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Arts and Sciences Musings

I had a lovely time at Atlantian University last weekend, seeing people, chatting with friends, and even doing a class (more of a discussion, albeit with me doing most of the talking) on judging A&S competitions, which is a perennial favourite in the "this is broken and we need to fix it!!" compendium of complaints.  I have ideas, but that's all they are - ideas.  Until the A&S community as a whole (MOAS', Laurels, Pearls, everyone who does anything artistic, or scientific, or just likes looking at pretty things, etc.) really wants to get together and discuss things, we're all just throwing ideas out there, hoping some of them may stick.

And getting people together?  Sounds easy, but it's not.  There's a lot of "us" out there, even in our little tiny kingdom.  :)

Anyway, I think the attitude that has grown up in recent years has put the judges and the contestants in adversarial positions, which is not necessary, or even wanted.  There's a lot of "my feelings were hurt, wah!" on both sides, and how do you get around that and still do a decent job as a judge?  I mean, you can always say something non-committal, like "nice work!" or "interesting!" (which could mean literally anything), but what are we looking to get out of competition?  If it's just winning a prize, then why bother with judge's comments at all, why not go strictly points system, and give a prize and be done with it?  It's not like anyone really remembers who wins most of these things.

(No, really - I couldn't tell you who won what in the last year, but I know lots of people doing great things.  It's not their competition winning skills that make them stick in my mind, it's everything else that they do.)

Also, only about one-third to half of the people interested in artistic pursuits actually like competing.  The rest would really rather just learn, display, and use their craft to please themselves and other people.  Winning a prize isn't their incentive for entering a competition, it's the fact that only competitors are likely to get any kind of useful feedback - displays are nice, but they rarely prompt people to sit down and write feedback.  In fact, I think the feeling now is that if you want to show your work but don't want any feedback (maybe because someone grumpy told you that all judges are mean), then put it in display.

What I don't get is why feedback from judges is so dreaded.  And why would anyone who doesn't want to hear anything negative about their work enter anything?  Show it to your friends; they'll tell you only the things you want to hear. 

We hold competitions for lots of reasons, and one of them is that it's difficult for a lot of people to walk up to someone well-known and ask for feedback.  I understand this; people are shy, and asking for things from strangers is scary.  They might say no (not that I know of this ever happening; most people are only too happy to be consulted as an "expert").  They might say mean things (also unlikely, unless you classify anything less than glowing praise as being "mean").  It's tough - so we have competitions, where an entrant can get feedback without having to have any scary conversations.

The trouble with this idea is that you cannot guarantee who will be providing that feedback.  Is the judge someone you'd ask for feedback in any other situation?  Does the judge even know anything about your art?  Is the judge someone who doesn't know their nose from a button?  We don't screen our judges for competence - we tend to take anyone who's willing to judge. 

As you can imagine, this doesn't always work out well.  Especially when the person running A&S hasn't actually arranged for any judges in advance, and is asking random people to judge that day. 

But, how do you fix this?  You can't fix things by dumbing the whole process down to the point that no-one could ever get their precious fee-fees hurt (and it's not actually possible to do this; some people can get offended over nothing at all). No matter what, there will always be people who like to enter competitions, but don't like being told their work is anything less than perfect.  Those people will always complain, being sure to describe the situation in terms that set  them up as the helpless victim of a monster who has nothing better to do with its time than be horrible to artisans.  While that may be satisfying to the person who is so insecure that they can't stand to hear that their work could improve, it contributes heavily to the whole idea that judges are only trying to "be mean", and scares a lot of qualified people away from ever judging anything.  It's a lot of work to judge well; it takes time, so a judge should not be forced to judge too many things in one day, and it takes writing skills to be able to communicate in a way that is helpful to the entrant.

When I judge, I write a lot to each person.  I want them to know where I'm coming from, and I want them to know I'm on their side.  We both want them to succeed as an artist, right?  How can we be enemies if we have a common goal?  It's important to me to show the person whose work I'm critiquing that I am supporting their efforts, even if I can't give them top marks (yet).

I've learned over the years that some people do not want to be told they need improvement, even if they want an award so bad they can taste it, and will not get that award without improving their skills.  I've learned that people who are really serious about honing their skills want me to give it to them straight, not patronize them with puffery.  I've learned that most people who enter competitions are somewhere in the middle, and need some sugar with their judging. 

I've also learned that some people should not be judges; anyone who feels like they're in competition with the entrant should not be judging that person's work, as they cannot be objective.  Objectivity is essential in judging.  I know that sometimes I need to refuse a judging job; if I'm in pain, I'm not going to perform my task well.  I also know that because of the way our kingdom runs, sometimes (okay, pretty often) I'm going to be asked on the day to judge, so I may as well bring supplies with me so I can work more easily. 

I'd prefer not to be asked last-minute, mind you; being asked in advance allows me to set the day up so I can judge and still enjoy the event.  I've had groups ask me to marshal for their event, and I don't see why judging A&S should be considered any less worthy of prior planning. 

