Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Academic Inbreeding

One of the common refrains I hear from those that intern for me is that they felt that their college was a waste, and they should have come through my program, or a similar one, and that the real world experiences far better prepares them for the freelance world.

I can see their point, and understand that, to a degree, it may be true, but that degree is worth a great deal. But what degree?

(Continued after the Jump)

First things first - graduating from college is critical. Don't be an idiot and think that it's not worth it. So many people I know say that getting your degree is the ultimate test in being able to demonstrate you can finish something you started. I agree with that sentiment.

Recently, there was a discussion on a photo association listserv about the qualifications for a teaching position.
Faculty members must have teaching experience at the college level and are required to maintain active participation in their field of photography.
Active participation? I can't say I know a lot of professors that would fit that bill. A few, but not a lot.
The perfect candidate for this job is someone who has an MFA in photography, plus commercial and teaching experience.
And here's where I, along with others on the listserv had a problem. This school requires a Masters? Surely this applies in fields like English, the Sciences, and so forth, but the arts? Maybe Art History degrees, but for the field of photography, I just don't see it.

In the schools of today, in large part, the inbreeding, tenure debates, and self-congratulation that goes along with being an academic is part of the problem with todays' photographers that enter the real world with a diploma, $100k or so in debt, and no way to pay that debt off. Few schools are preparing their students with the tools they need to succeed in business, since freelancers are the new staffers.

I have a few colleagues, and professors at places like RIT, and Brooks, and so forth, that have said that my book is on their required reading list. If you know of others, please post them in the comments. I am not saying that my book, per se, is the end-all be-all answer, but it's at-least an indicator if the professors at the school even care about the issue of their photographers as soon-to-be self-employed.

Please post your comments by clicking the link below. If you've got questions, please pose them in our Photo Business Forum Flickr Group Discussion Threads.


bmillios said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
bmillios said...

Case #1: We had an applicant for a tenured computer science position. He was screened out by the Dean's office, over the objections of the Department Chair, and the search committee. Why was he screened out? Because he only had a Master's degree in Mathematics. Why did the department object? Because he was one of the original designers of the Assocition of Computing Machinery curriculum for Computer Science, and he was still on the curriculum advisory board (his work pre-dated the field of CS - and he'd been teaching PhD candidates for the past several years). Dean 1, Department 0.

Case 2: Our precious university faculty voted that all faculty should be on the same pay scale. That means that a PhD in Computer Science was worth the same amount as a PhD in English, Art History, or some other dime-a-dozen field.

Case 3: In the CS Department, out of 7 full-time faculty, only 2 had actual real-world work experience in the field.

Any wonder that they had (and are still having) a hard time attracting good faculty?

Anonymous said...

The issue that disturbs me most of all is when the good instructors/teachers are offered better jobs elsewhere. This potentially leaves your departments with the mediocre members of the faculty that end up tenured. No other institutions want them and once they've been given this status you can't get rid of them further diminishing the potential of education.

Anonymous said...

Which is why "tenure" should be discarded; no accountability.

Make it a 3-year contract, and you'll see energy and integrity begin to come back.

At root, the whole Academic Institution, that exists for itself, for harvesting importance +funds, and status among its own kind, but doesn't exist for the students god given worth
( remember that the original universities were places where students hired the teachers they wanted? They didn't teach you that part of history? Convenient, isn't it? )
is the problem.

Ditch 'em.

Business colleges ought to replace universities completely: the unemployment rate would go down in step with the commie institution's reduced consumption of our kids potential.

They destroy our kids through debt, through BS "teaching" that hasn't got any use or any integrity, and through training our kids to NOT succeed independently.

And stupidly we subsidize them.

Also, pay ought to be tied to commercial worth.

"artists" can die because they produce nothing of commercial value.

Creatives, sure, so long as we're working, but painters?

What have they ever done for our economy?

English? "starving writers" seem familiar?

Boot 'em off our subsidy gravy train and let 'em work just like we do or at least make way for people of worth.

Why should WE pay the price for the useless?

Moronic scum.

Anonymous said...

There was a great discussion of the MFA being a requirement to teach photographer on the Online Photographer last year: http://theonlinephotographer.typepad.com/the_online_photographer/2007/10/its-the-sheepsk.html

Anonymous said...

I teach Studio and Commercial photography at a small college and all my students know of this blog and your books.

Anonymous said...

I think what is a big part of the problem, not necessarily tenured professors, is the sheer cost and necessity of staying current with new technology. It's hard enough for working photographers to stay on top of stuff with maybe the hope of a decent year in revenues. Try being a salaried, meager at that, employee of an institution that doesn't quite understand why the digital transition is going to cost them hundreds of thousands and the maintenance and learning curves are now twice as expensive and more dynamic .Books, blogs, internships are just part of the game. I don't think it helps to blame people either, but here goes. I'd venture to say that the academic fine art crowds would blame amateur level professionals, that our own industry doesn't seem to vet well enough, along with their constant fascination with gadgets for geeks that has helped drive the cost up of technology while adding one more unnecessary gizmo or software magic wand to the equation. It will take time for the basics to be standardized and the herd will get thinned, but until then I suggest WORKING with MFA programs not pedantically scolding them about their tenured professors. How many syllabi from ANY photo program do any of you have? Have you toured the institutions, have you met with the director of the programs? Contribute don't just criticize.

