It’s A Long Way To The Top If You Want A Full-Time Teaching Job

July 1, 2013 · Print This Article

The challenges of earning a living as a working artist are well-known, and artists find various ways to support themselves.  Some work in entirely unrelated fields, or in peripherally related fields, photographing weddings or painting faux finishes on wealthy homes.  Others try seeking employment at a museum or gallery.  Paid curatorial or critical positions are difficult to come by, and artists seeking these positions find themselves competing against dedicated curators and writers.  To find a stable, financially-sustainable career, in a field related to our training in art, many artists therefore turn to teaching.

Teaching isn’t right for everyone, as many recent MFA graduates in need of employment quickly learn.  For some, teaching itself simply isn’t a good fit.  For many more, however, the discouragement originates outside the classroom.  Entry-level teaching positions typically involve a combination of part time positions including non-academic teaching at community art centers such as LillStreet, Hyde Park, Highland Park, and Evanston Art Centers, and adjunct teaching at a variety of colleges and universities.

Adjuncts have been performing more and more of the college-level teaching in recent years, and while this does mean there are a lot of opportunities for part-time teaching for recent MFA graduates, it also means that more and more instructors find themselves commuting from one institution to another, trying to piece together a living like a hippie kid sewing a pair of patchwork pants.  For some, the challenges of adjunct teaching are too much to bear, and sometimes even those with a real inclination towards teaching find themselves seeking other employment.  For others, though, adjunct teaching is simply a first step towards a full-time teaching position.

Every search committee has something it’s looking for.  The secret to getting hired is to be that.  The problem is that, probably due to the rigidly formal process that searches have become, search committees rarely publish or advertise these desires.  They list required qualifications and desirable qualifications, but will only rarely state a preference in terms of, for example, whether a painting candidate should work abstractly or figuratively, even when this is in fact the primary criterion on which they will select candidates for the first round of interviews.  Looking at the work of my various friends and colleagues who have full-time teaching positions, it is clear that each institution, conducting each search, has looked for something different, and that no one style or technique or type of subject matter is a guarantee of employment.  The best you can do, if you want to get hired, is to be really, really good at whatever it is that you do.

Of course, even that isn’t a guarantee; some institutions prioritize teaching experience, an exhibition record, or other criteria, more than an aesthetic evaluation of the candidate’s work.  In general, it has seemed to me that community colleges tend to look primarily at a candidate’s teaching experience first and foremost, almost to the exclusion of other criteria.  By contrast, art schools such as SAIC tend to hire their full-time faculty almost exclusively on the basis of their exhibition records and other professional accomplishments, with the presumption apparently being that students at an art school will benefit the most from working with a successful artist, rather than an experienced teacher, and it seems that this success is more important than the particulars of an artist’s methods.  Four-year colleges and universities seem to take a more balanced approach, taking both teaching experience and exhibition history into consideration, but more than other institutions tend to look at the applicant’s own studio work as a criterion for selection.  I’m sure there are a plethora of exceptions to this, but this is the general impression I have gotten from my observations of searches and their conclusions.

One could draw a variety of conclusions from these observations:  “Don’t bother applying at an art school if you haven’t had a museum show,” for example, or “Rack up a few years as an adjunct before applying at a community college.”  The exceptions to my general observations are numerous enough, however, that this approach could cause one to miss an opportunity to apply for a position for which one might be hired.  It could also cause one to neglect an important aspect of one’s own development.  After submitting numerous applications for full-time teaching positions while in the second year of my MFA, and receiving nothing for it but a quiver full of rejection letters, I moved to Chicago, and worked for a year in a hardware store while pursuing both local and national teaching positions.  By fall of 2008 I had secured part-time teaching positions at two community art centers, as well as an adjunct position at Wilbur Wright Community College, where I taught for the next five years.  In September 2010 I also began teaching at Malcolm X Community College.

After I began teaching as an adjunct, I stopped applying for full-time teaching positions, focusing instead on other aspects of my professional development.  I worked on developing and improving my syllabi and assignments, seeing what worked and what didn’t work in the classroom.  I also stayed active in the studio, completing paintings and pursuing exhibition opportunities, as well as writing, curating exhibitions, and viewing as many exhibitions as I possibly could.  All of these activities were of course ends unto themselves, but also served to add to my resume with the goal of resuming my full-time job search after I had gained some adjunct experience.  After a date had been set for my exhibition Living Dead Girls at Linda Warren Projects, I decided that it was time to resume my job search.

