What Counts with Hibbert-Jones (UCSC) and Hebdige (UCSB)

18 May
Interview with Dee Hibbert-Jones (UCSC) and Dick Hebdige (UCSB)

Dee Hibbert-Jones is Co-Director of the Social Practice Research Center and Associate Professor of Art at UCSC. A cultural critic and theorist, Dick Hebdige has published widely on youth subculture, contemporary music, art and design, and consumer and media culture and is Professor of Film & Media Studies and Art Studio at UCSB as well as Ex-officio Director at the UCIRA. Both Hibbert-Jones and Hebdige are British expatriates and board members of the UCIRA and agreed to be interviewed together via email.

Q: The UC system charges faculty with producing research, teaching and public service. How do professors in the arts have to approach this directive in a unique way and do you see the balance tipping towards one area more strongly?

Dee: To be an artist in a research institution is already to be the odd duck in the room, no one is quite sure what we do or how studio art fits definitions of research. We are often seen as either decorative or irrelevant, coupled with this we don’t even bring in the big grants! I do spend time framing my work as research for the university, explaining and defining it for promotion and among some non-arts colleagues. At least you produce publications, Dick, a form that the University recognizes as “research”. A small example: the bio bibliography forms used to evaluate professors aren’t tailored to exhibitions or screenings, I manage to squeeze in my exhibition record on about page ten of the form after navigating through a host of other sections which are either irrelevant or secondary to my practice.

In UC Santa Cruz tenure and promotion files research is considered primary, followed closely by teaching and then service. Although we all know service and teaching take up physical time and our own research is squeezed in around the rest, but this isn’t specific to the arts. However studio art professors do actually teach more hours than most other professors. This is because studio hours (at least at UCSC) are counted as ‘lab’ not lecture hours. Harking back to the idea, I presume, that art is a skill and that studio classes are technical not conceptual. The presumption is that there is no class prep involved, which is absolutely untrue. In terms of a balance then, teaching takes up more physical time, and with the budget cuts service is greater than ever before as we try desperately to develop entirely new curriculum to manage enlarged class sizes and reduced numbers of classes. The one benefit is that we form amazing relationships with the students – we spend a lot of small class time with them (this may somewhat change with budget cuts) Right now I often times collaborate with students on projects that build my own research, serve their learning needs and kick start their exhibition records. Is the balance tipping? The University still says research first when we being, but there are more and more demands made on us for service and teaching, which simply means less time for research.

Dick: Dee lays out the main issues clearly and succinctly: for the purposes of parity and comparison with colleagues in other fields and in order to secure tenure and salary increases, artists working in the system have to translate their work and achievements into University-speak and that means placing ‘research’ front and center in the self-monitoring UC bio-bibliography. But the reality is that while many of the current Arts and Humanities Deans get it, many University administrators and non-arts faculty still have a hard time identifying the research component in art unless the work is either A) located on some visible techno-scientific ‘frontier’ (where it gets to merge with science) or  B) has explicit documentary/representational value  (where it can serve an illustrative function vis-a-vis agendas already established in the Humanities, Social Sciences, cultural studies etc). This awkwardness with the definition of art-as-research isn’t really surprising as individual arts faculty don’t themselves agree on what constitutes meaningful research for an artist. Plus of course determinations of what constitutes essential skill/knowledge in the making of a work can differ widely from one discipline, medium, tendency or school to the next. In some of the most thoroughly researched artworks, I find that the work that, as it were, went into the [art]work gets subsumed i.e. folded into the work and made to disappear. Artists tend to erase their tracks, preferring to let the piece-whatever it is and irrespective of the medium – speak for itself. Unlike good scholars, good artists don’t provide footnotes. So while I strongly believe art has its own particular research modalities and methodologies it’s hard (possibly even counter-productive) to specify exactly what they might be. Art is all about the unexpected move so the work that goes into making it is hard to codify.

At the same time, the ideas many university administrators and non arts faculty have about arts education tend to be based in the old conservatory model. At the undergraduate level what that means is the transmission of technical skills to large groups of students through repetition, practice, osmosis and mimesis in a process that for all practical purposes is assumed to bypass cognition. Hence the long class-times and the perception on the part of many of our non arts-department colleagues  (and a large part of the student population) that A) art is representational and essentially non-cerebral – mechanical ,intuitive and/or self-expressive, B) that all determinations of quality are subjective (”in the eye of the beholder”) and C) that teaching art to undergrads is tantamount to baby-sitting. The rationale for our continued place on the university curriculum is rooted, on the one hand, in a rapidly eroding communal faith in a humanist pedagogical ethos (‘educate the whole person’) and, on the other, in the corporate investment in creativity as an exploitable innovation-and-revenue-generating asset.

