Where is the Teaching Artist Field? | Nick Jaffe

In recent years there have been a number of formal and informal initiatives that have aimed to bring greater coordination and centralization to the teaching artist field.  Certifications and credentials have been proposed, national organizations, guilds, and networks have been floated.  Some have done, and continue to do important work, but none have emerged as fully developed, genuinely inclusive organizations that can legitimately represent the full range of interests, backgrounds, and practice of teaching artists in the U.S. I believe this is because these attempts have in some measure put the “organizational cart” before the “substantive horse.”

A field—whether it’s composed of physicists, nurses, or auto-mechanics—is not its organizations or institutions. A field is comprised of the work and thought of its practitioners freely, openly, and critically shared.  Professional organizations, degrees, certificates, institutions of seniority and tenure, and standards of peer review, are not ends in themselves; they exist to protect and strengthen the search for new insights and better methods.  They are supposed to defend the right to pursue unpopular hypotheses and the right to have theory and practice open to critical appraisal by one’s peers and colleagues.  All fields are to some degree politicized and are often fraught with conflicts—some substantive, some trivial.  But as long as the balance remains on the side of transparent, free debate, a professional, academic, or technical field can remain useful to itself and to society.

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Now, consider our field of teaching artist work such as it exists.  There are many, many brilliant practitioners, thoughtful administrators, and progressive and innovative thinkers.  Teaching artists seem to me to be a largely collaborative, curious, and often-critical bunch as one might expect of artists in general.  But we do not currently have a field as such—a norm of open, critical debate, sharing of new information, and a set of informal and formal mechanisms that enable and protect such debate and sharing.  We do have pockets of dialog; we work hard at TAJ and ALT/space.com to make sure that we function as a protected, inclusive, accessible forum for such critical exchange. And I know that there are many organizations and networks that carry on open, concrete critical discussion internally, and less frequently, externally, about the work and how to improve it, and about vital, even controversial questions. But such practice is not the norm and is far too rare.

My impression is that the underlying problem is quite simple:  funding for the work is too closely and mechanically tied to assessment and evaluation of the work.  It is almost unheard of for any arts education organization to publically release a program evaluation that discusses major failures or fundamental problems in theory or practice.  More frequently such evaluations, often written by “evaluation specialists,” and consultants, are puff pieces designed to impress funders and minimize weaknesses.  It is also rare for organizations to seek out a critical appraisal of, or dialog about their work from teaching artists or arts educators outside their organization.  At the same time it is shockingly common for such organizations to hire consultants internally with little or no expertise in teaching in an arts medium, to attempt to address organizational or even pedagogical weaknesses.  If teaching artists develop new insights or raise criticisms of the work these are too rarely shared with the field as a whole and often are completely ignored at the program level and above.  Increasingly, curriculum in arts education organizations is shaped less by the teaching artists and more by program administrators and even development specialists who may respond too uncritically to the priorities of funders, who often have no expertise in teaching in an arts medium.

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This can be changed but it will require a pretty major cultural shift for our field, and one that I think can only be led by teaching artists themselves.  Most teaching artists I know have an overriding priority that guides their work: to teach their medium well so that students can make things that matter to them; which is to say, to teach art making.  This must be reasserted as the priority of our field and of any organization that purports to support arts education.  The question of how to obtain and sustain public and private funding must be subordinated to the priority of teaching art well.  But it is meaningless to simply state such a priority in words; action is what will make such a shift real:

