[iDC] Tenure in New Media

Kevin Hamilton kham at uiuc.edu
Mon Jul 2 12:11:41 EDT 2007

Hello all-

Greetings from Banff, where I'm working at a co-Production residency  
for the month. Trebor invited me to moderate a thread on the subject  
of /Tenure in New Media/, something that's come up tangentially in at  
least a couple of threads over the past year or so (notably in the  
"Praxis-Based PhD" discussion).

This admittedly dry subject could serve as a launch point for several  
lines of talk, and shouldn't be limited to those working within  
academia. I'll introduce my position, and then suggest some possible  
points of departure. Hopefully we can use the thread to collect and  
share experience, but also to pry open some points for critique and  


I've been teaching for five years at University of Illinois, Urbana- 
Champaign, where I'm appointed to the Painting/Sculpture and New  
Media programs, in the School of Art and Design. My tenure papers are  
almost complete and out of my hands - so I speak from a position of  
having almost (hopefully) traversed the system. Our New Media program  
is growing - Nan Goggin and Joseph Squier hired me, and 2 years ago  
we hired Ryan Griffis and Deke Weaver. We've had an MFA in New Media  
for several years, and just added a BFA in New Media. Our curricular  
emphasis, as determined largely by the experience of the faculty,  
tends more toward fine arts than design, though our collective  
practices span a much wider frame of reference, including  
Performance, Creative Writing, Activism. We rely almost solely on  
tenured and tenure-track faculty for instruction, not on adjuncts,  
and some on graduate students.

Illinois is a Research Institution - here that means that though  
we're evaluated for tenure based on a traditional trinity of Research/ 
Teaching/Service, the campus really places Research at the top of  
that list. As artists hired to teach, our individual practices are  
counted as "Research" whether or not we conform to any traditional  
research methodologies in the sciences or humanities. It's up to us  
to demonstrate how our work is deserving of tenure within our chosen  
diverse modes of practice.

Here are some admittedly interrelated lines of discussion I would  
suggest for our discussion. Scan down to see the breakdown, and  
please jump in on what you think you can share, contest, or  
contextualize. Thanks to Trebor for inviting me to moderate, and  
thanks in advance for your contributions.

[full questions for topics follow]

1. Tenure Evaluation concerns unique to New Media
2. Other practices & systems
3. Tenure as a disciplinary technique for the forming of  
practitioners, the establishment of a discourse
4. Tenure as a position of privilege and power
5. Equality
6. Labor

Kevin Hamilton
Assistant Professor, New Media and Painting/Sculpture
University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign



We've talked some about this in past threads, and Trebor reminded me  
of the work the faculty up at University of Maine have been doing on  
this subject. (http://newmedia.umaine.edu/interarchive/ 

Chief among these concerns is the question of how our work is  
evaluated when it spans disparate areas of disciplinary validation.  
The folks at Maine have articulated these problems well, and I would  
encourage all to have a look. New Media practitioners, for example,  
are as likely to be publishing in academic journals as they are  
posting to listservs, and might exhibit online as well as in  
conventional gallery spaces, if they "exhibit" at all. Many have very  
specific ideological reasons for adopting multi-form strategies of  
public engagement.

For those of you within tenure-track or tenured positions, have  
evaluation structures allowed you to make the case for your choice to  
adopt hybrid or diverse strategies? How have your efforts outside of  
New Media or Art/Design domains (Geography, Gender Studies,  
Communication, Computer Science) been recognized and evaluated? Do  
they count, and how do they count?

We might also look at how Teaching and Service are evaluated in the  
tenure process for New Media academics -

I would guess, for example, that Service for many New Media faculty  
takes the form of keeping labs going, making decisions about  
technology purchases, problem-solving printing and network glitches.  
Is that area of work getting figured in to your evaluation processes?  
What other Service areas are unique to New Media teaching?

For teaching, I would offer that among the distinctive problems faced  
in evaluation for tenure in New Media is this: that when teaching  
evaluation is linked to student evaluations of our classes, we run  
into some trouble. I'm thinking specifically here of the tension many  
of us face between the expected technocratic function of our  
curricula ("I'm here to learn Maya.") and our explicit and implicit  
formal and contextual goals ("Let's talk about 3D space as a system  
of meaning.") I've heard it from all over - many of us get hit hard  
on the teaching evaluations because of this point, and it's not easy  
to explain WHY our teaching evaluations look bad because of this,  
when it comes to evaluation by higher-ups.


