I'm very pleased today to introduce Adjunct Hero, Justin Myer Staller. Justin is the first of our Adjunct Heroes with whom I was not personally acquainted in real life, and it was a pleasure to learn of his life and his work. It's an amazing story of a dedicated teacher working tirelessly for the benefit of his students.
As always, nominees for Adjunct Hero are most welcome at email@example.com
- John Warner
Justin Myer Staller
M.S. In Counseling and Human Relations, Villanova University, 2011
M.F.A. in Contemporary Non-toxic Printmaking, Rochester Institute of Technology, 2005
B.A. in Fine/Liberal Arts, Penn State University, 2002
Tell us where you teach, what you teach, and how long you’ve been teaching.
I currently teach at Arcadia University and the Moore College of Art and Design.
At Arcadia I teach the full printmaking curriculum; Intro to Printmaking, Screen Printing, New Forms, Advanced Printmaking, as well as working with our Senior students as their thesis advisor. I have also taught, but am not currently teaching, Digital Imaging and Foundations at Arcadia. I have been at Arcadia 8 semesters.
At Moore I teach Etching. I have been with Moore for two semesters.
Tell us the story how you wound up as an adjunct.
I think my story is pretty typical. I graduated from my MFA program in Rochester with zero job leads. I attended CAA and ended up leaving the conference with no prospects.
I think I was a little naive and surprised that department heads weren’t knocking each other down to interview me and give me a job, you know with all of my vast experience as a 25 year old.
So I left Rochester and moved back to Philadelphia. I took a job painting houses, which was a delight to my boss who loved to harass me about how he never graduated high school and was basically a millionaire, a millionaire who ate McDonalds cheese burgers everyday, breathed in toxic chemicals without a respirator, and then wondered aloud why he didn’t feel so good…he sucked.
Eventually I found an art, non soul-sucking job, at the Photo Review where I was an editorial assistant. The job was great, hanging out with dudes with beards, talking about photos and listening to NPR, just the bliss of non-profit life. Eventually in there I got married and came up with an insane idea to go work for myself and stop waiting around for a job offer. So we picked up, moved to Amherst and bought a Heidelberg KOR offset press and tried to start a business. That business was a total failure, and after two years in Amherst we missed Philadelphia.
While working a full time job to pay for my failing business I ended up in human services. I was a supervisor at a boarding school for at-risk teenagers and kinda loved it. The work was nothing like academia or art making. So, after three years and no full time job offers in the art world, I decided that I should go back to school to be a counselor. The same week I received my acceptance to Villanova’s masters program, my friend Bill McRight told me he was leaving his position at Arcadia and asked if I would be interested in taking his place. I said yes. I interviewed, and was hired the next day. I deferred my admission to Villanova and walked into the most cluttered, neglected print studio I had ever seen. After a week of cleaning, ordering and writing new syllabi for the classes I started teaching.
What role do adjuncts play at your particular institution?
I think our University is pretty typical. The adjuncts in the art department teach foundations and the lower level classes within majors not taught by full time faculty. My position is unique because I am the only Printmaking instructor at the school so I am with my students all four years. Sometimes it's hard to realize that your part time job required 6 years of higher education. In general, I think our adjuncts and full time faculty are wonderful, passionate instructors. I think that adjuncts really just bring a balance of perspective to our students' overall education, sometimes just with our age ranges and experiences.
Give us a typical day, or week, if you prefer?
Well, the spring is light for me. My classes are stacked, so I go all day Monday and Wednesday from about 8 am – 6pm. I have three classes; Intro to printmaking in the morning, my new forms class in the afternoon, and in the early evening I meet with my four seniors working on their thesis. During my time on campus I am also dealing with the infrastructure of the studio; ordering, organizing, cleaning, etc., while also meeting with work-study students who manage the studio when I am not on campus. This is the first semester in four years that I am only on campus two days a week. The decision was financial, the commute was just getting too expensive, but I do feel odd not being there, and I know my students miss me around the studio.
The rest of the week I am in my own studio at Space 1026 in the Chinatown section of Philadelphia. I am currently working on projects and exhibitions for our loose collective in addition to getting some new drawings and prints ready for sale. Typically about three to four times a day I am fielding calls, text messages and emails from my students so I never really feel like I stop teaching.
What’s the most rewarding part about teaching? Or, thinking of it another way, what keeps you coming back?
