Survey: Phil Chang

California State University, Bakersfield

June 14, 2024
Phil Chang
California State University, Bakersfield

Why do you teach?

I attended the Master of Fine Arts program at California Institute of the Arts in the early 2000s, and that program instilled in me that contemporary art is a form of communication that requires discussion. CalArts has always maintained that the classroom is the ideal arena for enacting this type of communication. During one of my last weeks in the program, I attended a reception for graduating students—Allan Sekula was there, and I asked him whether he had any advice about working as an artist and finding teaching jobs. Without batting an eye, he said, “just go for broke.” This was telling, since he was a such a fierce artist, writer, and scholar of photography who was perennially engaged with political economy.

Soon after, in 2007, I started working as an adjunct instructor at Otis College of Art and Design, I was never trained as an educator, and therefore needed to develop strategies ad hoc while I was in the classroom, learning by example from other artist-teachers. A few months after my first classes had begun, the 2008 financial crisis decimated the economy, which worsened the persistent insecurity of teaching without tenure. Around this time, I saw Martha Rosler speak at REDCAT. She described teaching as “frustrating, exhausting, and absolutely necessary.” I began repeating these words to myself daily as a reminder that the challenges inherent to arts education—and the specific economic precarity of adjunct employment—were justified.

I have continued to teach for the past seventeen years because it has remained a constructive way to contribute, on a larger level, to the field of contemporary art, and, on an individual level, to respond to the demands of working as an artist. The former has to do with showing young artists how to develop their critical thinking, form community, take responsibility for their actions, and grasp why discussion and dissent are important. The latter has to do with how teaching art and making it hold each other accountable; I am no good for my students if I’m not actively producing art, and I am no good at producing art if I am not teaching it. There is a productive dialectic between the two that, in my experience, no other vocation or job can provide.

In 2019, I began teaching full-time in the Department of Art and Art History at California State University, Bakersfield (CSUB), and this summer, for the first time since the pandemic, I am returning to the Bard MFA program as a faculty member. Now that I’ve spent five years in a tenure-track teaching role, I’ve discovered that class instruction is just one facet of being a faculty member in an American visual arts program. The job also necessitates university service, scholarly research, and/or what academia refers to as “creative activities.”

Without any official training, how have you crafted your own teaching strategies? Do you tailor them to the various institutions, classes, and student levels you’ve encountered? If so, how did you develop that versatility?

Studying at CalArts was unique, because the school didn’t offer any formal teaching positions to graduate students at other universities. Despite my lack of experience, Soo Kim and James Welling hired me as an adjunct professor at Otis College of Art and Design and University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), respectively. Neither of them told me what to teach or how to do so, but their trust and openness to my inexperience was both supportive and overwhelming. Their support really motivated me to figure it out as I went along, as best as I could. I sought guidance from friends who had already begun teaching, and tried to have as many conversations as possible with peers and senior faculty to learn what worked for them. They generously shared their syllabi and class assignments with me, and explained how they organized readings that corresponded to the myriad levels of teaching photography and art. This advice helped me understand how assigning Susan Sontag or John Berger was useful for introductory classes, whereas Édouard Glissant, Rosalind Krauss, or Walter Benn Michaels were much more appropriate for more advanced levels.

The current political divisions and culture wars in this country have also informed my approach to teaching in the Central Valley of California. California State University, Bakersfield is a federally designated Hispanic Serving Institution; this is a designation that the U.S. Department of Education gives to any public or private non-profit institution whose full-time undergraduate enrollment consists of at least 25% Hispanic or Latinx students. 68% of the student body at CSUB identifies as Latinx. Most of my students are the first members of their families to attend college, and are disproportionately poor, predominantly brown, and astonishingly motivated. Teaching at CSUB has obliged me to draw from my experience as a person of color and as a first-generation American. I have students who have never been to Los Angeles, which is only 110 miles—a two-hour drive, roughly—away. I have to remain aware of my implicit political, cultural, generational, and artistic biases so I can meet my students where they are, and discover ways in which art could enrich their lives.

What will it be like to transition from teaching undergraduates at CSU Bakersfield to working with master’s students at the Bard MFA program? Are any of your teaching methods and/or materials applicable within both schools?

I have found that teaching art doesn’t only involve illuminating concepts and practices; it also implores educators to translate how lived conditions fundamentally shape creative production. This entails showing students what it means to work as an artist, how to survive under American neoliberalism, and how to employ contemporary art as a tool for conceiving of new possibilities for our tumultuous world. These intentions serve as the core of my pedagogy and are enacted quite differently between each school—which is to say that returning to Bard will precipitate a steep transition.

At CSUB, my colleagues and I are not only teachers. We are also public servants, represented by a labor union that helps us provide for California’s students. Gregg Gonsalves and Amy Kapczynski’s recent call for a new politics of care1 places our current system in sharp relief: when people’s basic needs are not met, and their connections to fellow citizens and the global community are eroded, these deficits bleed into other aspects of society. Despite our utter lack of training, my colleagues and I try our best to address the obstacles that students face. Struggles with labor, transportation, mental health, domestic violence, housing and food insecurity, jeopardized immigration and citizenship status, the looming threat of deportation, and death-related grief are all common issues. Our students require so much since they have so little, and my faculty colleagues and I band together to devise strategies to meet their needs with what little resources we have. For instance, each year my department eagerly awaits the results of California’s lottery: if there are no winners, the state is authorized by the California State Lottery Act to use proceeds from ticket sales to support CSU students.

Chang at his exhibition Pictures, Unfixed, the Fulcrum Press, Los Angeles, 2023. Courtesy of the Fulcrum Press. 

