The Value of the PhD in Theatre at Public Institutions

PhD programs in theatre and related areas of study are integral to the ecosystem of educational and not-for-profit theatre. Doctoral students in universities across the United States and Canada teach multiple sections of “gateway classes” to majors in Theatre and Performance Studies. At any number of the nations’ most prestigious public and private institutions, students teach courses including introductory acting, public speaking, script analysis, and theatre history. In doing so, they serve as many departments’ first contacts with undergraduate students, introducing future generations of artists to the foundations of the field while learning the skills of teaching and mentorship that they will carry with them across the country to their jobs at regional teaching schools, small liberal arts institutions, and community colleges.

In a surprise decision, on 9 November 2017 Dean Larry Singell of Indiana University announced his intention to discontinue the PhD in Theatre and Drama. Singell wrote a letter to students, faculty, and alumni of the university that the PhD program, which admitted one to two applicants annually, was no longer worth the necessary investment, and that devoting energy towards supporting the PhD would detract from efforts to support IU’s eight MFA programs, its BFA, and BA. Although the university quickly backtracked and suggested that they would revisit the program’s elimination in 2018-19, after a student-and-alumni-driven letter writing campaign, the program exists in a liminal state in a time when it is increasingly necessary for scholars, practitioners, and all who care about theatre education to advocate on behalf of the PhD in Theatre.

In many cities and states across the US, public universities anchor the arts in their communities, offering high-quality theatre and performance to communities where no professional theatres exist, or serving as a cornerstone for art makers to envision their own spaces supported by a university community.

Indiana University’s PhD in Theatre and Drama is one of the United States’ oldest doctoral programs in theatre. Its long legacy of instructors includes Marvin Carlson, whose research has informed generations of theatre scholars and Oscar Brockett, whose History of the Theatre serves as one of the foundational textbooks for theatre education. Additionally, the program has placed dozens of graduates at colleges and universities across the world with a placement rate of over 95 percent in the twenty-first century. Currently PhD students at Indiana teach two sections of Introduction to Theatre, which each fill to capacity at seventy-five students, in addition to four sections of Script Analysis and Public Oral Communication. In the past, IU’s doctoral students have taught advanced theatre history and dramatic literature courses. In any given semester, the doctoral students of this program teach over four hundred individual students as well as serving as production dramaturgs and engaging in other work on behalf of the department of Theatre, Drama, and Contemporary Dance.

Although Dean Singell and others who have argued for the elimination of doctoral degrees in theatre suggest that the elimination of the doctoral program will allow greater funding for MFA students, eliminating the PhD program effectively means that IU will no longer train instructors who might teach performance-based courses on campus and at institutions across the United States. Indiana proposes to fill this void with adjunct instructors who will carry a greater individual teach burden at a lower value for their labor. This shift marks a continued trend in higher education towards employing adjunct professors who teach large numbers of students, oftentimes at multiple universities, for poverty-level wages in a cycle of exploitation that shortchanges professors and students alike.

group of people talking
Indiana University PhD students convene during the Association for Research in Theatre at IU’s Fifth Annual Graduate Symposium on Theatre and Performance Studies. Photo by Huihui Huang.

Finally, the decision stings because it marks a continued shift of resources away from public institutions towards private research universities. Public universities have long provided affordable, geographically-accessible, and high-quality educations to women, people of color, and low-income families who historically have not had equal access to higher education. In many cities and state across the US, public universities anchor the arts in their communities, offering high-quality theatre and performance to communities where no professional theatres exist, or serving as a cornerstone for art makers to envision their own spaces supported by a university community.

Additionally, many doctoral programs have begun to consider the interventions that their students might make in fields beyond the academy like arts administration, political advocacy, and publishing. In sum, they serve the national interest. However, as institutions like the University of Chicago start their own programs, and graduates of private universities such as Brown, Stanford, NYU, Tufts, Northwestern, and Yale continue to produce a significant share of the nation’s PhDs and Assistant Professors in Theatre and Performance, there runs a risk of eradicating the cultural vitality of the nation’s states in places that have continued to cut funding for their flagship institutions. State universities like Indiana, UT Austin, Missouri, Kansas, Ohio State, Washington, Florida State, LSU, Maryland, and others are vital. Failure to advocate for theatre education at any of these institutions undermines the role of the arts in public education in a way that will trickle down to our public high schools and beyond.