It’s hard to mourn your dream. When I started college in 1998 I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to be an educator. I just so happened to also really enjoy Printmaking and fine art. I knew that a high school setting might not have been the best for me, and when I started working as a TA in graduate school I knew that I was in the right place. It just so happens that getting a full time job as collegiate professor of art is near to impossible, especially if you are grounded in a geographic region and can’t pick up and move. I don’t begrudge my instructors as an undergrad for never having a “reality” conversation with me, and honestly I would have probably just keep going anyway, but the dream that I worked towards is just foggy.
What keeps me coming back each semester are the days when I am on campus, teaching, working with students, etc. and it feels like this is my full time job, my life. If I forget about my salary and money problems associated with my job, it’s so easy to fall in love with my work. Dude, I love my students. Everyday I am amazed to see what they are working on, how they are moving forward, it’s such an amazing experience to see the changes that take place in their creative minds and pop out four years later. I guess I’m just really proud of them and the work that our department does. Arcadia is a fantastic school and I keep coming back each day hoping that one day I’ll get to make it my life.
What I am doing with our curriculum in the Printmaking department is unique and not happening other places because it is a complete representation of me. I was able to bring the studio and classes back to life because the program hadn’t had a lot of attention and was off the radar. This allowed me to create a hybrid of traditional practices supplemented with a complete new way of working with Print. It also enabled me to make the studio completely non-toxic, and in the last four years and we have perfected the use of ImagOn and the other new working methods I came in with. The proof that this investment is worthwhile is seeing majors return to printmaking. Last year I graduated my first senior and this coming spring I have four students completing the program. Seeing my students master these new working methods, and then watching them create their own innovations within their confines is so inspiring. We are everyday creating, researching, and challenging what we did the day before. So how could you not want to show up for class?
What are your greatest frustrations in your job?
Honestly, it’s monetary. I’m pretty poor, which makes it hard sometimes to do the things that you want to do, like have a family, a savings account, etc. I look at my job this way. For 7/8 months of the year I am the happiest person on earth. I get to teach, make art, hang out with my students, it’s a great life. That life is balanced by the other 5 months of the year when I work for Mambo Movers in Philadelphia and haul furniture on my back. The saddest part is that after 8 years and two master's degrees, I make more money moving furniture than I do teaching and or using my highly trained brain. I accept the reality of this to a certain point, but man does it keep me up at night. This is the trap of adjunct land. I know that if I left my job I would regret it and be so jealous of whoever would take over for me. I know I don’t have the power; but that studio is mine, those presses are mine, those students are mine, those rooms are my classrooms and they’ll have to drag me out. The legacy of Printmaking at Arcadia is huge; from Benton Spruance up through Judith Brodsky, these former instructors are legends. I really just wish that the climate would recognize that we could get another legend out of that studio.
Tell us your dream job (within reason, of course), number of sections, what you’re teaching, and how much you’re paid.
I really do have my dream job; it’s just only two days a week. What I’d really like to do is create a hybrid position where I could keep teaching my classes 4/3 and spend the rest of my week using my other area expertise, advising. I love helping students plan their paths in higher education and because Arcadia gets complicated with all the study abroad opportunities things can get a little unclear. Ideally I would be able to help recruit new students into our program, advise them during their academic years, and then help them prepare for graduation and beyond. I think this is can be a reality and I’m putting all my effort into making this position real. I just feel like you can’t sit back and whine about how your not going to get hired full time, and their isn’t any money, etc. So what are you going to do, wait around for this thing to never happen? I just got up one day and realized that, well if they can’t give more classes, what else can I offer them? And two years later I have a new skill set that is just waiting for a university to utilize.
What’s the plan to get to that destination? (Or elsewhere?)
I think the plan is to just keep getting better. Refine my syllabi, hone my skills and lectures and integrate myself into the community of the university. Every adjunct is an asset to the university, whether compensated appropriately or not, I think you just need to do a good job of making yourself indispensible. I know how valuable I am and what I can offer, but this is a world where I need someone to make that commitment to me. Ultimately, teaching part time is a choice and if I don’t want to do it anymore I can stop and go do something else. Right now, I want to be at Arcadia, and I’m willing to do what I need to do (sweat and lift heavy things) to continue my practice and follow my dream.
Who wants to leave Philadelphia? Nobody. This place is amazing and wonderful and filled with pizza and delicious sandwiches. There’s wonderful music and art and this place is the center of Printmaking. So, University of Idaho, Colorado, Montana, you make me an offer but I’ll probably just show up, fix your program and run as quickly as I can home, with a stop off at Lorenzo’s.
Previous Adjunct Heroes:
Keverlee Burchett - College of Charleston
If you would like notice of future Adjunct Heroes, or anything else John Warner may care to Tweet about, his handle is @biblioracle.