Notes from the VisCom Classroom: Is It Better to Teach Full Time or Part Time?

If you want to expand your photography career to include teaching at a community college, four-year college, or university, you may need to decide whether to teach full time or part time. Because I have done both, I thought it might be useful to share some of my experiences. First, however, a few general observations about the profession of teaching.

If you come from a business background—running your own photography studio, say, or working for corporate clients—the halls of academe may seem like corridors in a foreign country. No other institution that I can think of combines robes and rituals from the Middle Ages with cutting-edge 21st-century modes of thought.

Consider that the gowned and hooded professors who solemnly process behind an ornamental mace at graduation are the same scholars who discuss string theory or hydrogen-powered vehicles or cell-phone journalism with their students. You’ll probably need to shift your mindset to move from the business world into the academic world.

Liberal and Conservative

The academy also embodies a unique combination of liberalism and conservatism. It is a fundamentally liberal notion that everyone deserves the chance to reap the benefits of a high-quality education, and that education—rather than class, economic status, family background, race, or gender—can ultimately determine a person’s success in the world.

Liberal, too, is the idea that free speech and free thought—rather than being dangerous or subversive—are essential to the success of education. So much so, in fact, that professors who meet the highest standard and weather the rigorous scrutiny of their peers are granted protection, in the form of tenure, from arbitrary dismissal for their beliefs.

But the academy is conservative in that change does not come quickly or easily. Decisions that might be made in a few minutes by a corporate executive wend their way slowly through committees and meetings, with much discussion and debate.

The reason for this conservatism is easy to understand. If a corporate executive makes a bad decision, the corporation and its shareholders are generally the only ones to suffer (ok, we’ll save the TARP bailout for another column). But if a college or university—or even a department within—makes a bad decision, it is the students who suffer. And this, simply, is not acceptable. Colleges and universities have a solemn responsibility to their students and the parents who put their trust in these institutions.

Part Time

Now, on to the question of whether to seek a full- or part-time teaching position. Many colleges and universities use part-time instructors, also called adjuncts, to round out their faculty. This is especially true for any program that combines academic with professional learning, such as journalism and mass communications.

I got my start teaching photography in the late 1980s in San Francisco—at the Academy of Art College, a private art school, and also at City College of San Francisco and UC Berkeley Extension, both public institutions. Most of the photography instructors at these institutions were part-timers. But make no mistake—these were some of the best and brightest photographers and educators in the San Francisco Bay Area. They were taking time away from their busy professional careers to make a meaningful contribution to the profession’s future.

Their students benefited by learning from photographers with real-world experience. And the institutions benefited by not having to maintain a large, full-time faculty.

So, a part-time teaching position may be appealing if you have a busy professional career and only have time to teach, say, a few hours per week. There are some other advantages to teaching part time. First, the credential requirements may be more lenient. In other words, you may not need a doctorate or a master’s degree in order to teach part time—and in some cases, work experience may count as the equivalent of an advanced degree.

Second, you may not be required to do research or perform academic service, both of which are usually required for full-time tenured or tenure-track faculty. And third, faculty meetings and committee service may be optional. In other words, you are being paid by the course, or by the hour, to show up, teach, and make yourself available to your students, period. Any other involvement with the institution is up to you.

As you would expect, there are drawbacks to being a part-time instructor. First, the pay may be below what you require to make the job worthwhile. Don’t forget that while you may only teach a few hours per week, you still have the responsibilities shared by all faculty—course planning and preparation, administering tests and exams, grading student work, meeting with students, and determining final grades.

Second, depending on the institution and the number of hours you are working, you may not be offered health insurance or a retirement plan. Third, you may not have an office in which to meet students, or you may have to share that office with the other part-timers. And fourth, depending on your time constraints and level of involvement, you may not feel connected to your institution or part of a collegial community.

Full Time

Full-time teaching is just what the name implies—a full-time job. It will consume most of your waking hours Monday through Friday, and you will need the weekend just to catch up on the grading and course preparation you didn’t get done during the week.

At the college and university level, there are two measures of the amount of work you can expect: course load and number of preparations (preps). Course load is the number of courses you are required to teach during the academic year. So, a 4/4 load would be four courses in the fall and four courses in the spring. If those are four different courses, you would also have four preps per semester. If two of the courses are the same—for example, two sections of the same survey course—then you would have three preps. If you have never taught the course before, the prep becomes that much harder.

There are also two full-time “tracks” you can be on at a college or university—the tenure track and the nontenure, or instructor, track. The tenure track is generally reserved for scholars with a doctorate or other terminal degree, such as a master of fine arts (MFA). In some cases, a master’s degree plus extensive professional experience will qualify you for a tenure-track position. If you are on the tenure track and just starting your academic career, you will likely have the rank of assistant professor.

In order to be granted tenure and advance to the rank of associate professor, you must demonstrate excellence in three areas: teaching, scholarship, and service to the academic community. Putting together a tenure file is a grueling experience (I know several people who have just done it), and the consequences of failure are huge: you basically have one year to find a new job and start all over again. If you are granted tenure, the process of going up for full professor is even more grueling.

If you are on the nontenure, or instructor, track, you are generally given a one-year or multiyear contract, subject of course to budgetary constraints. You may not be required to do research or perform service, but all the full-time instructors I know are deeply involved with the life of their institution. They may be developing new courses and course materials, advising students, leading study-abroad trips, writing relevant blogs, articles, and book chapters, and/or serving on committees.

As a full-time instructor, your pay level should be higher than an adjunct teaching the same number of courses, and you will probably have health insurance and a retirement plan. You may also have your own office—this not only makes it easy for students to meet with you one-on-one, but it also helps establish you as a member of the resident faculty, part of a community of scholars working toward a common goal.

Big Responsibilities, Big Challenges

Being a full-time instructor or professor brings with it big responsibilities and big challenges. If you are used to being your own boss, you’ll need to adjust to being a member of a team and working within a hierarchical structure.

For example, I teach in the Visual Communications sequence in the School of Journalism and Mass Communications, which is part of the College of Mass Communications and Information Studies at the University of South Carolina. Above me in the chain of command, so to speak, is my sequence director, the director of the school, and the dean of the college; ultimately, of course, I am also a state employee.

But more importantly, I am also responsible to my students—117 this semester. I need to make sure that I am using all the resources at my disposal to help my students meet the learning outcomes I set out in my syllabi. In addition to the hours I spend prepping and teaching, there are many more hours answering students’ e-mails, grading student work, dealing with individual issues as they arise, writing letters of recommendation, advising students on academic and professional issues, and generally helping those young people who are taking this semester-long journey with me get the most from the experience.

I have tried in this column to provide some guidance for those considering teaching as a possible addition to their photography career. I have been fortunate to experience both levels of teaching, full time and part time. It would be valuable to hear from others who have had experiences similar to or different from my own—let’s keep the conversation going!

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