There’s a temptation for the contradiction between these two rationales to be resolved within Universities programatically. Art Studio departments, charged with servicing a large general student population in classes stocked by a steady supply of grad student TA’s threaten to degenerate into undergrad teaching treadmills while programs in ‘new media’ and art/science fusions like Media Art Technology at UCSB or Design/Media Arts at UCLA have limited contact with undergraduates and tend to be identified with the applied sciences, research-driven innovation, the development of marketable applications and the Future. Of course this is an over simplification and I’m not suggesting that faculty affiliated with the technologically ‘advanced’ programs have it any easier than their colleagues elsewhere in the University arts (we’re all under pressure to produce and serve/teach more). And I’m sure that Arts faculty in the new interdisciplinary programs have to fight even harder than the rest of us to be taken seriously by the scientists and engineers with whom they’re meant to be collaborating as the latter may feel discomfited by the cross over (c.f. matter out of place) and vice-versa. However the segregation of the ‘new’ from the not-new, the nearly new and the comparatively recent can have real implications not only conceptually but also in terms of access to resources. Sabbaticals aside (and they’re awarded on the basis of accumulated teaching credits), research time for most Arts faculty is, in general, stolen time (weekends, summer break etc).

Psychological Prosthetics™ conversations with the public, Hyde Park, Chicago, 2007

Q: As people with diverse ranges of interests, how do you deal with the tension between doing work that “counts” and is recognized as valid and work that you just want to do or your students pull you towards?

Dee: The main conflict is working within the time structure required by the system, my current project, for example is an animated short film made in collaboration with the families of prisoners on death row. The project really doesn’t easily fall into a two year evaluated time span (its taken two years to finish the initial interviews, I’m nowhere near to creating a project that can be recorded as a series of exhibitions and screenings) So far as long as I produce some work that answers the need to publish in a timely manner, UCSC has allowed me to pursue my research interests in any way I see fit, which I appreciate.In some ways I think art may be a less restrictive field than some others where senior faculty apply pressure to publish dissertations for tenure. As the field of art and exhibitions is so eclectic and the path to success so jagged we are left more to our own devices – for better and for worse. All this said I do “shape” my research so that it is legible to the academy: I describe my work in terms that I believe will make sense and try as much as I can to do the research that I care about.

Dick: I tend to separate my writing–most of it for the last twenty years for art catalogs – from the teaching and other University work so that the conventional research component of what I do is in effect detached from my daily life in the academy. For instance I’ve never taught a class on youth subculture though as an academic I’m identified almost exclusively with that topic because of a book I wrote more than 30 years ago. As Dee says, essays published in catalogs fulfill the criteria for academic research though articles in refereed journals carry more weight in terms of academic capital and I haven’t published one of those in years. Still it’s my published work that constitutes what gets classified as research for internal evaluation purposes. I also regard the other stuff I do: curriculum innovation, events programming, performative mixed-media presentations, video collaborations and occasional co-curated exhibitions as research though it may well be that little or none of it ends up getting classified that way when it comes time to be evaluated. Different campuses have different policies and tolerance levels when it comes to faculty moving beyond the areas they’re institutionally credentialed to operate within. At Santa Barbara we’re fortunate to work in an environment where interdisciplinary work, collaboration and curriculum innovation  stretching are in general and in principle supported.

The Desert Studies Project

I’ve always regarded the classroom as a laboratory for trying out new ideas and new ways of handling and presenting material and as the place where students get an opportunity to respond critically and creatively to what’s been presented rather than being compelled to repeat information, subscribe to particular theoretical agendas or respond along predetermined lines. The Desert Studies Project is an example of how I try to integrate my teaching obligations and my broader commitment to conducting and facilitating research. The students get preparatory lectures, screenings etc that set out to frame the Desert (and actual desert locations/histories/issues) in particular ways. They’re also encouraged to undertake library and archival research but the primary  catalysts for whatever emerges from the exercise in concrete terms (i.e. realized works) are the intensive 2 or 3 day  ‘dry immersions’ in the Californian desert(s).The desert experience is orchestrated to a certain extent though these aren’t controlled experiments and the outcomes aren’t in any way proscribed in advance. Hence the title of the ongoing series of classes: “Mapping the Desert/Deserting the Map”.

Q: What are the biggest differences you’ve observed when comparing the British educational system you come from to the University of California system you are now a part of? Have you been able to adapt the educational philosophies or approaches from Britain to the US? How has that worked?

