I learned to love teaching. It didn’t come naturally. The first couple of years were really hard, but it got better. I studied different pedagogical approaches, learned from students and colleagues and discovered ways to adapt without having to sell my soul. As in other areas in my life, sometimes I overworked, others I self-sabotage and others I was just stupid. As in other areas in my life, while at school I kept trying to avoid any contact with the institutional rhetoric and its representatives. Inside and outside the academia, that confrontation brings to light many things, but one that has been constant is prejudice towards the way I look and express myself. Society tells us to endure, chose our fights wisely, be peaceful, calm and accommodating, etc., etc., but I fuckin’ had enough; just want to exist without having to feel the judgement; stick to the environments that are compassionate, nurturing and warming and avoid those where relationships let themselves be determined by power.
Although this decision to quit the academia is a hard one and there’s a lot of mixed feelings, it it mostly a time for celebration, a decision that will allow me to move forward with others things I keep wanting to do and not finding the conditions to pursue. Once I made and shared this decision, the dust started to settle down and I’m starting to regain the ability to see things clearly. I struggled with the feeling of abandoning a project that was shared with colleagues and that, at some point, felt like something collective, something I was a part of. Anyway, I guess it’s time to put my needs ahead of everything else, so whatever comes after will happen because I chose to take better care of myself. Hopefully, moving forward, I’ll remember this.
I love being a student and have met some great teachers throughout my life. In high school, when I started to drift way, some teachers played an important role in trying to make me feel like there was a place for me there. Some actually made the effort and looked for me outside the campus, tried to hear and connect. There was empathy there. When I started teaching I was also doing a PhD and my doctoral tutor had an enormous impact on my life. However, even as a student, I hated school: the physical space, the environment, often colleagues and teachers… I got bored, often left classes just because I hated the place or felt like I didn’t fit in. In my time as a PhD student, I almost always felt like I couldn’t leave school fast enough. Even though it was an art school, everything seemed fake and constraint. For me, being a student is a permanent condition, independent from the academia, the institution. I keep experiencing an enormous pleasure and excitement when learning new things, new perspectives, sharing ideas and knowledge. From day one I’ve been saying to myself that whenever that excitement got compromised while teaching, I’d drop it. The time has come.
Power structures that govern our society are well established inside the school system. I hate authority, so as I kept recognizing that my role as a teacher was also a place of power, I struggled, and that clash went on until now. Grading is one of the things that really stands in the way of building an environment of trust, autonomy and respect. It really messes with my head. Because, at the academy, “we have to follow through”, we keep trying to design programs where the assessment criteria comes organically from the work produced, but that doesn’t really work. You see, I think the idea that knowledge has to, somehow, be materialized in a product, is a corruption of the elementary notion of learning. Not always, but often. We keep trying to reinvent the wheel, but it has come to a point that I’m no longer whiling to compromise that scaffolding. I believe that, without the rule of assessment, things flow much better and we can focus on process, where I believe lies the balance between a certain feeling of restlessness and pleasure that enhances enthusiasm and critical thinking.
At school, though assessment on its own may not sound like the biggest of problems, it legitimates student’s automatic behaviors. There’s several other things happening on campus that are contributing to this. In the end, because a vast majority behaves like they don’t really want to be there, they come to classes not to engage, but because “they have to”. This is obviously very unproductive and it means we’re failing them. Maybe not we, as individuals, but society and the school system for sure. This year, as I kept getting more and more fed up with students who told me that they’d lost their interest in photography and they where just there because they wanted to try and graduate, I just said: drop it, leave school if this is not giving you any pleasure (which was pretty clear in the photographs they were creating). Some actually did and I’ll have to live with the consequences of probably having a bigger role in that than I’m comfortable with.
Outside the school environment (at least the schools where I’ve been), teaching is a place of pleasure, engagement, exchange and learning. Outside school, another thing that always happens is that I’m always teaching and engaging in learning and creating at the same time. I play with students, participate, create with them. Inside the school system, it comes with another set of rules and obligations. That does not mean pleasure isn’t involved. It is and I tried my best to bring that feeling to the front and lessen the impact of whatever other emotions wanted to take over. But more often than not, I failed.
I knew this decision was coming. During the first semester, because one of the subjects I was teaching is something that invariably promotes critical thinking and there was a small group of students who engaged and often spoke up, I kept surviving and thinking I might be able to handle the following academic year. When the first assessment came and the grades were a trainwreck, I took the time to find a strategy to deal with those results in a positive manner, heard their thoughts on what they were struggling with and took the rest of the semester to work on that. It worked, still I kept feeling more and more like a puppet, started having panic attacks and not being able to sleep the night before going to school. I know colleagues who’ve been thru the same experience, just before deciding to quit. It’s more common than one might think.