Beginning in 2011, I began applying for every position for which I was even nominally qualified, including both positions that did not appear particularly desirable to me (but which I was willing to accept if that’s where I was wanted), as well as positions which appeared either improbably desirable or clearly beyond my experience level (director of MFA programs and similar advanced positions).  The positions for which I was applying were located not just in the Chicago area but all across the country and in some cases internationally.  I was willing to relocate anywhere, and accept any position, in order to secure a full-time teaching job.

Over the past three years, I have applied for 122 positions:  I keep a list.  I would search the listings on the College Art Association, Higher Ed Jobs, and the Chronicle of Higher Education websites, as well as Academic Keys and Chicago Artist’s Resource.  This works out to just under one job application per week.  It was a serious time commitment, quite stressful…and also depressing.

I keep a binder full of rejection letters (120 rejection letters from teaching jobs, 66 of them emails, dating back to 2007).  I keep mine in a three-ring binder in page protectors, in chronological order, a habit I started when I first applied to graduate school in 2002.  I kept all of my MFA program rejection letters, and there were quite a few; it took me three years to get in, and in the second of those years I applied to 19 programs.  A lot of my friends and peers thought this cataloging was obsessive, even pathological, but I found it perversely helpful.  If nothing else, it was proof that I was trying.  A fellow job searcher I met at CAA this past year in New York had an alternative solution; she gave her rejection letters to her pet parrot, who enjoys tearing them into confetti.

Not every position sent me a rejection letter:  13 positions starting in Fall 2012, for example, never got back to me, leaving me to infer my rejection from their silence.  A few of these 122 positions, however, did select me for an interview:  5 positions, to be precise, or 4% of those positions for which I applied.  The first was Central Illinois College, in Peoria, IL.  We did a telephone interview in summer of 2011, which apparently didn’t go very well, as there was no follow up.  The next institution to contact me was in Fall 2012, when Windward Community College (in Hawaii) contacted me for a position starting in Spring 2013.  This search was conducted entirely by telephone.  The initial interview included a teaching demonstration, which I performed over the phone, using PDFs I had emailed as visual aids.  This went well, and a follow-up telephone interview was scheduled, which I also felt went well.  It must have been down to me and one or two other candidates, but ultimately, I was not selected for this position either.  The University of Washington in Bothell expressed interest in my application and asked for a few follow-up documents, but this didn’t lead to an interview.

Then, this past spring (2013), two more institutions contacted me for phone interviews.  The first was Suffolk County Community College, in Riverhead (Long Island), New York.  We did a phone interview, which went well enough that I was invited to fly out to Riverhead for an on-campus interview and teaching demonstration.  I felt this went exceptionally well; however, and somewhat unusually, there was to be a third round of interviews, again by telephone, to select a final candidate.  I was not one of those chosen for this final round of phone interviews.

Lastly, I was contacted by Northern Arizona University, in Flagstaff AZ.  I was initially offered a telephone interview, which I felt went very well.  The department chair then emailed me to schedule a telephone conversation in which he informed me that I had been chosen for an on-campus interview.  I was flown out, given a tour of the campus, and gave a PowerPoint presentation on how I would teach a drawing class.  The overall feeling was very positive, and as anyone who follows me on Facebook knows, I was offered the job, which I accepted.  My contract begins August 19th.  I will be returning to Chicago regularly, particularly because my wife, Stephanie Burke, will be remaining here in her position at Harold Washington College, but also for events such as Expo Chicago in September 2013, and the College Art Association conference in February 2014.  I intend to maintain my connections with the Chicago art scene including exhibitions, writing, and curating.  It won’t be easy, but as an integral part of moving my career forward, it is a challenge I am eager to face.