Teaching in the Bard MFA program allows me to go further with “translating” those conditions that inform art. My students at CSUB live the shortcomings of social justice, whereas a large portion of Bard MFA students focus on projects that position social justice as a primary subject. Though graduate students at Bard undoubtedly face similar personal and economic hardships as those at CSUB, they are immersed in a starkly different educational environment. Bard is much more discursively rigorous and proximal to New York and to the global art world. I expect to perform very little technical instruction, and instead spend the bulk of teaching time listening to students and responding to their specific artistic goals. It’s most crucial to help them clarify their expectations for being an artist outside of grad school, what they want from being in a community of artists and art workers, and what they want from art in general.

My aim is that graduate students begin thinking about how their work participates in an unregulated industry that commanded 65 billion USD in sales in 2023 and relies on pairing manufactured scarcity with existing modes of social and economic inequity. An artist’s career is determined by a confluence of merit, luck, strategy, ambition, and self-mythologizing. Working with graduate students allows me to teach more closely from my lived experience as an artist, and it feels urgent to impart what the art world has taught me about navigating its politics and economy. But I also try to convey how the communal and discursive aspects of being an artist can be gratifying in a world that can be so antagonistic to creative labor.

You are a member of the California Faculty Association, a labor union that represents lecturers, faculty, counselors, librarians, and coaches within the California State University system. What was this past year’s historic strike like for you as a teacher, and for your students and fellow faculty members at CSUB?

I have been a member of unions for the past 20 years. As a photographer, I belonged to the Union of Professional Technical Employees CWA Local 9119 and Teamsters Local 2010; as a professor, I’ve joined the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the California Faculty Association (CFA). I have never witnessed such a surge in labor activity, consciousness, and renewal as we’ve seen these past three years. I recall how, in 2020, the writer Arundhati Roy urged her readers to conceive of the COVID-19 pandemic as a portal: “Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.”2

Breaking with the past and approaching this new world will be difficult. A labor union is only as strong as its members and leaders. In August 2023, when the CFA called for an unprecedented five-day strike across all California State University campuses—the largest public university system in the US—I notified my students that I would not cross the picket line and therefore would not be convening class. Other faculty did the same. We also received support from our students, who adjusted their work, childcare, elder care, and continued-study schedules. What was planned as a historic strike sadly became a squandered opportunity for faculty and students alike. Our union leaders abruptly accepted an agreement with the CSU administration within only eight hours. This felt premature, given our expectations for a five-day walkout. Faculty, staff, and students alike all felt a degree of whiplash after so many schedules were rearranged to accommodate that duration.

Were there particular demands that you were hoping would be met, only to be abandoned in the agreement?

The demands from the union were fair: a 5% increase for faculty salaries, expanded parental leave, more mental health counselors for students, a higher salary floor for the lowest-paid lecturers, improved spaces and learning environments on campuses, and increasing protection for faculty who have confrontations with police. Only some of these terms were met. Many CFA union members had hoped that the strike would have lasted for the five days as planned to maximize collective power. Instead, that power dissipated quite fast.

Do you see this outcome as a bellwether of how future labor disputes will transpire at universities? What will prompt these institutions to, as Roy said, “break from the past”?

I think the CFA strike can serve as a model for solidarity between students and academic workers, and did successfully demonstrate how labor unions can force universities to revise their policies. UAW 4811’s recent Unfair Labor Practice strike, which was authorized to protect academic workers who have been arrested or disciplined during the Gaza solidarity encampments, forged a new, unprecedented connection between labor representation and activist demonstration on college campuses. We haven’t yet encountered what the legal ramifications would be when worker’s rights have been violated by an employer during a protest.

I initially thought that Roy’s portal would be open more immediately, but structural improvements to working and learning conditions within higher education is often procedural and slow. I see the resurgence of organized labor as one possibility that exists on the other side of this portal, despite the often-glacial pace of institutional transformation.


The Politics of Care, ed. Boston Review (Verso, 2020.)


Arundhati Roy, Azadi: Freedom. Fascism. Fiction. (Haymarket Books, 2020).

Education, Labor & Work
Academia, Strikes

Phil Chang is an artist and educator living in Los Angeles. His work has recently been presented in solo exhibitions at the Penumbra Foundation, New York, The Fulcrum Press, Los Angeles, and at M+B Gallery, Los Angeles. Chang’s series “Unfixed Works” is included in the Getty Museum’s exhibition Nineteenth-Century Photography Now, on view until July 7, 2024. His works are held in the public collections of the Getty Museum, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the Cleveland Museum of Art, among other institutions. He is an associate professor in the Department of Art & Art History at California State University, Bakersfield and a faculty member of the Milton Avery Graduate School of the Arts at Bard College. ​


e-flux announcements are emailed press releases for art exhibitions from all over the world.

Agenda delivers news from galleries, art spaces, and publications, while Criticism publishes reviews of exhibitions and books.

Architecture announcements cover current architecture and design projects, symposia, exhibitions, and publications from all over the world.

Film announcements are newsletters about screenings, film festivals, and exhibitions of moving image.

Education announces academic employment opportunities, calls for applications, symposia, publications, exhibitions, and educational programs.

Sign up to receive information about events organized by e-flux at e-flux Screening Room, Bar Laika, or elsewhere.

I have read e-flux’s privacy policy and agree that e-flux may send me announcements to the email address entered above and that my data will be processed for this purpose in accordance with e-flux’s privacy policy*

Thank you for your interest in e-flux. Check your inbox to confirm your subscription.