It’s often hard for us to picture our professors outside of the classroom setting. Students chuckle together at photos and videos of their professors from years ago. Stories of past adventures and stupidity are told as a stress-reliever by professors and as a way to remind students that they, too, have lives students don’t know about.
In the arts world, though, professors often teach at the same time they are tackling massive personal projects. While other professors complement their teaching by researching in labs, professors in the arts fields complement their teaching with their own kind of research. Some professors have their own dance companies, while others perform regularly in the professional music world. Others continue to make sculptures and practice photography, even as they teach students to master theirs.
“For performing artists, the performance itself is the research,” explained Keval Kaur Khalsa, associate professor of the practice of dance. “Sometimes we have a very narrow view on research, and it’s easier to think of it in the sciences.”
Khalsa is focusing in on three primary projects in the near future. She is training teachers to teach Kundalini Yoga. Additionally, Khalsa is developing a satellite branch of Y.O.G.A. for Youth in Durham, which is, as Khalsa describes it, is an “international non-profit that brings the tools of yoga and meditation to underserved youth in detention facilities, schools and community centers.” She is also doing yoga-based research with children through Duke’s Bass Connections program.
This relatively unknown Duke arts world is often hidden in plain view of students. The administrator we bump into on our way to class could be an Emmy-award nominated producer. The professor we smile at in Au Bon Pain very well might be working on a highly-anticipated composition. And as with any person who tries to balance two distinct jobs utilizing two very different, yet complementary, skill sets, a unique set of challenges and benefits can arise.
First, art professors have to get to the stage where they are both teaching and practicing art in the professional world. The rising trend, said Thomas DeFrantz, professor of African and African American studies and professor of dance, seems to be artists who eventually fall into teaching.
“That’s 99 percent of us,” DeFrantz said. “We’re all starting to understand how important the arts are and that the arts stand next to other humanities like history and romance literature.”
This understanding is leading to more and more professors teaching as well as practicing art in the professional world. In fact, in the same way that a tenured position at a world-class university is prestigious for those in academia and research, a job at a university is becoming much more valued by artists.
“This is what I tell students,” said William Noland, professor of the practice of visual arts and Faculty of Arts of the Moving Image. “There’s no better job for an artist. If you’re an artist and you get a teaching job at a wonderful university where the students are incredibly bright and motivated, there is no better job.”
For artists like Noland, teaching usually comes into the plan only when they realize the opportunities that could arise from such a job.
For other art professors at Duke, though, teaching was always in the plan. One such example is Khalsa.
“I was actually teaching dance even at the end of my undergraduate years,” she said. “I love sharing the things I am most passionate about. For me, it is one of the most rewarding things in life to watch someone grow and develop. As a teacher, you are a witness to that.”
Eric Pritchard, first violinist in the Ciompi Quartet, had a slightly different perspective. In the quartet world, a residency at a top-tier university is extremely sought-after and oftentimes the end goal of many quartet musicians.
“It was a model that I was familiar with,” he said of teaching and being in a performing ensemble simultaneously. He went on to describe what he saw as three types of quartets: those that have residencies, those that would like residencies and the few that are too busy touring to be able to also teach.
No matter how artists end up as professors, the challenges that they face and the benefits they gain vary throughout the Duke academic community.
The most obvious challenge that arts professors face is finding a way to balance the immense time required to properly teach students and the equally large amount of time required to produce an artistic work of which they can truly be proud.
“Sometimes when a project is at the end of its realization, my energy is really focused on the project,” DeFrantz said. “At those times, the teaching definitely has to be alongside those creative projects, and that’s a challenge.”
With artists often working on an open timeline depending on the project, they also can be very limited by the academic year schedule.
“For me, it’s been extraordinarily frustrating because I build momentum over the summer, and the momentum is slowed quite a bit once the academic year begins,” Noland said. “I deal with it by always working, but it takes longer periods of time. You need time measured in years, not in months.”
Even the time constraints of a 24-hour day can be one of an artist's primary challenges. Most of them were able to look at the problem in a positive light, though.
“You always wish there were more hours in the day, and that’s the exciting and challenging thing about being at Duke,” Khalsa said. “There are so many new initiatives and new opportunities. Knowing when to say when is sometimes challenging.”
Noland echoed a similar sentiment.
“You learn from teaching," he said. "It’s a different process to simply be engaged and making things than it is to communicate to receptive people and to figure out how to enact a creative process for different personalities.”
This learning experience is what draws artists to teach in the first place. By being in a situation where they have to explain their creative process and inspire a similar process in others, art professors’ work benefits greatly.
“I’ll be working on a project, and a student will have an idea and help me reimagine something,” said DeFrantz. “Our students remind us always that there are a hundred other ways to approach the idea.”
In the arts at Duke, teaching does truly seem to be a “two-way street,” as Pritchard called it. But there are more benefits to being an artist in residence or a professor of the practice at a university such as Duke.
“It’s very nice to have a secure and steady source of income from when you have a job as opposed to being a performer on a touring circuit,” Pritchard said. “Also, a lot of our most interesting collaborations take place in the university setting when we work with composers in the music department.”
What Pritchard alluded to is what draws so many students, academics, researchers, athletes, and administrators to places like Duke. The environment of a world-class research university is one that promotes intense cooperation and mental stimulation.
“One of the things teaching at a college reminds us of is that pressure to succeed and achieve,” said DeFrantz. “That pressure is really the thing that makes great art or really strong scholarship or elegant engineering design or creative problem solving in public policy. That pressure cooker we are all under at the university is useful.”
Unlike the bands that are trying to “make it” or actors bouncing around New York or Los Angeles looking for work, the artists that teach at Duke feel far more confident in what their future holds.
Noland's plan, for example, is to eventually pursue a career in art away from Duke.
“I will retire, and, at least in my case, retirement just means working full time," he said. "That’s been my goal all along, and I’m getting closer to the point where I will be able to do it."
DeFrantz’s dance company, Slippage, is still actively involved in the professional dance world and continues to make about two productions a year which tour nationally. Pritchard’s Ciompi Quartet continues to actively perform music in the United States and internationally.
As the arts fields become more recognized and appreciated by research universities and students at those universities, the trend of artists who also teach will only continue to rise. In fact, in Duke’s 2006 strategic plan entitled "Making a Difference," one of the goals is to “transform the arts at Duke.”
In the plan, it states that the “arts are vital to reaching the fullness of human experience and achieving a well-rounded education….The arts are, therefore, fundamental to Duke’s teaching and research mission.” With the recent construction of Duke's Arts Annex and plans to build a $35 million arts center next to the Nasher Museum of Art, the University continues its hope that the arts presence expands on campus and that faculty continue to promote themselves in the professional world.
While they are providing a richer educational experience, these professors are also showing students the numerous professional possibilities that exist in the many fields of arts. By taking on two roles at the same time, they are able to teach and inspire their students, as well as continue to contribute to our rich and diverse American culture.