For those of my friends and readers who are going through this job search process themselves, I hope that my experiences can be of some help.  I recommend my approach of applying for every position for which one is even nominally qualified, even though it may seem like a waste of time:  every time you apply for a position is an opportunity to revamp your CV, rewrite your artist’s statement and teaching philosophy, etc.  In between applications, stay active in your studio, keep working as an adjunct, and pursue exhibition opportunities as well as other professional experience:  while any one position may value on of these categories over the others, the next position may be the opposite, so they’re all valuable.  Share job opportunities with your friends, even if they’re positions you’re also applying for: the search is looking for something, and your friend may be it, even if you’re not, but there are enough people out there looking for jobs, you’re not going to get one just because your friends didn’t apply.

Speaking of numbers, a few of my rejection letters have given the actual number of applicants, which average around 190 applicants per position.  From these applicant pools, the campus selects a number of finalists, usually around 10 to 15, for initial interviews, either by phone or at CAA.  Based on these interviews the institution chooses between 2 to 5 finalists for on-campus interviews, which often involve a teaching demonstration.  The exact procedures vary, but in general, you might derive from this that institutions conduct initial interviews, whether by phone or at CAA, with about 1 in 20 applicants.  Conversely you might expect to do one phone interview per 20 applications submitted, and it might be that you will do four to six phone interviews before becoming a finalist with an on-campus interview.

If you are offered a phone interview, you will want to plan in advance your answers to some commonly asked questions.  Ask your friends who have interviewed what questions they were asked, and anticipate your answers to the same.  During or immediately after each phone interview, write down the questions you were asked, so you can rehearse your answers for future interviews.  Here are some questions I have been asked in phone interviews:

Why do you want to teach at (this type of institution)?

Why do you want to teach at (this specific institution)?

What interests you about this department/college/school?

What can you contribute to this program?

What’s the hardest thing about teaching?

What is your biggest fault?

How do you address techniques versus ideas?

What creates a positive learning environment?

How do you assess the success or failure of your learning outcomes?

Is art objective, subjective, or both?  How would you explain this to a student?

Where do you see this department going?

How could you expand this department, improving it to increase enrollment?

How would you deal with a student who wants to pursue art outside of school?

How do you deal with meeting the differing needs of students?

What do you do at each different level (beginning, intermediate, advanced)?

What are different techniques you can use?

What special topics could you address?

Do you discuss your own artwork with students?  When, how, and why?

Discuss your art practice.

How do you keep your art practice fresh?

What are you going to do if your tenure duties interrupt your studio practice?

Are there any questions you were expecting, that we didn’t ask?

Do you have any questions for us?

Occasionally, something strange happens at the end of a phone interview.  During one phone interview I did, the school’s telephone system had a very poor connection, and we kept getting cut off.  It was of course frustrating, but I kept my cool and stayed friendly.  At the end of the call, we said our thanks and goodbyes, and I waited for them to hang up (not wanting to hang up first, in case there was an “Oh, and one last thing…”  But they didn’t hang up.  They started talking about me.

I didn’t listen long, because I didn’t want to be discovered and have it reflect poorly on me, but of course I was tempted.  The one thing I heard before hanging up was that they liked how, when the phones cut out, I stayed positive, “unlike the last guy.”  So apparently the poor phone connections were a recurring problem, and while unintentional, served as a de facto part of the “test.”  Remember, a big factor in the interview process is the committee asking themselves, “Do we want to work with this person?”  I recently spoke with a friend who also had the experience of a phone interview committee not knowing he was still on the line when they started discussing him; he listened through their entire discussion.  The insights gained from this fly-on-the-wall opportunity might be invaluable, but I will leave it to my readers’ discretion to decide whether it is ethical and worth the risk.

A safer way to get some feedback on your interview skills and application materials is to take advantage of the mock interviews and portfolio reviews at the College Art Association Conference.  The next one is in Chicago, February 12-15, 2014, at the Hilton Chicago (a change from 2010, when it was held at the Hyatt Regency).  To access mentoring and mock interview services at the CAA Conference, a current CAA membership is required, but conference registration is not.  So, make sure your CAA membership is up-to-date, and bring your membership card, but you don’t need to register for the conference itself to use these services (or the candidate center and interview hall).  The feedback they provide is a big help in the job search process.  Good luck.

2 Responses to “It’s A Long Way To The Top If You Want A Full-Time Teaching Job”

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