I kept going, as do some of my colleagues, because we consciously chose to hang on to the positive aspects. Even if pleasure is but 10% of the entire experience, we choose to focus on that: colleagues and students we love, things we achieve, changes we manage to implement, etc. But that doesn’t make the other 90% disappear. They don’t: problems linger, eating away the ground, until it collapses.
Often, as I land at school, I feel completely out of place. The feeling of being a misfit gets elevated to such a degree that my confidence in what I am doing drops precipitously. I often question my role as a teacher while teaching. Sometimes, looking at a class full of students and finding no place of recognition is disarming and sad. Having a class full of students that seem numb and deprived of any enthusiasm or joy has to make one wonder what the hell are we doing.
As anyone who reads this blog can understand, I’m complicated, messed up and have a long-time struggle with lack of mental health, so my experience as a teacher and the conflicts it entails, is really but a singular testimony, though not isolated. I’m not even going to address the financial issues that make the academia possible (public and private). Both because that issue is a bottomless well, but also because, in the end, it has nothing to do with my decision to quit being a full-time teacher in the academia.
Since I first started teaching, in 2011, almost every year I had at least one new subject to prepare. I’m not the sort of teacher who repeats programs, so I’m always preparing new things. I try to bring to classes my experience, the issues I’m doing research on, whatever is exciting me, what I consider relevant, etc. Time shared with students, in classes, is but a small part of the teaching experience, that’s why our schedule seems ridiculous to whomever knows nothing about what our job entails.
Classes where we’re teaching alternative processes are a world of their own. Even if we know the processes by heart, even if we’ve been doing it for decades, they have such a logistic and preparation that they tend to take over much more time than would be considered healthy. Because I’ve been teaching this for some years now and I work with alt. processes and experimental approaches, one might think this is my place of comfort, but nothing could be further from the truth. Outside school, I love teaching processes. At school, I hate it. I keep trying to find ways to make the experience more akin to the one we have at our atelier and I think finally, as I’m about to drop the fight, we got it and the recipe sounds simple enough: just move out of the school labs and concentrate the experience. So, instead of doing 3 or 4 hours classes, where things end just when we’re about to enter the flow, we’re doing it like a workshop, spending more hours together and concentrating the period when it happens, in order to hang on to the experience, the flow, the pleasure. Even so, because students “have to” produce stuff in order to be assessed, it gets corrupted and precious time is compromised because of that.
Sometimes I see students and they see me. Most of the times, there’s comfort there, because inside the classroom I feel at liberty to express myself sincerely. When I’m in a more fragile state, that recognition is just uncomfortable, sometimes unbearable. That naturally empathy with students is easily understood: I live in a permanent state of existential crises and my students, being on average 20 years old, are often struggling with those same issues. A natural sense of recognition arises from there. Hopefully, they move on from that existential crises, at least I try and do my part to help with that. I did not. I still don’t understand my place in this world, still feel like I don’t belong.
I believe in teaching by example so that’s what I try to do. Not in the sense of saying: look, this is me, I’m a wonderful person, hopefully you can evolve to be like me (LOL), but in the sense that I try to be myself inside the classroom, promote a space of trust and liberty, where we can express ourselves truthfully. Maybe I fail more often than not, but that’s what I believe in. I go to classes with that pressure hanging over my head: that I need to try and not avoid being myself in front of them. Promoting a space of freedom… isn’t this, in itself, important?
Overall, I learned teaching is a place of privilege. Not exactly the privilege to share knowledge that relates to the specificities of the curriculum, but the privilege to help others. That sympathy comes in many forms. Latter than I would have liked to, I learned to avoid getting angry or irritated, learned that all that isn’t positive is worthless in the teaching context. Positive reinforcement seems to be the only way forward. That does not mean not being critical. For me, it’s actually the contrary. Being truthful and honest is harsh. We hurt each other’s feeling but the goal is clear: to grow up and move forward, towards pleasure and amazement. Never deviating from truth, never avoiding the swampy path that can get us there. Engaging in such a way is demanding and leaves one entirely exposed, naked, shattered.
As the world evolved into this violent era of cancel culture, students kept getting quieter and quieter. There’s a sense that the vast majority feels like they can’t be themselves, they can’t share their thoughts. Once we start to address individual issues and accompany individual projects, we see them cracking in a nutshell. They are eager to regain pleasure in learning and creating, but they let me know that they don’t feel school is promoting that. What they don’t know is that I feel pretty much the same. I see no way to resolve this (given the current conditions offered by the school system) and I see no prospect for making the radical changes that are needed, for the entire educational system needs revolution.
