A Dual Career

In replying to my post about whether there were things you'd like to hear about from my career as an artist/photographer (Response Time) I got several requests to address my teaching career and how that did or did not work with being an artist. This is a post most likely helpful to those of you that teach or are thinking of teaching as a career.

First off, anyone outside of teaching in academia in the professor ranks that assumes it is an easy ride is wrong, at least in my experience. My teaching bio is this: I started teaching photography at a private day school while I was a second year graduate student in 1971 and taught photography every year through the end of 2012. A few years out of graduate school I taught at New England School of Photography in Boston, then at Harvard University for thirteen years and then at Northeastern University(NU) for thirty. Most of the teaching at Harvard over lapped with the early  years teaching at Northeastern. I was hired at NU to form and head a Photography Program, to expand it in all ways, which I did. I also was hired in a tenure track and was promoted and tenured and eventually achieved the rank of full professor in 2003.

In there, of course, was my new job, a new marriage, a baby girl, a new house we renovated, a very big dog, travel to Europe where my wife's family lived, a divorce and so on. Making art while teaching and starting a family can be very difficult.

Did I succeed? Was I able to somehow balance this intense schedule of building a new program, teaching at two places, starting to make a family and making pictures? While I can't blame the failure of my marriage on my professional and/or artistic requirements I can say that I wasn't able to do it all. I believe my marriage would have failed under any circumstances but if I look back at my productivity as an artist it really improved after 1986 when I was divorced. I leave you to draw your own conclusions.

There is a really important part to the components of making art while being an art professor and it is this: we are hired as artists, perhaps young ones starting out as assistant professors, but degreed and credentialed as artists. Coming in as one, I was required to make art as part of my position. Furthermore, facing any promotion or raise, I needed to validate my request with proof of exhibitions, my work being published or other forms of professional activity. This is tremendously affirming, to understand that the university, benign though it may be due to its size and complexity, is supportive of creative activity. Go on a trip and make pictures? Good. Go shooting for a few hours on a Sunday morning during fall semester? Good. While holding office hours for students, work on an artist statement for your next show? Good. Write a grant proposal to travel to the Southwest for a month next summer to photograph? Fine. Don't go in to school on a day free from teaching, blowing off a curriculum development meeting because you are driving to the Berkshires to shoot with a friend? OK. This "going out shooting" equates to a research scientist working in the lab to find a cure for cancer. Well, that's a reach, but you get my meaning. Once tenured, you in fact are free to express yourself and the university is there as a structured system to support it. Amazing. When asked about this by students I remember seeing their eyes glaze over when I would explain this all to them, trying to comprehend the essential incredibleness of this working situation. No wonder people want the full time gig in teaching so badly. I was blessed with the good fortune to have this position.

Downsides? Oh yes, many. Low pay, high stress, cynical and disgruntled colleagues, a "deaf ears" administration, countless and useless meetings and committee assignments, departmental and univeristy-wide politics, whining and lazy students, low respect and, at times, very long working hours, among others. Faculty burn out is real and not just true for senior people.

How did I keep the glass half full instead of cynically half empty? I loved the students, for they kept me young, flexible and centered on them and their work. And I was in an environment where my work was valid, where my being an artist was expected and supported. I always said "I am a better artist when I am teaching and a better teacher when I am shooting."

One more point about balancing these two careers: teaching needs to be essentially selfless. Teaching is not about you but about the students.  I would tell new hires "leave your ego at the door." This counters the fact that making art is egotistical,  self serving, narrow minded and even narcissistic. I always felt that one  balanced the other quite well. Teaching always kept me humble, for the students didn't care who I was, they just wanted to learn all about photography. My contract with them was to do just that with no unnecessary complications associated. Artists do have big egos, but teaching is a help in tamping it down to a manageable size, I  believe. 

Packing up my office a few weeks before I left my teaching position of thirty years. I'd had the same office since 1987.

and being photographed by Gustav, a photo student:

And finally, at one of the parties we had after I left with students, present and past, this one at Woody's, a favorite haunt of ours over the years, close to school:

Balance these two somehow compensating careers? Yes, I believe that is possible. I actually think I managed this tight wire act pretty well. During my last few years at NU it was tempting to become cynical, pessimistic and bitter as the administration was not very supportive, our department was going through some really awful upheaval and moral was very low. I am very glad I retired when I did (January 2012) and was relatively unscathed in leaving. And I had my work, which was going wonderfully, with new pictures, new processes and new discoveries right around the corner.

I will write soon about what you all have to look forward to in your own careers at some point: retirement. 

As always, thanks for coming along and reading what I have to say. You know by now, but just in case you are new it is easy to subscribe to this blog and entails no penalties whatsoever. I do not sell your names, or try to sell you anything at all. I  hope you will consider adding your name to the growing list of subscribers.

Topics: teaching,Commentary,being a photographer

Permalink | Posted November 6, 2013