Sunday, August 05, 2012


Ask the Administrator: The Place-Bound Theater Major

A new correspondent writes:

I'm facing a conundrum and I haven't been able to get any clarity or guidance on it for some time. I've been doing theatre in one form or another for the past thirteen years. First acting, then design, now I'm in an MA program at an R1 in Theatre History/Theory/Lit. I'm doing very well, I'm only halfway in, and I've presented at a national conference, and am holding down an A average. For a person who barely passed high school, this is pretty good. 
However. I'm faced with some horrible economic realities, namely, that I will probably not be able to find a job. Not because I'm untalented, unhygienic, or lazy, but because I have the combination of a "useless" degree field, and I have to stay within the Chicagoland area (for a variety of long-winded reasons). The thought of working my tail off for five or more years at a PhD, and then being limited to only to Chicago, doesn't seem right to me. Besides, there is only one theatre PhD in Chicago, and that's Northwestern, the top university in my field. And I used to work there as a secretary before I went to grad school, so they will never know me as anything but a secretary.
I can't teach in my program as an MA student (for reasons that are beyond me), and I've been thwarted at every turn (applying to direct at a private high school, proposing an independent course for another department, etc.). I have no teaching experience, and I'm looking at having absolutely zero when I graduate in May. This is the kiss of death for me, isn't it? How can I get more teaching experience to land that community college teaching job?
Ideally, I'd love to either balance a class at a CC while teaching at a private high school (certification in IL happens only in Normal, hours from Chicago) or be full time at a CC. I just want to teach. My minor in college was Art History, so I don't have a broad area to teach in, outside of theatre. I don't have the credentials, anyway. If I wanted to tack on certification in English, I'd have to do 2.5 years at a university an hour away, and then I would only be certified in English. More schooling on top of what I've already got seems nightmarish to me, at the moment.
I've got a very extensive background in theatre design, both costume and scenic, and I've worked for two of the most elite theatre companies in Chicago. I'm talented there. Would it make sense for me to buck up and try and get a terminal MFA in Costume/Scenic Design? Would it make my chances at getting a job at a CC better, since I'd be able to show, with my degree, that I could also teach design classes?
I have a substantial and (so I've heard) impressive portfolio of design work as of right now. I haven't done any design work for a few years now, but it's not a skill that goes away. Would just having the portfolio to point to be enough, or would the MFA really increase my chances?
The thought of three more years of grueling schooling, probably more loans, is really unattractive at the moment, I gotta say...
I'm willing to do just about anything to prepare myself for the job market in May, but I'm really getting discouraged. I want to be able to make a decent living (I'm talking $45K as the dream salary, here) while teaching theatre. How do I go about making myself an attractive candidate, even without a PhD under my belt?

My first thought is to diversify your targets.  At the community college level, generally speaking, the Ph.D. isn’t a deal-breaker.  (In most cases, it’s not even a tiebreaker.)  So I certainly wouldn’t recommend going after one if a community college is your goal.  Although it’s not my field, my impression is that the same holds true for most private high schools; a doctorate may be nice, but it’s not going to get you the job, and it’s not a requirement.

Unfortunately, the full-time faculty market is very much a national one.  Even community colleges typically do national searches for full-time faculty at this point.  The Chicago area is more cosmopolitan than most -- I can’t bring myself to use the term “Chicagoland,” because it reminds me too much of “Wayne’s World” -- but it’s still a pretty small slice of the country.  Picking an overcrowded field, and then limiting yourself to a single city, is pretty high-risk.  

From a narrow career perspective, the clear long-term strategy would be to adjunct a little to gain experience and to see whether teaching actual community college students really appeals to you.  With a little experience, you’ll have a better sense of how much you want the actual job, and you’ll be a more attractive candidate.  It might also buy you some time, during which the factors holding you in one region may or may not dissipate.  Of course, adjuncting pays terribly, so in the meantime there’s a bread-and-butter issue to address.  

