By Ray Miller

For many of us, there is a sense that as we move from one day to the next we are not so much accomplishing something as surviving something. Digital media of all kinds and the ready accessibility of the internet, smart phones, virtual clouds, and other digital technologies have pushed the future into the present. The future is often experienced as a plethora of possibilities that coexist all at the same time. We do not have the time to think forward. It is too much already to negotiate the present from one moment to the next. Douglas Rushkoff calls this “present shock” and claims that “[i]f the end of the twentieth can be characterized by futurism, the twenty-first century can be defined by presentism” (3).1 In this new world, jumping from one web link to the next is not viewed as disruptive and superficial, but as a way to surf the possibilities and to make unexpected discoveries.2 David Shields captures the feel of the worldview that informs the lives of many of our students with an unnerving poignancy in his book Reality Hunger: A Manifesto. This reality, which many of our students live in and many of our under-30 entrepreneurs and colleagues inhabit, is described by Shields as a world of

[r]andomness, openness to accident and serendipity, spontaneity; artistic risk, emotional urgency and intensity, reader/viewer participation … plasticity of form, pointillism; criticism as autobiography; self-reflexivity, self-ethnography, anthropological autobiography; a blurring … of any distinction between fiction and nonfiction: the lure and blur of the real. (5)

When we view the effects of technology from this perspective, we can see that the ways in which we have understood ourselves as “performing beings” in dance studies and theatre arts has become the “lived experience” for many of our students and their peers. Our students now often prefer engaging creatively with YouTube and a plethora of different kinds of gaming to the passivity of watching the televising of human experience. Being their own creative agents is often viewed as their right. Many might even suggest that in today’s world, it is a necessity.3 They live in a world that does not define itself by lifelong commitments to jobs, institutions, or careers. The disruptions in the global economy, combined with the fast pace of technological innovations, shift the focus from “what do you want to do?” to “how do you want to be?” This forces the student to reject the “student-as-consumer” approach to education and seek to become what Ken Bain describes as “deep learners, adaptive experts, great problem solvers, and highly creative and compassionate individuals” (10).

In the scholarly literature on signature pedagogical practice the fundamental questions that animate scholars are the ways that each discipline fosters deep learning and helps students think like disciplinary experts.4 What is shifting now, however, is that the rate and kind of change we are experiencing is creating a seismic upheaval in the academy not only within our fields of study, but also in how we study, how we learn, and how we privilege varied ways of knowing and understanding. Students understand that they are living in a world of interconnectedness. Contact improvisation and devised theatre, for example, are not seen by our students as special subfields within dance and theatre practice, but as essential and necessary strategies to create and engage in authentic and meaningful ways with the world on and off the stage and in and out of various media. Many strive to seek out ways in which their love for the moving human body, for example, can be connected with technology, not simply recorded by technology. They are not as afraid of what technology can bring to the human experience. While they are always eager to discover and experiment with various technologies related to choreography, playwriting, directing, scenography, and the concert stage, they are also eager to explore how technology of all sorts can insinuate itself into the body politic, as well as in acts of social justice—think Augusto Boal meeting the cyborg revolution or Liz Lerman creating dances based on sustainable models of community practice. They want more and if we do not provide it, they will find other educational enterprises that will.

Online courses, hybrid courses, distance learning, and MOOCs (massive open online courses) are all attempts to create options for students in which their education is not restricted to brick-and-mortar buildings nor by artificially created timelines to completion. The notion of the student-as-consumer assumes that they want what we offer, but the notion of the student as self-directed learner challenges that perception.5 As professors we can become co-investigators and co-creators with our students as we negotiate our way among the myriad of questions, opportunities, knowledges, and possibilities of our fields. It is when we don’t know and we appreciate that fact that courage is necessary—not only to teach, but to learn and, as Rollo May would say, “the courage to create.”6 When we know, and we know that we know, courage is replaced with confidence, cleverness, and expertise. In this world, in this time, there is an opportunity to relinquish cleverness for what Parker Palmer so eloquently describes as a need for “the courage to teach” (11).

