Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Maintenance Cycle

11. The Maintenance Cycle

Every ceramics program I’ve ever observed, every pottery for that matter, suffers from a maintenance cycle. This is the roller coaster up and down related to the physical state of the building, kilns, and equipment used to make pots. As a student, this cycle can make or break you.
Every school wants to be able to brag about the fine facilities available to its students. They will cheerfully tell you about square feet, numbers and types of wheels, slab rollers, extruders, and kilns. But they don’t tell you what condition those things are in. Kilns, for instance, have useful life spans and a kiln that is either too new or too old won’t get your work fired.
Ideally, the physical well-being of a ceramics department (or that of any other art department) wouldn’t fluctuate much. Some things wear out. But if they are replaced promptly the strain on students and faculty can be kept to a minimum. Unfortunately, that is rarely how it works, particularly at public universities.
I remember one such university program which had just installed a row of new motorized kick wheels and a ten thousand dollar gas car kiln. Sadly, the initial firing showed that the new kiln overwhelmed the existing exhaust system. It sat unused for years until the state legislature approved the funding for a new twenty-five thousand dollar ventilation system.
The scenario had been a typical one. After years of gradual decay, with the teacher and students laboriously struggling to keep things working, the talented teacher left. The departmental administration was forced by his departure to face the issue of their now vacant and clearly embarrassing ceramics area. They dutifully searched for a new instructor and sweetened their hiring offer with the funds for new equipment. Thus, aside from the ventilation system delay, the ceramics area had been restored. Administrative attention (and finance) could then shift to other departments and other embarrassments. As long as, “Ceramics is still doing okay,” the school can save money by ignoring or under-funding its ongoing needs. At some point, perhaps when the next search committee meets to hire a new ceramics professor, the area will be seen to have (once again) become an embarrassment and funds will be mobilized to combat the decay.
This is one of the most important reasons for visiting a prospective graduate program. Don’t just count the equipment, study it. Ask a lot of questions about the local administrative conditions and timing. How old is the building and are there any plans to replace or renovate it? What was the most recent major equipment purchase and how difficult was it to arrange? How often do new things get bought? Which kilns fire perfectly, which need a lot of fussing, and which don’t fire at all? What sabbaticals are scheduled during the period you hope to be in school? Are repairs done by the students and faculty, or only by university maintenance workers?
This maintenance issue cuts two ways. On the one hand, you’re in the program to make pots. Anything that eats up your time, or worse, ruins those pots is a problem. On the other hand, because every pottery situation runs into these sorts of problems going to a perfect program with flawless everything teaches you none of the psychological, mechanical, and problem-solving skills you will need to thrive in the real world. You will be helpless when you leave all that perfect equipment. The ideal is, of course, somewhere in the middle where you learn to repair and build the equipment you don’t absolutely need anyway. While the stuff you absolutely had to have never gave you any problems.
You are in school to learn, but don’t let shoddy management, inadequate funding, and the constant need for repairs teach you to hate. Talk to the faculty. Talk to the students. Understand the situation before you apply and, as always, act to protect yourself.

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