Before the Department Retreat


I believe we are witnessing an irreversible paradigm shift in theatre and higher education. I believe the rumbling beneath our feet and up the sides of the ivory tower originates in a tectonic rearrangement of campus and professional landscapes. I believe if we do not update our mental maps to allow for these radical changes—boulders obstructing what once were highways, crevasses that now cut across our skipping meadows—we will lose our collective way and perish in the wilderness. My plea for future unrestrained brainstorming is predicated on the idea that we must begin by looking with unsparing eyes at the new facts of theatre and academia.


My ideas may seem naïve. But when I observe that we feel ourselves impoverished because we lack personnel, I also realize that as a college we have rich yet unshared resources; it no longer makes sense that the departments behave like adversaries. Yes, personal connections across the borders are made and enjoyed, and we profit from the collaboration, but why do these borders exist at all? Do not design opportunities for our graduate theatre students multiply through involvement with dance concerts, film shoots, opera performances, etc.? Are we not entitled to demand the university's venues while providing other departments access to our enthusiastic and talented young artists? Must we continue to pretend that distinctions like Theatre and Dance and Art and Film and Music and Design are pertinent? Can we avoid observing that many beyond academia find the distinctions irrelevant, and should we not pay heed?


We are, it seems to me, at the end of an era of theatre education that began in the fifties. To quote Teaching Theatre Today (Anne Fliotsos and Gail S. Medford):


"In the 1950s, the aim of training teachers and other practitioners for a growing nonprofit theatre increased courses specializing in the crafts of production, establishing a rift between those who favored a general liberal arts focus and those who wished to centralize specialized theatre training. . . . Theatre studies effectively acquiesced to the ascendancy of social efficiency and the culture of expertise, completing a transformation from humanism to utilitarianism—from literary interpretation to technical training, from an amateur to a professional aesthetic, from the classroom as a production lab to the university as a 'producing unit.'


"While the liberal disciplines intend to broaden intellectual horizons, vocational studies are aimed at more narrow technical proficiencies, job training, and the application of knowledge. . . . In this discordant academic culture, theatre programs rose . . . on the basis of an array of dichotomies— high/low culture, rational/emotional, intellectual/practical, critical/creative—that were never reconciled. . . . This paradox, doubtless because of the curriculum's oft-cited disjointedness, evidently frustrated attempts to construct a theoretically coherent framework from which theatre studies could continue to grow and prosper, and led, instead, to the bitter and protracted battle for the heart of the theatre curriculum."


Now I do not submit that among ourselves we are in a bitter and protracted battle, but unless I misread the messages in our meetings, we sometimes find our department in a crisis of definition or identity. This is what I think is dangerous as we face future revisions to our place in the university.  To continue:


"The legacy of this narrative is that theatre studies' impressive rise in American higher education is a patina, for its position in the academy is fundamentally as vulnerable at the start of the 21st century as it ever was.


"...The theoretical record shows that the Academy will legitimize theatre study in a manner and to a degree that appeals to the university's governing interests and priorities. Unless the discipline vigorously participates in university culture, it should expect little control over its own affairs. The tail will continue to wag an ever more recalcitrant dog.


"In addition to asking questions about what and how to teach theatre, then, scholars need also to understand how the university itself is transformed by the conditions within which it functions. . . . To counter the 'downsizing' of theatre programs, proponents will have to persuade the new governors of the University that theatre has indispensable utility in the new economic order. . . . The challenge is to construct curricular theories and practices for theatre studies that are directly relevant to students of the time, in ways that actively contribute to the process of defining and legitimizing new formulations of liberal education."


In my opinion, this challenge must include a reassessment of what it is we think we are doing as educators and artists in our Brave New World, as well as the rethinking of theatre's individuality, and how 'indispensable utility' might require greater (and more formalized) integration with our sister arts. 


After the Department Retreat


Let me begin by saying I fully endorse the suggested additions and adaptations. This process of assessing, rethinking, and reordering our core curriuculum was long overdue.


Now I would like to apply that process of rethinking to my very first statement. I am in fact doubtful. While the changes are definitely improvements, they are beside the point.


Our real crisis is pedagogy, not curriculum.


At our institution we are not teaching a hypothetical student. We are teaching, specifically, a product of defective or misguided public schools, and generally, a type of student never before seen in higher education. It does these students no good when we propose a rigor for which they are not prepared. This is not to say that they are unable to engage a challenging program, but such a program must be designed with an understanding of their actual needs and strengths. While a reconsideration of the curriculum is long overdue, what we really need is to approach the very nature of school differently. We need a paradigm change. To illustrate what I mean by that, here's an excerpt from an article by Robert B. Barr and John Tagg, "From Teaching to Learning: A New Paradigm for Undergraduate Education" (Change Magazine, Nov/Dec., 1995.)


"[In] the Instruction Paradigm, a college aims to transfer or deliver knowledge from faculty to students; it offers courses and degree programs and seeks to maintain a high quality of instruction within them, mostly by assuring that faculty stay current in their fields. If new knowledge or clients appear, so will new course work. The very purpose of the Instruction Paradigm is to offer courses and the teacher's job is to "cover the material" as outlined in the disciplinary syllabus.


"In the Learning Paradigm, on the other hand, a college's purpose is not to transfer knowledge but to create environments and experiences that bring students to discover and construct knowledge for themselves, to make students members of communities of learners that make discoveries and solve problems. The college aims, in fact, to create a series of ever more powerful learning environments.


"The Learning Paradigm does not limit institutions to a single means for empowering students to learn; within its framework, effective learning technologies are continually identified, developed, tested, implemented, and assessed against one another. The aim in the Learning Paradigm is not so much to improve the quality of instruction—although that is not irrelevant—as it is to improve continuously the quality of learning for students individually and in the aggregate.


"By shifting the intended institutional outcome from teaching to learning, the Learning Paradigm makes possible a continuous improvement in productivity. Whereas under the Instruction Paradigm a primary institutional purpose was to optimize faculty well-being and success—including recognition for research and scholarship—in the Learning Paradigm a primary drive is to produce learning outcomes more efficiently."


It seems to me our theatre department, already structured for experiential learning, could be at the forefront of this radical and meaningful shift. We might even bring the other arts programs along with us (although we still haven't addressed our lack of integration with them.)

Of course, to make this shift, we have to accept the students as equal partners. It is truly a ‘brave, new world that has such people in’t.’  


So now (with Miranda’s awe, not Huxley’s fear), let’s join forces to make the most of them? 



© 2018 by Craig Fleming