1993: “I Meant to Do That”

Christmas Break 1997

I had started to doze off while rereading Larry Niven’s Protector when the phone rang.

The caller started speaking rapidly: ““Hey Mr. Deitrick – this is Denny” Before I could respond he continued: “Yeah, since it was Christmas and all that I thought I’d give you a call and see how you were doing. You were always my favorite teacher and PLEASE HELP ME FIND A JOB! IF I DON’T START BRINGING SOME MONEY INTO THE HOUSE MY MOM IS GOING TO KICK ME OUT!

It was at that point that I remembered my caller as a former student from Lincoln Memorial University.

Fall 1993

I doubt I’d have gone to graduate school if I hadn’t been pushed into it.  When the state of Alaska placed all the community colleges under the university system in 1989 it meant that in order to continue teaching I needed a terminal degree , which in my case would be an MFA. However, returning to teach at KPC wasn’t the sole factor inducing me to borrow obscene amounts of money; according to the media,  colleges all over the nation were anticipating a record level of retirement in their liberal arts faculties. If KPC didn’t work out I should have the pick of any number of schools where I could dispense my aesthetic wisdom.

It wasn’t the first time in my life that a beautiful theory was shot down by a cold hard fact.  The recession of 1992 hit universities as hard as anyone else which meant A) there were fewer retirements than anticipated and B) many schools elected not to refill vacancies created by those who did retire. Each advertised position would now attract more than 100 applications and I managed to strike out with every application I made.

I lost no time in launching an ambitious program of promotions and portfolio showings to build the freelance work that had dwindled during graduate school, but I found that the market had changed, and my highly identifiable style was not as popular as it had been just a few years earlier. I had also unfortunately taken an extended leave of absence from my reserve unit so even that modest income was no longer coming in…all of which meant my family and I were stuck 4000 miles away from home with a mortgage, a sizeable school debt and very few prospects.

As I was contemplating this dire set of circumstances one day, I received  an unexpected phone call concerning an instructor’s position at Lincoln Memorial University located near historic Cumberland Gap northeast of Knoxville.  Their nascent design program was foundering, and they needed a good teacher to keep them going – and I was thought to be the ideal candidate.

I gave the matter deep consideration – and after fifteen seconds I agreed to take the job and made plans to visit the school two days later. I would need those two days just to find the school –  the location of the school and background information  were  not easy to find in those pre-Internet days but I was able to dig up just enough to get me to the school and talk in a fairly informed manner about the situation.

The trip to the school took longer than planned as I adjusted to the up-and-down nature of the route –  terrain in East Tennessee strongly resembles corduroy fabric and I had to cross ridge after ridge on my way to the school. I was met on arrival by the head of the art department, which was very impressive until I found out that the entire department consisted of just two teachers. It was then that I learned I would basically be the entire graphic design program which had been languishing since the original founder/teacher left the previous summer.

Hard work had never bothered me but within a few weeks it became clear that the program needed more than just industry. The department lacked proper computer support, and it soon became clear that the school was hoping that I would somehow be able to obtain (without cost to them) the necessary software –  the kind of situation that brought to mind the character of Wimpy in the old Popeye cartoons when he’d tell Olive Oyl: “Come on over for a duck dinner. Please bring the duck”.

Once I made it clear that I wasn’t buying any programs, I found that the situation was a good introduction to teaching college and that I was learning as much as the students. Old habits die hard; as a former intelligence officer I was prone to look for patterns in groups of people and I soon discovered trends in the way classes would organize themselves, trends that would repeat themselves in every class I would teach over the next twenty-five years.

  • Every semester the same type of student sat in same place in each classroom – for example the smartest student (but not always with the highest GPA) always sat two seats from the rear of the row along the left wall while the student with the highest GPA always sat two seats from the front row of seats along the right wall.
  • Students used the same excuses no matter the subject, composition or geographic location of the class.
  • Class composition in terms of talent was consistently the same as well – 10% of the classes were extremely talented go-getters, 10% were totally hopeless and completely devoid of talent while the remaining students seemed to be just milling about marking time.
  • Each class had one poseur who been very successful in high school and was now coasting on a few selected techniques and types of subject matter, never progressing beyond those sure hits.

Denny was the poseur in this class; he had a half-dozen programmed images and no matter what assignment I gave he would turn in a hillbilly portrait, a totally bitching burning skull or one of his other canned compositions. Critiques had little effect as every comment I made was met with “I meant to do that”.  At any other time or place I would have flunked him but third world tuberculosis babies were healthier than the LMU design program and I had already been informed that students were avoiding my classes because I had the audacity to expect good work for good grades. The best I could do was try to keep  all the students moving in the same general direction…

…so it was no surprise that I jumped ship two years later when a position opened up at another college where I was free to terrorize my students into doing their best. Four years later I’d assumed I’d made a clean break with my Cumberland Gap students but now I had a very panicked Denny on the phone and as much as I wanted to just say “TOLD YA SO!” and hang up, the teacher side of me kicked in and I started brainstorming with him for solutions.

It turned out that he had taken the same “pose” in all his classes and managed to graduate without the skills necessary to enter either the work force or graduate school. Fortunately he was able to enroll in remedial design classes at another university and learn enough to start doing basic layout for a local shopper’s guide. At that point I withdrew, feeling very smug about the way I had wisely handled a common problem in design classes and education in general – the student who is sure they already know it all.

Then three nights later I woke from a sound sleep, sat straight up out of bed and realized that I really wasn’t so different from my former student. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been in the business – it’s stressful showing your portfolio to prospective clients. Most of the time you get nods and very general but nice comments but now and then you’ll get someone who digs in and critiques – like the New York City editor  that had recently looked at my work and suggested I take some additional figure drawing classes. I smiled, said “Thank You” and walked out muttering under my breath about “15 years freelancing, five years teaching and a Master of Fine Arts degree!”

I’d been just as bad as Denny had been.

It took me a while to set things up, but eventually I went into what Lori called my “self-administered MFA in figure drawing”. I started drawing figures from life, reference photos and occasionally from another artists’ work. No matter how hard I was working or how busy I was I would always draw five figures a week.

Then one day after several years of all this extra work I looked down at my drawing board and realized that I had become a much better draftsman when it came to anatomy – but at the same time I realized that all that extra work wasn’t just about improving the figures I drew. It made me a better teacher as well and gave me a better grasp of what’s going on in the mind of each new Denny that I encounter.

…and I can also tell them with conviction that the extra effort will definitely pay off in the end.