From Issue 29.2, July 2019

by Noe Montez

I distinctly remember the anxiety I felt when appointed Director of Graduate Studies at Tufts University three years ago. The position entails overseeing admission and recruitment of incoming graduate students, serving as an academic advisor to roughly two dozen students from their first year to completion, determining research and teaching positions, setting curricular goals for the program, and ensuring that our burgeoning scholars effectively navigate the labyrinthine hierarchies of power that exist within the university. The most daunting task, however, is working with students to help them make successful transitions from graduate school to their professional careers. In order to take on this role, I wanted to learn what trends were emerging from academic job postings, what institutions were doing the best at getting their students hired, and whether there were any commonalities among the programs that demonstrated repeated success in placing their students into tenure-track positions. I began my study of the job market by drawing on historical insight and accumulating data about tenure-track placement for theatre historians. What I found is that this crisis of academic job precarity is not a recent problem, but one that dates back decades.

Forty years ago, Professor Theodore Shank wrote “Theatre Research as an Academic Discipline in the U.S.A.” In his essay, he described US doctoral programs in theatre and performance studies to European readers, depicting a profession that was already facing concerns about the academic job market and fears about the shortage of academic positions.2 Graduate directors of PhD and MFA programs will read these concerns and feel acutely aware that conditions have not changed considerably. However, these discussions felt anecdotal, and I wanted to create data that would give us a more precise understanding of the academic job market for PhDs.

Working with graduate students Reza Mirsajadi and Emma Futhey, I developed a longitudinal study to determine where graduates of PhD programs are finding employment, how long it takes students to find academic positions or leave the academy, what programs can do to better position their doctoral candidates for the academic job market, and what search committees are looking for based on recent hires in the field. Using ProQuest’s dissertation database and other digitized searches, I have learned about the career paths of over 98 percent of the graduates of US-based doctoral programs in theatre and performance studies from 2011 to 2017.

My assistants and I found that among the graduates of theatre and performance studies PhD programs during the period studied, 38 percent hold tenured or tenure-track positions at colleges and universities across the world; 25 percent hold contingent positions that range from full-time visiting assistant professorships and lectureships to multiple adjunct positions; 16 percent of our graduates work outside of academia in a wide range of career sectors; 13 percent identify as independent artists and scholars; 6 percent work within university administrations; and the final 2 percent of doctorates produced by our programs are unknown, both to me and to the directors of PhD programs whom I contacted in order to find further information about these individuals. My assistants and I can also comfortably determine that the field is annually producing approximately ninety PhDs and fifty-five or so tenure-stream positions, many of which will lead to failed searches or to assistant professors making lateral moves. I would like readers to think about how we can use our programs’ resources to make graduate students more competitive within the academic marketplace and also encourage those newly minted doctors who cannot find academic positions to develop skills that may serve them as they venture into careers beyond the academy.

This is labor that no graduate program has to take on by itself. Recent efforts from the Consortium on Doctoral Programs in Theatre and Performance Studies, ASTR’s New Paradigms in Graduate Education, and ATHE’s Professional Development Committee are empowered to develop agile and proactive responses to the shifting professional landscape within and beyond the academy. However, there must be continued collaboration, and these explorations must expand to include the hundreds of MFA and MA programs that exist across the United States and Canada. Fortunately, the eight essays published in this special issue on graduate education serve as a testament to collaboration. Five of them found in the journal’s print version are written by multiple authors across different institutions. We are fortunate to receive this abundance of wisdom and best practices.

Eight scholars across several institutions worked together to survey recent graduates of PhD programs in “What Comes Next? Graduate Education and Contingent Labor in Theatre and Performance Studies.” The authors, with support from ATHE and ASTR, surveyed 548 current graduate students and recent PhDs in order to reveal the realities of navigating the academic job market, the difficulties of making a living wage as a contingent laborer, and the complications that arise when transitioning to careers beyond the academy. The essay draws on this data, along with other recent scholarship, to explore how theatre and performance studies doctoral programs and graduates of these programs are responding to a job market that is not producing enough tenure-stream academic positions to support the number of PhDs conferred by the field, and to offer strategies for graduate faculty on how to mentor graduate students in light of these realities.

