Helping Fine Artists Become Fine Teachers

"Um, OK, class. Let's get started . . . "

By Daniel Grant

Students in the Master of Fine Arts program at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts have a lot to do. They need to create a unified body of work; take a variety of studio, art history, and critical-theory classes; research and write a thesis; and, finally, produce an exhibition of their artwork. Some of them will also learn how to drop their sphincter.

Perhaps we should explain.

There are many reasons that artists decide to earn an M.F.A., such as improving their artwork and obtaining high-level feedback and mentoring. But many of them want the degree so that they can be candidates for teaching jobs at the college level.

“I’d say most if not all our M.F.A. students are thinking about teaching at some college, and they know that it’s almost impossible to get hired without the degree,” said Joe Girandola, director of the University of the Arts M.F.A. program in studio arts.

The problem is that most M.F.A. programs around the country are designed to develop better artists, not to fill the ranks of art instructors in academe. At performing-arts conservatories, students usually choose between performance and teaching tracks, which have their own separate curricula and instructors. But fine artists all go through one funnel.

Learning to teach is not the primary purpose of the M.F.A. program, says Michael Hardesty, coordinator of the studio-art M.F.A. program at Ohio State University. “The primary focus of their time at OSU is their development as artists,” he said. Still, at least 90 percent of the students in the program seek to become teaching assistants while there. So in addition to TA-ing a full-time faculty member’s course, by their second semester in the M.F.A. program they also become the “instructor of record.” That means that undergraduates sign up for their class, the instructors are paid, and they can put on their resumes that they have college-teaching experience.

The Reston, Va., based National Association of Schools of Art and Design, to which most colleges and universities offering studio-art M.F.A.’s belong, requires departments to “carefully select, train, supervise, and evaluate graduate teaching assistants whenever they are employed.” But the organization doesn’t stipulate how.

And the amount of teacher training that M.F.A. students receive ranges from almost nonexistent (meetings with a faculty member from time to time) to semester or even year-long courses. The “In the Classroom” course at the University of the Arts runs for two semesters and includes sitting in on a full-time faculty member’s class and finally co-teaching with that faculty in the last eight weeks of the year. The Maryland Institute College of Art offers a two-year long program leading to a Certificate in College Teaching in Art. Students there learn educational theories, as well as how to write up a course description and actually teach a class.

At New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, M.F.A. students may, from their first semester, teach introductory art courses to undergraduate nonmajors, says John Torreano, co-director of the studio-art M.F.A. program.

“There is a college teaching course they take the summer before they begin,” he said, and in it students prepare a sample “course description, develop a syllabus, talk about the type of students they might expect, talk about what they’ll do with the students in the class.” When they start actually teaching, Torreano will occasionally “visit, see how it’s going, and answer questions.”

He said that the NYU undergraduates have generally appreciated their newly minted instructors. “The comments we’ve gotten on student evaluations have been pretty positive,” he said. And for the M.F.A. students, the teaching experience “makes them feel they’re part of the grown-up art world.”

Students in the M.F.A. program at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst “start teaching right away,” said the graduate program director, Young Min Moon. Most are the instructors of record, but also take during their first year a two-semester teaching workshop, she said. It focuses less on teaching philosophy than on practical matters like designing a course, writing a syllabus, and developing projects that are at an appropriate level.

Offering the workshop while the M.F.A. students are already teaching has positive and negative aspects, said Moon. “Everything they discuss in the workshop is something they are dealing with right now in their classrooms,” she said. And having students hold off on teaching  until after the workshop wouldn’t be feasible, “most of the students coming here need financial support, and teaching helps them pay for their education.”

At both the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and at Ohio State University, M.F.A. students go in front of a classroom a bit more gradually. At the museum school, they may become teaching assistants in their second year, then moving on to a graduate teaching fellowship in their third year, becoming the teacher of record for one course. David Brown, the school’s associate dean of academic affairs, said a number of M.F.A.’s stay on for another year after graduation teaching two courses as postgraduate teaching fellows. He said that the faculty is “looking into offering pedagogical courses that the TA’s might take,” but at present that instruction comes from full-time faculty mentors.

M.F.A. students at Ohio State take a one-semester seminar for credit called “Teaching in the Studio Classroom,” said Hardesty. During that semester, students not only take that class but shadow a full-time instructor by sitting in a studio class and observing. By the next semester, the M.F.A. student is allowed to teach a studio course as the instructor of record.

The question remains, though: Can writing a course description, preparing a syllabus, making lesson plans, encouraging participation, and managing a classroom be taught? The University of North Carolina offers “Teaching Prep—Grad Students,” but even the art-department chair, Lawrence Jenkens, isn’t sold on the course’s effectiveness.

“The person who teaches the course believes it helps students get a job. I don’t,” said Jenkens. “I think you learn by doing, hands-on experience. That’s how I learned how to teach.”

For many students, “the biggest thing they need to overcome is their own shyness and awkwardness,” said Howard Quednau, chairman of the fine-arts department at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. That often stems from a lack of confidence, and there may be many reasons for that. Some artists aren’t comfortable expressing themselves in words, but are thrust into a situation in which they are required to explain a variety of concepts. Some artists also may not be completely proficient in the subject they have been asked to teach, such as drawing from life or using a table saw in a wood-sculpture course. “Some of our M.F.A. students need to get remedial help,” said Hardesty.

M.F.A. students new to teaching “get really scared and nervous; they hunch their shoulders forward and just look uncomfortable, carrying tension around,” said D’Arcy Webb. An actress and singer, she teaches in the theater-arts school at the University of the Arts, but Joe Girandola periodically sends her some of his students who need to at least look more relaxed and confident, even if they don’t feel that way.

Which brings us back full circle.

“We work on mechanical things, Webb says, “like lengthening the back of your neck, opening your mouth more, engaging the diaphragm, relaxing your lower center and lowering your sphincter. When people are nervous, they pull up their anuses, which is why stiff people are often called ‘tight-assed.’”

And overcoming that is an art in itself.

Daniel Grant is the author of several books on the arts, all published by Allworth Press, including The Business of Being an Artist (4th edition, 2010), Selling Art Without Galleries (2006) and The Fine Artist’s Career Guide (2nd edition, 2004). He has been a features reporter at Newsday and The Commercial-Appeal, a contributing editor for American Artist magazine, and a regular contributor to ARTnews magazine and the Wall Street Journal.

(Photo by Flickr user lucyburrluck)

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