What other systems are in place for evaluation and hiring of New  
Media faculty? What problems or promise are encountered in these  

For example, yearly evaluation structures in the UK and Australia  
seem to have taken a very different turn than anything I've  
encountered in the States. Most of what I've heard about these is  
negative, in that they seem to allow for even less co-mingling of  
diverse practices (i.e. writing as well as object production) than  
American tenure systems do.

But what about schools that don't follow tenure practices? What other  
evaluation systems are in place elsewhere in the world, and what  
unique problems have you encountered there as New Media instructor- 


The whole tenure process, even framed in a way that provides for  
evaluation of diverse practices, is still a way of shaping  
practitioners and of determining discourse.

How is the proliferation of tenure-positions in New Media shaping the  
ways in which we act, make, speak? What are we losing, in our  
conversations and institutions, but also in our practices? What has  
become habitual that was formerly contested, positioned? What  
practices are falling away, and which ones are more valorized?

I recognize that this is a huge sub-topic here, but it's one I think  
that bears some discussion - not unrelated to the whole post-ISEA  
thread last summer, either.

Let's say for example, that listserv posts end up counted towards  
tenure. Without question, this space will fundamentally change, for  
those within and without the academy. I'm not denying that our  
posting here isn't already motivated by desires for validation and  
recognition, but if coded institutionally as such, our speech habits  
will change.

We could ask the same of festivals, which already count for many of  
us toward tenure.

Even more specifically, I think this question bears applying to HOW  
we work. Are we working alone or together, on what time-schedules and  
deadlines, with what materials and movements? As an academic  
discipline, regulated through tenure and hiring, New Media stands to  
become an increasingly efficient collection of practices. When I look  
at my colleagues in the Sciences, where methodologies have often been  
set in stone and products are carefully situated in relation to prior  
products and possible funding, sometimes I'm afraid I see the future.

I'll just lob that one out there, if anyone takes it I'll say more.


In debates about the worth of tenure as an institution, the most  
common case made for the process is as a guarantor of academic  
freedom. If this is the case, how are we using this freedom, and how  
could we?

I'm thinking here of potential influence on things like hiring  
practices, campus policies on technical infrastructure (I.P. or  
ecological concerns), and on the more traditional areas of curriculum  
revision and tenure requirements.

Can the tenured faculty speak to this, on where they've seen tenured  
status afford them specific opportunities for positive influence as  
identified "experts" in new technologies?

Can others point to areas, in or out of academia, where tenured New  
Media faculty could lend unique influence?


How are New Media programs doing compared to other areas in terms of  
tenure as a measure of labor equality? (By that standard, my  
department is not doing so well, truth be told.)

Hiring to tenure track, and granting of tenure, are important ways in  
which faculties are gendered, raced, and classed. A study of such  
across New Media programs in tenure-granting institutions would be  
useful, and probably wouldn't take too long to compile. Has anyone  
looked into such a thing?


Most places I go in the States, Universities are seen to rely less on  
tenure-track faculty and more on adjunct instructors, as a way of  
avoiding the cost of providing benefits for employees. (This isn't  
the case at Illinois, though we do rely heavily on unionized grad  
students to teach.)

I would suggest that New Media programs have more reason than some  
other areas to rely on instructors hired to teach one-off,  
specialized courses. I'm thinking here of where an instructor may be  
already employed in the commercial sector and offers some specific  
area of experience (technical or otherwise) that students require.

In this way, New Media faculty stand to embody within the University  
the equivalent of "creative workers" within design and IT sectors,  
expected to constantly re-tool and adopt "flexible" work habits. If  
this is the case, then as New Media programs we stand to offer  
critiques and alternatives to this approach.

Has anyone observed this dynamic at work in ways that might be  
described as unique to New Media programs? I certainly know of some  
who teach in New Media programs and specifically avoid the tenure- 
track, and of others who wish they could escape the semester-to- 
semester adjunct labor pool. Are there specific ways in which non- 
tenure-track faculty in New Media programs end up unfairly bearing  
the brunt of labor?

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