In Retrospect

I need to address the profession of teaching and, in my case, teaching photography in higher education.

First a little history 

By the post WW II era of the 50's and  60's in America photography was growing from a professional activity for magazines, portraiture and reportage to being slowly regarded as a viable art form in its own right. Pioneers such as Walker Evans, Bernice Abbot, Ansel Adams, Ed Weston and Harry Callahan among others were being recognized for the revolutionary artists they were. With the famous "Family of Man " exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in the mid 50's came a whole new generation of people taking photography seriously. By the mid sixties actual photo programs and departments were being developed in universities. 

By the time I received my BFA degree in1971 and my MFA in 73 a photo major was the real deal and virtually all large universities and many smaller schools offered majors, minors, concentrations or at least courses as electives in photography.

In my own case and that of my classmates I was definitely in the right place at the right time. By 1975 I was teaching a couple of days a week and by 1978 four days a week in two places. By 1981 had landed a tenure track assistant professorship position in Boston.These were never easy to get and I started at a very low salary but several of my classmates, now colleagues, got them too. By 1988 I was tenured. Achieving tenure is the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for many as it assures job security, senior status, and higher pay.

Was that the best? No. In the  beginning I was overworked, underpaid and under funded. I also was newly married, had a one year old baby, was renovating a house while living in it and was still teaching two days a week at Harvard. At Northeastern I'd been hired to teach in a facility that was hopeless. When it rained the roof would leak into the darkroom sink! I was scheduled to teach classes I had no curriculum for, no slides in which to teach a history class, no staff to man the lab for students to work outside of class time. But bit by bit, semester by semester things did improve. The school renovated the building, put us into new darkrooms I had designed, got us a color machine, new enlargers and most of what else we needed. I hired our first lab manager, hired other faculty, increased the program's budget, developed new courses and curricula, offered a concentration in photography and so on.  We were no longer aspiring towards being a vibrant and viable photo program; we were one.

While I was the primary force behind this, the popularity of photography and the medium's own pervasiveness as a significant field of study played a big part. It was a heady time as by the mid 90's Kodak was giving us materials by the palette, Ilford was as well, Polaroid was supporting the summer teaching I was doing in Italy with cases of film, Hasselblad had started a killer program with us that allowed our students and faculty to buy their wonderful cameras at phenomenal prices, Fuji was loaning us massive amounts of cameras and lenses to lure students to purchase their gear. Things were very very good. We had a state-of-the-art lab that was headed by a full time staff person of real ability. I stole him from another school by offering him a big raise. Photography was arguably the most vibrant and exciting program in our large Department. A few years later Photography was raised to another level of credibility, viability and support when it became a part of a new major in Multimedia Studies, a program I started with colleagues in our department.. This is how we garnered support for our digital offerings.

At the same time I tried to recognize my limitations as a teacher and worked to compensate for that by hiring other teachers with strengths in my deficiencies. I am proud of those hires and many of them are still there.

Things have changed

I retired from Northeastern in January 2012. Since then the Department has conducted one search for my replacement that failed due to incredible ineptitude by the University with commiserate deception and manipulation by the candidate. Not good. Currently they are searching for a more diverse person.

Here's the paragraph for qualifications for the Northeastern position, which is, by the way, "open rank" meaning they will hire the person they believe is best qualified in either tenure track (assistant professor), associate professor (tenured) or as a full professor:

Candidates must have an MFA, or equivalent terminal degree in media arts, visual arts, interactive media, digital photography, video art, digital art, installation, performance, or closely related contemporary art practices. They must demonstrate a high potential to advance their field through original work and creative production, experimentation, collaboration, exhibition, performance, activism, advocacy, presentation and publishing. Evidence of a high level of skill and accomplishment in making meaningful and provocative art with a sophisticated aesthetic, social acuity and cosmopolitan cultural sensibility are expected.

Notice how broad and open this is? The position is no longer a direct replacement for me but could be a performance artist, a book maker, whatever. That's because they want to choose from all kinds of people. Photography teaching and Photography programs at the college level are undergoing some serious changes. It is pretty difficult to justify single discipline programs in the visual arts currently, and specifically within photography. Photographers practicing the discipline are no longer just photographers. They need to know some graphic design, video, some animation perhaps, some web based applications, and on and on.

Photography teachers also need to show some flexibility and diversity in order to adapt to changing times. They need to increase their skills into other fields. Finally, the tenure system in higher education shows some signs of real stress. Fewer tenure track jobs are being posted and there are more and more adjuncts across all the disciplines. Adjuncts are pushing back, though, as many are seeking unionization to be able to effectively fight for better working conditions, including health coverage and job security. This dirty little secret of more adjuncts teaching more courses than full time faculty has been used by universities for a long time to great effect. Why? For more profit. I know, universities are not for profit places, right? Take a look at upper administration's salaries. Universities are businesses and you needn't look far to see what the real priority often is.While it was a long time ago, my dad's salary while president at a prominent art school in the 70's was well below $100k. It is not uncommon for current presidents of universities to make $1 million or more.  That's where a good deal of the higher tuition's dollars have gone, not so much into faculty compensation.

In conclusion, I was clearly in the right place at the right time. It shocks me now at my good luck. My belief is that photography itself is dissembling into a medium far more diverse that incorporates so much more than just a single picture at a time printed on a piece of paper. While this is the way I have worked throughout my career and will continue until I can't, younger photographers have both incredible opportunities ahead of them but large challenges as well. This is true of teachers too.

Please understand, this is one retired professor'point of view, not an accurate assessment of the field by survey or a consensus opinion. I hope you have found it informative. I would appreciate your views. You may reach me through my email address: here.

Thank you.

Topics: Commentary

Permalink | Posted April 23, 2015