Charlotte Canning, Esther Kim Lee, and Sara Warner, for instance, write with their collective decades of perspective as directors of PhD programs in theatre and performance studies. The three scholars use their essay “Adages for Ethical Graduate Mentoring in the Twenty-first Century” as a platform for discussing the substantive challenges they face as directors of doctoral programs. The first part of the essay explores advising graduate students for careers within and beyond the academic job market, drawing from historical data and contemporary research about shifts in university hiring practices. It continues by exploring graduate advisors’ responsibilities in creating inclusive communities, before imagining new models of mentorship that the graduate advisor might adopt in working with their students. The totality of this work thinks through histories of academia, professional-development strategies, and research on institutional hierarchies to invite readers to see “possibilities everywhere for transformation” (111).

Where our first two essays focus on academia’s continued state of financial precarity and the potential for doctoral students’ future success, the next three focus on graduate students’ pedagogical interventions as they relate to teaching performance. Claire Syler’s “Contextualizing Basic Acting for Graduate Instructors” investigates introductory acting classes, often taught by graduate students at MFA- and PhD-conferring institutions. She asks how graduate faculty can nurture their students’ teaching practice and “their understanding of the broader issues that mediate performance learning environments” (116). Syler offers questions that graduate students can ask of themselves and their mentors while preparing to teach an introductory acting class, in addition to resources that individuals can draw on when facing pedagogical challenges.

“Mind Readers: Imagining Research-led Practice in Doctoral Education” sees four members of a graduate cohort at the University of California, Santa Barbara through their experiences forming a graduate directing collective “to provide practice-based opportunities for graduate students to explore research; to support undergraduate theatre studies curricula with practice- and performance-based approaches to texts; and to provide a more comprehensive experience to theatre students in the bachelor of arts program, whose opportunities for staging works were limited when competing with BFA actors” (127). The end result is an interdisciplinary project that breaks down the barriers between performance and students’ learning experiences.

Bryoni Trezise expresses how theatre and performance studies graduate programs equip students with “methodologies and epistemologies for opening out how creativity and criticality are rehearsed as an essential faculty with broad application to a diverse range of disciplinary areas, workplace sectors, and imagined futures” (142) in her essay “Stealth Pedagogies: The Radical Value of Thinking with Performance.” Her work is theoretically rich and offers insight for pedagogues who wish to explore how creative practices engage in alternative forms of knowledge production.

Our notes from the field section offers three essays that should provide graduate student cohorts, faculty advisors, and university administrators with generative ideas that will work in service of building better graduate programs. Tracy C. Davis draws on her insight in advising over fifty-five doctoral students to completion in her essay “A Dissertation Is an Act of 1,000 Days.” Reviewing data suggesting that writing the dissertation requires a thousand days of labor, she offers strategies for graduate advisers and students alike.

University of Maryland doctoral students Jenna Gerdsen and Jonelle Walker’s “Who Reports Mandatory Reporters?” explores graduate students’ precarious position as contingent employees and the politics of universities’ mandatory reporting protocols in order to address how students and faculty alike can account for hierarchies of power within the academy.

Finally, a cohort of five graduate students in the University of Texas at Austin’s Performance as Public Practice PhD program share their experience working with faculty and with one another in “Loving Cohorts: Tending to the Graduate Student Body.” The authors discuss strategies they have employed to build an active community invested in supporting one another’s research and artistic practice.

The online section of the journal features two notes from the field: one coauthored by four Chilean scholars exploring graduate studies within a South American context, and the other about good mentorship and advising by Nicola Shaughnessy.

As always, Theatre Topics is created as a team effort. I am deeply indebted to the work of Lisa S. Brenner, who has been a remarkable mentor to me in developing my editorial sensibilities. Lisa is insightful, thoughtful, and has been a valuable resource for this special issue from the moments when I initially drafted the CFP through the page-proofing process. Margherita Laera also deserves acknowledgment for all of the work she does as our online editor, and the ways in which she allows the journal to take on projects of a larger and more ambitious scope. Megan Sanborn Jones does a remarkable job curating our book reviews and soliciting a qualified team of reviewers. I am fortunate that Tufts University’s Department of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies funds two editorial assistants to help the editorial team bring the journal to you. Thanks to Jessica Pearson-Bleyer and Stephanie Engel for their close reading, detailed notetaking, and careful proofing, and to Bob Kowkabany for his work as our managing editor. Thanks also to D.J. Hopkins for his advocacy on behalf of the journal as ATHE Vice President, Research and Publications, as well as to the authors, editorial board, and our other external reviewers, who take on much of the journal’s hidden labor. Finally, thanks to you, our readers, for your continued engagement with Theatre Topics, your thoughtful submissions, and for the ways in which you help us share and circulate ideas among the theatre and performance studies community. Please feel free to contact me with questions or comments at