I don’t like Spring Semesters

Unless your university operates on a quarter system, most North American post-secondary educational institutions have three semesters: Fall, Spring, and Summer.

Depending on one’s objectives and life circumstances, some of these semesters are better than others for administration, faculty, staff, and students.

As a faculty member, if I had to choose which semester that I like the least, I’d probably say it’s the spring.

Why? As the gloomy days of winter pass, and are slowly replaced by periods of rain and drizzle, and emerging sunshine, and as we get over the spring break, the days seem longer, and more burdensome. Why? Faculty members typically have more obligations during this time of the year.

What sorts of obligations do faculty encounter during the Spring?

On top of the normal demands like eating, sleeping, walking the dog, and being nice to other people, if you have young children then it’s the need to be physically present at end of year piano recitals, school plays, and parent teacher conferences. Then there are the field trips that you are guilted in to chaperoning. And hopefully you’ve got summer camp or a summer vacation all planned out and did not leave this to the last minute. Cuz like that’s not going to eat up any time.

Then there are the other kinds of things like filing taxes, a need to be present at Easter or Passover dinners.

That’s just the normal shit.

On the academic side of the house, by comparison, you would think that up until this semester research, teaching and service obligations have been a cakewalk. But things are about to change.

During the spring academics are typically faced with an overwhelming number of mind numbing professional obligations and deadlines including:

• Students are graduating and thus there are assignments, exams, and essays to grade, masters and doctoral dissertations to read, and final grades to calculate and submit.
• Some learned societies hold their annual meeting in the spring.
• Many of the conferences that are happening in the fall want you to submit your abstracts during the spring.
• Committee work to wrap up.
• A signifiant number of granting bodies require research grant applications during the Spring semester.
• Then there are the countless productivity, conflict of interest, and planning documents that your administration wants you to complete.

This need for bureaucratic accountability often butts up against a hurry up and wait scenario. It feels almost like a conspiracy. You know deep down that despite warnings that many people who will be reviewing these documents will not be on campus during the summer, and if you don’t fill out the forms then you might be denied merit pay (if there is any in the budget this year), few people in the chain of command are going to read those reports until they have cleared their inboxes, and you don’t want to be bugged by your chair in July to submit the information anyways.

During this period, long awaited doctor and dentist appointments, that you had a full intentions of attending get cancelled, diets are abandoned, and exercise plans are thrown out the window as all-nighters accumulate. This almost always results in unwanted stress.

It’s not just you but your students, fellow professors, university staff and administrators feel the heavy weight of spring semesters too. Just like you they are more stressed and down in the dumps than ever.

What are some remedies to this state of affairs?

Well, first of all you are not alone. If that piece of information does not assist you then, you may feel better knowing that unless you will be teaching in the summer (which I strongly advise against), then you have a couple of months off where you can recuperate.
If you are struggling with grading then, you should give yourself periodic breaks, or play tricks with grading (i.e., give yourself number of assignments to grade each day).
Alternatively, you might experiment with playing games with writing commitments. (hitting a target number of words per day
At the end of the summer, plan to get out of town, as in take a vacation. If you can’t swing it, then go to for a drive, or visit a gallery or museum, as many times as you can.
Finally, politely and professionally encourage your administration to distribute the need for faculty to complete accountability related reports throughout the year, and not just during the spring semester. They will probably offer polite excuses why changing things up is like moving heaven and earth. But at least maybe your efforts will make you feel like you are doing something positive to improve your work conditions.

Photo Credit: Jesper Sehested

On the possibilities of interactive graffiti and street art

From culinary practices to painting, over time the work that creative people and organizations produce, not to mention the context in which it is made, changes. How does this happen?

Actors, artists, chefs, musicians, etc. integrate new ideas and perspectives in to their practice, experiment with different techniques, and practitioners enter and exit the creative game.

The field of contemporary graffiti and street art is no different. Since the late 1960s graffiti writers and street artists have experimented with new markers, paints, materials, etc. and they have applied their work on an increasingly diverse array of public surfaces. Some of this signage involves the integration or adoption of new technologies.

For example social media websites like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube have subtly effected how some graffiti writers and street artists practice their craft. No longer are graffiti and street art images and messages simply ephemeral (i.e., here today and gone tomorrow), but they can be seen anywhere (throughout the world) by anyone who has access to the internet, almost in perpetuity. At the very least, social media has extended the concepts of “all city” or “all country” to the field of graffiti.

Currently selected members of the graffiti and street art community are experimenting with creating and selling their work through Non-fungible Tokens (NFTs). As the relationship between graffiti and street art and NFTs gets clarified, we are bound to notice subtle shifts in the way graffiti and street art is created and the reasons why people may are attracted to this medium.

Also important have the been the brief experiments with the use of drones as a technique to apply graffiti on surfaces.

One of the areas that graffiti and street art, and selected types of visual art have struggled with, however, is the static nature of the medium. In general, unlike a mobile, graffiti and street art does not move nor respond to its immediate environment, including its audience.

Although this begs the question should graffiti and street art respond to direct (and nonstructural – like a nearby building) external influences, and if so, in what manner, how so, and how long?

Nevertheless, we have some clues with respect to how graffiti and street art may be developed to enable it to be more interactive and respond to its immediate surroundings.

