In the last few years at three institutions I have taught Intro to Digital Imaging, 2D foundations, 3D foundations, 4D foundations, Drawing 1, and Drawing 2. While I am proud to have taught such a wide range of courses in such a short amount of time–I have long considered myself a generalist–the pace has been challenging as I essentially have not stopped preparing lectures, assignments, and studying. To put it plainly, I have been completely immersed in the world of the Adjunct Art Instructor.
I have never blogged a top ten list and generally find unsolicited online advice cheesy. However, the graduate degree required to teach art at the college level is a Master of Fine Arts. The typical MFA curriculum leaves graduates well-suited to becoming successful artists (provided they are independently wealthy), but vastly underprepared for the rigors of teaching. Additionally, most of the pedagogical advice out there comes from tenured instructors with decades of experience, experience which may distance those instructors from the reality beginning teachers face. If you happen to be on this artist/teacher path like me, you may encounter some surprises while abruptly making the transition from student to educator.
When you find yourself required to stick to a predetermined curriculum but without the facilities and materials required to teach said curriculum effectively, in the middle of longstanding debates between instructors vying for institutional territory, paying nearly as much for a university parking pass as you get paid to teach one class, or eating rice at an increasing frequency while Sallie Mae sends bomb threats, godspeed! Apologize to your friends and spouse in advance for your ongoing complaints and know that others are feeling your pain. But fortunately, there are some things you can control. Here are ten things I have learned in my short time as an adjunct art instructor.
1. Three classes is enough. Teaching four classes is too many classes, if you also want to have a life, make your own work, have energy to make dinner, etc. Three classes does not sound like much and as a student it is indeed completely possible to take four, five, even six or more courses every semester, cranking out the quality book reports from cliff notes, five-paragraph persuasive essays about peanut butter and jelly and making, and looseleaf drawings of skull and demons from 9am to 9pm. As a teacher, however, I strongly suggest taking on only a few classes unless you want all your muscles including your brain to be perpetually sore, even though the brain is not actually a muscle.
2. Teaching is physical and mental. Teaching is far more taxing physically than I expected. Now I am by no means Lance Armstrong, meaning I am not on performance enhancing drugs except coffee and I only ride a bicycle occasionally, but walking from student to student, talking, talking some more, then talking in a loud voice and then a veeeery quiet voice, kneeling to look at drawings, is a small workout. Of course teaching is emotionally and psychologically demanding as well. For artists accustomed to spending long, glorious, quiet hours alone being creative, teaching is essentially exactly the opposite–long cacophonous blocks surrounded by highly social young people on energy drinks and worse or falling asleep who nonetheless require all your creative energy and your very best ideas. Just do three classes, sixty students or so to stay sane.
3. Making a living solely as an adjunct art instructor is impractical. This is essentially a continuation of #1 and #2. I do know others who survive by teaching a large amount of classes at several universities. But frankly, those individuals are cranky and unhappy, and feel (rightfully) that they are being taken advantage of. My friends who are waiting tables are much happier than those who are trying to subsist on a piece-mail adjunct salary alone. Besides, doing a relatively mindless job means that you just might have some creative credits in your mental bank to drop into your own art work when you get home.
4. Find support. Teaching can be lonely. Teachers do not have the kind of community students enjoy, particularly at small institutions. As an adjunct you most likely will not get the benefits that full-time faculty get, nor the resources to even operate your class (something as simple as getting paper or a material for a project can become an enormous challenge). Also, since adjuncts do not attend meetings we tend to come and go without connecting with colleagues and are often in the dark when it comes to decisions about the department, even decisions that have a direct impact on adjunct faculty. Thus, it is important to have one or two full-time instructors in your corner to bounce ideas off of, to talk to and to listen to. I have additionally begun organizing gatherings of other teachers and teacher/artists in town for moral and professional support.
5. Learn at least enough to know what you’re doing. I now, finally, understand why as a student my best professors seemed to have god-like intelligence–they did! There is just no substitute for knowing the material. As an instructor you are forced to learn the content inside and out, if not through repetition then through rational fear of looking like you have no idea what you’re doing. I have learned this the hard way by showing up to classes underprepared and stammering or just admitting that I have no idea (which is obviously slightly better than lying, a skill that some of my high school teachers had perfected but won’t work at a university).
6. Appreciate your students as individuals. If you do not like people–I mean really like people, forget teaching. It’s not a trick it’s a mindset–in the moment to appreciate the incredible beauty and potential of each and every individual despite their flaws like chronic tardiness, laziness, stubbornness, poor hygiene and awful taste in music but I believe (seriously) that true respect can only be gained through true respect, not through coercion. That’s how my parents did it.
7. Stay student-focused in the classroom. The ego is the ally of the artist but the enemy of the teacher. The worst art teacher is the teacher that talks about his or her own art constantly and attempts to make all the student work resemble his or her work. I know this system well as have worked with these instructors and I have made work that looks exactly like the work of my instructors. The typical college-aged undergraduate student is intensely impressionable. Thus, it is essential to allow students to find their own voices (forgive the cliche), rather than subject every student to a particular aesthetic. When a student graduates and more objectively evaluates her own work, if all she sees is her instructor she may feel slighted or disconnected from her very identity. Thus, it’s reasonable to let your students wander their own paths, with guidance of course. Like a good record producer, instructors should seek only to bring out the best in the student rather than putting their own stamp so strongly on the student’s output. This is not only ethically the right thing to do but in return adds a broader variety of art to the universe for all to enjoy.
8. Set the tone. If I show up to class in a great mood, the class goes well and the students are invigorated. If I am feeling depressed or tired, it brings the entire class down. This is a direct correlation and the only way to counteract this is to simply get enough sleep (yeah right) and to continually reign in your emotions. On days that you do not feel like doing a particular lecture or being pleasant, well, just do the lecture anyway and force yourself to be pleasant. If you are a manager, server, customer service representative, or any other member of polite society or a human being you might be saying “of course!” But as an artist, this kind of compartmentalization requires a little more effort as our work is often intensely connected to our inner lives. In the classroom, this can be a large amount of responsibility but also a blessing on good days–when you are in control of a class you are truly in control. Make the class as amazing as you want!
9. Be Flexible. It is sometimes said that teaching is performance. This is true but performance is not necessarily acting; acting is scripted but teaching is relatively unpredictable. From years of performing on stages as a musician I have learned to roll with the mistakes–technical, interpersonal, etc–and that the show must continue. The classroom is the same. Barring emergency situations (and often even in spite of emergency situations) the conversation must go on! The learning must happen, the work must be completed, the paint must be sprayed in the spray booth only, please. Stumbles should be absorbed, like a good pair of shocks. A disruption can only derail a class if you let it, and finding the right balance of rigidity and flexibility is a careful art in itself (I’m still working this out and imagine I always will be).
10. Be yourself. I have tried on different styles, taking cues from the best instructors I have had. While I have learned from so many great teachers, my teaching is (of course) my own. Like anything else in life, if you can be comfortable in your own skin and accept your own shortcomings, those around you will too. My students, I believe, have come to accept and possibly even appreciate my sometimes awkward, generally confident, intermittently impulsive and laid-back approach to teaching. Trust yourself and your students will trust you too.