In this issue of Opening Stages we are pleased to present the first in a two-part look at careers in arts education. Coincidentally, as we were planning our theme, the New York Times Magazine published an issue on education (September 21, 2008). In it was an insightful article "Those Who Write, Teach" by David Gessner that discusses the benefits and liabilities for artists of holding faculty positions in academia.
The benefits Gessner cites include a steady salary, health insurance, a collegial atmosphere and a healthy mental balance. And there is also the pleasure of sharing one's skills and knowledge. On the other hand, the chief liability that troubles him is that very balance which tends to dissipate the fanaticism and monomania that fuel the creation of inspired art. I see his point and would add the additional liabilities of mind numbing exposure to a lot of immature, poor quality art and the temptation to wander into the ethical morass of plagiarism by consciously or unconsciously appropriating the nascent ideas of one's most talented students.
These liabilities mostly apply to teaching one's own artistic discipline. Some of us have the interest, the temperament, the endurance and the moral rectitude to thrive in academia despite them. And some of us do not. To those people -- and I count myself among them -- I would suggest teaching something removed from one's art. This alternative has several advantages. It offers most of the same benefits, such as financial security and human connection. It uses different knowledge and skills, thus achieving an even better mental balance. And it exposes one much less temptation toward plagiarism.
Of course, to make this plan work one has to know about something besides one's art. But all of us with disabilities have at least one other arrow in our quiver: we are natural experts in disability awareness, access and etiquette. Some of my best teaching experiences have been about those subjects. Currently I am teaching medical students at Tufts University how to interact with patients who have disabilities. The students are young and bright, and most of them enjoy this kind of learning: it's a relief from all the hard science they have to absorb. I, in turn, enjoy demystifying disability for them and having a positive impact on the future of our medical care. I feel that I am directly providing a socially relevant service, whereas, even though I know better, a focus on art-making can sometimes seem self-indulgent or frivolous. And then, when literally and figuratively I come to my senses and reaffirm the value of art, I feel glad about keeping it sacred and separate from other parts of my life.
Teaching -- on whatever subject -- is good for the world and good for us. Through it we learn valuable communications skills and confidence. We rethink our motives and methods for doing what we do. And we receive well-deserved admiration for transmitting our knowledge to younger people and being role models for them. This is an honor to be cherished.