Anonymous said...

"Photographic education in colleges was still quite marginal. A couple of places, like Iowa and Minnesota, started programs around 1950 maybe, still under the influence of the GI Bill, where, you know, you could study flag twirling if you wanted to. So that was beginning to be a factor, and the people who came out of those places were basically pretty incompetent. [Laughs.] ... What I mean to say is, about the only thing they could hope to do, in most cases, was to be artists. Because if you’re an artist, you can do anything you want and say, "That’s what I meant!""

Talking Pictures: John Szarkowski on the good, the bad and the flat in American photography
by Holly Myers and Tom Christie - LA Weekly, December 6, 2006

Anonymous said...

Actually the cost of producing amazing photos has come down thanks to digital. A kid with an older D70, a G4, and an old Epson can crank out world-class work for less than $1000 investment.

Thank the marketing majors for making people believe they need 10X stuff just to make a photo.

Anonymous said...

I have also had many student/interns tell me that they learn more in two weeks of an internship in my studio than there four years at school. When I expressed this to an area University, they were aware of the problem and asked me to develop a class in professional practices for their department and teach it. It has worked out well for all involved. They get an enhanced curriculum and I get to selfishly screen potential interns. Students get access to information they were missing before.

In defense of the University, they never claimed to be a commercial photography program and encouraged students who want that to go elsewhere. (All students don't get the message) However, professional principles are relevant to any photo career whether it is journalism, commercial,fine art, etc. The fundamental tenant of "know you are valuable and know what that value is", applies. If they fully understand that, they can apply it to any career path they choose.

Photographers get into the field because they like photography, not because they want to run a profitable business. It is only when they realize the necessity of being able to do both are they able to have a career in field. People often say to me, "Your job seems like fun." I say when I am working it is often fun. The problem is that I have to run the business side to get the fun part. I don't mind because I recognize the value. But given the choice, I would rather be taking the pictures than shopping for health insurance plans.

Anonymous said...

This debate is not all that new. My first career was in architecture and many of us railed against the deficiencies of architectural education for someone who wanted to practice. It didn't seem to matter a whit to incoming students that they had the highest SAT scores of any college in the University and the lowest starting salaries upon graduation of any college. My first job was as a head waiter at the local country club. But I met an architect there who gave me a job!

I once asked my dentist which toothpaste HE recommended. He said, "I recommend toothpaste." Along those lines, I recommend a college degree... in most anything, and preferably liberal arts. After that figure out how you want to earn your living, ask practitioners for their recommendations, and follow their advice. It may not be formal education.

Anonymous said...

I hear the same at my workshops, IMHO college for photography is ONLY useful in two ways, if someone has NO experience with the biz side of things, and IF the college has a great alumn program that hires grads. Its all about WHO you know, and connections you can make. SOME colleges are VERY useful for that, others... not so much.

Anonymous said...

Who cares about interning and going to school to learn this business?

It's already on the road to ruin.

Bruce Grant said...

The crux of the relevance gap in university photography programs is that in order to grant academic degrees (BA, BS, MS, etc.) universities must be accredited...and the accrediting bodies have very strict standards requiring that virtually all full-time faculty members have "terminal degrees" (PhD for most academic subjects, MFA for studio art) and strictly limiting the number of "adjunct" faculty (i.e., those currently working professionally outside of higher education) members that are allowed to teach.

Tenure, in turn, is based on criteria that help colleges remain accredited (publication, research, service on faculty committees, etc.) rather than staying current with the field (which teachers of subjects like photography must do if their teaching is to remain relevant).

(And all talk of "sinecures" aside, without tenure, a college teacher is the academic equivalent of a migrant laborer.)

The fateful turn came when graduates of trade schools began to slip in earning power compared to those with academic degrees...even in fields such as photography. In rather rapid order, former trade schools, like Brooks Institute and RIT (where I taught briefly in the late 1970s) sought accreditation to grant academic degrees...and thus were caught up in the dilemma described above.

As in so many other things, the root problem lies in institutions, not individuals.

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Walt Sorensen said...

It's not just happening in the Universities. When placing proposals on competitive bids some clients will "screen" photographers looking for degrees before considering portfolios.

Thanks to digital some people have gotten an opinion that Schooling is the only way people can gain quality skills. Like a BFA is a screening process weeding out the bad from the good.

Personally I have seen a lot of BFA students return to the community college to learn lighting and photoshop skills they didn't learn in the BFA program; before seeking an internship to learn everything else.

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