Simple question, simple answer surely! Well, yes and no! I am approached by many photographers looking to move into a formal academic setting to teach photography and I have written articles previously that respond to the key requirements and factors those photographers need to consider. But this time I want to address a series of requirements I have previously not discussed.
Teaching within a formal environment is a team game, it is a long game. A game broken down into semesters and modules, rather than halves and periods. Each teacher or lecturer takes on one module at a time and that module needs to be part of an overall jigsaw puzzle of learning. The teaching will be sequential and over time the course will develop and evolve leading the student to a pre-ordained ending which will have allowed the them to reach a point of understanding appropriate to their engagement.
It is a two way street of course; both the teacher and the student must be invested in the concept of learning and a passion for the subject.
However, it does not work if the teacher attempts to download a life time of knowledge and experience to one student cohort within one module without an understanding of who else and what else is being taught within the course. Success requires an understanding of academic structure, rules and guidelines that will be new to anyone entering an academic environment for the first time, they were to me! However, they need to be accepted and followed. To not do so can have a negative impact on the student experience and teaching colleagues. It can also be detrimental to the course.
If this seems both logical and based on common sense why am I raising this issue? Well, because photographic practice is essentially an independent practice, where guidelines and structures are determined, stretched and broken by the photographer, with hopefully little impact on others. Therefore, the idea of having to follow the rules that others set and work within a team can be a challenge for many photographers considering a pathway into teaching.
As an external examiner of photographic courses in the UK, and a reviewer of courses for government backed approval I have seen at first hand the issues that arise from a dysfunctional or fractured teaching team.
The truth is that a great photographer will not necessarily make a good teacher, and a good teacher may not be a great photographer. However, I do believe that it is important for any teacher to be aware of the contemporary photographic environment. There is no space for resting on what and how you may have learnt, be that in the last five, ten, twenty or thirty years. You need to be part of the photographic conversation to remain relevant.
Photographers often explain to me how they want to teach to pass on their knowledge and experience. It is a natural belief of what constitutes teaching, but you need to have a much wider understanding of what teaching will involve before you throw yourself into it. Here are 5 starter questions I recommend you ask yourself before taking on a teaching position:
- Am I a team player?
- Am I happy to take on administrative duties that I don’t understand?
- Can I follow guidelines?
- Am I happy to structure my teaching alongside what others are teaching on my course?
- Can I support students as well as encourage them?
If you can answer these honestly and positively then it is worth progressing in whatever way you choose towards a formal teaching position. If not, you may be getting involved in something that is not for you.
You can read Grant’s previous articles on teaching photography here:
Image: Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society, 1989.
Dr. Grant Scott is the the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a working photographer, documentary filmmaker, BBC Radio contributor and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Routledge 2014), The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Routledge 2015), New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography (Routledge 2019). His film Do Not Bend: The Photographic Life of Bill Jay was first screened in 2018 www.donotbendfilm.com
© Grant Scott 2022