The colleagues I’ve met throughout the years and with whom I loved working (you know who you are), often struggle with similar feelings, but rarely do we share our anxieties and concerns. Mostly due to lack of time, but also because most people don’t really want to commit to change. One of the things that kept us going forward was working towards setting up better conditions, meaning always trying to implement conditions that make that learning experience more pleasurable and enlightening. It is still a reality. However, my decision also happens at a point where I see no other way to move forward: I truly feel that the academic environment is promoting a culture that is less focused in knowing, understanding and valorizing each individual (each student, teacher, etc.), but more in being a successful part of the professional world. One needs not want to became a professional photographer in order to commit and enjoy studying photography. Knowledge, sharing, growing up, working towards better versions of ourselves is, in itself, what’s most important. Promoting the idea that we’re working towards goals and need to produce things immediately as the outcome of learning experiences that are underway, corrupts the process. That’s capitalism and neo-liberalism taking over the learning experience. I see no margin to change this, so I quit. Working in a system I’m opposed to and seeing no further battles ahead leaves me no option. It has gotten to the point that I feel split in two, who I am and who am I at school, therefore the panic attacks. I feel like a ticking time bomb about to explode and I’ve decided to stop that clock.
This year, foreseeing that such decision was approaching, I’ve been teaching more outside the campus, programming classes in other places and contexts. That has reinforced the feeling that the school environment is, in itself, a problem. Having a campus where silence is an option, with trees and green spaces, areas to engage freely, to rest, etc. should be as important as having the technology and equipment to work with. I keep asking students why do they behave so differently when we have classes outside school and the answer is obvious: they feel constrained inside the campus, as do I.
For the past years I’ve shared that space with colleagues and students that, in part, share my enthusiasm with the importance of what we do. School should be a place of freedom, freedom of speech, freedom to be singular, to be who we are, to be as vulnerable as we want to be, etc., etc., but as students kept letting me know, that is no longer happening. They come to school wearing a bullet proof vest. They leave their enthusiasm and happiness outside the campus and struggle with the environment we create for them. It’s out of our control. Departments are but a small part of a university campus and the set of rules that come with it.
Recognizing the power we hold is important, but more important than that is to let it go. However, the conditions we’re all thrown into make it very difficult to navigate. The institutional rhetoric makes sure that we get caught up in a system that promotes authority and it hurts to see that, if you stay long enough, you may well fall into that trap. Though we, teachers, as a collective, have much more strength than we often recognize, we give it away. Instead of sticking to our guts, experience and beliefs, we compromise, because “he have to”. Fortunately, in the very small circle of colleagues I engage with, there’s no problems with egos, but once that circle broadens, we can easily recognize that the academia is also marketing on that. If I win an award, they’ll jump up to claim I was a student or teacher at their institution, as if my knowledge, experience, etc. could somehow be their propriety, but the work we do, everyday, with students is, mostly, discredited. When the programs get evaluated by foreign entities, to access our conditions to keep teaching, it becomes very obvious what’s important: that we, as teachers, are engaged with what the academia asks of us (do we publish papers, do we attend conferences, are we part of research circles, etc.), but all that pertains to pedagogy is overlooked and that, sorry to say, feels like a farce.
Inside or outside the academia I learned that the best I can do while teaching is to share my view of the world, the way my mind works, how I perceive things, forms, emotions, ideas, images and how all those connections participate in my relationship with photography. For the past two decades I could probably count the days I didn’t think about aesthetics or photography. It’s so engraved in my life that all I do is about photography: I’m either reading or writing about it, preparing classes, creating images, sharing photographs, using photography in my therapeutic practice, punishing myself for not being able to create photographs, etc. Maybe it’s time I take a break.
I often think how do people do it? In therapy, this is one of the expressions that comes out of my mouth repeatedly. I keep searching for ways to do things in ways that make me suffer less, compromise without having to feel like I’ve lost myself in the process. As this journey is coming to an end, hopefully I’ll be able to project all my anger towards some therapeutic practices. Maybe there’s some art therapy to be done with excel sheets, like printing them all and setting them on fire. Or maybe recycling them into photosensitive paper. I’m sure this last option, although more environmentally conscious, will be less fulfilling.
Last, but not least, a note to my current and former students who read this blog: if I’m somehow a better human being now than twelve years ago, that’s in great part because of you, so thank you for being present, sticking to the process, opening up to me, understanding my vulnerability and sharing your experiences with me! You know where to reach me.
2 replies on “Teaching in the Academia: I quit”
I am touched by your open-hearted and very brave discussion of what is deep inside the experience of teaching, and how costly, emotionally, is learning; injuries that you sensibly weigh here. Yes “the idea that knowledge has to, somehow, be materialized in a product, is a corruption of the elementary notion of learning”; it’s the institution that has become corrupt, and which corrupts those in it. There must be a better way and your honest self-reflection will help find it.
Thanks James, I agree there’s lots of better ways to approach education, but in Portugal, particularly in the arts, the agencies that assess our programs are still refusing to accept that artistic practice is research. That’s where we’re at still. Long road ahead. I’m moving on to greener landscapes, hopefully :)