Over the past few years a number of companies have pioneered digital graffiti. Currently a handful of vendors rent air graffiti walls, which primarily consist of interactive computer vision systems that are used at events and parties. Guests or party goers are given devices that resemble spray cans, that emit a low level LED. When activated the light sensor in the can is recognized by a large digital screen, which enables users to create simulated electronic graffiti walls. Although this kind of exercise looks like a fun activity, it is at the periphery of what we commonly consider graffiti and street art to be.

Similarly there are a number of individuals and organizations that are pioneering interactive wall and floor projections or video and sound immersive art installations. These are available in selected museums like ARTECHOUSE in Washington DC. Unlike most graffiti and street art, however, this requires a place (and surface) where permission is granted and the technology is quite costly.

Finally an alternative system relies upon a mobile phone “coupled with the emerging pervasive technology of Radio Frequency Identification (RFID).” This allows people who use this system to post messages on designated spots from remote locations.

Although this technology is interesting and important, the system and process that has yet to be built, however, would enable the creator and audience to directly and quickly interact and engage with an existing piece of graffiti or street art. And this interaction might also enable these constituencies to produce subtle shifts in the piece. This co-productive technology would also need to be relatively cheap for both the practitioner using it, and the audience responding. Moreover it would also need to be light and portable so that it could be placed somewhere relatively quickly to enable the practitioner to protect their anonymity.

When this technology gets paired with graffiti and street art the possibilities for real time interaction, creativity, and engagement will be awesome.

Photo Credit: Mike Gifford
Someday I’ll Be An Interactive Art.
Do not dream, just be!

Do the signs of our time work?

If you live in an urban, suburban or even exurban environment you will encounter a number of signs.

Signs may be so pervasive like the ones that are placed in subway cars or they may be intermittent, such as those placed beside interstate highways. Although signs are part of the visual landscape, most people ignore them until they have specific needs. In other settings, however, signs may overwhelm us, and our perception of our surroundings.

Take for example, New York City’s Times Square, where numerous billboards electronic or otherwise, compete for our attention, along with the distracting street culture (including other people standing, walking or performing) in this area. Alternatively, again taking NYC as an example, the Lower East Side and East Village is inundated with graffiti and street art. These items incorporate numerous messages competing for attention and often in dialogue with each other. In these locations it’s hard not to be overwhelmed with the visual information.

The purpose of signs

Signs are supposed to help, to assist, to instruct, and to influence. The most common ones provide directions for pedestrians, cyclists, or motorists to enable them to make decisions regarding their movement. Most of the other signs are advertising. The person or organization that created them wants you to buy something, purchase a service, or influence your religious, political or social beliefs. Still other signs, such as graffiti or street art, can provoke. Signs are meant to signify, to tell the reader to pay attention to the communication.

Types of signs

Predictably not all signs, regardless of the type are equal, not just in their placement and messaging, but in their size, and design. Sometimes signs are text based, whereas others are primarily symbols or images, and still many incorporate all of these elements.

Signs can be simple, recognizable and universal. And the message is rarely open to interpretation. Visual art, on the other hand, which incorporates signs, symbols and imagery, typically means different things to different people. Alternatively signs can be complicated, where their message is unclear, confusing or open to interpretation. Sometimes this is by design and at others by accident.

What’s a good sign?

Predictably not all signs work equally well. Although the message might be clear, the sign may be placed in the wrong or an improper place.

Alternatively the person who wrote it did a poor job, the medium chosen was suboptimal, and the reader of the sign lacks the knowledge or skill or visual literacy to deconstruct what it means.

If a sign it going to be effective then it typically needs to communicate a message that will resonate in the mind of the reader and it must be placed in a location where the observer will see it.

We can probably distinguish how good a sign is by its’ ability to force viewers to distinguish between the signal and the noise. More specifically a question that needs to be asked is how much labor does it take the viewer to figure it out.

The problem is probably not what makes a good sign, as the field of graphic design has a number of good criteria, but why are so many good signs placed in poor locations.

What’s a bad sign?

Most signs, however are not that helpful. The design, size, and placement are poor. Some environments are better than others for placement. A poorly placed sign in an airport, for example, can lead travelers to miss their connection. A well designed sign placed on the high point of a bridge spanning a gorge or river, offering free counseling services to people who are suicidal may be located in the wrong position. What is the solution?

How can signs be more helpful?

There are numerous ways to increase the likelihood that signs are effective. These include

• Securing the services of a qualified and experienced professional to design the sign; someone who is on top of their game.
• Asking a number of people for their input on what is the best place to put the sign. In other words, don’t simply rely on the installer to make this decision.
• Always keep the audience in mind. If the message is too high brow, few people will understand the meaning.
• Take into consideration the context (where it is placed) and juxtaposition (i.e., what it is next to).
• Seek feedback from users early into the design and placement process, to minimize costs of fabrication where we have to go back to the drawing board.

These recommendations seem deceptively simple, but either because of a lack of resources, or exhaustion appear to be frequently ignored. All in all the proof is in the pudding. Individual concerned with the efficacy of signs must constantly ask themselves, does the sign work, why does it work, (and why not) and how can the sign be corrected or improved.

David Jones 大卫 琼斯
Painfully Unhelpful Sign, Greenwich Park, 12-05-2006