Table of Contents » Chapter 2 : Post Graduation » Chapter 4 : Employment Advice from Kathy King

Chapter 4 : Employment Advice from Kathy King


YOU: Strong, open-minded liberal arts type who placed ad in CAA Careers.

ME: Energetic, 30-something, SF seeks venerable, educational institution for long term, committed relationship, mutual fulfillment.

So, you want to be a Ceramics faculty member in a college or university? Most of us are aware of the competitive field of college-level teaching. Applying and interviewing for such positions is a job in itself. Some graduate Ceramic programs try and prepare their fledglings for such things before they grab their MFA and head off into the world; others do not, perhaps employing the “sink or swim” method. A year ago, I embarked on the journey to find a teaching position. (I would like to say that I was motivated solely by my love of teaching my craft and not by financial concerns. Alas, the fact remains that the amount of my student loans could keep a small country running for years. I am also quite attached to the concept of eating and shelter.

I applied for twelve positions in 1999. To my surprise, I received a number of responses to the initial applications. I was extremely fortunate. Today, I sit in my office where I am still reeling from the process. (Now, I am in the position to give advice to students facing the same task; I have spent many hours reflecting on what worked when applying and interviewing.)

I would like to think that I am where I am because I work hard, exhibit work frequently, and have solid teaching experience. However, my gut feeling is that successful faculty searches are quite subjective. Maybe I was a good personality fit with the other faculty. Perhaps the search committee liked that I worked sculpturally and with the vessel. Maybe they wanted a woman to fulfill some quota. Or could it be that I was chosen just because I could weld and don’t shy away from power tools? Who knows?

I thought I might share my trials with those who are currently putting their job applications together. I do not propose that my experiences were either normal or abnormal, and I certainly don’t think of myself as an expert in this area. I do know that when I was looking for a job, I had no idea what to expect of the interview process. I needed help and advice. I hope that reading this article may aid someone in a similar position.

The Beginning: December 30, 1999 I’m sitting at my desk, my dog-eared December issue of CAA Careers by my side. My office looks like a land mine hit it, binders and slide sheets litter the floor. The printer spews resumes, statements, teaching philosophies, and letters of intent. My loved ones are hiding, frightened that I may ask them to proofread a letter “just one more time.” As of late, they have been very gentle with me letting me know when I have slide labels stuck in embarrassing places.

To tell you a little about myself, I was awarded an MFA in Ceramics from the University of Florida in 1998 with the hope of being both a studio artist and an educator. Before going to graduate school, I taught at community studios such as the 92nd St. YMHA/YWHA in New York City and the Main Line Center for the Arts outside of Philadelphia. After my formal education, I gained valuable experience through short-term teaching assignments. First, I replaced a faculty member on sabbatical at a liberal arts college, Connecticut College; the next semester, I was a visiting artist at the Cleveland Institute of Art. Last year, I taught at both the School of the Museum of Fine Arts (SMFA) in Boston and at the Harvard (formerly Radcliffe) Ceramics Studio where I was also the artist-in-residence.

Looking back at these two years of experience, I consider them as a boot camp for teaching. I was able to compare teaching at a large public university to a small private liberal arts college to an art school. The difference between program structure and student make-up in each of these situations showed me the importance of remaining open in my teaching style. For example, a syllabus that worked well in one situation did not always work smoothly in another. Student involvement and commitment within the classroom, studio, and school acted as gauges by which I learned to find entry points for increasing interest and energy levels. For instance, the SMFA had no letter grading or attendance policy, very foreign ideas to me. Teaching a glaze chemistry class on Friday mornings seemed a daunting task until I found ways to make the class fun. We actually had a project where students reported on different glaze colorants while being as creative as possible. I received puppet shows on cobalt, performance art about copper, and a dramatic monologue on the dangers of manganese!

In assembling a concrete teaching philosophy and other applications materials, I solicited advice from faculty around the country who have been on faculty search committees. I asked them a series of questions:

  • What is the most important aspect of the portfolio?
  • What is the best way to present the information?
  • How important are student slides?
  • Should extra information like publications, postcards, et cetera be included?

