I talked to my dad last night and he brought up 'rules', saying there are those who want chaos and anarchy but art schools need to teach the rules to prepare people for the world that lies ahead.
I said the world that lies ahead will be one of chaos and anarchy so I am preparing my children for that future...
He got a laugh out of it. Whether what I or he said last night is true or not... I don't know.
If your usual standards are sharp prints, perfectly exposed, developed and printed... break out to see what lies underneath... Print negatives you would normally discard. You may find yourself...
I would also say that most people try to be good at the wrong rules, as blansky suggests above;
Being different is a performance, Adams was there once, but once established and refined to fit the rules of commerce that character becomes a trademark and one's bread and butter. In time possibly even the norm.
To be blunt, it's no longer tough for people so inclined to travel to almost anywhere in this world and take a well focused, sharp, long DOF, landscape shot, and manipulate the tones.
I have to agree with Bill there, I remember when I was taking an early photo class, my professor was talking about how developer is generally used at 20c, my friend and I looked at each other and smiled....we then boiled the the water, mixed in the hc110, developed the film...the result was predictable (crazy contrast, emulsion boiled away in the highlights, etc, etc), the professor was joyed to be able to talk with my fellow students how it all worked, one of the photos is one my all time fav's....learning, experimentation, find your voice....
Well, I study art history at the Ph.D. level, so I guess I share some of the burden of responsibility for your predicament.
When you look at photography from a maker's point of view, part of what you're doing is intuitive, another part is very conscious and intentional, and a last part is more or less contingent, the result of either circumstances, chance, or zeitgeist.
When you look at photography from an art historian point of view, you need to see meaning, intention, design, or concept. Not just because of Conceptual Art (tm), but because we appreciate art works as things with a history of making that make some kind of sense. Most art historians will be looking for some kind of explanation behind a picture: why did he painted the sky purple rather than blue? why is it sharp instead of fuzzy? etc.
Obviously, a good art historian will not mistake her interpretations and meaning-making activities with the intention of an artist. She will acknowledge that the meaning of the work is broader than what was just intended, and will talk about it in terms of how it makes sense, how it can function with an audience, rather than just "what meaning was intended."
Now everybody can point at a photograph that exists more or less because of luck/happenstance/minimal design and that generated in turn a HUGE literature on its significance. Much of which can be legitimate anyway, since the reception of art work is a valid object of study.
BUT there seems to have been lately in the realm of photography school more and more conflating of these two different points of view. I see art historians putting forward their artistic practice as part of their academic work, while I see artists adopting more and more the language, concepts, stance, and reflexes of art historians in the presentation of their work. This might be due to the simple fact that for most artists who want to have a stab at teaching, art history is the direct way out of fine arts programs (I consider myself strictly as an amateur photographer, in all possible senses of the term, that's why I hang around here).
On the one hand, I can understand the need for photo teachers to push their students to be articulate about their photos, since they themselves must be so. For the administration of the college, having a word-shy genius like a Garry Winogrand for teacher can be a liability, despite the beautiful risk it carries of fostering greatness. On the other, I am well aware that students learn to write whatever their teacher asks them, and just go about photographing. Others buy more into it, and know that mastering this way of talking about photo will help them navigate the world of galleries and collectors.
I think you have to be able to defend what you're doing, since we less and less let "geniuses" loose without a fight; it's also important for yourself to understand what you're doing (and verbalizing it is one way to make it clear) if you want your work to develop; but no amount of semiotics, concept, intention talk, political critique, etc. will make you a better photographer in and out of itself.