Grad School

How is it possible? Can it really be that I’ve been writing here this long and I still haven’t made it to the subject of Grad School?

Well, ok. Let’s dive into this sucker.

Let me start off by saying I am the product of two pHd’s.

My parents met at a small college in southern Illinois where they made up the majority of the psychology department. On my father’s side, all eight of my grandmother’s living children graduated from college, many going on to terminal degrees in their field. While my mother’s mother may have chided me about not being able to getting married if I got too fat, she was also very clear that a girl goes to college for more than her “MRS” degree.

I say all of this for context. I say all of this because I suspect this decision is  difficult because I have a serious lack of perspective. Education for its own sake is a value that made its way into me at an early age. And the idea of evaluating whether “higher learning” is “worth it” feels a little weird.

Full disclosure: I had the luxury of a college education search in which the academic quality of institution was the only consideration. It never occurred to me not to go to the place in which I would learn the most and hence become my best. It was deep in me that learning is something you do for its own sake, not because it is a means to justify the ends. I am lucky to have had a mother that was willing and interested in devoting hours of research and travel to help me make my way through the educational application process. I worked very hard, but I did so in a context that valued the effort I was making.

Similarly, the kind of knowledge that I chose to pursue was always something that I felt free to follow with an uncomplicated curiosity. Love chemistry? Awesome! Feel like shifting into classical music? Totally cool! Decide at the end of the day that theater is where you belong? A-ok.

I have never had to understand of the kind of sacrifice that people who love art so much they have to betray their parents’ wishes to make it. It never occurred to me that anyone would think less of me if I picked one learning path over another. So long as I loved and excelled at whatever I wanted to learn, that was all that mattered.

So ultimately, though I had offers of scholarship that would have meant far fewer student loans for both myself and my mom down the road, I picked a very expensive, very demanding, very very very good and small liberal arts school that had the perfect mix of intense theater studies and undergraduate research opportunities in science.

It remains one of the most formative experiences of my life. Simply, and unequivocally put, I would not be the artist and thinker I am today if I hadn’t had that opportunity.

It is a really lucky and wonderful thing to have been given.

And it puts me in kind of an awkward position now. How to explain why… This may take more than one post I think. But this is definitely part of it:

The only condition that my mom gave me on school selection was that I was definitively not allowed to go to an arts conservatory. She believed, and in my opinion rightly, that there was plenty of time for me to choose my path but that the college years were a chance to broaden my exposure to knowledge rather than to deepen a specific narrow channel.

I can’t speak for every artist of that age, but I can speak for myself, and I know that my taste and sensibilities at 18 were terrible. Or rather, they were unformed, uncomplicated, and driven by external forces that I didn’t yet have an eye to look at critically.

“Mom, I don’t know if I can go to a school that doesn’t have a musical theater program.”

I said these words out loud.

More than once.

This is my karmic retribution for putting up that fight over a decade ago: I now have to remember saying them and how much I really deeply meant them.

The person I was then couldn’t know that some day it wouldn’t be Sondheim and Bernadette Peters that inspired me to create every day. That person didn’t know that she would be so much more opened up and fulfilled by the prospect of creating her own voice and vision rather than stepping into someone else’s. She couldn’t know that all the things that seemed so important and special about those high school productions of Into the Woods and Steel Magnolias – the fancy costumes and glare of lights, the audience oohing when she cried real tears in that last scene – would ultimately become symbols that she would question on a regular basis in an online blog for her experimental “should I even call it theater” company.

It was the context of the learning, the people she met and the teachers she had and all the experiences that place gave her, that made her change. It was all those things that made her believe in the arts as more than a hobby or entertainment, but as an avenue of expression equally important in the larger scheme of the world as science. It was that place of learning that did that.

And because it did, now she is me, and I sit imagining the future in which I do appropriately narrow and deepen the specific aspect of art-making that I want to pursue. I think about the learning environment that I have created in my work and life. I think about how it would change if I allowed myself to spend a lot of time working towards someone else’s definition of what theater should be. I think about whether the work that those institutions teach is work I think is useful to the field. I think that even at places where it is work I believe in, is it the place or the people that make the work that way?

And I wonder things. Things like:

“I love learning. I love being in academic institutions. I love the idea of taking time to sit and think deeply about things. I would love grad school. I should go!”

And then:

“But it’s so expensive at so many places. Can you really justify the cost? Can you really say that it’s worth putting that strain on the rest of your life? Do you really believe that what you will receive is worth that much money?”

And then:

“Well there are places that don’t cost as much. There are cheaper programs. You could do one of those. Also, you have to think about the potential positive outcomes. You could teach more. You could make more doing the teaching that you already do. Education is not just learning, it’s also a tool.”

