Career Guide

Exploring the life of an art professor

A good teacher can inspire students to reach new heights. Izmer Ahmad is an art professor, and indeed one such inspirational teacher in Universiti Sains Malaysia, Penang, where I am completing my PhD. These past few years, I am amazed at how far out of my comfort zone Izmer has pushed me. He challenges, encourages, motivates and expects better and more from me every time I interact with him.

Not many people understand what a university professor does. In fact, most people believe professors have cushy jobs in academia that comprise only a few hours of teaching and student interaction. They underestimate the dedication involved in going through stacks of student papers, keeping up with reading, preparing for daily classes and most importantly, spending free time doing research to ensure continuous self-growth. This is not forgetting the years of study required before you are officially recognised as a professor. In Izmer’s case, his commitment is further proven by the fact that his wife and two children are living in Canada, whilst he continues to inspire students in Malaysia.

<b>"The best part about doing
what I do is being able to work with students
and co-researchers to gain new knowledge."</b> "The best part about doing what I do is being able to work with students and co-researchers to gain new knowledge."

Izmer is no different to the various “world-class” university professors elsewhere. He teaches four “master-level” classes. These are research methods and studio practice, contemporary art theory, selected topics in visual arts and professional practice, all of which take up about 12 hours a week. His classes are engaging and stimulating. This takes a great deal of efforts on his part. He also supervises eight students (including a number of PhD level students like myself) in their dissertations that vary from “paper making processes” to “modern art in South-East Asia”.

He is selective when accepting students under his supervision, reading through their transcripts and proposals to gauge their critical thinking abilities and arranging to meet them if necessary. Most of his time is spent teaching and supervising during the semester. He grades exams at the end, and carries out his own “exciting” research during the three-month break between semesters.

The Avid Researcher

Being a tenured professor in a research university, he appreciates the autonomy he has to explore his own research interests, not being encumbered in any way by the university requirements. Attaining tenure status entails a series of examinations at different levels. There are various tests to move one up the ladder from the position of lecturer, senior lecturer, associate professor to professor. This varies from one university to another, but in USM, it includes the capacity for research, teaching, and supervisory skills as well as knowledge of procedures in government institutions. Academic tenure is usually awarded to professors who have a solid track record as a scholar, demonstrated through publications, grant funding as well as in administrative capacities.

Izmer remarks that a research university is an ideal place for one interested not only in teaching, but also in research. “If you want to network with other researchers and collaborate with people who have similar interests, this is the place to be.” He enjoys up to 60 days research leave a year. This means, he can take off during the semester to pursue his own research interests. This is significant he says, “because your teaching is based on your research. There’s no new knowledge without research, without which you’re just picking up other people’s research and teaching it. You also get a chance to read and know that your time counts.” Izmer frequently attends and presents at global conferences, including one in Canada which focuses on collaborative art research as a form of public ethnography.

With so much emphasis on publications, funding for research and conference presentations as key performing indicators in research universities today, teaching can often take a backseat. Good professors are those select few who are just as committed to teaching as they are to research, realising that their research ultimately contributes to their competency as teachers. Izmer remarks that if you just want to teach, without doing any research work, or vice versa, then this job is probably not for you.

Izmer received his PhD from the University of Victoria in Canada. He also met his Canadian wife there and spent a few years working and teaching in Canada before coming home to make a difference in the field of art in Malaysia.

<b>Professor Izmer from USM passionately teaching his class at the School of Arts.</b> Professor Izmer from USM passionately teaching his class at the School of Arts.

The Consummate Teacher

Being a teacher, administrator, researcher, and artist all rolled into one, Izmer has a hectic schedule. His day starts at 9am and ends at 2am with students knocking on his door even after 5pm to catch up with him. They pretend to invite him for tea, but actually have the intention of picking his brain. Most students say they find themselves lucky to be under his supervision. Any serious PhD student will tell you that a great supervisor is hard to find. A good supervisor who is well-read on an eclectic number of topics, and who can make connections between what you are doing with contemporary art theory, is key to ensuring your academic work is valued in the global art community.

As I get to know Izmer more, I realise that becoming a university professor is more than just a day job that you can “turn off” after lecturing hours. Izmer’s devotion to teaching and research clearly affects what he does outside of teaching. He recently held a solo exhibition in Galeri Seni Mutiara, Georgetown titled “Sensation of Images”. Veteran artist Ismail Hashim said that this exhibition evoked “magic and soul”.

The Artist

Most people view art theory and art history as boring subjects. In fact, the same can be said of many academic subjects. Izmer takes a different approach to art history and teaching. He has learnt to tell his students stories that bring art history to life. He brings passion back to art history - a skill absent in many art classrooms.

As a practising artist, he seems to encourage the type of art that is guided and sustained by critical theory. As an art writer and researcher, he helps his students connect the dots between the artworks they seek to explicate and the artistic discourse and cultural contexts that they are engaged in. His own background in studio practice, art theory, and philosophy gives him an interdisciplinary approach to scholarship.

In his supervisory role, he particularly encourages his students to move away from the notion that artworks have an absolute value or absolute interpretation. Instead, he inspires them to traverse different academic disciplines in order to discover new perspectives in the interpretation and practice of art. His personal research interests range from drawing, contemporary art, modern South-East Asian art to the subject of death.

Students under his supervision can be rest assured they will not be expected to echo his views or follow in his footsteps. He asks critical questions to lead the students in finding their own voice and to respond meaningfully to current artistic and cultural discourse.

Izmer says: “The best part about doing what I do is being able to work with students and co-researchers to gain new knowledge.”

<b>"Bather" (2000), oil on plywood. Private Collection.</b> "Bather" (2000), oil on plywood. Private Collection.

Emelia Ong Ian Li is hoping, like her mentor, to become a researcher and teacher that makes a difference. She is currently doing research on art and identity in Malaysia.