The old saying famously goes “If you can’t do, teach.” Personally, I don’t agree with this, as I’ve had some fantastic teachers in my time, from primary school right through to degree level, and I’m sure everyone reading this can think of at least one truly inspirational teacher or lecturer who set them on the right path and inspired them. I consider myself very lucky to have had such good lecturers between 1995 and 1998 at Blackpool – with 2 in particular, Geoff Clark, and Gordon Read. I’ve also met dozens in my travels around the country lecturing at 30 or so different universities and colleges.
However (there’s always a bloody however, isn’t there?) in the photography industry there seems to be a certain tendency amongst university/college level lecturers and tutors to embody this famous saying. I’ve encountered quite a large number of people in these positions who either never even attempted to make any sort of career in the commercial world, have totally isolated themselves from the commercial world, or tried commercial work for a short period and took the teaching option.
Notice I didn’t say the “easy” option, as I don’t believe for one minute that being a photography lecturer is easier than being a photographer. The challenges are simply different. Yes, I have no guaranteed income, jobs that can be highly variable in nature, location, personnel, and fees, and I have to juggle quite a few balls at once. However, I don’t have to deal with any educational bureaucracy, nor do I have to handle difficult students.
The biggest problem with the commercial/educational separation by far then comes when the course is pulled ever further from commercial reality whilst promising it’s students they’ll be prepared for the commercial world when they leave. This is often done because the lecturers in charge have such little experience of commercial work, or as I’ve encountered several times, are actively scornful of it. Fine art is much more worthy don’t you know, just as long as you don’t mind working in Starbucks until you’re of a pensionable age – assuming you can sell the occasional print or get published in the occasional magazine, you still count as a fine artist/photographer, not a barista.
Sorry, rant over – sore point that one – it’s OK though, I don’t wake up sweating in the middle of the night screaming “2 flat whites to go!” anymore….
Before I start with the inevitable bullet point list of qualities to look for in a good lecturer, I should mention the vital role of support staff/technicians/whatever the politically correct term is these days. During my degree, in the mid 90s we obviously still shot film, so we had a lab technician who ran the E6, C41 and black and white labs. We also had a guy in charge of the equipment stores, and a genius in charge of the studios. The smarter ones amongst us learnt after a few months that these three held a huge amount of influence, but more than that, they also had a wealth of insight. The studio manager – Mr Ian Atkinson – had actually built a lot of the equipment in the studios, including the aptly named “Blackpool Giant” studio stands. After discussing ideas with the lecturers, it was often worth spending a few minutes talking practical issues with the technicians. Their suggestions often saved us hours of mucking about, or even sent us in completely new directions. Overlook these people at your peril!
So, here’s the blow by blow of what I think makes a good lecturer. I’m basing this on my personal experience as a student, and more recent experience both in what I think the commercial world needs, and my time spent in various colleges and universities around the country. I’m also aware of the role of a photography course in walking that tightrope between giving you space to indulge yourself and be creative, and prepare you for some of the harsher realities of the commercial world.
This is probably the most important quality for a lecturer/tutor to have. College is almost the only time when you will have what should be a truly sympathetic ear when you talk about your work. A good critique is priceless, and out here in the “real” world, I have to pay for them if I want them.
Listening is important, but listening too subjectively is pointless. I’m not going into deep philosophical realms here about how objective it’s possible to be as a human being, but someone in the role of tutor needs more objectivity than average. Just because they don’t personally like a student’s work, shouldn’t mean that they disregard it, or are unable to offer worthwhile advice. A wise lecturer will be able to make a student understand that whilst they may be more experienced than the student, ultimately they’re still only an opinion, not the final authority. The final authority on the student’s work is always the student.
Objectivity should also extend into the advice the lecturer gives regarding what sort of work the student should approach. Whilst people will always have genres they’re comfortable with, college is a perfect time to explore aspects of photography that are outside the normal comfort zone. A lecturer should avoid trying to simply create clones of themselves, and look to challenge and push their students to range widely over the whole field of visual story telling.
3. Encouraging, but honest.
Sticking with the theme of college being the last place you can be truly self-indulgent, tutors should make sure they indulge and support students in their exploration. It’s very difficult to be creative in an environment where you don’t feel secure and confident, and a good course should engender this. However – at some point they will need to bring in a degree of reality. If a student is left for 3 years with absolutely no deadlines or pressure of any sort, they are going to find the commercial world extremely hard to deal with. Structure is vital for future success, but the degree of structure is something that will need fine-tuning, sometimes on a student by student basis.