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"Additionally, many doctoral programs have begun to consider the interventions that their students might make in fields beyond the academy like arts administration, political advocacy, and publishing. In sum, they serve the national interest."

While I think this is a good trend...I do think it's a tall order that the nation's colleges and universities face in their responsibility to artists in America...and this line of thinking is bordering on too little too late...and is also somewhat depressing that there is so little one can do professionally in the arts that those are needed as additional marketable skills...

I love Marvin Carlson as much as the next person, and being with The Living Theatre, I appreciate some of the history that colleges and universities teach...but...honestly...I actually applaud some schools that are shutting down entire art degree programs, there are a few suspended acting programs for instance...because it is borderline financial fraud to charge $100,000 or even $10,000 for such a degree that is likely never to produce a career in acting that makes that much money.

So, saving a position that creates two classrooms full of 75 students who are likely never to have a sustainable career in theatre...I don't know where that should be on the cultural priority list...

It would really serve the nation if colleges and universities, even the public ones whose funding is shorter than the private ones, would spend much more time really engaging in re-education and re-shaping education and cultural communities to create more 21st century capable humans, and deeply address some of the harrowing cultural, racial, class, sexual orientation divides...not excluding arts and culture of course, but re-inventing it's place and practice and access.

Since high schools are trapped in even more bureaucracy, and the government is unlikely to change systematically in any significant way with our entrenched two-party system...one of the only places to turn should be colleges and universities...alongside artists.

And I must say we are all not doing enough to re-configure our world in ways that reach our potential.

And I think we have to think much bigger than we are to rise to challenges we are seeing in our country and across the world.

I agree that there's a concern about graduate students incurring too much debt, but the PhD students at IU receive a full tuition scholarship and a TAship or fellowship through four years for the labor that they do teaching graduate students.

I do wonder though about the productivity of thinking that efforts to make visible the work that PhD education produces is"too little too late." If we stop advocating for the arts and the value of theatrical knowledge in this time of threat, then we only work to empower those who would shift money and other resources to the STEM fields at the expense of the arts.

It’s because of how important it is to advocate for arts and Culture that I suggest it’s too little.

I feel like you aren’t seeing my point and instead are focusing on a very very small aspect of a systematic problem that requires a much bigger fix than saving a couple positions.

I’m sorry if I offended you but I do feel like we need to set our vision much bigger and broader... and soon...And in my experience as Artistic Director of The Living Theatre And as a college dropout...preserving a couple theatre phd’s is just not High on the list of arts advocacy topics.

If I felt we could focus on many things at once, then maybe, but right now we are constantly proving our inability to focus on big systematic solutions in favor of reactions to the symptoms of the problems we have.

I work with Marvin at CUNY in a Center associated with a PhD program and I know the work is important...and I’m not saying it’s a good thing to lose those spots...but seriously, we need to completely redo the educational systrm’s interaction with art and Culture (And in general)...so when is it time to do that? When a Kardashian is president?

When is the wake up call moment?

I definitely didn't understand your point in the first post. Maybe I'll do better this time around? What precisely do you see as the shortcomings in how universities serve artists? And how we can train artists to tackle this large systematic problems in our nation that you see? Those are probably questions worthy of their own essay.

I think that universities can be responsible to artists in America by ensuring that future generations are equipped to draw from critical theory that is mindful of the nation's intersectionalities, a knowledge of history and how history gets created, as well as a sense of how to advocate for the work that artists create in civic spaces. I think that doctoral programs play an integral role in that work and that the elimination of these programs in public institutions gives artists fewer allies and colleagues whom they might draw upon. And it's OK if we disagree that PhDs might play a meaningful role in this process, but I just don't know what alternative model you'd propose that is better.

BTW Please don't feel as though you need to apologize at the thought of offending me. There was nothing in the previous message that was even slightly offensive. I'm just doing my part to engage with my essay's readers.