What makes an ideal non-art professor at an art college?
December 21, 2012 7:57 AM   Subscribe

I am not an artist. But I would like to teach artists. For those MeFites that went to a visual arts college, what made a non-art course (think humanities, sciences, mathematics, ect.) interesting and useful?

I am applying for a position as a non-art professor at a visual arts college. I am not an artist, although it has been a lifelong interest of mine, second only to my area of study. My area of expertise is quite distant from art, but I can think of a million ways to connect it to the students' artistic endeavors. But, is this helpful for the students? Is it better to: connect the material to the rest of art school, or teach my students how experts in my field solve problems, or prove a general understanding of my field that I wish all people everywhere would have? Or something else that I haven't thought of?

Thanks for any feedback!
posted by anonymous to Education (7 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
My daughter is graduating from a well-respected arts school this year and thus far, her most useful and enlightening non-art class was "Business for Artists". This might not be what you're looking for, but for her and many of her classmates, learning how to negotiate and set rates, prices, deals, and so on was incredibly useful.
posted by Ideefixe at 8:46 AM on December 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Without knowing what your area is, it is difficult to say. But I also think it is hard to say that any area is "distant from art." Art is a way to express and filter human feelings and thoughts -- nothing is too far away from it. Michel Serres, the French philosopher, wrote a super interesting paper about the blurring of specializations, in 1997: "Science and the Humanities: The Case of Turner," SubStancee, no. 83.
posted by bwonder2 at 9:57 AM on December 21, 2012

I went to an art and design school that focused on the idea of "working artists", which meant business acumen was stressed. Going to my college was a choice to focus on design, and it was an expensive choice at that, so don't make a lazy assumption that you're dealing with folks unmotivated to learn. But my biggest gripe with professors who weren't designers was their belief that their class was the only one that mattered when it was laughably irrelevant to me. My general education classes—English, lit, math/science—classes were almost all terrible. Why?

Well, I think those gen-ed professors assumed art school was easy and that their classes were necessary to teach essential skills that would serve me for the rest of my life. Look, a good art school is not easy—it's intensely competitive and I never had the free time my friends in "normal" colleges did. So in my classes on modern literature or geometry the professor both dumbed it down for us "creative folks" and tried to cram in way too much because they feared these art students not leaving with the knowledge they (the professor) found fascinating. This meant that most students made these classes their last priority. I haven't gotten more than a few hours of sleep each night and you want me to turn in a 10 page paper on a book I read in high school? Good luck with that.

But if you want me to show up and discuss that book and learn how to read critically, yes, that is a skill that I will show up for. If you want to teach how to negotiate with clients or employers, how to read a contract, how political savvy is important in the working world, how to see the world in a different way, then you're doing it right. You can focus on students practicing public speaking in class and how to defend ideas and they will appreciate that so much more than you trying to convince them that they'll use geometry in the future.

As said by Ideefixe, teach business skills. Please teach business skills, teach what it's like to be in the working environment, give your students an understanding of what working life is and what's expected of them in the real world. Teach your students how to present their work in an articulate way and prioritize their day and stay sane when they realize that they're never going to be presenting their best work again because in real life visual artists are ruled by deadlines. However, and this is important, realize that they're not in the real world yet, and respect that you will play a limited role in your student's lives. I never connected with general education professors like I did with my design professors, most of whom I keep in touch with now and consider massively influential.

Knowing what field you're in might be helpful for those answering your question. For example, writing skills are valuable to all artists, so make your case to your students about why that is. Is a math class, even one called "Math in Art and Design" (which I took), valuable? You might think so because that's what interests you, but I'm going to be honest here and say that I have never regretted my decision to get a "C" in that class so that I could focus on design classes. And hey, that's a real life skill I got from that math class, knowing how to give the important things my attention and ignore the crap that someone else thinks is important that will keep me from achieving my goals. (In this case, it was easier to get a bad grade on a math quiz than to stand in front of my peers and a professor I admire greatly and show a shitty design and not be able to defend it.)

And remember that your students are in visual arts school so they can practice their craft while they can, because soon they'll be working in a world where there's little time for practice. Try not to take that away from them even if it seems frivolous. It was helpful to graduate and remember that my working life would never again by like my college life. But that luxury of time focusing just on design was important to my professional development in a way that writing a research paper wasn't: if you can help your students transition to the real world after college, trust me, that is more important than a general understanding of science.

