The Responsive Doctoral Curriculum

Speaking with Jill Dolan
by Clyde Smith (2003)

[This piece was originally written for publication in 2002.
However, this online publication is its first appearance.]

Currently there are a variety of efforts to increase the relevance of doctoral programs motivated in part by the lack of positions for professors in higher education. Efforts include the Preparing Future Faculty Program, the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation’s Responsive Ph.D. program and the Intellectual Entrepreneurship program at the University of Texas at Austin. Though these efforts are important and necessary, many are simply long overdue refinements of the current system, for example offering pedagogy courses to those who will ultimately teach. The attempt to prepare doctoral students for careers other than teaching and research is more demanding yet still mostly addressed through career counseling and elective offerings. What has been missing from such efforts is actual curricular change that addresses the full range of possibilities for future graduates. I recently spoke with Jill Dolan about just such changes at the University of Texas’s Graduate Program in Theatre History and Criticism in the Department of Theatre and Dance.

Dr. Dolan is the current chair of Theatre History and Criticism and was brought in three years ago partly to lead the shift to what the program’s website terms a new emphasis in Performance as Public Practice. The program considers public practice to include such activities as freelance writing, public policy work and community theater as well as traditional academic roles. The emphasis combines theoretically avant-garde activist perspectives with a rethinking of the curriculum that seeks to mend the split between theory and practice. Such a move goes beyond offering students a workshop on how they can repackage themselves for an already full marketplace and towards an education that considers alternative careers as a valid initial goal.

Even a brief look at Jill Dolan’s publications, such as Geographies of Learning: Theory and Practice, Activism and Performance (2001), indicate that she is well suited to chair such a program. Her writings reveal her commitment to healing the theory/practice split through an activist pedagogy thoroughly immersed in the critical shifts associated with the emergence of performance studies, queer theory and poststructural feminism. Furthermore, they include practical suggestions for connecting academia to the public sphere. She credits the development of performance studies as a realm that considers both the performing arts and performativity, loosely performance in everyday life, as a facilitating factor in the program’s ability to focus on performance as a public practice.

Dr. Dolan was a catalytic factor in the shift to a new emphasis that came about due to the converging interests of multiple faculty members and new hires. This shift was articulated in relationship to the public intellectual movement which drew quite a bit of press over the last few years. The flagship institution for the call for public intellectuals was Florida Atlantic’s Doctoral Program in Comparative Studies. Dr. Dolan believes that an additional strength at the University of Texas is its disciplinary base for interdisciplinary work that is lacking at Florida Atlantic. Such a base provides both a shared focus as well as the still necessary disciplinary prerequisite for those who hope to work in higher education.

Dr. Dolan reports that current students have responded well to the new emphasis and that there has been some increase in applicants with about 75% referring to the program statement on the website as a motivating factor. She characterizes these students as having an interest in connecting their practical lives and their academic pursuits as well as wanting more career possibilities. Dr. Dolan feels that choosing appropriate students is an important element in the future success of the program and that they are looking for applicants who want to affect the world around them as much as they want expanded job options.

This approach requires faculty to change what they do. Though the new program emphasis goes into effect in the fall of 2002, faculty have already begun developing the curriculum in their current seminars. They are also expanding their current base of knowledge, a necessary component in such a curricular shift. Some of the faculty have experience beyond academic borders including Jill Dolan’s work with the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in New York, Ann Daly’s writing for the New York Times and Joni Jones’s activities as dramaturg, ethnographer and performer. Certainly the faculty’s ability to expand their academic roles will be a key test for this curricular experiment.

In looking at the course listings one sees multiple seminars, such as Cultural Policy, Community-Based Theatre Pedagogy and Performance and Activism, that suggest possibilities for connecting theory and practice. In addition a speaker series will bring visitors to Austin to address relevant themes. This series, plus opportunities for graduate student involvement in local projects, will help to address the traditional split between campus and community. Yet nowhere do any courses appear that explicitly deal with money and, like many elite programs, part-time students are not accepted.

In a February Humanities at Work column by Robert Weisbuch, Toward a Responsive Doctorate, education in budgeting, fundraising and other money matters was noted as a key absence in many graduate prograDr. He quotes a new faculty member at another university who stated, “It’s as though they spent years training me to know all there is to know about the roller coaster. But now I’m suddenly in charge of the whole amusement park — the safety regulations, the ticket sales, the publicity, the staffing, the other rides. No one had taught me anything about all that.”

Of course, money can be an even more important issue for individuals pursuing alternative careers. Dr. Dolan suggested that these needs could be outsourced to programs like Intellectual Entrepreneurship on campus. However that program also offers little in the way of such education except as embedded in courses on such topics as consulting. Even a single seminar on basic financial planning would help the future Ph.D. begin the adjustment to whatever postgraduate career awaits.

Mr. Weisbuch also discussed the inflexibility of many graduate programs regarding part-time students. He quoted a dean at another institution who said that, Our new faculty do not understand students for whom school comes after family and job. Sometimes, I don’t think they even like this type of student, but they represent our livelihood. I did not get the impression that such students would be disliked or misunderstood in the Theatre History program. However the exclusion of students who cannot afford to attend fulltime seems likely to limit both the diversity and outside experience of applicants, two elements that seem particularly relevant to the public practice of performance.

I also asked Dr. Dolan about the necessity of a Ph.D. to achieve alternative career goals since so many professional positions require only a master’s degree. Perhaps such goals would be better filled by a master’s and work experience or even a second master’s. Dr. Dolan emphasized that a Ph.D. does have additional cachet but that they have not looked closely at whether or not a Ph.D. would really be helpful in alternative careers. However she also expressed her commitment to a doctorate as a vehicle for personal and professional growth that includes the opportunity to write a book with extensive support. While unemployed graduate students may question their growth experience, especially in the difficult circumstances many graduate students endure in school, the doctorate is traditionally a space for highly focused research and writing. Dr. Dolan explained that the ability to write clearly and effectively for a nonacademic audience would
be a core emphasis of the new program.

The challenges and opportunities ahead of this new emphasis on Performance as a Public Practice are many. The relative success of the program will take many years to evaluate. Yet the curricular changes at the University of Texas’s program in Theatre History and Criticism already raise questions worth considering more generally. For example, are elective courses and career counseling without deeper curricular change adequate support for students pursuing alternative careers? Is a doctorate truly necessary for an alternative career? Are students adequately prepared for an alternative career without education in financial matters? The activities at the program in Theatre History and Criticism will provide one set of answers to these and other questions as they explore what happens when a program does not envision jobs outside of academia as a lesser outcome of a doctoral education.