Of course, you could also construe the possible careers more broadly.  Professorships of theater are pretty rare, and the folks who have them tend to hold onto them.  (We hire a new full-timer roughly once every ten years or so.)  But those aren’t the only avenues available.  Acting (and other theater related) classes happen in other venues, both official and unofficial.  And if you can sell yourself convincingly as someone who can teach public speaking, even better.

There’s also the time-honored option of the day job.  In this economy, they aren’t as easy to get as they once were, and they can be pretty uninspiring, but at least they can keep you afloat whjle you’re trying to make something else happen.  

What I would not do is recommend spending yet more years, and money, piling up more degrees.  I don’t see them paying off, and I do see the debt payments (and opportunity cost) growing.  A Master’s is enough, if you’re a good teacher and the right opportunity comes along.  More than that won’t make you a better teacher, and outside of a few, rarified settings, it won’t create more opportunities, either.  Instead, I’d look at getting some teaching experience, both for the information it will give you -- do you really enjoy this? -- and to make you a more appealing candidate.  

Good luck.  You’ve got a tough row to hoe.

Wise and worldly readers, I hope someone knows something I don’t.  Is there another, better option for a place-bound theater major?  

Have a question?  Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

One thing that should have been mentioned last week about Astronomy also applies here: Have you ever looked at the job openings in academia, particularly CCs, in your field? Waiting to see what is in the ads this fall for hiring in the spring (before you graduate) for next fall is too late to get a sense of what is out there and what they want. Ads will give you a clearer idea of what the expectations are, particularly in terms of the types of graduate credit courses you need and whether an MA is enough. (This also applies to last week's discussion of Astronomy positions at a CC.) Our theater faculty have "only" an MA degree.

DD's CC must be as big as ours if he hires for theater every 10 years. As big as we are, our theater profs also teach speech classes and might also teach a humanities course centered on plays rather than other forms of literature or art history, etc.

My more specific suggestion is that you might need to have someone look at your resume from both the academic and non-academic perspective. You should also talk to the people you have worked for and ask them for help identifying possible positions and having a resume (and recommendations) that sell your ability to go from design on a big stage to directing on a smaller stage. Can you use your design skills to get Asst Director credit and move up from there? Can you be a volunteer coach for a HS forensics team?
This person seems very well credentialed to get a job in theatre, no? Seems like that should be the first avenue. If there are no jobs in theatre, why would we need more professors to turn out still more theatre majors?
It's getting to the point where finding a teaching job in some of the arts/humanities/social sciences is as hard as being chosen to be an astronaut. There are just too many qualified people and the demand is not that great. Being place-bound doesn't help, but in reality many if not most people are place bound to some extent. My brother in law never got an engineering degree because his dad needed him to help run his salvage yard and the nearest engineering school was 100 miles away (although he did end up getting a couple of patents for mining equipment despite having only a high school diploma).
I know a lot of MFAs in creative writing, and I suspect there are similar issues here. Typically, if they can't initially get a full-time job at a college or high school (prep school teaching can be quite pleasant, I hear), they either a) get a day job, or b) adjunct and scramble, while they keep trying to write and publish.

So you'd do the equivalent for theatre; keep working as much as you can in your field, teach when you get the chance, build up that part of your portfolio. A lot of writers teach at places like Story Studio -- I don't know what the equivalent is for theatre, but I'm guessing it exists.

I'm in Chicago too, clinical assistant professor in English UIC, and I agree it's really tough here. I'm not sure how much help I can be, but I do know some theatre people -- if you want to meet up for coffee sometime and brainstorm, drop me a line.
I can only second what others have said. Your chances of landing a full-time teaching gig in something like Theatre Arts or in just about any liberal arts field these days are not all that much better than your odds of winning the PowerBall lottery.

