New Media and the Tenure Track Roundtable

Summer 2010: v.06 n.01: 2010 CAA Conference Edition, 2010

Vagner Whitehead
Associate Professor, New Media
Oakland University


On February 13, 2010 at Columbia College in Chicago, CAA’s New Media Caucus organized a roundtable discussion on New Media and the Tenure Track, for which I moderated. During the previous conference in Los Angeles, Caucus members expressed the need for such an event, given the complexities of our practices. This discussion took place during lunchtime between panel presentations, with discussants and attendants sitting side-by-side, on chairs loosely arranged in the space, sans table (round or otherwise).

My goal was to combine varied academic perspectives (at different career stages) on this complex review process. While all presenters shared many similar concerns, some brought forth specific issues drawn from their own experiences. Gary Kolb, Professor and Associate Dean at the College of Mass Communication and Media Arts at Southern Illinois University, addressed the creation of a position description and the search process. He also raised important points that job seekers should pay attention to when applying and interviewing, such as start-up funding, continuing support, and evaluation procedures and expectations.

Dmitry “Dima” Strakosky, Assistant Professor at the University of Kentucky – Lexington, spoke of the challenges of balancing an international and nontraditional art practice, while juggling a balance with teaching and service, and going through a fourth year review. In his view the implementation of continuous discussions with colleagues and the community (local and otherwise), on what constitutes/defines New Media art practices, is crucial for a successful career leading up to tenure review.

Silvia Ruzanka, Assistant Professor of New Media at Indiana University South Bend, expressed her experiences as a recent hire (first year) in a tenure-track position with dual appointment (teaching at two different units within the same institution). She also covered some of the challenges of being in a commuting, academic couple, among other things.

The experiences I brought to the group stemmed from the two job positions I have held, and my recent promotion and tenure at Oakland University. My observations were similar to the concerns raised by the discussants and the questions raised by the attendants at the end of our brief presentations. What follows is structured mostly from my notes prepared prior to the event.

New Media Art positions seem to differ from traditional positions in art departments (and related units), because often these departments do not know what a new media practice actually entails; many current positions are still new lines being created, not vacated due to retirement, departure or passing. New hires are frequently a one-person operation, without peers in the same area. This separation/isolation is also heightened by generational and technological gaps, and exacerbated by unrealistic technological expectations (e.g. instruction and facility management), with a lack of funds for training, or the expectation that all training be pursued and funded by the individual in the position. Another strenuous difference is the usual lack of art-historical and theoretical courses on new media art practices being taught by others, or included as content alongside traditional media in Modern/Contemporary/20th/21st Century Art courses.

New Media art academics or practitioners also differ from traditional academics. They might not carry on a practice that fits traditional artistic model (e.g. collaborative, experimental, underground or off-stream trajectories come to mind). Writing and publishing may consist as important or dominant a component in research as making and exhibiting art. Like-wise, their research interests might not perfectly align with teaching requirements (specially because many have to create and implement new curricula). Last but not least, it seems to be a trend that many current New Media art tenure-track professionals switch jobs more than once before applying for tenure.

In terms of evaluating intellectual/creative activities, there is difficulty in discerning the qualifying and quantifying of such events. While a solo exhibition may be de rigueur for the traditional arts, group exhibitions and festivals are more prevalent (partly being the difficulty of finding venues with enough technological support to dedicate their entire space to one New Media artist, but also because of the collective bent in the community). Alternative/experimental/underground venues may also appear to be less prestigious than established ones, though often this is more reflective of the still nascent stage of new media practices. The repeated presentation of the same work might be seen as a form of rehashing, which discounts the possibilities that for each venue a substantial amount of adaptation has taken place (from spatial considerations in installation, to scale/length modifications for screening, to basic formatting of the ancillary tech, among others). The ephemeral nature of works produced (in a field that is still enamored with object-oriented practices) may also prevent or decrease the chances of finding and securing gallery representation, which in some places is seen as a sign of success and relevance. Publication issues (printed versus online) seem to be declining in terms of controversy, as the current economic climate is placing online journals at the forefront of many disciplines, though a persistent impression that ink-on-paper is more prestigious than digital information on a screen still exists. On the positive side, New Media art practices are increasingly international in scope, as well as interdisciplinary; while these may not appease a departmental culture that values local engagement, it certainly brings attention to the role of New Media in a global arena.

Assuming a New Media artist successfully contextualizes her practice at the departmental level, the need to do the same at a college and/or university levels could still be a challenge. This problem is probably inherently different from fine art practices as a whole in relation to the other academic fields. Many are not aware of the extensive history between art/artists and technology; others might find it problematic to consider something as artistic that has a ubiquitous role in everyday life (such as the Internet, or television for that matter). Last but not least, many will not accept a separation between technological innovations with artistic intent; what I mean here is that many outside the field will still value the technology that supports the art over the conceptual concerns imbued into this technology by the artist, which virtually strips away the importance of the practice quite swiftly (because many do not create or author this technology).

In an ideal situation, some of the aforementioned issues are properly addressed with external peer-reviewers, especially when such expertise does not reside within the unit (though these are not universally utilized in tenure reviews and assessment). A tenure review committee might have a hard time finding willing participants for this extensive process, because there is still a small pool of tenured academics that fit a given mold (especially given the breadth of New Media practices that exist). Another impediment is the familiarity of the community itself, where seemingly everyone knows everyone, or is separated by two or three degrees. Some institutions (mine was one) required that a peer reviewer be at most professional acquaintance, a complete stranger preferred.

But not all hope is gone. The tenure process is difficult but worth pursuing. Organizations such as CAA and the New Media Caucus are in place to help a candidate achieve success. One recommendation put forth by this roundtable discussion was the inclusion of (or at least a serious discussion about) CAA’s guidelines for New Media in the criteria and procedures/operating papers of your unit/department/school. This document,, addresses many of the issues discussed above, as well as providing a set of points to be considered/questioned by a candidate while searching for a job, and by a department while evaluating applicants for the same. It can also be used to educate/contextualize/enforce New Media practices when needed.

Another outcome from this discussion was the potential creation of a peer support and mentoring group for recent M.F.A. graduates and junior faculty in New Media. Such group could also become a pool for potential peer reviewers for tenure procedures, when applicable. The details for such will need to be discussed in more detail in future conferences. Given the nature of the topic, the dialogue among audience and discussants was simultaneously lively and heated. The entire event was audio-recorded, and we hope that eventually this media will make its way to the Media-N website. The particulars of the discussion will prove to be entertaining and thought provoking. We hope that a similar forum is scheduled for the next conference in New York City.