Honestly, I don't know whether it's possible to "fix" the system to everyone's satisfaction.  I tend to think that there will always be unsatisifed, cranky people who complain that it's not fair, and judges are meeeeeeaaaaaan.  But setting the system up to bring greater benefits to people who are really serious about wanting good feedback - hand-picking judges ahead of time, arranging for enough judges so that no-one is swamped, encouraging discussion about ways of judging, and generally treating competitions as an opportunity for learning rather than a chance to get a prize - will help correct the mistaken impression that judges are the enemy.

But I'm just thinking out loud.  I've been a judge much more than I've been a competitor, and I like seeing what people are doing.  Hopefully my feedback is more helpful than hurtful, though I always include my e-mail and my full name so people can yell at me if they want (I actually tell people that it's okay to contact me and tell me I'm wrong).  As a judge, I appreciate feedback on my judging, so I can improve the quality of my work.  My goal has always been to help people achieve success in their endeavours. 

Anything else would be mean.


( 19 brains — Leave a chunk of brain! )
Sep. 19th, 2012 07:09 pm (UTC)
Color coded feedback/judging sheets?
I grok your position; some people just don't see any type of critique as valid... you've attacked their BAAAAAABY. Ya, my first response is grow the F up... but I'm blunt.

If entrants could be asked "How many competitions have you been in?" then perhaps we could give people different colored feedback sheets to try and "break them in easy". Light green could mean "I'm a newbie, be kind", puce could represent "I'm in the middle of development, but honest but sweeten the pot to keep me happy, please" and scarlet could me "Lay on McDuff, I'm ready for your blunt pen".

If entrants had this system explained they could easily opt "up" for a more blunt level of critique. They could also be less than honest on their experience level to keep things calm.

I don't know if it would work... but it might be more welcoming than treating all comers as equal.
Sep. 21st, 2012 02:37 pm (UTC)
Re: Color coded feedback/judging sheets?
I know I was told once that I was given a mean judge because I was an experienced entrant and they didn't want that judge to crush the spirit of a newbie... though it was annoying because I was competing for Kingdom A&S Champion and having that judge meant I got lower scores. *sigh*

Honestly the biggest thing that can make an A&S competition rewarding for an entrant is good judges. But judging is WORK so there are never enough volunteers and we're too huggy-touchy-feely of a group to turn anyone away if they volunteer.
Sep. 21st, 2012 05:12 pm (UTC)
Re: Color coded feedback/judging sheets?
I think we really need to find a way to make judging sexy, so that we get so many volunteers we can just take the good ones! heh.

That and at least in my kingdom there is no formal feedback for the judges; you don't know if you are a good judge or not, really.
Sep. 19th, 2012 07:57 pm (UTC)
I have been fortunate to be on the receiving end of one of your judging critics. I have found it to be one of the MOST useful pieces of feedback I had gotten to date. It was straight forward and to the point, and just the right amount of things i could do to make a better piece. And in hindsight documentation probably would have made your job a metric ton easier, you and the judging team were very considerate to an out of kingdom entrant who on a whim decided to put in a piece get some feedback.

It was very valuable to me as an artisan and I have kept the comment card. I will use the feedback for future projects moving forward.
(Deleted comment)
Sep. 20th, 2012 12:46 pm (UTC)
An Tir also does face-to-face judging. That made A&S contests a really good way to meet people with similar interests.
Sep. 20th, 2012 01:28 pm (UTC)
I think we stole, err borrowed, the Queens Prize Tourney idea from the Outlands :). I really like doing face-to-face judging. You can't always be sure written comments will come across the way you want them to. The first few Kindgom A&S competitions were not face-to-face and there were problems.

Nice to know the contestants like it too :). It should also be noted that the judging is done in teams, optimally 3 judges, 2 if 3 are not available. This gives a lot of variety in the feedback. It also helps newer judges get their feet wet.

For QPT the populace is also encouraged to comment. The entrant sits with their entry so they can visit and talk about it with folks. Many people bring little prizes and tokens (chocolate!) for the entrants. I've always regretted I couldn't enter QPT myself. Seen some nice loot :).
Sep. 20th, 2012 03:07 pm (UTC)
Grnvixen and I get to judge together a lot and I always look forward to it! I also want to say how much I like the face-to-face. It is especially nice for newer entrants and entrants who aren't comfortable with documentation since the judges can just talk with the entrant about what they did. And - they have time to ask us questions. This seems to be particularly useful for entrants who want feedback more than just a score. When grnvixen & I sit down with entrants in QPT (the novice competition) we have started asking, "Do you want a score, feed back or both?" A fair amount of entrants just want feedback, though we do tell them what they can do to maximize points in future competitions.
We also always leave our e-mail addys on the sheet the entrant keeps so they can write us later.
Sep. 19th, 2012 09:58 pm (UTC)
Don't forget that people who are sponsoring or administering A&S activities at events need to be an integral part of fostering and supporting the environment you are proposing. If they aren't, then all your good intentions are going to fall apart.
Sep. 20th, 2012 01:58 am (UTC)
I would love to live in a place where arranging judges in advance was even possible. As far as I know, here (and "here" will remain unidentified for the sake of politeness) it would be a heretofore unimaginable innovation.

