happens to google CCA and find this post, they'll have a little more information to help them decide where they want to spend their money. And it's a lot of money to part with.

I'd say, go to Stanford.