And then:

“I have never thought about learning that way, as a commodity. It was always just for its own sake. That makes me uncomfortable. How do I evaluate cost/benefit analysis in this context? Are cheaper programs a better deal? What if they take me away from my career for two or three years? What if everyone moves on? What if no one cares when I come back?”

And:

“So maybe I should just go to the program that I really love, one that I think will make me the best no matter the cost. But what is that program? There aren’t a lot of super experimental devising academic programs. And the few I’ve visited so far seem, well, not so awesome.”

And:

“Also, do I even want to do more teaching? Do I then have to get a pHd? That takes forever! And those jobs are super scarce and hard to come by. And even if I got one, none of the people who are academics in a full time way really make enough art. Not as much as I make now, and even that feels like WAY too little.”

And on and on and on to the point where it seems absurd that I’d even consider more education.

But then I think about how much I loved that context, that stretch, that drive and push that I got the last time I was in a setting where I was forced on constant basis to deeply examine what and how I make and the cycle begins to repeat.

Here’s what I fear: I fear I will get a degree that is cheap but doesn’t help me much and that in the process I will become a worse artist.

I think that is literally possible. I think that being around too many people who make their work without depth, without questioning or thinking hard enough will make you like them. You cannot help but acclimate to your circumstance. The world you are in becomes your standard. And if the standard around you is low so eventually will become yours.

I also fear that I will spend a lot of time on something that is rigorous and demanding but that is ultimately not what I want to do.

This is why I have stayed away from some of the big names, the places with the awesome reputations and decent funding programs. The ones that make the best work in the standard traditional model. The ones that in a way I blame the most for taking the best and brightest and reinforcing aspects of theater that I think are dying a painful death and need to be revamped.

I also fear spending all the money I have and will ever have for an education I could love but will be chained in debt to for the rest of my life.

This is why I haven’t entered the few programs that seem totally right but so very expensive. The ones with the world famous experimental mentors and alumni that are the exact kind of people I want to emulate. Or the ones that allow you to design and direct your study however your process dictates but require you to pay your own way. I went to an info session for one of these last kind of schools and asked someone how much debt they would have after they came out. They couldn’t say. Not wouldn’t. Couldn’t. I think they literally couldn’t let that number stay in their heads or it would so overwhelm them that they wouldn’t be able to enjoy the experience. The number must be huge. A hundred thousand, maybe more. Maybe a lot more.

So that’s where it has sat for years now. Me running from these different specters of grad school future. Continuing to soldier forward without them and wondering if it’s needed, what it’s use is and then feeling sad for needing to define the use of knowledge at all.

Each year I feel just a little bit further away from exactly what in my career I think grad school could change. And every time I go to one of those info sessions the potential applicants seem less similar to myself. Earlier in their artistic path, eager to pick up the traditional model, needing that paper for some specific reason.

I always assumed it was somewhere I would head.

But every year I seem not to go.

A

PS:  If you’ve gone, are you glad? What did you gain? Are you poor? If you haven’t yet, why? And do you think you will? If you know you won’t, what‘s the reason?

5 comments

  1. I went to grad school. I did not leave poorer (as that would have made grad school not an option for me.) I looked at and applied to schools whose programs I respected and thought would challenge me. AND that would finance my time there. AND that were in cities or communities where I could meet and see other artists. I did not go to the first program that took me. I waited until I found one I thought was a good match on all three of those levels. I was lucky to find one. It was a good fit for me- and would probably not be a good fit for most other people. Because that is how a good fit works.

    I often got into disagreements with the program about what I wanted versus what they thought I should want. I was made to direct work that I did not like at times. But I made a lot. In a lot of different ways. And I was surrounded by other theater artists in every other discipline whom I found challenging, and interesting, and inspirational, and infuriating. At times I wished I wasn’t there. At times, I was so happy working on the projects I was involved with, I thought my heart would burst.
    And I left a better artist then when I went in.
    Which is why I, personally, went. I did not go because I hoped to teach in the future. I went because I wanted to spend a lot time diving as deeply as I could into studying, thinking about, trying out, failing, and trying new ways, and dissecting what it is theater. To me. And I wanted a community around me while I did it- who would question me, disagree with me, support me, and be willing to try things out with me. I wanted a full time laboratory. And that is what I got.

    Defining What, How, and Why in the theater is important to me. It doesn’t need to be important to everyone. Some people have disagreed with my choice as being the opposite of “just doing theater,” which is fine. I think it takes many types to make the work we do. Because there should be lots of different types of work. But for me, I got the chance to try out a lot of things I was curious about in terms of directing with fellow grad students that I admired. Still admire- Krista Apple, Joe Guzman, David Blatt, Ross Beschler, Dominic Chacon, Maria Shaplin, Sara Dougherty, and many others… I still think their work is awesome, and I am glad to have had the chance to have them around for my experiments. I hope they feel the same.