Several years ago I served as a faculty consultant in the Hubbard Center for Faculty Development at Appalachian State University. In that role I had the time to think about and discuss fundamental questions with colleagues from varied disciplines about their fields of study, and the related notion of disciplinary-based signature pedagogies to their own experiences as both teachers and learners. In my own practice, for example, I wondered why we seldom needed to motivate our dance or theatre students when taking studio classes or when they were in rehearsal, but when the undergraduate stepped into a dance or theatre history course many would echo their peers in other disciplines with questions like: How much reading do we have to do for this course? Will it be on the test? Am I expected to do rewrites on my writing assignments? I never heard a dance or theatre student complain about revising and rehearsing a movement phrase for a dance or scene from a play. I never heard a dance or theatre student complain about “testing” a dance or play out in public performance. The enthusiasm and energy that comes to the studio is there because the student sees herself as an agent in her own learning. In a theory or history course there is a sense of being held hostage to a predetermined curriculum in which the student has no creative agency. But if history and theory are fundamentally about questioning, seeking, creating, and recreating new narratives as a way into understanding, then the academic classroom becomes a space in which active imaginations can be teased with facts and interpretations that invite creative dialogue among the instructor, the students, and the material at hand. Not unlike rehearsals, really. When we choreograph or direct we most often approach rehearsal with a keen and persistent curiosity that starts with questions and often ends with acknowledging and incorporating unexpected accidents of discovery. In our academic courses, however, it is not unusual for us to begin a class knowing where we want the students to go, and then devising “active learning strategies” for them so that they might arrive at our previously determined conclusions. Maybe we need to be as adventurous and curious with our students as we teach courses like dance or theatre history as a mutual “journey of discovery.”7

For three years I served as part of an invited group of dance educators who meet annually with colleagues from around the county to examine previous documents that had served to guide the development of dance in higher education. The goals of this group of dance educators was to critique the present situation of dance in higher education by being informed by past documents that contributed to the growth of dance in higher education over the past forty to fifty years with an eye toward creating a white paper that might guide or navigate us and our colleagues in dance as we negotiate our way forward. The result of those discussions is a document called Vision Document for Dance 2050: The Future of Dance in Higher Education.8 Among the documents reviewed for our discussion were selected issues from the publication Impulse, which served as an important forum for dance and dance education from 1950 to 1970. The 1968 issue in particular served as a manifesto for dance in higher education. The authors of Impulse “envisioned a future wherein dance would be embedded within educational, recreational, and cultural structures, anticipating the stability and consistency therein would result in validity and credibility for dance as both a process and a product of human engagement.”9 With hindsight, we can tip our hats to those who in the midst of the cold war were able to articulate a vision of dance in higher education that has sustained us for over fifty years. We are talking about people like New York Times dance critic John Martin; dance philosopher Susanne Langer; dance educators Jean Erdmann, Alma Hawkins, and Frances Dougherty; and modern dance choreographer/dancers Alwin Nickolais and José Limón, among many, many others. During the 1960s dance in higher education and the professional dance world joined in a variety of collaborative ways to advance dance as both a vital liberal art as well as a professional preparation. Many of their aspirations have been realized. But there is now a need to continue to implement some of those ideas and move forward

The Vision Document for Dance 2050 begins with a recognition that there are certain core values that inform dance, such as placing a high premium on the embodied experience, balancing reflection and critical inquiry with empathetic practice, and encouraging responsible collaboration and communication. The participants in this series of meetings articulated themes that could be used by current and future administrators, professors, and others to guide their decisions as they plan for an uncertain future. Some of those themes include calling for critical innovative practice in the areas of teaching and leadership; seeking out more interdisciplinarity in our scholarship, creative work, and teaching/learning environments; and acknowledging and incorporating an ethic informed by social justice, sustainability, and community responsibility.

