Do You Want to Teach Photography at University? Here Are Some Early Mistakes and Points You Might Like to Consider!

I get a lot of people contacting me to offer their services as teachers on the undergraduate and postgraduate courses I lead. Some are experienced hands as professional photographers, others have little experience and are completing BAs, MFAs and MAs. Both make the same mistakes and therefore I thought it would be useful to identify those mistakes here to aid those approaching academic institutions in the future.

Interestingly the first mistake is the same mistake many students make when applying to study on any course in higher education. That is a failure to research the course and those teaching on the course before making contact. Not the university but the course.

Every photography course is different, even if its name is generic. It’s ways of teaching and what it teaches is based on who wrote the course and who leads and teaches the modules that form the course. There is no national curriculum within higher education, therefore to assume that your experience and practice will suit any course is naïve. An example of this is that I regularly receive emails from photographers identifying their analogue practice as a positive to me despite the fact that it is something we do not teach on the courses I lead. I instantly know that the correspondent has undertaken no research and that is foolish and disrespectful.

So, research the course and staff. This is easy to do as every university has a website with a full course structure including all of the module names and details of staff experience, research and interests. This should be your first step, if you don’t fit the course you shouldn’t contact that course, instead you need to find one you do connect with.

This leads me to the second most common mistake. Courses are constructed of set complementary modules and those who lead courses look for people to teach those modules to meet the learning outcomes that have been agreed at university levels of expectation. Listing your interests and skills with no understanding of this does not make you relevant to the course but it does show once again a lack of research and understanding of teaching at this level.

So, look at your experience and see if it relates to the modules on the course. If it does reference this in your email but before you do look at the experience of others on the staff and see if the course already has that area covered. If it does see what else you could bring to the teaching team.

The third most common mistake is stating that you live nearby and giving this as a reason as to why you are getting in touch. This connects to the previous two errors of judgement in that it shows a lack of ambition and care in making a choice as to who to contact. Many academics travel an hour or more to get to work using buses, trains, coaches and by car. I myself have a ninety minute commute at best and leave home at 5.30am to miss traffic and to claim the rarest of items, an on campus parking space. Living nearby may be useful for you but it means little if anything to the course leader.

You also need to consider the difference between being a visiting speaker and a module lecturer. The former suits many photographers looking to talk about their work on a one-off basis but the latter requires a weekly time commitment. Modules will last a minimum of eleven weeks and will take place on the same day for the same period of time every week. These teaching sessions will be built into the students schedules to fit in with other modules and their independent learning alongside their life commitments. They are not scheduled to fit in with lecturer availability on a weekly basis. They are scheduled for an entire academic year and you will have to fit in with that schedule. Teaching will have to come first even if an amazing high-paid advertising commission comes in. So, before contacting any course leader make sure you really want to teach and make this commitment.

The idea of the academic year also raises another point to consider. It starts in September/October and finishes in May/June. Therefore, a course leader will need to make decisions as to who is teaching which modules in late Spring for the coming year before they try to get a Summer holiday. The decisions made then will be for the whole following year and unless something goes wrong during the academic year they will stick with those decisions until the following Spring. There is therefore a very small window of opportunity to contact those making those decisions. The same window also tends to be the busiest period of job changing, retiring and for those leaving teaching. This is when the majority of paid positions are advertised and interviews take place. Positions do become available during the academic year but management are far more likely to try and get through those periods with existing staff and wait until the end of the academic year to employ new staff when budgets are set and student numbers for the coming year are confirmed.

I have written previously about the requirements of entering education as a teacher and I have put links to those articles below*, they may answer questions you may have that I have not covered here. Teaching of any kind is demanding, it will stretch the patience of the most patient, the creativity of the most creative and the empathy of the most empathetic but it can be incredibly rewarding for both student and teacher. It is not something to take lightly or to consider as an easy step to take even from the most successful professional practice or those with the most intellectually rewarding education. The journey into teaching is one that many photographers consider but when making that journey it is essential to begin at the right departure point.

*Further reading:

Dr. Grant Scott is 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 He is the presenter of the A Photographic Life and In Search of Bill Jay podcasts.

© Grant Scott 2023

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