    I am deeply curious about what I do. And I love other people who are deeply curious about it too (which is why I wander over to this blog often)

    I went to grad school because of that curiosity. It is not for everyone. But it was for me.

    That was supposed to be much shorter…. Sorry about that.
    – B

    1. I think my favorite part of this response is the word “match.”

      A relationship, whether with a lover, collaborator or institution really ought to be that personal, no? The set of factors influencing whether the union is a success must absolutely be the correct balance to that person and the thing they seek to join with. It’s courageous to jump into a new experience that tests and tries oneself but courageous and WISE to do so having defined the kind of leap one wants to make.

      It’s important for all of us questioning this topic to think about not whether a school is good or bad by some objective measure but whether they will be good or bad FOR US. There are people I dated 10 years ago and loved (adored!) and still recall fondly that I could never be with now. So it’s important to be patient until we find that MATCH that fits into the set of needs we actually have, not an external set of measures that someone else has defined for us.

      Cheers to curiosity!

  2. Wow. So many thoughts I’m not sure I’ll be all that articulate.

    My family did not have a tradition of higher education and I grew up extremely poor so cost of education was always a consideration. By weird fate I was able to attend an extremely challenging private school mostly on scholarship. I was exposed to both my family’s view that higher education was only useful if it allowed one to get a high paying job and the views of my wealthy class mates and school that education is its own reward. I knew I wanted a conservatory like training program that would provide me the training I believed I needed to become an artist and I also wanted a regular college degree because I refused to accept the only way to support myself would be at food service. If that was the case why was I even wasting valuable time and money in college.

    In my college years I witnessed the collapse of the resident company. Theatre where artists could earn a living (allegedly) from being actors,designers,directors. I don’t know if it was possible. I don’t know if it was possible to define the style or type of work a specific company did and attempt to become”a member”. It mostly all died before my 3rd year. And I feel I was on the cusp of change where grad school for theater is concerned. To my knowledge most of the theater geniuses of the past never held an MFA in anything. I was conditioned to believe that theatre is an art – art is a craft -craftsmen learn by doing. So the culture of my college training taught me. Grad school for theater was for those who had no or poor training in the field. It was for those who were interested in theory,academic contemplation,teaching. It was *not* for those who wanted to create,take action,do.

    I witnessed a rapid shift in this attitude within 5 years after I graduated. More universities were dumbing down their undergraduate programs and adding an MFA where none existed before. Classed I took as a 1st and 2nd year undergrad were now offered only in grad school.

    Like you I considered applying but money was(still is) an issue. If I were to go then I required some assurances – that the ‘amazing’ faculty that created the program would still be there,they weren’t going on sabbatical or retiring, that I wouldn’t just be repeating work I’ve done but rather be exposed to new concepts and more challenging projects. I needed to know what happens afterwards – would there be collaboration,a network? In short for all that time and money what would I have that I couldn’t a achieve as a working artist? No program spoke to me, no one offerd a free ride so I chose to go my own way.

    As the years go by a grad degree seems essential to moving forward regardless of the industry. It has replaced what the undergraduate degree was to our parents generation. Universities appear less and less like places to learn than training factories for skill sets formerly acquired “on the job” Perhaps that isn’t true across the board but it does appear so to me. Were age,cost,and time not a consideration I would head to the nearest grad school myself. I would pursue multiple masters and phd’s if only to merely have access to the things in which I am actually interested.

    Grad degrees appear to be a sad fact that will not be going away. Sadder still, even community college is out of reach for so many. If one needs graduate degree to advance in any field it will truly be an elite minority of people able to work,advance,create,be seen while the vast majority remain stuck at or near survival mode.

    For whom are you creating your work? Maybe knowing the answer to that might help guide your decision.

    1. Lots to think about here.

      I think the lack of clarity is not only on the side of the applicants but also on the side of many departments. Are grad programs teaching degrees or are they training programs? Can they comfortably be both? I think almost everyone I know realizes that making art and teaching it are radically different skill sets, sometimes overlapping, but often not.

      I too love the idea of learning a craft through the actual doing of the craft. The strange thing I keep encountering is a desire to return to school so that I can make more stuff. The “real world” requires so much time and effort to get to a place where I can make anything, the academic one gives time space and resource but without a concrete audience with which to apply those quests to.

      I think one thing that scares me is the idea of art making for its own sake. While I love the study of the creative process, I ultimately think the work must speak to those outside of the circle of makers. In fact, I think the genre’s unwillingness to acknowledge that viewers are shifting, is part of the issue with theater as a whole. So there is some nervousness about what feels like a “retreat” from solving that larger issue.

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