The answers came back loud and clear; above all, the information should be visually appealing and easy to access by the fatigued committee members. In addition, too much emphasis cannot be placed on the importance of the introductory letter which directly addressed the requirements of the position and, at the same time, provides all pertinent information about yourself (just short of blood type).

Overall, my impression was that the CAA job listings reflected a growing trend in the area of college level Ceramics. Positions often included not only teaching within a main area such as Ceramics, but also required other areas of expertise. I like to call this theory “Double Dipping.” In this regard, certain ads seemed more thinly veiled than others. For example, some schools were clearly hoping for a faculty/studio technician to save on paying for two positions. Other schools required that one teach Foundation Art, Three Dimensional Design, Printmaking, and Brain Surgery 101. Deciding what you are willing (and qualified) to teach when considering for which positions to apply may save you headaches down the road.

So, the applications were sent out and then the anxiety-filled, nail-gnawing period of waiting began. I sat in my studio imagining myself serving up Grande Mocha Lattes behind a Starbucks counter (my backup career plan). Luckily, I began to get some calls to interview and will now refer to the journal that I kept last year. Please keep in mind, I am allowing for some dramatic exaggeration and have removed the names of the schools I visited so that if I ever have to go through this again, I have a fighting chance.

The College Art Association Conference: February, 2000 First stop, College Art Association (CAA) Conference in New York City. I arrive at the conference dressed in my new power suit. Entering the main interview room took my breath away. Before me lay a sea of folding tables, most of them manned by interviewers trying to peer around stacks of portfolios from eager applicants. The suddenly, the power suit isn’t feeling so powerful. I bumped into a few people from grad school right away. One relates that she is applying for Electronic Media/Photography/Foundations jobs and has eight interviews today and six tomorrow. She asks how many I have. “I have two,” I reply. She looks at me with a sympathetic smile and says, “Oh, that’s pretty good for Ceramics, right?” My confidence plummets into my brand new pumps (which are killing me, by the way). She reminds me that she hasn’t completed her Thesis work yet and hopes that she ““can find the time with all these interviews.” We wish each other luck and she disappears into the mass of applicants.

Indeed, technology-related areas such as Electronic Media and Digital Imagery seem to be the fastest growing areas in Art Education. Schools are desperate to lure new computer whizzes fresh from graduate programs. This makes perfect sense if you recall my Double Dipping theory; the school will, most likely, use them as both the Electronic Media faculty and the Computer Technician. For this same reason, schools must compete with the dot-coms for graphic design teachers. It seems that Art Historians may be safe from this phenomena but more and more Ceramics/Sculpture/Metalsmithing is now Three-Dimensional Design as Painting/Printmaking/Drawing is Two-Dimensional Design.

I am undecided whether the current trend in “interdisciplinary education” was created to allow students to easily experience a variety of media or as a way for universities to squeeze more out of their hires.

Interview #1: CAA Conference

Job Description: Teach Ceramics and 3D Design at a large state university to both undergraduate and graduate students.

I arrive for my interview; the weary faculty representatives greet me while glancing at their watches. As I speak, two interviewees hang out behind me waiting for their turn. I’m nervous and self-conscious. I’m not sure if I’m answering the representative’s questions thoroughly. The name of a popular artist/critic comes up in conversation and apparently one of the interviewers does not favor his writings – the faculty member rolls his eyes at the mention of the critic. All is lost, I think. He switches the subject, “Can you weld?” I consider for a moment and reply, “Yes, I can weld but I’m not an expert. Does the job entail teaching welding?” I start to see eyes roll again. “It would come in handy,” he explains curtly. This would not be last time I will get the welding question. I wonder if it is some secret test to separate the girls from the women. For future interviews, I consider wearing my powder pink utility belt packed with tools and giving short demonstrations of my skill saw skills.

Interview #2: CAA Conference

Job Description: Teach Ceramics in a one person undergraduate department at a mid-sized state university.

Later that day, I arrive on the fifth floor of the CAA Conference hotel. I walk down the hallway, stepping over tired applicants waiting outside doorways or those frantically trying to shove notes under doors requesting last-minute interviews. I’m starting to feel like a university groupie. I find the door to the interview suite. A tired interviewer welcomes me into the room, one lounges on the bed, another is curled up in a chair. Empty coffee cups and half-eaten danishes litter the tables. I am told that they have interviewed thirteen (my lucky number) applicants for the job already.

