Teaching and Mentoring, for Grad Students and New Faculty

Graduate Student Mentoring Workshop


Association for Theatre in Higher Education Conference, 2012

Washington, DC

Thursday 8-2-12


First let me say how flattered I am that Cassidy and Bryan have invited me to speak to this issue, and how important I think are the questions that they’ve asked me to address.  One of the things I’m proudest about when I reflect on my own term as the president of ATHE in the late 90s is the attention we gave to graduate students.  You’re the future not only of this organization, but of the profession as a whole.  I’ve been very proud, over the years, to see my own former graduate students assume leadership roles in ATHE and in the profession—I expect I’ll see you all do the same.  Plan on it!  Aspire to it!  Part of what I’ll suggest is that your own mindset has a lot to do with your success.  And your own mindset has everything to do with how you define success for yourself.

In fact, let me start by suggesting that regardless of what anyone tells you, myself included, you have to rely on yourself as a barometer of what’s going to work for you as a career.  One of the things I love about being an academic is the freedom that it gives me to set my own schedule and to guide my own choices, within a framework, of course, of institutional and professional expectations that dictate certain benchmarks.  But especially as theatre people, it seems to me, we have a lot of flexibility, more than, say, a traditional English professor, in terms of how we mix research and practice, practice and advocacy for a field that extends far outside the academy, and advocacy and administration, since our departments and our field is small enough that many of us will be called upon to assume leadership positions.  You might start with yourself, always, and decide how you want to make the percentages work for you:  what are your own priorities?  What are you best at?  What do you most like to do?  What kind of career will sustain you for 20 or 30 years?  I’m suggesting that you motivate yourselves by taking your own temperatures.  If you’re driving your own car (to mix a bunch of different metaphors), then you’ll have a kind of agency that’s too often lacking, especially for graduate students and first-year assistant professors.

For example, I see myself primarily as a writer, as a critic, more so than even a scholar or a researcher.   To me, this has meant that the amount of writing I’ve had to do to be tenured and promoted over the years was never that onerous, because I considered writing my primary milieu.  That’s not the case for everyone.  If you primarily see yourself as a director or artist, be sure you get a job that will facilitate that skill set and passion for you—otherwise, an academic position won’t be a good fit.  And if you see yourself as a scholar but writing is a struggle to a certain extent, think about how you’ll make it easier for yourself.  Be self-conscious about your habits and practices and what you need to do your best work.  Do you need a writing group?  A mentor to help you with drafts?  A fixed schedule to write by?  Taking a step back, are you really going to be able to meet the demands of a field that requires so much writing if you absolutely hate doing it?  It’s never shameful to realize that you’re actually not suited for something.  We often make choices without full knowledge of what they entail.  Be clear with yourself about who you are, what your skills are, and what you love, and if these things don’t match up with how you want to fashion your academic career, do something else!  There’s absolutely no shame in that.  Life’s too short!

That said, Cassidy and Bryan want me to focus on teaching and mentorship, as well as how the profession has changed in the last 10 or 20 years.  I think these are important topics, issues that have long been dear to my heart.

I’ll start with the question of why teaching is important.

