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The chasm between professional and academic

April 20, 2010

John’s comment was so provocative that I felt the need a new post instead of a mere comment in return. I agree that bad teachers in theater are a disservice to arts education, but bad teachers are a disservice to any field they teach.

It is true, more often than not, that academic institutions do not value professional people as educators particularly in liberal arts institutions. Nor do universities allow artists much time to be professional outside of their teaching duties. My husband, a scientist and professor, sees the same type of bias towards researchers from industry when they apply for to be professors. Originally, I came from a professional free-lance set design career and now I am an associate professor teaching in a liberal arts university. It has been a huge learning curve for me in the past eleven years.

The conservatory schools/technology institutes and the liberal arts schools simply run on different models with different missions.  Unlike conservatory schools, liberal arts institutions are less interested in teaching skills, what most of us would consider necessary, and more interested in phrases like ‘critical thinking,’ ‘creative thinking,’ ‘student formation’ and ‘citizenship.’ Can one happen without the other? I doubt it. However, the performing and fine arts at my school have evolved in a very peculiar way that separates ‘doing’ from ‘thinking,’ a distinction I have struggled to fight all my years here. Chances are, if you create art, you are an activity. If you study art, then you are an academic. Nothing frustrates me more than to see these two worlds struggle to coexist on our campus because invariably the ones who create, the ones who have a Masters degree as their terminal degree, do not get as much respect or compensation as those who research the creators, those with a PhD.

I also must remember that a university is a business with a business model/mission that they must sell to students and to donors. Part of my job as a professor is to see that what I teach fits the mission of the university. So, I spend an inordinate amount of time explaining to others on campus why art and performance is scholarship of a uniquely beautiful construction because critical and creative thinking are inherent in the process and consequently the formation of the students is heightened by the fact that they are so immersed in their creative work. It takes a lot of time and effort on my part to find the right approaches that will resonate with the administrators. (This is the main reason I began this blog – to hear how everyone else approached the same issues.) Now, if the arts brought in a lot of money to the university, I am sure administrators would validate the artists/performers a lot quicker.

So how do we “deal with this disconnect” as John puts it? Do we revolutionize the entire liberal arts education? Do we spend our time justifying ourselves and trying to prove that we are every bit as scholarly as the rest of the professors even if our final outcome is not a publication? Do we all just join conservatory schools? And is it something that we do together or something that you expect someone else will take care of?

Please, everyone, let’s hear what you have to say.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. April 25, 2010 1:33 am

    The problem with art being accepted as scholarship is an old one and is somewhat institution-dependent. It is difficult for artists to crack the glass ceiling where the faculty take their written scholarship most seriously. The arts exist as creative enhancements to engage and develop non-linear thinking and imagination, but rarely as legitimate academic activities beyond history and criticism. We weren’t even a liberal arts degree field until the middle of the 20th century. Then there are the schools that focus on employability, for which the arts do not rank very highly.

    I think every faculty artist has to become an advocate for the field, and spend an inordinate amount of time justifying his or her own existence. As you note, it is a constant battle to maintain the work of faculty artists as equivalent to other faculty scholarship. We must constantly advocate for our field, and work with musicians and fine artists, to insist that every academic forum and governance body has representation from the arts, that “and the arts” is added to every pronouncement of institutional purpose, that awards for student scholarship include artists, that awards for faculty scholarship recognize artists, and that funding for arts initiatives is included in budgeting priorities. It is tiresome and wearing, but incessant advocacy goes with the territory, unfortunately. You may never convince some people, but you have to make it clear you aren’t going away.

    In the end we constantly get played by the administration, as we ever hope they will show us the money. We are called up on to grace, decorate and entertain official events, and stroke our donors – we’ve not traveled far from the 19th century composer in that regard. We get lots of lip service while the money goes to the sciences and (so help me) criminal justice programs. But we ever have to be insistent that what we do is scholarly and worthy of the academy.

  2. Rita Sclavunos permalink
    May 8, 2010 10:14 pm

    Just a short comment- I have an AAS and a BFA. I taught for 6 years at a college, and now cannot get most colleges and universities to even look at my resume (25 years professional experience) to consider me for a teaching position. One place wanted a PhD to teach costume design. When did actual experience stop being valuable?

  3. May 8, 2010 11:28 pm

    Colleges typically understand that an MFA is a terminal degree for designers and studio artists. I am curious to know what the specifics were on this position that wanted you to have a PhD as as costume designer. I don’t question that many colleges don’t appreciate experience as much as they do the specific degree, but this sound unusal.

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