It is interesting and helpful to juxtapose the work of this National Dance Education Organization (NDEO)–sponsored group with that of theatre professor Thomas Gressler in his book Theatre as the Essential Liberal Art in the American University. Basing his work on the experiential learning theories of David Kolb, the multiple intelligent theory of Howard Garner, and the work on emotional intelligence by Daniel Goldman, Gressler builds a solid case for the purpose and function of theatre within a liberal arts foundation. He states clearly that “theatre is the essential liberal art because it is the most wholly integrated liberal art,” and “theatre provides one of the most life-like educational experiences in that its method of working is very similar to the work methods of the real world, with all its project-orientation, compromise, relativism and collaboration” (27–33). These statements speak to a sensibility that values intellectual inquiry in an environment of experiential learning. While Gressler’s work at its core is still valid today, it can be updated to include a theatre arts educational model informed by our keener awareness and appreciation for theatre studies and theatre practice informed by sustainability, social justice, interdisciplinarity, and global studies.

In many ways, when we think about the current status of dance studies and theatre arts in higher education we are already vibrant, necessary, and “elastic” in the context of a liberal arts environment that is now informed by incorporating emerging technologies and striving for a much more globally informed outreach. Anthony Kronman, in his book Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life, is succinct: “[w]e need the Humanities to help us remain alert to the human condition in an age that obscures it from view” (240). That sense of “alertness” that Kronman describes could not be more important to our students today. When we consider the arts in particular, I cannot think of a more articulate advocate than the late Maxine Greene. In her Releasing the Imagination: Essays on Education, the Arts, and Social Change she argued that the arts purposefully challenge the status quo so that we might recognize that there are multiple perspectives to be investigated, understood, and articulated: “Once we can see our givens as contingencies, then we may have an opportunity to posit alternative ways of living and valuing and to make choices” (23).

In our discussions for Vision Document for Dance 2050 the enormous challenge facing not only those of us in the performing arts, but also all of higher education, became clear. The administrative model that has served many US universities and colleges so well, particularly since the end of World War II, is inadequate to the variety of the challenges we now have before us.10 All of this is exacerbated by the speed with which we are currently experiencing change on so many levels in our disciplines, in our universities and colleges, and in the larger society as well. What we as artist-scholar-teachers in dance and theatre can bring to the upper administrative levels in higher education is a humble recognition that no one has access to all the factors affecting problem-solving and collaborative structures and a propensity to ask relevant questions to negotiate the best possible solutions. We further recognize that people are motivated to contribute creatively when they are not simply told what to do. Finally, many of us strive to live lives based on empathy and valuing of the “other” as a way in which to enrich the community at large. What we live as artists in the studio and on the stage can contribute in significant ways to leadership in the upper echelons of higher education. It may be time for some of us to contribute what we do know as artist-scholar-teachers to a revisioning of higher education that is not afraid to take risks, that strives for educational modeling that does not see entrepreneurship and sustainability as binary, and that encourages our peers to see beyond the immediate reactionary responses so often demonstrated today into creating a world that comes from reflection, cooperation, and visioning.

Taking what we know today from our experiences as artist-scholar-teachers and bringing that to bear on the larger issues facing us in higher education is critically important. While we have had a number of faculty in theatre become administrators and move into dean and provost positions, their presence has not been nearly enough to change the paradigms. And there have been far fewer from the field of dance studies. We must find ways to encourage our colleagues to take on these positions. As Robert and Janet Denhardt point out in The Dance of Leadership: The Art of Leading in Business, Government, and Society, artists can bring with them a perspective that values and understands that leadership entails such intangibles as intuition, right-brain thinking, timing, and passion (12–19). This flexibility and the ease with which theatre and dance administrators can jump from big-picture perspectives to recognizing the significance of small details is critically important to the larger administrative mission of our colleges and university today. We must find ways to burrow into the status quo not as accommodating agents with our heads in the sand, but as collaborative-change agents that can articulate a vision, value the needed risk-taking in order to effect change, and provide a welcoming sense of shared community that can accommodate divergent points of view. We may have to step away from thinking of ourselves as gatekeepers of an increasingly fractured curriculum and instead become active co-investigators with our students into the teaching and learning of and about dance and theatre. We must become surfers—not in the sense of superficially tapping on to a lot of areas lightly, but in the sense that, like contact improvisational dancers and actors, we are not limited by preconceived notions of how to move, how to see, how to investigate, create, study, or whatever. Ken Robinson calls for a complete overall of how we think about education from top to bottom and insists that imaginatively creative engagement with process is essential. Thomas Friedman’s “flattened world,” which seemed to offer an interesting perspective ten years ago, now seems to be more like our proscenium stage: all the toys and accouterments of the most elaborate scenography, but quite limited and limiting. If you ask the technology reporter from the New York Times, Nick Bilton, he will say that the new world is still fundamentally “a story telling world, [but] with participation.” Consequently, we need to tell stories anew in a framework of immediacy, collaboration, and interactivity.