The interview goes well; the faculty wake up and cheerfully tell tales of their vision for the program. A few of these items turn out to be things that I would hear during almost all the interviews. I refer to it as The List:

The older (usually male) faculty is retiring, and we want new energy! We are planning a new building with state-of-the-art Ceramics facilities! You can design it! We hold an interdisciplinary philosophy open to combining all areas of art. You can create your own program! Oh, and we like lady welders. You can weld, right?

In this case, I am very excited to speak with them about their new vision for combining Ceramics with other disciplines, to include Computer Technology in the studio, to institute Ceramic Art History courses (sorely missing in many of the programs). I have goose bumps as we go out to lunch; they tell the next applicant to come back later. I am floating in the clouds when I am invited to campus to interview. At lunch, they begin to feed me information in preparation for meeting the committee and dean. Clearly, they want me to sell myself in a particular way to the committee. I begin to feel uneasy and I don’t think my queasiness is due to the sandwich I just ate.

I’m flown to campus two weeks later. I’m given a tour of the school and then interview goes well; they seem to be interested in the ideas that I present although they don’t seem to have a clear idea of how Ceramics works within the Art Department as a whole. Their vision of an “interdisciplinary program” seems to have been an idea that looks good on paper but hasn’t been implemented yet. I forget about all the “tips” that were given to me at CAA and just go with my gut. I share my ideas and speak about using computers in the classroom with glaze software and new 3D imaging programs. I mention combining forces with Art Education to serve students in creating Ceramic programs within area schools, as well as projects involving community outreach. At this interview, I feel that I am much more calm and less nervous when considering my answers. I think it went pretty well.

Interview #3: Late February, 2000

Job Description: Teach undergraduate Ceramics and 3D Design in a one person department at a large university.

Three days after getting back from Interview #2, I am on another plane. Arriving on campus, I tour the facilities and see a number of kilns, the most popular being the Raku. In fact, I think I see cobwebs on the gas kilns. A committee that doesn’t seem to have much knowledge about the field of Ceramics interviews me. A big selling point for them is that this school is located near a major city. Museum resources, exhibition opportunities, and working within a community of artists are important considerations for me, making this position more appealing.

As the interview progresses, I don’t have to answer a single question about technical abilities or my work. The questions address my teaching philosophy for the most part. After twenty minutes, they seem quite pleased with what they have heard. However, I am unclear on quite a few issues. The committee begins to address the aforementioned List, although this department will not be given a new building anytime soon. The university is planning a new building for the rest of the Art Department; the hope is that the new Ceramics faculty can “fix up” the existing studio and kilns. Red flag! Red flag! Although I certainly feel qualified to make studio repairs, and would expect to do some in any job I might accept, I do not want to be single-handedly responsible for the renovation of an entire studio. Knowing I would be the only faculty member, with no technical assistance, means less time teaching and more time wearing my tool belt.

Interview #4: Mid-March, 2000

Job Description: Teach Ceramics in a one person undergraduate department at an isolated liberal arts college.

A school driver picks me up at the airport and we begin an hour and a half drive to the college. When we reach the hotel, I ask the driver what is next on my agenda. I’m wondering if someone will be meeting me for dinner (most schools will arrange something for your meals) or if I wait to meet a committee member at the interview the next morning. He says, “Well, no one told me anything about dinner, but there is a Little Caesar’s at the SuperK-Mart across the street.” I squint my eyes towards my dinner destination in the strip mall across the highway. Secretly, I hope that there is something good on cable in my room. The next morning, another driver mysteriously appears to usher me to school.

