Art & Academia (In or Out): Interview with Millian Pham

Bonus visual art edition! In this series, I interview musicians and artists about their experiences in academia. I hope their stories will help readers forge their own paths, in or out of the institution.

I recently interviewed Millian Giang Lien Pham. Originally from Vietnam, Millian received her BFA in painting and printmaking from the University of Tulsa and her MFA in sculpture from the University of Florida. Her works highlight the intangible effects of socio-political structures on the body and the psyche. She works with the materials of sculpture, fiber, video, drawing, collage, and verbal language through larger installations and performances. She currently teaches at Auburn University.

ASN: You recently landed a tenure-track job after a non-tenured clinical position. Can you tell me about the differences? Expectations, workload, cachet, etc.?

MP: Studio art classes are long, especially when the program you teach in is accredited for not only a BA but also a BFA, so what most people don’t realize is that folks who teach visual art classes are usually spending anywhere from 5.5 – 6 contact hours per section every week for the exact same pay (sometimes less because the arts are so undervalued as a whole and budgets are tighter in certain area). So my 4/4 teaching load at the University of Alabama (UA) as a clinical-track faculty in the visual arts didn’t look the same as someone who teaches in English or mathematics in the same position at the same institution. I’m sure the non-visual arts fields have similar problems.

I would come home every work day totally wiped from just the contact hours alone, which was Monday through Thursday from 9am – 3:30pm if I got lucky with a solid block that semester. Some semesters had book-end meeting blocks with six solid hours in-between classes or a random scattering of sections. Fridays were usually filled with meetings, committee work, and other service obligations. Many non-tenure track positions come with lots of service obligations, and because non-tenure track faculty can’t make decisions that impact tenure-track and tenure faculty (depending on institutions), I was barred out of the more glamorous or prestigious service positions and placed in many tedious work to overfill my 20% service.

But the 80% teaching and 20% service wasn’t what killed my spirit at UA. It was the twice a year evaluation: once a year evaluated by the tenure/promotion/retention committee and the other by the chair of the department. The evaluations were spaced six months apart and without clear guidelines for non-tenure track faculty. I remember running around during my first and second year at UA searching for evaluation criteria and benchmarks. They were woefully unprepared for non-tenure track positions that the evaluation criteria I got was this more than ten years old single-sheet of paper for a tenure-track faculty, not for my position. When they said I had low student evaluation scores and I needed to increase them, I didn’t know if a 3/5 or a 4/5 was considered low, and by how much was an adequate increase. There was no transparency in that regard and it further exploited faculty in more vulnerable positions. They operated in ambiguity, and we know who that usually hurts the most in these types of situations.

I was in that soul-sucking position for five years. I grew up in desperate poverty in Vietnam then in the USA till the age of 29, and had never had such indignity done to me as I was at UA in that professional environment. I was very lucky to have landed a tenure-track position at Auburn University this previous year, after three years of interviews, and what a drastic change. Even in the midst of a pandemic, I finally found myself with enough time and mental space to actually devote myself to my craft as a teacher and visual artist/researcher. I get to be an actual human with real time to have basic self-care and not walk around like a deflated marshmallow.

The best part has been the clear evaluation guidelines for different types of reviews. Auburn is very good at that, and it’s one of the reasons why I chose Auburn rather than floating along to the next available job. Anxiety is lessened where there are clear guidelines. Auburn and the University of Alabama have this weird rivalry that I still don’t (care to) understand, so I won’t be pitting the two institutions in this response through my personal experience (it may also be a bit early since I’ve just completed my first year at Auburn).

I will give some tips to those who are in non-tenure track positions that I wish I had known prior to starting my non-tenure track position six years ago: if the institution doesn’t have clear guidelines for how to evaluate this position then treat it like a stepping stone; if the position has the potential to be a long-term commitment then make sure to clarify with the chair/supervisor on your service work and the parameters for your success often, take control of their ambiguity. So much easier said than done but I would have been so much wiser if I had known. I was planning to be at UA in the non-tenure track position for the long haul, but the issues I faced eliminated that possibility within the first semester of my employment.

ASN: What activities and experiences do you think have made you attractive to these institutions?

MP: Prior to applying to Auburn University, I didn’t know much about the institution because I was treading water when I applied for jobs for the third cycle in a row. I just needed to get out. But after looking at the position, speaking to my future colleagues, and learning more about the job, I felt a sense of belonging that was very hard to describe. I’ve been an alien most of my life. I mean that in all the definitions of that word. Places want me but they don’t want me. So finding a place that feels like you belong is super difficult. Finding a place that feels like you belong AND is invested in your success is super rare. Whether this was a tenure-track or a clinical-track position at Auburn, I didn’t take this intuitive conclusion lightly.

The more I learned about the department and the institution, the more excited and enthusiastic I became, and I think this enthusiasm really came through during my campus interview. Moreover, I had a slew of exhibitions and research activities that proved my ability and commitment to continue being a salient artist and educator, despite teaching a 4/4 load with a full plate of service in my previous position. I had all the qualities of being tenurable through my teaching, research, and service work. My alma mater, The University of Florida–your same one, Adam–was super good at preparing their graduates in art pedagogy, so I’m always ready to talk about teaching methods and activities that scaffold student success in a variety of contexts. Whether this current position is a tenure-track or a clinical-track job, I strongly believe in investing the labor in pedagogy if the university as a system continues to be relevant, and I think Auburn really values that sort of dedication. Our values meet and it’s a good fit.

ASN: What are you pursuing right now to prepare for tenure and promotion?

MP: My application for tenure and promotion is four years away, and I’m very aware of that ticking clock. Thankfully at Auburn, the guidelines are very clear with how many exhibitions you must have by the time of tenure application, so I’ve been slowly working at that despite the pandemic. I’m currently away for a necessary research trip at the Santa Fe Art Institute in New Mexico for an artist residency on the theme of labor. I plan to use the artworks I make during this residency to apply for future research opportunities such as grants, exhibitions, and more artist residencies. I’m always on the look-out for what looks like juried and peer-reviewed exhibitions, as that’s the equivalent of being published in journals for the more traditional products of research. As many educators can attest to this previous pandemic academic year, teaching and service were at the forefront of our workload, so I’m doing a research heavy summer to make up for it. Success seems much more possible when there are clear goals.

Check out some of Millian’s art work here, and see more on her site, altimablossom.net.

Reforge: 9 Phases, 2019 by Millian Pham

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Welcome and thanks for checking out my work! -adam

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