It would also be nice to live somewhere where people have NOT had it fixed in their minds for a decade or so that anonymous judging is the only fair way. This effectively makes face-to-face judging impossible. For some reason, however, anonymity is not thought necessary for performing arts, and I've never heard a rationalization why it's fair to know whose entry is whose in performing arts but somehow not anywhere else.

...especially since artisans tend to know each other, which means that some of the supposedly anonymous stuff isn't really, depending on who's judging, who knows whose characteristic styles, who saw something being worked on at a previous event...
Sep. 20th, 2012 05:57 am (UTC)
Oh, I completely feel for you in this post... Northshield struggles with a lot of the same issues and it is something I would dearly like to see addressed more comprehensively, though I know it won't ever get properly resolved.

I have two competitions that I sponsor to help with the judging/being judged issues we experience.

The first is actually occurring this weekend. It is the Griffin Needle Challenge - a 20 hour sewing competition where teams work to complete a full outfit from the skin out including accessories. It is modeled on other kingdoms' similar competitions, but I have modified the rules somewhat to make it more satisfying for everyone involved. Judges are selected and trained in advance - beginner judges assigned to beginner competitor divisions and so forth. All patterning is allowed to be done in advance - patterning is an excellent skill to have, but I don't want teams to spend that much time, effort, and money on an outfit that does not fit right and no one will be happy with. And there are different divisions with slightly different rules - including a smack-down, uber-period, don't even think about using a machine, you better have documented that from here to forever division - so people can play at the level they feel most comfortable. HOWEVER, I think one of the most helpful things is that in ALL of these divisions a five (5) out of ten is a GOOD score, like a B in school. At the beginning of the competition I remind everyone that if they get an average of 5, they have done a great job - this gives the judges plenty of room to make nuanced point decisions without feeling like they will break someone's heart with an 8/10. :P Comments from the judges are required. All the teams have time to talk with their judges one-on-one. The average score (with no tears) is a 6/10. Everyone goes home stupid tired and giddily planning the next year's competition. It's a brilliant time.

The other competition is a place for the nerds to come out and fly their colors. We tend toward too many bean counts and displays and I've chosen to do something about it. This is my Geektastic Challenge, where authenticity, workmanship, documentation, and *weirdness* get extra points. Again, the judging scale is hard with a 5/10 being "good" and documentation required, but because of the format, those really wonderful projects that are not terribly "shiny" and so do poorly in a bean count really get a chance to shine. The competition is in the morning and the items are displayed in the afternoon during the Authentic Encampment Open House and the artisans and judges stand around to interpret the pieces for visitors, so we can explain what that odd little metal doobis is or offer samples of the foodstuffs to people curious about what exactly that suspicious goo actually is. This past summer was the first time I offered the challenge, but it will be an annual thing - I've already had people really, truly excited and plotting amazing projects... and it's that excitement that I'm most interested in seeing - the competition is just an opportunity to get to pet the pretties. :)

It's not fixing the Kingdom, but it's at least poking the problem with a stick. Let me know if you folks ever figure it out on a larger scale - I'm always open to new ideas and potential solutions!
(Deleted comment)
Sep. 20th, 2012 09:33 pm (UTC)
I don't suppose you can be in Madison, WI this weekend? ;p

The website is at: eithni.com/gnc

I keep meaning to write up a manual, but have not done so yet. I'll try to get something down soon and send it to you. Could you PM me with an email that will take an attachment?
Sep. 29th, 2012 06:09 am (UTC)
Sep. 21st, 2012 01:29 pm (UTC)
oooooooooo. I like the Geektastic Challenge. The possibility of having a venue for things that aren't "shiny" is ... appealing.
Sep. 29th, 2012 06:07 am (UTC)
Actually, I got a few requests for this one, so I posted the write-up. Feel free to ping me with any questions/comments/needs for clarification - this is the first time I've done it as a formal write-up. http://eithni.com/ReferenceDesk/GeektasticChallengeGuideline.doc
Sep. 23rd, 2012 03:17 pm (UTC)
I love the idea of the Geektastic Challenge too! If there's a manual/info on that one, would it be possible to see it? It's something I'd dearly like to bring to Tir Righ.
Sep. 24th, 2012 03:25 am (UTC)
I don't currently, but send me a PM with an email that can take attachments and I'll write one up and send it.
Sep. 24th, 2012 05:06 am (UTC)
Thank you so much! PM coming :)
Sep. 29th, 2012 06:05 am (UTC)
Here you go! Let me know if you have any other questions or if anything is unclear, as this is the first time I've done it as a formal write-up. http://eithni.com/ReferenceDesk/GeektasticChallengeGuideline.doc
Oct. 20th, 2012 04:30 am (UTC)
I'm a fan of rubrics as a way to even out the judging and get a good assessment of what was good and what could use work. Of course, leaving written notes in addition to the numbers is good too.

It seems to me that the negatives I've heard about A&S competitions in Atlantia could be largely handled by having good rubrics, but Atlantia doesn't have any outside the Pentathlon. The Midrealm has what look to me like *wonderful* rubrics, and they are what I've been using for my A&S projects and their documentation. I wish Atlantia would adopt them.
( 19 brains — Leave a chunk of brain! )

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