  • First, let me say that in some institutions, you get the feeling that teaching isn’t really very important at all.  Some research one institutions, for instance, give very mixed messages about what happens in the classroom.  On one hand, they insist on stellar teaching evaluations, and use them as the basis of merit increases.  On the other hand, they warn that when you come up for tenure, teaching takes a back seat to research and institutional and professional citizenship.  Other schools—like liberal arts colleges without graduate students—privilege teaching, sometimes over research.  It’s very important that you know the kind of environment in which you think you’ll flourish, and how much teaching matters to you in the triumvirate of research-teaching-and service on which academic careers (and salaries) are judged.
  • Sometimes I wish I could just write, and think I’d be happiest if I only had to teach one course a year.  Then I remember the thrill of being in the classroom, and watching students have “light bulb” moments, and being provoked by conversation to think in different ways myself.  Those exchanges are so important to me, and important, I think, to public citizenry.  We have so few place anymore for the kind of live, face-to-face engagement that teaching continues to provide.  I’ve always believed that teaching is activism, that it’s a place to change minds and hearts and consciousness, as well as to challenge myself and my own beliefs.  I believe that even more in an historical moment when so many of our exchanges—public and private—happen in electronic forums.  The rush of being in the room with live bodies, with other people whose passions are expressed in the tone of their voices and in the postures they assume around a table or on a floor is irreplaceable, something I cherish.
  • Teaching is also important because sometimes, lately, I think people assume they know everything.  Or they assume, as the Tea Partyers sometimes do, that facts are changeable, that they can be used to political advantage.  I used to be a card-carrying post-structuralist, and to argue that truth didn’t matter.  I don’t think that way anymore.  I still believe that objectivity is a myth, and that truth is always invested and partial.  But the way that history has been rewritten—by Tea Partyers and Holocaust detractors, for instance—terrifies me.  It’s made me realize that without agreeing, for instance, that the Holocaust actually happened, everything goes up for grabs.  I don’t think I could live in a world without some bedrock of truth.  And I’m not ashamed to say that at this point.  So part of what I think it’s important to do in the classroom is seek out those truths on which to build and debate.  It’s a fact that women are under-represented in American theatre; where do we go from there?  There’s a lot to debate about why and what to do about it, but that fact is undisputed.  Teaching, then, offers models for engagement with facts and interpretations, with experiences and possibilities.  It’s a gift to be able to engage that practice.

Cassidy and Bryan also asked about the relationship between teaching and mentorship and politics and activism.  This is another very good complex of questions and connections.

  • I actually believe that teaching is mentorship.  Part of what we model in the classroom—for undergrads and graduate students—is how to be a person in the world.  How do we approach knowledge?  How do we approach a conversation?  As a moderator/facilitator (which ultimately is what a teacher is, unless she’s lecturing), how do I run a discussion?  How do I ensure “air time”?  How do I foster polite disagreement?  A classroom is a microcosm and how we run it says a lot about who we are and what we believe.  As we teach, we’re modeling our beliefs and practices, so it’s very important to be self-conscious about them.
  • Often, in the arts, especially, and especially for those of us who believe in less conventional paths to a different notion of “professional” “success” (both words in scare quotes for obvious reasons), it’s important that we mentor students in ways that help them think differently about how they might be artists.  I’ve taught in theatre departments in which students were being groomed for a delimited notion of what it means to be an actor, so I saw my job as expanding their understanding of how they might craft their own artistry and the choices they make.  I taught or encouraged others to teach solo performance and devising, as well as playwrighting, so that students (actors, especially) could see themselves as artists with agency, instead of waiting to be cast in other people’s projects.  Mentoring means helping students find the best in themselves, or helping them consider other ways of being artist or scholars or citizens (or hopefully, all three).
  • The pragmatics of this aren’t complicated.  I think about expanding students’ choices in the courses I decide to teach and I think about how I can open up different worlds for their consideration in the information I share.  One of the things that the internet has facilitated is information sharing.  I make sure to forward anything I think might be relevant to my students:  fellowship opportunities, writing opportunities, casting notices, productions I think they should see, articles I find compelling or challenging, news articles that have made me think or that moved me or made me angry.  I see teaching as being the hub of a great, quickly turning wheel, in which my job is to create as many spokes as I can.
  • I also think it’s important, when I teach and mentor in theatre and performance studies, to insist that students pay attention not just to their own interests and/or incipient careers, but to the field or “industry” at large.  What’s happening in American theatre?  How are they responsible to the larger issues in the field:  issues like casting and race, gender and sexuality, the economics of theatre, whose stories are told to whom by whom . . . all of these things and many more impinge directly on these students’ plans for themselves as artists.  Being a worthy teacher/mentor means encouraging them to open themselves to a much wider sphere of influence, to see themselves, already, as part of something large and meaningful and important.
  • Important:  we have to advocate for what we do and for what they care about, because we often work in institutions that cut budgets for the arts, and we certainly live in a country in which the importance of the arts isn’t self-evident.  We have to teach them to be advocates for what they do and what they believe in, because not enough of us are.