So if teaching is really your bag, try to get a lot of teaching experience along the way. You can probably do this by becoming an adjunct at local Chicago-area CCs and colleges. The competitition for even these part-time gigs can be severe, but try not to get too discouraged and keep on plugging away. You might even look at some proprietary schools in the area. You might even try to get hooked up with some local universities or colleges which have theatre groups. Even some community organizations and non-profits have theatre groups that you might participate in.

None of these will pay very well, but it is at least a way to get started, and will look good on your CV when you eventually do try to land that full-time gig. And it will help you to decide if teaching is really your dish of tea.

In the meantime, try to take courses in as many diverse areas as you can. Try branching out into other areas besides strictly theatre-related disciplines. Perhaps even take some courses in computer science, including web design. The greater your background and depth of experience, the more appealing you will be when you eventually do try to land that full-time gig.

Good luck. It's a tough world out there.
You won't make $45k a year teaching without a PhD.
I come back to add one remark and find that kind of nonsense? Anonymous @8:25AM is flat out wrong. My CC is by no means high paying (fairly low cost area), but our new MA hires start at about that pay level, and that doesn't count extra classes or summer classes.

Now the comment: The likely reason they won't let you teach unless you are in a PhD program is that you are not qualified to teach until you have a Masters with at least 18 semester hours of graduate courses in the content area you are teaching.

Exceptions are made for TAs who work under a qualified instructor, or by colleges that try to get away with violating standards.
What about being a bit entrepreneurial starting up a summer program in theater for tweens, kids who are too old for regular summer daycare and who are too young for their working parents to consider leaving them alone at home all day every summer. You can do it on a shoestring and make a bit of money by charging modest tuition and using inexpensive meeting spaces (public library meeting rooms or outdoor park space may be free, or churches often have empty Sunday school classrooms they'll happily rent for a bit of extra income), and if the students and parents are happy with the experience, their recommendations and/or lobbying might help you get a paid job with a school. And parents would make videos of your end of summer production, which you could then use as part of your portfolio.
If you can't find anyone to hire you to teach a class, what about volunteering? If you're willing to work with high school or elementary students, 826 Chicago might be a good place. I'm familiar with 826 DC, where they're always eager for volunteer tutors who can help kids with homework from 3-5pm on weekdays and assist with weekend workshops (including helping high school students write college essays). Volunteers can also pitch ideas for workshops they want to lead.

The main reason to do this would be to try out teaching and show potential employers that you sincerely have an interest in it. You might also make connections with academics in Chicago (again, assuming it's similar to 826 DC, which seems to attract a disproportionate number of academics).

- Liz B
I want to encourage you to pursue the independent high school route if you are truly excited about working there. You don't say what you have done to go down that road. Have you signed up with a placement agency? Done informational interviews? Beaten the bushes and LinkedIn for every friend of a friend who teaches at, works at, graduated from or sends a kid to one of the Chicago-area independent schools? And I think your starting salary hope is entirely realistic, btw. I live in an expensive area and we start most new teachers over $50k.
I would reinforce the theme of what Mary and Liz suggested: get creative and think outside the box for gaining teaching experience. My first teaching gig was for a homeschool co-op. I didn't need certification of any kind - the parents were technically the "teachers" for their kids - but I got practice developing a curriculum, instructing in creative formats (ie: a 2-hour class every other week with LOTS of homework - and I did, in fact, teach in empty Sunday School rooms at a church!), and teaching what I wanted to teach (English). It was a great experience - and a bonus was I had parents who were VERY involved in their kids education and wanted to work with me as a team to provide the students with a learning opportunity. The pay was ridiculous, but the experience was terrific!

I taught that way while I was getting my BA degree, and then when I went to apply for adjunct positions teaching Adult Basic Ed classes, I had 3 years of teaching experience on my CV (and some excellent reference letters). The ABE job migrated into an English department adjunct job, and now I've got several years experience doing that. It's been a roundabout route, but so far it's working out OK for me.

- DL
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