In Anne Bogart’s most recent book, What’s the Story? Essays about Art, Theater and Storytelling, she responds to a question about why people should come to see her SITI Company with the response that it offers “a gym for the soul” (17). Later, she explains that “[i]n the hyper-mediated environment that we presently inhabit, energizing personal and communal experiences are becoming increasingly priceless. Consumer culture promises a frictionless existence. … But energy increases in direct proportion to the engagement demanded” (18). In our world today, storytelling is reserved not only for the playwright who writes “in the dark” from his or her perspective and then offers that text for collaboration with dramaturgs, directors, actors, and others who help to foster that one vision toward a fully realized performance, but for others kinds of storytelling as well. Playback theatre and the community-based dances of Lerman are just two examples in which actors and dancers collaborate with others to create meaningful theatre and dance experiences that speak to immediate needs and problems experienced by various communities in which they live. Authorship is shared and may even change from one “performance” to another. Prefabricated storytelling that dictates to an audience may not be the only or even the best way in which to engage audiences today. Our theatre and dance students are performing for and with their peers using interactive gaming systems, multimedia digital storytelling, and digital sound and music. Today, many are seeking an alternate to the passivity of a “televised” medium—Bogart’s “gym for the soul.”

Consequently, the college and university educational experience is moving away from being—a noun—to living as a verb. Gatekeeping will give way to modular assessment, such as the Khan Academy approach to learning in which you study in smaller units that is personalized to your own learning habits and abilities. In this kind of learning environment the notion of being “present” will be much more richly nuanced. The university in the not-too-distant future will likely not be associated so much with a location in a specific space, but rather it could be a digital world in which the best of several university curriculums from several locations around the world may comprise an undergraduate education in dance studies or theatre arts. Some of the educational curriculum and experiences will be virtual, while others will be real. In our classrooms students are no longer looking to us for our expertise, but rather for our perspectives; that is, how do we negotiate the plethora of resources and experiences in dance studies and theatre arts in meaningful ways—ways that resonate now, and that we hope may continue into our futures.


1. Douglas Rushkoff has been writing about the impact of new media and digital culture on society and education for a long time. See his website for more information on his work <>.

2. See also The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr.

3. One of the best books on technology related to pedagogical practice, particularly for those of us in the performing arts, is authored by musician and dean of the Meadows School for the Arts at Southern Methodist University, José Antonio Bowen, in his book Teaching Naked: How Moving Technology Out of Your College Classroom Will Improve Student Learning. Bowen joins a growing list of authors—such as James Paul Gee in What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy and Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown in A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change—in advocating for a pedagogical culture shift from a teacher-based approach to a learner-based one in which we create environments for students to make their own discoveries. Gee is persuasive in his analysis, for example, that gaming is so popular with students and young adults because it challenges the gamer to learn as they play. There is no playbook. The “fun” or “challenge” is to fail and succeed as one moves through the gaming experience.

4. See Exploring Signature Pedagogies: Approaches to Teaching Disciplinary Habits of Mind, edited by Regan A. R. Gurung, Nancy L. Chick, and Aeron Haynie.

5. See Ken Bain’s What the Best College Teachers Do and his follow-up, What the Best College Students Do. These two books are based on his experiences as founding director of three major-university teaching and learning centers in which he examined the intersection between a student’s sense of ownership regarding their own education and the role that professors play in fostering that sense of agency for all of their students.

