shutting down the college art meat market
Post #223 • February 27, 2004, 8:18 AM • 2 Comments
This article was turned down last year by the Chronicle of Higher Education. I'm posting it now in honor of the recent conference of the College Art Association.
I am an artist, and it has been my intention since my second year as an undergraduate student to teach art at the college level. Fifteen years later I am now doing so full-time (although without prospects for tenure) at a good school. But during that period I was an active participant in our profession's hiring traditions, and I have some thoughts on how they might be improved.
There is a temptation here to trot out my accomplishments, in order to demonstrate that I'm a person of some scholarly worth for whom a tenure-track job might be a possibility. (This, as opposed my being some whining loser who couldn't get such a job anyway.) But despite the existential strain between hope and despair that I have experienced since finishing grad school ten years ago, I accept that demand for these positions is enormous and supply is scarce, with predictable results. Go ahead and presume this writer is a loser. The hiring system in which I am obliged to participate, the one gladly abetted by the College Art Association, is no less morally bankrupt.
I say all this to forestall the response I received one time when I tried to get some feedback about the application process from a search committee chair. She snorted at me, "Well, nobody handed me a job on a platter." In my imagination I could see her puffing up like an angry cockatiel. I wasn't then, and am not now, asking for a job on a platter. I'm asking that whatever is keeping an inefficient and vaguely punitive system in place - whether it's tradition, lack of initiative, or in the search chair's case, indignance - be dropped so that something better can replace it. Its a system which everyone seems to hate, but no one in a position to improve it seems to be trying to do so.
1. The College Art Association should allow free access to the job listings on its website.
If the purpose of the CAA is to advocate the arts and support its scholars and practitioners, it should not be financing its activities at the expense of its underemployed adjunct members. This is exactly what it does by requiring a $75 annual membership for access to CAA Careers, a publication that is the clearinghouse for the field, and its online job listings.
2. The hiring portion of the annual CAA Conference should be open only to candidates with prior interview appointments.
Each year the CAA Conference has a hiring portion. I attended one in 1997 and swore it would be my last. Anyone who has ever been cruised - sized up as a sexual prospect by a stranger and approached with that in mind - will recognize hiring portion as an analogous experience. People commonly refer to it as the Meat Market. I've heard it called the Bloodbath as well. Colleagues of mine have attended this past year and they report that nothing has changed.
Essentially three groups are at work at the hiring portion. The first are colleges that have reviewed a group of applicants, and have scheduled to meet with some them at CAA for preliminary interviews. Since it spares them from having to fly people to their campuses, they can speak with a greater number of prospective hires. This is exactly how the hiring portion should be used.
The second group includes colleges which post new positions at the conference itself, and invite candidates to submit their application packages. Eager artists scour daily handouts for potential jobs and drop their portfolios off at the college's tables. Periodically a faculty member whisks the portfolios upstairs to his hotel room, where they are reviewed furtively, speedily, and often without the benefit of proper slide viewing equipment. Meanwhile the candidates wait around the lobby, hoping to be tapped for an interview. More likely they will pick up their portfolios from the Out pile on the college's table so they can submit to somewhere else. The atmosphere is one of secrecy and helplessness. The whole business is whorish.
The third group comes with the intention of being in the second group, but is so overwhelmed by the huge numbers of applications - as if that couldn't be anticipated - that it announces that it won't be reviewing portfolios at the conference, but will accept them for review back home. These professors spend the hiring portion leisurely going through disorganized piles of portfolios, chatting amongst themselves, discussing what restaurant to go to in the evening at their institution's expense. This is a colossal waste of everyone's time.
The CAA could put a stop to these last two groups by not posting new positions at the conference, and allowing the hiring portion to be used only for previously arranged appointments. Until it does, the hiring portion deserves its Meat Market label.
3. The CAA should require that in order post jobs in Careers, colleges may solicit no more than the following materials: a cover letter, a statement of teaching philosophy, a CV, and eight slides. If the CAA is not willing to do this, colleges should adopt it as their own policy.
Applicants are commonly asked to submit a package including the above printed materials, twenty slides, twenty slides of student work, transcripts (sometimes original ones), other support materials, a list of referees or reference letters (which sometimes must be sent under a separate cover), and an artist's statement. I'm incredulous when rejection letters try to assure me that my materials received a careful review. If 250 people, a typical number, submitted forty slides each, did someone carefully review ten thousand slides? Of course not. It would be a superhuman act of mental endurance. They looked at the first row on the slide sheet, scanned the cover letter and CV, and left it at that.
That long list of requested materials is appropriate for a second round of reviewing which maximally includes twenty percent of the applicants. Therefore it would make sense to base the first round of reviews on the short list described above, and request the rest of the materials from the few semifinalists. This would spare the other eighty percent an enormous amount of labor and expense. While it might increase the number of applicants, they could be sorted through in a fraction of the time. The colleges would have a larger pool of candidates to select from to boot.
It seems obvious that if the best eight slides don't impress anyone, the next best twelve won't either. If the letter, CV, and statement don't satisfy, then the references and transcripts arent relevant. And at 75 cents a slide, the difference between eight and forty of them is $24. That times 250 applicants is $6000. That times the 35 positions I applied to one year is $210,000. And I only applied for painting and drawing positions; there's also sculpture, printmaking, film/video, time arts, graphic design, industrial design, and architecture, to name the major fields. $210,000 times seven unequally-sized disciplines is what, then? One or two million dollars is a reasonable guess. Thats a lot of money for a pile of slides that almost no one is looking at. And it's a safe bet that most of those slides are going to be discarded, because artists are expected to prove their productivity by presenting recent work.
In light of the shrinking costs of electronic media, colleges should be looking to phase out slides altogether. Some institutions are taking the lead and allowing portfolios to be submitted on CD-ROM. Now that desktop printers are capable of printing near photo quality, printouts should be allowed in lieu of slides. And then there's the Web, where portfolios can be viewed at any time from any wired location with no cost of reproduction. Thus its easy to imagine a slide-free search process. Each applicant would submit six to eight printouts or a CD for the first round of selection. In the second round the search committee would review complete portfolios on the Web and select finalists for interviews.
4. The CAA should conduct yearly research to determine who is being hired by art departments and why.
It is impossible to form an intelligent strategy for applying to college teaching positions because no one outside the search committees knows how selections are made. But aside from wanting to assist applicants, it seems that the CAA would have a vested interest in knowing that the searches posted in Careers were conducted fairly. If I wanted to charge that Careers is a front for colleges who want to give an air of legitimacy to bogus searches, no one could prove me wrong. Perhaps its interest is, instead, in keeping the process mysterious so no one can make an informed to choice to opt out of it, which would cost the CAA membership dues.
I have to ask myself, how does the CAA support liberal identity politics in art with such vigor and fail to extend that liberalism to concern for its poorest members? If Careers subscribers make an indispensable financial contribution to the organization, why is so little being done to protect them? If the hiring portion is so widely known to represent art-in-academe at its most miserable, why isn't some tenured potentate in the organization working to change it?
Now I have a great teaching gig, and one day the College Art Association is going to call upon me for my support. I'm going to toss that request in the trash. If my feelings represent the underclass of young cynics that the CAA is busy creating through its lack of support for the art faculty applicant pool, the CAA should be eyeing the future and biting its fingernails.
Franklin Einspruch is an artist and writer in Miami, Florida. He teaches painting and drawing at Art Institute/Miami International University of Art and Design. His accomplishments have been trotted out on a website at http://www.einspruch.com.