I hope this has been helpful, despite my scattered and numerous ramblings. Let me end by saying that you're probably going to do great, based on the fact that you're thinking about it enough to ask this question! Good luck!
posted by thesocietyfor at 11:02 AM on December 21, 2012 [3 favorites]

Anonymous, I realized that I implyed that you might be making lazy assumptions about students. I should have said that the professors teaching those terrible general studies classes at my art school made lazy assumptions. Their attitude was, I must make this class intensive, because they have chosen such an impractical way to make a living that there's no way they'll succeed without my class on a totally unrelated subject to their chosen focus or just as bad, these "creative" and "artsy" folks have obviously never taken a class like mine, so I'll start from the very beginning to make sure they really understand how fascinating this subject is, remembering the whole time that artists are totally quirky and impractical and not at all academic! The problem with this is that the students you're teaching have taken humanities, sciences and mathematics classes and went to visual art school anyway, and they didn't end up there just because they didn't have good math/science/humanities teachers in high school or failed those types of classes. They just decided on a different path.

Your class can still be useful to them even if you don't give them the in depth understanding you might teach someone just starting out in your field.
posted by thesocietyfor at 11:34 AM on December 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

When I was in art school, my favorite non-art classes were the seminars, where the instructor engaged us in long discussions over various topics or readings. The two I recall were a kick-ass world history class, and an English class where we never quite got-around to discussing English.

Artists enjoy exercising their minds, and discussing ideas and concepts. Any class that is built around that would probably be very popular, especially if it was fairly free-wheeling in terms of topics.
posted by Thorzdad at 1:12 PM on December 21, 2012

I went to an art school. The biggest favor you can do for they is teach Basic business skills. Basic Basic. Like what Office culture could look like. Use business lingo. Talk about how to talk to people who are not creative. Most of my friends has to get jobs in the corporate World- either in the arts or to support themselves while Rudy built their arts career on the side. Most of us were awkward and woefully unprepared yo deal with people WHO didnt live-breath-sleep the craft.
posted by Blisterlips at 1:35 PM on December 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

I went to CCA (SF/Oakland); I transferred there from a small highly-regarded liberal arts college in the midwest. CCA is a private, four-year fine arts school like SCAD, Parsons, Pratt, etc...

It really depends on what kind of art school, and consequently the type of student that type of school attracts. It looks like you've gotten answers from more "working artist" type schools (like the Art Institute schools). My school was not a "working artist" school, so I'll go for that angle.

In many ways, my school was like any other small, private liberal arts school. The most successful students at my school were smart and worked hard (did their homework, lots of research, etc.), and probably could have done well studying any number of things. They did well in high school, and lots of the students in my department were older - in their mid-late twenties. They knew what they wanted, they'd grown up a little, some were getting second degrees. They had careers and jobs etc.

The best professors were passionate, consistent, and their classes were hard. My favorite professor was a TA for Noam Chomsky and later a professor at UC Berkeley; she started teaching classes at CCA on the side, and eventually switched completely saying that art students were more fun to teach (more imaginative, more engaged). She did not dumb her classes down. Also, my school had an affiliate agreement with Mills College (a private women's college), where we could take liberal arts courses. (The one drawback to art school is that they often just don't have the sheer volume of non-arts classes that a non-art school has.)

You don't need to relate it all back to art - your students will do that. The good ones, anyway. You can't do it for them, because they need to synthesize it and figure out what it means to them and their own work. Studying art is a lot like being a writer or English major. You study techniques (lab skills, etc), the history of your media (you read other writers, or study other photographers/painters/etc.). Laurie King is a good example, and talks about this in her UC Story Hour talk); she writes historic fiction based on the Holmes cannon. She researches that period of history, the Holmes cannon, the relevant country, religion, women's rights, and anything else relevant. Artists are going the same thing. When I went out and shot landscapes around my hometown, it was after I'd studied the history of landscape imagery, landscape photography, agroecology, local history, indigenous cultures, etc...

Art students NEED a good liberal arts background; and they NEED to know how to conduct REAL research. Teach your students how experts in your field solve problems. Teach them how to write well and speak in front of people. An articulate artist with a well-researched body of work and a well-written artist statement free of grammatical errors will go a long way.

Honestly, most "business for artists" can be learned from reading the Etsy seller's handbook. If you're an expert in something, that's your gift. Go whole hog. Do not dumb it down - that's part of the reason thesocietyfor didn't do the work - and neither did I. If I felt a class was being dumbed down and was too "easy" I didn't do it either: huge waste of time. Non-art classes that were HARD, I DID DO - and worked at. I got A's from my ex-UC Berkeley prof; the English teacher that made us read stuff from high school & my "business for artists" class I got a C in because all I ever did (more or less) was show up. They were dumb classes. Some of the most influential professors I had were NOT teaching art subjects.

There's an excellent (Nova?) documentary on origami+math - it was on Netflix, but if you google "origami and math" quite a few things come up. Now, think about origami as paper sculpture - and think about if you wanted to make a sculpture with paper using origami to talk about the connectedness of the world, or the fragility of it, or any number of other ideas... your work is going to be much more specific and articulate if you know a lot of math. It's math that's going to increase your origami vocabulary... your art. There is nothing that is not related to art.
posted by jrobin276 at 1:03 PM on December 23, 2012

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