6. Rollo May was a humanistic psychologist in the tradition of his contemporaries like Abraham Maslow and Carl Rodgers. In his The Courage to Create he links creativity with courage because he sees the “authentic” artist as one who is vitally connected with the currents of his time. In his opening chapter he clearly states: “To live with sensitivity in this age of limbo indeed requires courage” (1). Although now more than forty years old, his ideas on courage and creativity could not be more pertinent to our situation today.

7. One of the foremost faculty-development leaders in the field of higher education pedagogy today is Dee Fink. He has created an approach that he calls “creating significant learning experiences.” One of the most helpful summaries of his work can be accessed at <>.

8. The full report can be accessed at <>.

9. This particular issue was essentially a collection of papers that resulted from conferences in 1966–67 on dance as a discipline. All of this is well-documented in Thomas Hagood and Luke Kahlich’s Perspectives on Contemporary Dance History: Revisiting Impulse, 1950–1970.

10. Derek Bok’s Higher Education in America is an excellent overview of the current status of American higher education today. While he concludes his book with an incisive chapter titled “Matters of Genuine Concern,” he does not offer a vision that would challenge the status quo as it relates to our current administrative modeling. For that, I recommend Richard DeMillo’s Abelard to Apple: The Fate of American Colleges and Universities and Michael Crow and William Dabars’s Designing the New American University. In these the authors offer critiques of the state of higher education, but they do not dwell there. Instead, they quickly point to examples both in the United States and throughout the world in which innovative administrative structures are more able to effectively accommodate change, take advantage of opportunities unique to those institutions and the students they attract, and offer a flexibility that creates a more permeable adaptability to a world in constant change.

Works Cited

Bain, Ken. What the Best College Teachers Do. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2004. Print.

———. What the Best College Students Do. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2012. Print.

Bilton, Nick. I Live in the Future and Here’s How It Works: Why Your World, Work, and Brain Are Being Creatively Disrupted. New York: Crown, 2010. Print.

Bogart, Anne. What’s the Story: Essays about Art, Theater and Storytelling. New York: Taylor & Francis, 2014. Print.

Bok, Derek. Higher Education in America. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2013. Print.

Bowen, José Antonio. Teaching Naked: How Moving Technology Out of Your College Classroom Will Improve Student Learning. San Francisco: Wiley, 2012. Print.

Carr, Nicholas. The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. New York: W. W. Norton, 2010. Print.

Crow, Michael M., and William B. Dabars. Designing the New American University. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2015. Print.

DeMillo, Richard A. Abelard to Apple: The Fate of American Colleges and Universities. Cambridge, MA: MIT P, 2011. Print.

Denhardt, Robert B., and Janet V. Denhardt. The Dance of Leadership: The Art of Leading in Business, Government, and Society. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 2006. Print.

Friedman, Thomas L. The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2005. Print.

Gee, James Paul. What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. Print.

Greene, Maxine. Releasing the Imagination: Essays on Education, the Arts, and Social Change. San Francisco: Wiley, 2000. Print.

Gressler, Thomas. Theatre as the Essential Liberal Art in the American University. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen P, 2002. Print.

Gurung, Regan A. R., Nancy L. Chick, and Aeron Haynie, eds. Exploring Signature Pedagogies: Approaches to Teaching Disciplinary Habits of Mind. Sterling, VA: Stylus, 2009. Print.

Hagood, Thomas K., and Luke C. Kahlich. Perspectives on Contemporary Dance History: Revisiting Impulse, 1950–1970. Amherst, NY: Cambria P, 2013. Print.

Kronman, Anthony T. Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 2008. Print.

May, Rollo. The Courage to Create. New York: W. W. Norton, 1975. Print.

Palmer, Parker J. The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1998. Print.

Robinson, Ken. Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative. Oxford: Capstone, 2011. Print.

Rushkoff, Douglas. Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now. New York: Penguin, 2013. Print.

Shields, David. Reality Hunger: A Manifesto. New York: Knopf, 2010. Print.

Thomas, Douglas, and John Seely Brown. A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change. New York: CreateSpace, 2011. Print.