That said, let me offer some advice for those of you thinking toward academic careers, and for those of you who, as graduate students, are already confronted with the demands of teaching and mentoring undergrad students.

  • One of the pitfalls of this field is that so many of us love what we do.  We go into theatre because we love it, we teach and direct and help plan production seasons in our departments because we love it and the academy offers us a place to ply our wares.  But that love is exactly what sometimes turns on us.  It means that the boundaries between work and play get very fuzzy, if not completely blurred.  It means that we have a hard time saying no, to colleagues or to students or to those with power over us.  It means that we have a hard time setting priorities, because everything seems so important.  Especially for those of us idealistic about theatre and about teaching and about the effect we want to have on the world (I could myself among the idealistic, of course!), it’s often very difficult to find a balance between our careers (as mentors, teachers, artists, scholars, etc.) and our lives as people.  I can’t say that I’m the best model for balance—at all.  I live with another academic who has similar work habits and commitments; I don’t have children; I don’t even have a dog right now!  But I’ll tell you the things I tell myself.
  • Set limits.  Make your office hours in 15 minute increments and ask students to sign up, so that they’ll organize their time and use it efficiently.  Don’t linger too long after class; ask students to come see you instead in defined office hours where you’re professional and succinct in your advice.  Keep your door open during office hours.
  • Keep a running list of your obligations and your accomplishments.  We’re asked to do so many things, and so much of it feels, at the end of the day, insubstantial, that it’s important to be self-conscious about what you’re doing each day. Make a list of categories:  class preparation; teaching (contact hours); office hours; meetings; research; writing; rehearsal; administrative tasks; and all the other things you do of a day.  Track them carefully.  This will give you a sense of which obligations take the most time and how you might want to rearrange that balance or shift your priorities.  It will also let you see how hard you’ve worked, and will disallow that horrible, day’s-end refrain, “I didn’t do anything today!”
  • Don’t say yes without saying, “Let me think about it for a day and get back to you.”  Do this with any decision you’re asked to make.  Will you write a letter of recommendation?  Will you serve on a committee?  Will you direct a show, or write an article, or give a talk, or guest lecture in someone’s class?  Never say yes right away.  Ask your partner or friend; look at your list of obligations; make sure you give it some thought to see if you really have the time or energy to comply.
  • Teach on the “percentage” model.  The downside of everything I said earlier about teaching is that it can take all your time.  Partly because you’re actually seeing people face to face, the anxiety of not being prepared or of contemplating a class that might not go well or hasn’t gone well sometimes means that teaching eats up all your time.  Know that you want to do your best, every time you walk into a classroom.  But for reasons that are often beyond your control, not every class is 100% terrific.  And some days, you can’t teach at 100%.  Give yourself permission to shoot for 50% on occasion (and you might be surprised that those sometimes turn out to be the best classes, because you’re more relaxed).  Limit the amount of time you spend on teaching prep. Trust that you know more than your students (and what you don’t know, you can tell them how to find out themselves), and go into class with confidence.  Over-preparation is one of the chief traps of teaching.  Learn to trust yourself; figure out how much preparation is enough:  How many notes do you have to take?  How many questions will you come prepared with?  Do you have to create a lesson plan or are you comfortable going with the flow?  It’s a cliché, but it’s also true that less is usually more.
  • Likewise, don’t overcrowd your syllabi.  Students appreciate actually talking about the material they’ve been assigned, instead of reading things that never come up in discussion.  Draft a syllabus and then go back and cut it by half.  Make the rest recommended or put it in a bibliography for further reading at the end.  Don’t assign more than you can grade, either.  Give short assignments frequently or longer ones less frequently, depending on your own time.  Because so many of us are taught to privilege student-centered learning and writing across the curriculum, grading takes a great deal of time.  Learn how to be a fast, fair, useful grader.  Students don’t read tons of comments; put a few succinct, precise sentences at the end of a paper instead of using “track changes” or writing a lengthy note back.  Write a grading rubric in your syllabus that explains your expectations and how you’ll grade work, then use it so that you won’t have to spend a lot of time deciding on grades.
  • Cultivate hobbies that have nothing to do with your career.  I play tennis and typically play with people who aren’t academics.  I love it because it’s good exercise; it empties my mind—all I concentrate on is the racket and the ball; and it gives me a space that’s not about my work.  Try to engage these activities daily, to give yourself a break from your work and your career.
  • Cultivate things you love that aren’t theatre-related.  This is harder.  Every time I go to a movie, I feel like I’m working, especially because I write a blog about theatre and film and television.  But I also read novels.  In many ways, that’s the most relaxing thing I do (besides tennis and kayaking and traveling).  Commit to doing these things often.  You need to rest your brain and your heart and your soul.
  • Make sure you take care of yourself.  Eat well; sleep enough; take time away.  But most importantly, figure out your own sustainable practices.  A friend of mine once said, No one will say on their death-bed, “I wish I’d worked harder.”  How can you get done what you need to do, and do it well, while not letting your job take over your whole entire life?  There was an article in the New York Times recently about how people wear “busy-ness” as a badge of honor, that it’s become common place to compete with one another about how busy we are.  Get out of that rat race before you get into it.  Figure out what your own best practices are and stick to them.
  • Make sure the expectations of your institution are perfectly clear and get them in writing.  What do you need to do to graduate?  How does your teaching as a grad student “count” toward your degree?  Are you being supervised?  What does your supervise need to write you a recommendation when you graduate?  Don’t be mercenary about these things, but do be pragmatic.  One of the biggest traps of grad school is taking too much time on teaching.  Likewise, as a new assistant professor, even before you accept a job, get the tenure expectations in writing.  These vary from place to place, and often from department to department.  It’s your responsibility to understand what the expectations are and to know how you’ll meet them.  Know the industry standards:  if you have to write a book, how long does the review process take before you get a contract?  How long will it take you to write?  You have to count back from your tenure schedule to make sure you’ve given yourself enough time to produce.
  • Make sure you have a mentor, as a grad student and as an assistant professor.  This person might not be your dissertation supervisor (although it could be) or your department chair (although it could be).  It should be someone who will be honest with you; who will communicate with you willingly and in a timely fashion; who will look at your cv and at your work and give you advice; and who will be open with you about institutional expectations for your work.  Seek out a mentor actively, and make sure it’s someone you can trust to guide you.

