So, You Want To Teach

Exhibition opening at the Fine Arts Center Gallery full of BFA students at Arkansas State University. Photo courtesy of the author.
Wilkinson demonstrating how to handle pulp for paper making in the classroom. Photo courtesy of the author.



By Melissa Wilkinson



“Finally, an assignment that I’ll actually enjoy doing!” a student blurted loudly at the tail end of a class-wide drawing demo I was wrapping up. Swallowing my irritation while trying to maintain my best Mister Rogers voice, I said, “Sometimes, we keep our thoughts inside of our heads.” You would think this sort of interaction would be rare at the college level, but it is, in fact, not. I am not sure whether my wife awaits my return home more for me or for the story of whatever ridiculous moment happened in one of my classes. Teaching is not for everybody. It requires an even disposition, patience, and a buoyant sense of humor. It is also one of the most rewarding things I can think to do with my life. It affords a private kind of pride, seeing a student blossom and evolve in such a short period of time, not to mention those rare occasions (always years later) when you get wind of your influence on a successful former student. In teaching, I can trust that every day will be unique. Even though academia is growing increasingly inhospitable to the humanities daily, I know that I will not wake up in the middle of the night wondering if it matters.



As a blue-collar, first-generation college grad anxious to find a way making both art and a living, teaching seemed inevitable as a career path. Now, I have been teaching at the college level for seventeen years and have tenure tucked safely in my back pocket. Over the last ten years, I have been the one on the hiring side, as both a search chair and committee member, and have seen hundreds of applicants in that time. Because of experience, I am here to provide some insight from the inside. How do you get your foot in the door? How can you land that interview to finally show that you are ready and eager for a teaching position?



  1. Teaching requires teaching experience.



I look through dozens of applications of artists applying for teaching gigs with zero experience in a classroom. Only endowed universities hire art stars with no credentials other than their creative production. Most hire professors who can make an impact with students (more on this below). Seek these opportunities out no matter how seemingly insignificant to your CV. Teaching in grad school as an “instructor of record” is a great move, and teaching full-time is ideal, but if you cannot land the paid experience, then volunteer your time in any classroom you can manage. I know educators who have taught in assisted living communities, local arts foundations, correctional facilities, museums, and churches. We all start somewhere. When we see your teaching philosophy (and yes, you will have to write one) it will not be full of conjecture, it will be full of experience.



  1. Get the right degree.


In most academic settings now, it is virtually impossible for us to hire someone without a terminal degree in our specific field. To do so would put our accreditation in peril.


Exhibition opening at the Fine Arts Center Gallery full of BFA students at Arkansas State University. Photo courtesy of the author.



  1. Make the work and display it.



Whether you produce poetry, performance, paintings, whatever — lead with it when you apply, even if the institution does not tout itself as a research institution. The very first thing I look at is the professional portfolio; it will tell me the most about a candidate’s artistic ideology, tastes, and potential emphases in pedagogy. We look for the best, most consistent work that could add diversity and a refreshing voice to our department.



  1. Show the work.



Once I have established the candidate is creating interesting work, I look for the evidence that they are putting it out into the world. If the position requires teaching alone, we still investigate the candidate’s research activity. Why? Because you are a professional artist first, and thereby demonstrating to students that art is not created in a vacuum. If it is tenure track, the creative hermits do not get tenure — they get fired. The old adage “publish or perish” still rings true.



  1. Cover letter blues.



I cannot tell you how many cover letters I read that only talk about the dissertation or research. Guess what — you can tell me all about that in the artist statement I skim. I will spend more time with the application when we have made a shortlist, and you make a shortlist by telling me directly why and how you are qualified for the call. Two pages maximum, one page is on fleek.



  1. That jerk you work with.



Yes, we absolutely Google you. Do not be fooled – we will do a deep dive into what kind of persona you project. Whether you want to or not, you will be working with faculty closely on service, participating in democratic decision making, and shaping impressionable (mostly) young minds. Do not be an asshole. At the very least, clean up your online messes.



Wilkinson painting a mural in downtown Memphis with student interns assisting. Photo courtesy of the author.



  1. Know the game, Homefry.



What does the department emphasize? What is their student makeup and dominant demographic? How do you fit in the identity of the region? What are some changes or challenges that the institution faces? Do your homework and set yourself apart by being able to speak to how you will benefit the place. Do this in the cover letter and then in the interview.



  1. Charisma counts.



The arts are under attack everywhere as enrollment declines, workforce-focused politicians cut public education like soft cheese, and capitalist drones are our administrators. The “well rounded” mission of the liberal arts is undergoing a trade school makeover. In the last gasps of the liberal arts death rattle, can you recruit and keep what students we already have committed? It is shaky ground right now for the humanities. We cannot hire and keep someone who makes a classroom miserable.



  1. Sorry, but we are all the same.



Academia is still full of what outsiders think of as conformists. The Internet may love the avant-garde, but the old white men still rule the ivory tower. A candidate who applies wearing a shirt stamped with “fuck you, you fucking fuck” and toting a portfolio consisting of Advent calendars formed by their own pubic hair might not jive in the rural South. Academic artists show in museums, private and public galleries, and juried exhibitions; it’s old-fashioned, but has a paper trail. And while we are chatting about conformity: adhere to the application instructions on the job call. For baby Buddha’s sake, how are you going to expect students to follow directions if you can’t?



  1. Stick with it.



Don’t be too discouraged. I have seen committees make wise, resolute decisions and I have seen them make absurd ones based on fickle moods. Know, however, that education is an ever-revolving door. Regardless of what you will hear about the increasing rarity of tenure track jobs, positions do open up — and they open up often. The first step is becoming a qualified candidate. Keep producing and get your valuable work out there. Hiring committees look for quality work, great teaching, and collegiality, while administrators want thoughtful, professional, and motivated long-term hires. You can work your way up once your foot is in the door. If you are willing to pick up and take a chance — it is very likely you will land your dream teaching gig.




Melissa Wilkinson serves as Associate Professor of Art-Painting at Arkansas State University. She has shown her artwork extensively at the national level and been featured in numerous publications. She lives and holds a studio in West Memphis Arkansas.