Confessions of a Beautiful TA

November 17, 2016

I became the teaching assistant for the Cooper Union Summer Art Intensive’s animation class in the summer after my graduating year at Cooper. I worked under Haisi Hu, who I previously knew from Cooper’s video facilities. Over my four years at Cooper I had been deeply involved with various facets the school, and by the time I graduated I felt I knew Cooper front to back. Yet when I started teaching at the Summer Intensive, I realized it represented a totally different and unique side of Cooper Union, one that reaches towards and nurtures young artists.

Even from my perspective, the Summer Intensive’s animation curriculum is daunting: Over the four week course, students work in groups to create two animation shorts. The animations are twelve frames per second, so one minute of animation means creating seven hundred and twenty frames. On top of that, each group makes two animations in four weeks, resulting in a focused and fast paced classroom environment.

In the first two weeks of the class we worked on cel animation, which required students to first create detailed storyboards and then create their hand drawn animations frame by frame in addition to photographing and compiling the frames. In the second two weeks we created stop motion animations, which saw the students creating character models and elaborate sets as well as maneuvering camera angles and lighting frame by frame to create a series of consecutive images that would then become their animations. Each of these animations also requires post production work and sound design to reinforce the narrative.

As the teaching assistant, I assumed I would be responsible for the nitty gritty parts of this process. However, it didn’t take me long to realize that the students were steering their own ships, taking charge of a process involving drawing, sculpture, photography, storytelling, video editing, and sound design. Each of the animation students is a regular jack of all trades, so I shouldn’t have been surprised to see them eagerly charging ahead with their work without skipping a beat.

This was not the only way my students surprised me - in addition to jumping seamlessly in and out of various media, they also exhibited an exceptional collaborative instinct. All of the class’ work is done in groups that are formed on the first day of class, yet the students wasted no time integrating into their groups and coordinating the animation process both inside and outside of class. If a student was going to be late or absent, it was guaranteed that their group would know first, before Haisi or I.

Seeing all of this unfold reminded me of my own experience of Cooper as an institution that cultivates talent in a truly unique way, attracting a particular kind of student who’s committed to as much experimentation, learning and creative growth as they can fit into the time they’re given. The students in my class embodied this spirit in a way I never expected, and for many of them I wouldn’t be surprised if the end of the summer intensive is not the last time they pass through the doors of the Foundation Building.

  • Founded by inventor, industrialist and philanthropist Peter Cooper in 1859, The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art offers education in art, architecture and engineering, as well as courses in the humanities and social sciences.

  • “My feelings, my desires, my hopes, embrace humanity throughout the world,” Peter Cooper proclaimed in a speech in 1853. He looked forward to a time when, “knowledge shall cover the earth as waters cover the great deep.”

  • From its beginnings, Cooper Union was a unique institution, dedicated to founder Peter Cooper's proposition that education is the key not only to personal prosperity but to civic virtue and harmony.

  • Peter Cooper wanted his graduates to acquire the technical mastery and entrepreneurial skills, enrich their intellects and spark their creativity, and develop a sense of social justice that would translate into action.