UW Today

This is an archived article.

March 4, 2010

New Center for Performance Studies seeks to make the most out of lean times

“When life hands you lemons, make lemonade.” So goes a popular saying, and one that Drama Professor Odai Johnson has taken to heart this year.

Johnson is one of two remaining professors in the School of Drama’s doctoral program. The program used to have four professors, but one retired and another left the University. Then came the budget cuts, and money for the two positions was withdrawn. Suddenly the program found itself in an untenable position.

“We not only taught graduate students, but we were the academic core of the undergraduate program too,” Johnson said. “We taught the history classes, the play analysis classes, the theory classes — all the reading and writing classes that they do here.”

Whereas in a normal autumn the program might recruit two or three graduate students, this fall they will probably only bring one. The usual eight to 10 grad students present at any given time will shrink to six or seven. The overall effect is fewer professors and graduate students to teach all those classes. So Johnson and his colleague, Sarah Bryant-Bertail, asked themselves what they could do to keep the program afloat in the reduced circumstances.

“We said, ‘Well, our strength is still in our faculty,’” Johnson said. “So we began to look across campus and see who else was engaged in the teaching of performance at the graduate level, in the broadest definition of performance.”

Johnson turned first to the people he knew, the people who were already serving as adjuncts in the drama school. Then he began searching the course catalog for other names. Pretty soon he was having informal meetings over coffee with faculty in a number of departments — from English to Romance Languages & Literature to history and even anthropology.

“I was astonished that there were so many,” Johnson said.

He sent out about 35 invitations to a meeting, with the idea of forming a kind of “academic commons” of faculty and students who were all studying some aspect of performance. The meeting produced many ideas of ways to pool efforts.

Since then, the group has been forging ahead with what is now being called the Center for Performance Studies. By adopting an interdisciplinary model, the center can be helpful to small programs like his own in several ways, Johnson said. For example, faculty teaching graduate seminars might think of ways to expand the subject matter to make it attractive to graduate students in more than one field. Thus, graduate students would have the advantage of learning about subjects not offered in their own departments. Departments might also pool their efforts on basic classes such as research methods. If three programs offered a joint seminar for all their students, for example, faculty in each program would have to teach it only once every three years, thus freeing their time to offer something else.

The center will also be able to help with guest lecturers, Johnson said. If each departments puts up a small contribution, then a pool would be available to finance visitors that no department could afford alone.

The first order of business for the center is to construct a Web site on which will be placed all the performance studies classes being offered, with information about the teachers. Divisional Dean of Arts & Sciences Robert Stacey is funding a research assistant for spring quarter to create the site, and Graduate School Dean Jerry Baldasty is providing some Web support once it exists.

One thing that’s definitely planned for spring quarter is a series of in-house talks by faculty from the participating departments. “It’s a way of getting our work known to each other so that when we talk to our grad students, we’ll be aware of what else is out there,” Johnson said. He said an anonymous donation has already been received to kick-start the guest lecturers fund.

Right now, Johnson thinks there will be faculty from between 12 and 14 departments involved in the center, but he’s still receiving and following up on inquiries. The center will not be a degree granting entity; students will still get their degrees from individual departments as usual. But they will have more of an opportunity to study across disciplines in ways that couldn’t be offered under the traditional departmental mode. For now, Johnson is coordinating the center, but he envisions rotating leadership over the long term. In the meantime, he hopes that he’ll be able to recruit a board to assist with the administrative duties.

Like everyone at the University, Johnson hopes the lean times will come to an end sometime soon, but the center is something he thinks should endure regardless.

“Once you bring in students and say, ‘My area is this, my colleague’s area is this,’ it’s a finite body of expertise that any one department has,” he said. “With the center, the breadth of knowledge is just expanded by so much that there’s no downside to having it. In spite of lean times, we have found ourselves expanding, and in doing so, have helped other departments to also expand.”