Dee: In England most of my professors were socialists, quite a few communists and we all ended up down the pub at lunchtime then rolled back to work in the afternoon! I studied at three universities London, Durham and York in the 80’s then came to the US to do an MFA at the end of the 90’s, so things may be (are) very different now. All of my education was free at that time (this was changed by a labor government in the UK after I left) I probably wouldn’t have been able to go if not. I am still the first and only person to go to University in my family. As an undergrad in the UK my seminar classes had eight or nine students and my tutorials were two students to one professor – we didn’t have TA’s. As a grad most of my tutorials were one on one and seminar classes had just 5 students. We had a lot of access but much less relaxed relationships with the professors, as far as I remember! When I was in the UK students didn’t have a same sense of entitlement to higher education as they do in the US (only 12% of the population went on to any form of higher education in the 80’s) and the grading average was lower, students didn’t expect an A, but this makes me sound like a curmudgeon!

How do I adapt my educational philosophies? In part I founded a Social Practice Arts Research Center at UCSC and helped design our upcoming MFA in Social and Environmental Arts as a way to bring my educational and ideological philosophies to UC. I grew up in an area of Southern England made famous by George Bernard Shaw, the Fabian Society and Esperanto in the first “garden city” at the height of British social democracy with free health care, unemployment benefits, free education, museum entrance etc. And I left the UK under Thatcher’s reign. Since that time the UK is the most surveilled country in the world. I’m interested to explore issues of social responsibility, notions of public and public rights and bring these questions to the fore of a new generation in a country that holds quite different values from the one in which I grew up. This really goes well beyond simply educational philosophies and may be much more than you were asking for in terms of a reply!

Dick: From the mid 70’s to the mid 80’s I was a peripatetic part-time lecturer in General Studies or Complementary Studies traveling a circuit of art schools that stretched at one time over the academic year from Maidstone and Portsmouth in the south up through the center of London to Wolverhampton and Loughborough in the industrial Midlands so it’s hard to make a meaningful comparison with my experience as a tenured professor in the Art and Film & Media Studies Departments.  (Goldsmiths College where I taught full-time prior to emigrating to the States was incorporated into the University of London just a year or so before I moved in 91).

The British system of arts education in the 70’s and early 80’s was still loosely based on a residual William Morris-inspired industrial ethos that placed as much emphasis (if not more) on the ‘applied arts’ (graphic design, fashion, textiles) as the ‘fine arts’. Despite the patina of social utility it was, as Dee avers, a radically informal, largely unregulated and self-consciously bohemian sector and it served as boot camp for generations of popular and avant-garde British designers, musicians and pop, rock and fashion entrepreneurs as well as a training ground for shock art cohorts like the yBAs (Young British Artists) led by Damien Hirst (who graduated from Goldsmiths in 88). Though by the mid-80’s the UK art school curriculum and overall tone was being reshaped to a degree by the introduction of ‘Continental Theory’ –particularly Lacanian psychoanalysis- and cultural studies, I don’t think British arts education got turned upside down by movements like Conceptualism, Minimalism, Land Art etc to anything like the extent it was here in (parts of) the States (though there were  UK variants).

So a more dramatic point of comparison and contrast with the UC system for me is my 9 years at CalArts as dean of Critical Studies. Moving from a senior but untenured position at CalArts to a tenured professorship at UC was like joining the US navy in the Pacific as an officer after working as a crew member on a pirate ship in the Caribbean and at first it was quite a wrench – especially as my role in the Art department was initiall, by necessity, limited, given the position I held on my arrival at UCSB as director of the Interdisciplinary Humanities Center. CalArts is an enormously tiny place – there’s an extraordinary diversity in the range of disciplines and programs packed into a single building designed to serve a student body that at that time comprised just 1200 students. During my 9 years  at CalArts I got an invaluable crash course in the post WW2 contemporary American arts – not just Art but experimental film and video, writing, theater, dance, music and critical thinking on the arts.  Because of the privileged  faculty-student ratio much of the education came one-on-one through independent study with students and through collaborations and co-teaching with faculty from other departments.  It’s a challenge to produce that level of intensity/focus in a big public university. However, the longer I’m in the system the more I appreciate its advantages – particularly the access we get to the world-class scholarly, critical and technical resources the UC system has as its disposal (even in today’s straitened times.) When placed against Desert Studies’ lean, minimalist, hard scrabble motto – ‘more from less than zero’- that access to excellence forms a winning combination. In terms of my teaching I’ve always seen my role as helping students to think and do for themselves, to work through the materials and to follow ideas through to completion in whatever form they feel fits. I believe I’ve been able to pursue those aims more consistently and to greater effect here in the States than if I’d stayed in the UK.


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