Welcome to “Ask the Art Professor“! Essentially an advice column for visual artists, this is your chance to ask me your questions about being an artist, the creative process, career advice, a technical question about a material, etc. Anything from the smallest technical question to the large and philosophical is welcome. I’ll do my best to provide a thorough, comprehensive answer to your question. Submit your question by emailing me at clara(at)claralieu.com, or by commenting here on this blog. All questions will be posted anonymously, and you’ll receive notification when your question is online. Read an archive of past articles here.
Here’s today’s question:
“I want to be an art teacher, preferably at the undergraduate level. I’d like to teach classes like drawing and painting, colour theory, and 2-D Design. I don’t particularly see myself teaching at a school like RISD, but rather a small community college. Some of the most inspirational people in my life were professors at a tiny hole in the wall 2 year college. They aren’t “working artists”, but they were pretty skilled guys, who clearly loved to teach. And I guess that’s kind of where I see myself teaching in a kind of similar setting. I don’t really like the business of Illustration all that much, so I don’t see myself doing that kind of work. I honestly don’t see myself doing anything BUT teaching with my life.
I’m currently in my second semester at the Fashion Institute of Technology studying Illustration. I’ve already gotten a couple associates in photography, and Fine Arts at a community college before transferring. I also plan to get a masters in something art related.
So what kind of advice can you give a kid like me? What should I expect from a teaching job?”
When you’re a teacher, you have know that you are shouldering a tremendous responsibility to your students. I don’t mean to be melodramatic, but I’ve heard too many times about people being emotionally traumatized by bad art teachers in the past as being the reason that they gave up making art. I think some teachers don’t realize that even the smallest gesture or the slightest comment is capable of so much damage. Students can be very vulnerable and impressionable and you have to ensure that you can create a learning environment for them that fosters growth in a positive manner.
Teaching has extreme highs and lows: I’ve experienced everything from being beyond furious and livid with my students to being completely touched and moved by them, and of course everything that is in between. I’ve been frustrated with difficult situations where there is no clear answer for what I should do, and I’ve had moments where classes practically taught themselves. You never know what’s going to happen when you teach, which is part of why I love it so much. Every time I think I’ve seen it all, something happens that catches me completely off guard that I have to figure out on the spot how to deal with. To me that’s what is wonderful about teaching, you have to be alert, on your toes, ready for anything to happen. There’s never a dull day in teaching. Some people may not like that, but I happen to thrive on the creative stimulation that occurs because of the unpredictability.
“Are there any downsides to teaching?”
Like any profession, there are certainly aspects of teaching that can be challenging to deal with. I hate the politics that inevitably come with teaching in any department at any school. Fortunately, dealing with the politics is not a huge part of the job. However it can get pretty ugly and unpleasant from time to time.
“Would you recommend teaching along side doing professional work?”
If you teach at the undergraduate level, there are set expectations that you will be teaching and creating your independent professional work at the same time. (by contrast, this is not the case if you teach at the high school level) I personally cannot imagine one without the other. Without my teaching I think I would go out of my mind sitting in my studio for hours by myself, while without my professional work I know that I would be starved of my own creative initiatives. I’ll be honest and say that it is extremely challenging at times to maintain a healthy balance between the two. I’ll admit to having moments when I’m working on my own artwork and I don’t want the distraction of teaching. Ultimately though, I see the two practices as having a symbiotic relationship that support and inform each other. People ask me all the time whether I would give up teaching entirely if I could, and the answer is a resounding no. I crave the dialogues, the creative stimulation that I gain from teaching too much to give it up.
“Is there anything about your college career that you would have done differently to aid you as a professor now?”
To be completely honest, I would have waited to go to graduate school until I got accepted into one that was more prestigious. I applied to graduate school in 2002, when everyone was panicking after Sept. 11 happened and masses of people headed back to graduate school instead of getting jobs. I stupidly assumed at the time that I would have no problem getting into a strong program given my background and experience. I was dead wrong. By the time the application season was over, I found myself on three wait lists, with three rejections, and only one acceptance at my “safety” school. I had quit my job at the time and it didn’t even occur to me that I could wait another year and reapply the following year. So by default, I went to a small, relatively unknown graduate school. Now that I’ve been in the field for several years, I am certain that my lack of association with a prestigious MFA program has been a hindrance in terms of getting a teaching position and has also hurt some professional networking opportunities that I could have had.
“Are there any extra classes/minors you would recommend I take along side my art classes that would be of use as an art professor?”
I think any other interests that you have outside of the visual arts can only enrich your background as a person, which in turn has the potential to greatly affect your depth as a teacher. I’m a classical musician as well, and I consistently performed with orchestras and chamber groups throughout college and the years afterward. My association and passion for music has certainly allowed me to connect with many different people in unique ways. I like to think that my pursuits outside of the visual arts make me more dimensional as a person and teacher.
“How easy will finding a job be when I am through with college, and what should I expect when it comes time to finding a teaching job? Do you know how easy or hard it is for someone to find a teaching job right after grad school?”
I don’t want to scare you, but it’s brutal. If you want to teach at the undergraduate level, you’ll have to be ready to be an adjunct (part-time) professor for a while (maybe years) before you’re even on the radar for a full-time, tenure track position. I have colleagues who have been teaching in the field with years of extensive experience who can’t get positions, and who are still applying every year. The majority of people are not able to get a full-time teaching position immediately after graduate school. Almost everyone I know had to “pay their dues” for several years before they were hired full-time.
As an adjunct, be prepared to have no job security whatsoever, to make peanuts in terms of pay, and to live in anxiety semester to semester about whether you have work or not. I’ve gotten calls two weeks before the semester started about whether I could teach a class. I’ve also had classes cancelled three days before the first day of class due to low enrollment. I’ve had semesters when I taught at five courses at three different schools. I’ve had days when I used to teach at one school in the morning, and then ate lunch in my car as I drove to another school to teach in the afternoon. A colleague of mine had to move back in with her parents because she was having such a hard time getting work. Another colleague joked that looking for a job was his “hobby.” I’m sorry to be so blunt about it, but it’s true.
“Is it easier for someone who has actually worked in the field?”
I think it depends on the field that you choose to teach in. For example, if you are in animation it really counts that you’ve worked in the industry before you start teaching. That professional experience is critical to establishing your credibility in the field as a professor, and enriches your background in a dramatic way.
Those of you who are teachers, what are your thoughts on this topic?