4. Creatively active.
I’d be a bit worried to encounter a tutor in photography who no longer took any pictures. I’d wonder where their motivation had gone, and their passion for the medium.
Ties in very closely with the above, but also applies to encouraging students and being enthusiastic about their work. A lecturer needs to be enthused by the material they’re teaching rather than feeling that they’re just churning out the curriculum every year like a production line.
6. Culturally embedded.
Being able to give a student advice about where to look next. This is part of the student/master deal – you look to someone wiser, older, and more experienced than yourself to guide you towards signposts on your path. An in depth knowledge of the entire visual arts field is hugely important – when a student expresses an interest in a certain artist or practitioner, a good tutor should be able to say “ah, you should also examine the work of x, y, and z”. Students may find this sort of thing themselves, but a tutor should be a good guide on the path.
7. Secure and confident.
Don’t manifest your insecurities on the students. I’ve experienced this a few times – usually as soon as I’ve shaken hands with someone on arriving at a college! I can read behind their eyes this expression that says “You’re going to undermine me in front of all my students aren’t you, by telling them all about the harsh commercial world I’m personally trying to hide from!” To which my silent look replies “Yes, and I’ll take great pleasure in doing so, as I feel you’re selling your students short.”
8. Recognise the limits of their knowledge.
Closely tied to a sense of security and confidence, is the recognition of their own limitations. On my course we had a visiting lecturer EVERY WEEK. This is getting quite rare nowadays, mostly I suspect due to budget issues, but also because I think not everyone is happy having someone else come in and put across a different point of view. Exposing students to different experiences and insights should be a vital part of a well-rounded course. Colleges can easily become “Ivory Towers” and closed off from what’s happening outside. Lecturers need to make sure their students don’t become too refined and dislocated. It’s also vital for a lecturer to give the student signposts along the path once they’ve left education. On my course we had to complete a business plan, and provide evidence that we’d thought about what would happen once we walked out the door in June of our 3rd year.
If the intention of the course is to create students who are capable of surviving and thriving in the commercial world, then one of the areas lecturers will need to promote an understanding of is dealing with clients, along with the vast world of running your own business. This may be an area they have expertise in, but it is bound to be a subject where outside help is valuable.
9. An open door policy.
The ability to just walk into a tutor’s office was something we took for granted at college. I was stunned to find at several places I’ve travelled to since that in some cases, students needed to make appointments 2 weeks in advance, just to secure a 10 minute chat. This policy extends beyond the lecturers office – students should feel confident just accosting lecturers in corridors and quizzing them on their work. I’m aware that in some cases this can be hard to achieve because of college policy, but it should be something a lecturer should strive for. It’s all about creating a culture of approachability, and students feeling they can trust their tutors.
There. That’s not too much to ask is it? Or maybe I was just really spoilt up at Blackpool in the mid 90s….
Finally – thoughts from a good lecturer.
I ran the draft of this text past the lecturers you see featured in the post, all of whom I personally rate very highly, and asked for their thoughts, and anything they’d like to add. Each had something unique to say, which I have incorporated into the text, but the most common opinion expressed was that studying is all about taking risk. Student’s should feel confident in their own abilities, and their own vision as photographers, and lecturers are there to support, encourage and facilitate that process. I’ll wrap up with a few choice quotes on that subject:
“Arts education has always been about risk and innovation and the students embracing of this was essential. So what stops them?
Anything which destroys passion and curiosity. It is the lecturers role to identify the passions and support the curiosity. Motivational support is not easy when lecturers are vulnerable to outside pressures to comply with institutional demands.
Remember I always said creatives need ten cuddles a day, constant reassurance that they are and are going to be great.
Students need to be reassured that lecturers are opinion not authority. No one is an authority on them not even themselves. They are explorers of their own direction. As a student I used to go round all members of staff to find out who agreed with me.
Support is to offer potential solutions to the students dilemmas reassuring them that they should use this information if it feels right to them. Too many staff are looking for students to copy with their opinions rather that trust their instincts when judging the value of the advice.”
“To encourage them to take risks, to challenge themselves and push them out of their comfort zone. To learn means not to do what you already know will work but to do something that that involves risk, a new technique or a bigger idea. Reward those who try even if the result is not spectacular, learn from it and improve the next time”