Getting with the (real-life) Program
If I believed in such things, I would say that I am luckier than most to have found employment after finishing my MFA degree in printmaking. The ideological artmosphere of graduate-level studies leans more toward commonplace rote training meant to produce identical copies of the next wave of teachers, a trend that is not lost to critics of contemporary academia. While ideally the university’s mission should be to create well-rounded people, it is much too concerned with this assembly line creation of employees to staff tomorrow’s workforce. By creating future teachers, professors also train their competition, which breeds animosity and cynicism and a critical junction where teaching and learning become oppositional to one another. The support system between teacher and student can then break down at the juncture, leading to harmful if not destructive power dynamics.
I am fortunate that I came to the MFA program having already experienced much of what life outside of academia has to offer: raising children, enduring poverty and mindless jobs, and developing a keen disappointment with people’s satisfaction with the mundane. What I encountered, as well as many of my colleagues, was a single minded push for teaching as the only viable option post-MFA. When asked for different post MFA career options the answers from faculty was often things like artist residencies, coop worker, and the fantastical Professional Artist, a pursuit that requires such fierce dedication and networking that only a handful of artists attain a level of commercial success that allows them to survive eviction and starvation. I credit my life experience and understanding of academia’s limitations for helping me to find employment working with a museum’s collection of works on paper; it wasn’t luck, it was opportunity meeting preparation (thank you Tom Waits). But I soon discovered that I am the exception to the rule; the vast majority of MFAs graduating from my university were unemployed or underemployed. Now, several years post-graduation, most are not working with art or, if they are, it is tangentially related. They have not, as faculty and administrators promised, found a satisfying and soulful career. And please, let me be clear: Their failure to find employment in the art sector is not for lack of effort. It is the too-real embodiment of a failed system and broken promises.
Hank, whose name has been anonymized, unburdens his worry and frustration in animated waves as we discuss life. “I feel like Play-Doh that’s been squeezed into this mass, and all the colors are mixed together too much to separate,” he says as a description of his three years spent learning to be a professor. Hank has worked various teaching jobs since graduation, but most recently has landed in the hellish landscape of adjunct teaching where he doesn’t know if he’ll be employed from one semester to the next. We discuss other colleagues as well. He tells me two acquaintances are at the Art Institute, which is estimated to be in the second circle of Hell. Another is still an adjunct at a large university after three years, which may very well dip down into the third or fourth level of Hell. Hanks tells me stories of another promising artist and teacher who fills out applications in groups of three every week, which is simply a nice way of saying he’s endlessly stuck in purgatory.
Hank knows some people who “went back to where they came from, where jobs were already waiting for them.” Hank and I agree that in academia it’s more about who you know and less about being a faceless PDF of information in a human resources queue. “There’s this unrealistic expectation that I need to go to CAA to meet people for these jobs, but how the hell am I going to get a plane ticket, and hotel, and all that when I can’t even get steady work. “ Hank is talking about the College Arts Association and that many academic employers will conduct interviews at this huge event in New York, or Los Angeles. I have seen many instance of the hiring process ask Do You Plan To Attend CAA? If So What Days?
Hank also believes that the ideological process of turning artists into teachers can be detrimental to the graduate of an MFA program. If there is a lot of synergy between the artists and teaching a void can form when that is suddenly lost in the floundering for a job post MFA. “It’s like this hole is opened in me, and the only thing that can fill it is teaching. I just want to teach, be in the classroom again.” His adjunct gig insures Hank will have some amount of that fix, but the reality is hourly wages will not pay his bills. His life has to be formed around this fiscal minefield. “This month I have to choose between Internet, cable and my car. I need my car. I need the Internet to get back to these employers.” As for student loan repayment, not even a slim chance.
Making art is also a challenge without the facilities that you come to rely on in an MFA program. You make concessions, you go analog. If you’re a ceramicist, you buy a kiln if possible. Jewelers have to buy small foundries. Printmakers have to buy a press, or screens. Painters have to buy…paint and canvas. Ok, basically painters suck, but they still suffer from unemployment. This transition changes the art you just spent three years making, often for the worse. Hank had some issues with this transition, but he has gone to other methods of art production. “But it’s hard to keep going when all this financial shit is coming down on your head,” he says. The employment becomes more imperative when you rely on the academy for such things as exposure units, or burnout chambers. To tie yourself to these things in the MFA program is to make a gamble with the things you love, endangering future sanity.
Hank has to get back to his work on applications, but I wonder if he feels like he was trapped into this position by the ideology. “You don’t have much choice other than to teach. I wish I had been exposed to something other than teaching. I could have been doing anything else. Doing anything else would be a terrible depreciation of all that time and money. ”
After we hang up, I wonder if I should also be focusing on finding teaching work. I’ve been following this story about the National Adjunct Walkout Day coming up. Hank has already been threatened via email by his institution. I figure there will be tons of jobs next week, but it feels like the old days of unions and scab workers. The academy will persist, replacing one body with another as needed. Meanwhile the path I never even knew was possible, working in a printmaking collection at a university museum, fills the need to be part of the art world.
Image: "Ivory Tower" collage, 2014, Michael Glenn
Michael and Hank are both graduates of Texas-based MFA programs and are living and working in Texas.