Once on campus, I am given a tour, but the “older, male, faculty member who is retiring” isn’t available. A non-Ceramic faculty member shows me around the studio. “It’s a fixer-upper!” he jokes as we pass through the studios that exhibit nearly an inch of dust on every surface. We stop to look at a firing gas kiln in poor condition. As we watch, a brick comes loose from its side and tumbles to the ground. Flames shoot out the new hole; a student tries to shove the brick back into place, muttering, “This thing sucks!” I agree. The kilns need a lot of work. I inquire about technical support through paid or student assistantships. With a false sense of enthusiasm my guide replies, “Well, I’m sure there will be when and if we get the new building!” Gee, you don’t say. Next, I show my slides to the student body. The opportunity to show my work during these interviews is one of my favorite events. Usually, I try to add a bit of humor when speaking about my work. More often than not, students seem to have a good time seeing the work as it involves elements of humor and sexuality. Unfortunately, not a chuckle could be elicited out of these students. The whir of the slide projector is deafening. As the students file out of the room, I stop one young woman and ask her why she thought the group was so quiet. She stared at me wide-eyed and said, “We are a very conservative school, I think your work was just a bit too shocking!” This is a bad sign.

Interview #5: Late March, 2000

Job Description: Teach Ceramics at a small state undergraduate school.

On the night I arrive, three faculty members take me to dinner at a local restaurant. We hadn’t even gotten through the bread basket before they began a conversation complaining about the department, school, and town. I’m get the feeling that the opportunity for a meal paid for by the department was more appealing than checking out the new applicant.

Half of the committee shows up for my interview; three students show up for my slide show. That about sums up the whole experience. I am feeling very unpopular. I’m shown around the facilities and I discover through my guide that the current part-time instructor is up for the job and is highly favored by both students and faculty. Now, I realize I’ve been brought here as a technical exercise. The actual interview, lasting an hour, is nothing to write home about.

Things begin to look up when I am offered lunch by the Dean. She treats me like a genuine candidate, explains her vision for the department, and offers advice on popular parts of town to buy real estate. Overall, when meeting the deans at different schools, you should be ready for anything. Some spent five minutes with me, others seemed really interested in getting to know me and hearing about my work. More often than not, their main role is to give you information on how tenure works, what kinds of benefits and salary range the school offers, and to provide pertinent information about the school in general.

Interview #6: Late March, 2000

Job Description: Tenure-track position in two-faculty Ceramics department at a state school with reputable large undergraduate and graduate programs.

This is a big deal. I’m incredibly nervous and these pumps aren’t getting any more comfortable to walk in.

The interview begins with a round of critiques of graduate level work in the areas of textiles, wood, and metal with the committee listening to my comments. I quickly realize how easy the prior interviews have been. Next, I meet with the committee to answer a series of questions intended to address different aspects of teaching style, philosophy of art making, and technical ability. The questions are well designed to elicit information about myself as both artist and educator. The committee (the largest I’ve encountered thus far) is alert and appear interested in my answers. They actually take notes. As I wait outside the room while they deliberate, I conclude that I am being thoroughly interviewed for the first time. I wonder how the other schools could make a decision based on an hour-long interview.

The second day includes presenting slides to a packed room of students, after which I have some time with the Ceramic students. The students grill me; the amount of student involvement in the interview process is impressive and refreshing. In fact, I urge any future committee members reading this article to include a time where applicants will meet with, and answer questions from, students.

After my meeting with the students, I’m taken to back to the slide room. The room is packed with committee members and students. While I was with the students, ceramic elves filled the room with over thirty examples of Ceramic student work ranging from beginning wheel pieces to those of a third year graduate student. The problem is, I don’t know which is which. Given no information, I am asked to address the work and provide a critique. All of a sudden, I am the featured player on “Want to be a Ceramics Faculty Member!?!” I find I am uneasy addressing work without having a connection to the artist. I do my best to comment on each piece while suggesting techniques and other artists the student might research. I’ve never felt such relief as when the faculty announced that the time limit had elapsed and the interview was complete. At the conclusion of this morning’s events, I can’t tell if I’ve won or lost. I’d just run a mental marathon. This was, indeed, the most thorough of interviews. Regardless of my performance, I feel fortunate to have crossed the finish line.

Interview #7: Early April, 2000

Job Description: Large state school with undergraduate and graduate Ceramic programs taught by a two member department.

I am so tired of traveling at this point, I am in a state of perpetual daze. I have been teaching three courses in Boston and trying to keep things hopping in my studio. I can (and do) give my slide show in my sleep.