  • Curriculum and program design should be artist driven. It should be an article of faith for our field that to design effective teaching artist programming and curriculum in a medium requires a teaching artist with experience and expertise in that medium.  Non-medium specific formulae, “theories,” or pedagogical methods are not a substitute for actual expertise in the medium being taught.
  • The same should be the case with evaluation and assessment from the lesson level to the program and even organization-wide level: teaching artists who know the medium should be evaluating, assessing and critiquing the work, not consultants with a distant or nonexistent connection to the work itself.
  • If consultants are employed in grant writing and/or advocacy they should be serving curricular and pedagogical priorities set by teaching artists—not the other way around. We can only blame ourselves if we continue to let the priorities and rhetoric of corporate funders and educational consultants drive our practice.
  • Critical assessment of the work, both within organizations and across the field, should be clearly understood as separate from the advocacy work of development staff. Structures should be in place to protect the jobs of teaching artists who raise difficult questions about the work.  We can only have honest, open, and genuinely critical dialog about the work if we have the equivalent of “academic freedom” for practitioners in our field. We can only educate funders to what is really essential and socially valuable in our work if we are telling the truth about what we are learning.
  • Critical dialog should become the norm across our field. We need many more open forums like TAJ and ALT/space.  We need working meetings where all levels of arts educators approach concrete questions critically, as equals, and free of organizational priorities and prejudices, to become a norm in our field.  The work of the Artist to Artist network in Minnesota is one successful model of this kind of community of practice.
  • We need to put concrete discussion of what constitutes effective, interesting, useful teaching in a medium—and what doesn’t—at the center of the dialog in our field. We need to also put at the center of the dialog the hard and real questions that face teaching artists every day—questions of race and gender oppression; questions of exploitation of teaching artists, and outsourcing of the work of full-time, union arts specialists.
  • As teaching artists we need to feel that honest, frank critique of our work is not only a necessity, but a privilege. Just as artists we need critical response to our own art, we should actively seek it for our teaching.  We should not have to fear that we will be diminished as practitioners or risk losing a gig if we share our most problematic or experimental work. We should feel that it is our duty to our students, our field, and ourselves to do this regularly, both formally and informally, for that is how we will learn from each other.

If we do these things together, as teaching artists and arts educators of all kinds, in the spirit of a shared belief that art making and arts learning are essential to humans and to society and worthwhile in themselves, then we will develop a strong, and innovative, and more organized field, and perhaps more importantly, stronger theory and practice.  And those are not just of use to our field; they will be of use to other educators, and perhaps even a useful model of what education can be, a model that can serve the ongoing struggle to end the segregation, oppression, and inequality in education and in American society that frames every aspect of our lives and work.

Assuming you agree that change is necessary I’d like very much to know what form you think it should take.  Please feel free to write me at tajournal@colum.edu, leave a comment here, or post on the TAJ Facebook page where we sometimes have really interesting, substantive discussions.  Better yet, write something for the journal.  For our field to become more real we need your voice and ideas.


  1. avatar says

    I really appreciate your article. This sentence stood out for me, “It is almost unheard of for any arts education organization to publiclly release a program evaluation that discusses major failures or fundamental problems in theory or practice.”

    It is almost unheard of for “any” organization to publicly release a program evaluation that discussion major failures, miss-steps, incorrect assumptions, failures or problems. Perhaps this is a cultural issue and I believe the answer lies with each of us individually and collectively.

    This may sound a bit crazy, but what about:

    Curriculum and program design should be “student”driven? and going from there.

    Thank you for an interesting and thoughtful piece

    • avatarNick Jaffe says

      Mary, thank you for the insightful comment!

      With regard to your last point, though much of my teaching involves projects, experiments, and curricula designed and executed entirely by students, I don’t really think that curriculum and program design should be “student driven.” There are only a few useful things a teacher in the arts can do before it becomes more educative for the teacher to get out of the way. One of those things is to bring to bear a wealth of experience and dynamic theory to try and understand what the student does not yet know (and does not yet know her or she does not know!); and to figure out how open up those areas of work with the student. Which is to say, in my view curriculum should be driven by the medium or material under study, and the most developed ways of practicing in the discipline under study.

      On the other hand, I’ve done a lot of collaborative curriculum design with even very young students, and also seen them teach other students–very fun and sometimes the most efficient and exciting way to learn certain things. This is precisely because it takes them out of the role “of student,” which is, by definition, more passive than that of “teacher” or “learner.” So in that sense, having students design and teach curriculum is also not student-centered, but content-centered.

      Accumulated experience does not necessarilymake us better artists or even better teachers than our students (I often struggle to match them on both counts), but it had better at least afford us a longer and more comprehensive view of a discipline.

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