Finally, a few words on how the profession has changed.

  • Are we seeing the “professionalization of graduate students”?  Yes.  That ship has sailed.  It all depends on the institution you’re being trained at and the kind of career you expect to have.  But how you “prove” yourself professionally begins in grad school.  If you anticipate a career as a scholar/artist, you do have to have an article or two published before you graduate, or a production or two accomplished, before you go on the job market.  But that’s no more onerous than it’s been for many years.  Grad students are in a pre-professional position, your apprentices to a field and should be thinking of yourself as colleagues, preparing to move into academic jobs.  So this isn’t very different.
  • Has technology changed the field?  Yes, but mostly for the better.  We can communicate and do our research so much more easily now, with electronic access to archives, with e-lists, with web sites, with email.  But on the other hand, this has contributed to the speed-up and to the challenge of trying to maintain a life that’s separate from work.  Email and internet use should be among your self-conscious practices—know how you best engage, when too much use makes you crazy, etc.  Limit your use if you need to; learn to put “vacation” messages on your email; learn how to be productive and not addicted.
  • Finally:  this thing about professionalization.  And other rumors and trends and fads and things that go around.  Part of the rite of passage of any field that those who have made it through the hoops like to tell horror stories about what they had to do to get there, and how much harder and worse and more difficult things are for those who come after.  Remember that it’s not necessarily true.  Yes, the economy has dried up jobs in higher education.  But there are still jobs, and someone has to get them!  And the skill set you’re practicing can be applied elsewhere, which is the subject of a whole different talk.  But the take-away here is not to let other people scare you.  I’ll end where I started—go your own way, get information but make it work for you, within the framework of what you want out of your life and your career.  Have agency!  Be motivated!  Don’t sell your soul for this profession!  Know what your soul is!  Keep track of who you are, what you love, what you’re good at, and what you care about.  And you’ll be fine!


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