The faculty at this school is friendly. The students seem genuinely interested in attending my presentation, even though I am the last of five interviewing for the position. I am given a tour of the facilities and note that they are small. During the interview, I can mouth the words from The List along with the committee, “We’re getting a new state of the art building…” This time, however, it sounds like the new building will cater to an interdisciplinary vision that has been well thought out. The hope is that there will be an inclusive 3D program and building which will house Sculpture, Ceramics, and Metalsmithing. The faculty is enthusiastic about the idea of having a program that has all 3D faculty working together and students who will be able to move from one material or method with ease. This is exciting to me, as I am tired of seeing programs where Ceramics and Sculpture are located next door to each other but never mix. Without provocation, I mention my ability to weld.

I show my slides and answer questions from students and faculty. This slide presentation was well-attended by the other faculty and I was asked many challenging questions. An Art History professor posed the question of what I could add through guest lecturing in one of her courses. Even the possibility of this sort of interaction was exciting. Also, I was pleased to hear that there is a History of Ceramics course in place that is attended by both Art History and Ceramic students.

Next, I met with the faculty member in Ceramics who has been waiting seven years for this new position’s funding (which is probably not a great sign). Though he has been with the school for over twenty years, he is not quite ready to retire. The professor expresses a hopeful, but realistic, vision of the program with a two member faculty, pledging support for new ideas that will create a more dynamic program. I look beyond the small studio and poor ventilation system and believe that there may be a new building in the future. I’ve been asked thoughtful questions by the 3D faculty in addition to those by Art History, Photography, and Art Education. This faculty seems to have a plan to create an interdisciplinary program. Their enthusiasm is infectious.

A Job: Late April, 2000

Conclusion of Interview #7. I took a position as an Assistant Professor in Ceramics at Georgia State University in Atlanta and stayed there for 7 years and learned so much about academia and myself. A big bonus was to work with Don McCance, Associate Professor in Ceramics who was truly a mentor to me. His support and patience was wonderful and we both shared a similar sense of humor – an essential tool for a new faculty member!

As I mentioned before, I was very fortunate to receive offers. Amazed to get any offer, I was unprepared to deal with calls to my home from schools pressuring me to give quick acceptances. Once again, I found guidance from former teachers and faculty friends. I would offer the following questions to those entertaining an offer:

  • What is the tenure and promotion policy?
  • What research grants are available within the department and school?
  • Will the school cover my moving costs?
  • What is the expected course load during the first few years?
  • Are there summer teaching responsibilities?
  • Is there studio space available within the department?
  • What is the departmental budget?
  • What is the committee load?

Today, my power suit has been retired. I exchanged the pumps for fabulous boots. Now, twelve years later, I combine my love of teaching at Boston area colleges and universities as a Visiting Faculty, my administrative role at the Ceramics Program at Harvard with a studio practice and have found this to be a rewarding combination that allows me to be closer to my family in New England.

Reviewing the process, I am still trying to make sense of the variety of interviewing styles employed by the different committees. Some felt hurried and incomplete; when offered those jobs, I wonder if they really had a sense of whom I was or what my abilities were. Others were, perhaps, too bogged down in minutia. Interviews that involved interaction with both faculty and students were the most energizing.

In collecting feedback for this article, I’ve been told that my work and my exhibition record had a lot to do with attracting the interest of the committees. In my work I use ceramic vessels, tiled furniture and printmaking, either separately or in installation, to present narratives from a woman’s point of view. Perhaps the nature of the work exhibited a versatility of my skills and idea. My impression was that the schools I encountered were looking for applicants who are extremely versatile and able to teach and address many different ways of looking at ceramics.

The overall trend of interdisciplinary education to combine Ceramics with other 3D disciplines is, I hope, a push towards stretching the boundaries of ceramic education. For some institutions of higher education, my fear is that this combination is meant to conserve dwindling funds. Whatever the thinking might be behind this trend, I am hopeful that Ceramics will be included in new initiatives in technology, contemporary artistic philosophies, and art criticism while maintaining its history and the integrity of craft. Just in case my hopes are dashed, I’m practicing my welding skills.