Navigating a Field in Crisis as an ABD

Of late, there have been several reminders for those of us on or about to go on the market  that the fields of theatre studies and the humanities more broadly are in crisis. In early January, an anonymous writer proposed in the Chronicle that theatre PhD programs be dismantled; I am, apparently, one of those “seeking the folly of an academic career.” Established scholars William J. Doan, Heather S. Nathans, Patrick Anderson, and Henry Bial wrote a rebuttal to the piece, claiming that it is time for a conversation about the career trajectories of graduate students in theatre/performance studies:

As representatives of disciplinary societies, and as faculty members who regularly advise graduate students and serve on search committees at our home institutions, we welcome the opportunity to engage in a public discussion about the many possible career options for students who have completed an M.F.A. and/or Ph.D. We welcome the opportunity to undertake serious and sustained self-reflection about how we might revisit and revise the coursework, production experience, and dissertation research required of our students. And we welcome the opportunity to connect our work, and the work of our students and alumni, with a broader range of communities beyond academic walls.

The tone of the comments below their response suggests that such a “public discussion” will not be terribly pleasant or  entirely congenial. If this debate was not enough to make any theatre PhD student more anxious about the market than usual, a few days after this exchange came Michael Bérubé’s article, “The Humanities, Unraveled.” He reaffirms that the profession is “a seamless garment of crisis: If you pull on any one thread, the entire thing unravels.” Echoing (knowingly or not) some of the thoughts of the theatre academics quoted above, he says that it is time to consider alternate career paths for graduates:

So here the debate stands: We need to remake our programs from the ground up to produce teachers and researchers and something elses, but since it is not clear what those something elses might be, we haven’t begun to rethink the graduate curriculum accordingly. (Anyway, we’re not trained to do that! All we know how to do is to be professors!)

And recent developments within Digital Humanities are not, of course, a cure-all for this problem or for alternative career discussions. More from Bérubé:

And since it is not clear what those something elses might be, the alt-ac discussion also tends to be conflated (reductively and mistakenly) with the DH discussion—that is, the emergence of the digital humanities, onto which, in recent years, we have deposited so many of our hopes and anxieties. Somehow we expect the digital humanities to revolutionize scholarly communication, save university presses, crowdsource peer review, and provide humanities Ph.D.’s with good jobs in libraries, institutes, nonprofits, and innovative start-ups. And the digital humanities will do all that by sometime late next week.

There are no easy answers or fixes, clearly. And as those holding doctorates languish in the limbo of adjuncting for years, sending out tailored cover letter after tailored cover letter (and rarely even receiving notification that they have been passed over, simply relying instead on a Wiki or months of silence to drive home the indignity of yet another rejection), and their numbers grow – with some giving up and moving on to an alt-ac path, others clinging to the hope of the elusive tenure-track position – we must realize that we are, indeed, in crisis. The in-fighting within the theatre studies field during the stressful hiring periods – the MFA v. PhD snipes that arise on job Wikis and in Chronicle comments – is certainly not inspiring any thoughtful discussion on what is next either.

I have been familiarizing myself with the tools and methods of DH recently, but as someone arriving a bit late to the party I can see both the potential and the pitfalls for theatre studies. There are ongoing conversations surrounding the digital humanities as a “trend” in academia – Matt Gold’s recent volume  Debates in the Digital Humanities raising several of them. William Pannapacker repeated several critiques he overhead at the most recent MLA meeting in a post “On ‘The Dark Side of the Digital Humanities.'” Some claimed that DH is  “an opportunistic, instrumentalist, mechanized response to the economic crisis,” or that it “is complicit with the neoliberal transformation of higher education.” As a proponent of DH Pannapacker shrugs most of this off, but as some one trained to see the value of products generated via the lone-scholar model, I have to consider if DH – or the philosophies behind it – would help or hinder those about to be released into the wild of the job market.

The lone-scholar model would seem to be counter-intuitive in theatre studies, as theatre itself is an inherently collaborative form. But from the beginning, we were told to stake our claim. Find your scholarly territory and mark it, we were told: publish articles, present at conferences, think of where your dissertation – when turned into a monograph – will be placed. I have witnessed colleagues panic upon hearing the mere hint of some one pursuing a similar topic to their dissertation research. And who could blame them, when so much is riding on whether or not our work contributes to the scholarly conversation in new and original ways? We were taught how to assess the reputability of publication outlets; Open Access was not suggested as the norm, nor was it suggested at all. In David Savran’s Sociology of Theatre class, twelve of us co-wrote an article on Shrek the Musical which appeared in Theatre Journal.  Such a practice is rare (though not unheard of) in the field of theatre studies scholarship. For those who also held MFAs or experience as practitioners, there was the promise of  perhaps collaborating with undergraduate and graduate students on department productions (and that those experiences would most likely count towards tenure) in the future. But in the academic arena (not that the two need be divided, mind you), the bulk of our training – what the field is, how it works, how to attempt to advance in it – catered to the lone-scholar model that characterizes our area; classes, conferences, job talks, informal chats all confirmed that this was how a successful academic in theatre studies (for the most part) functions. Our training – both on and off campus – was preparing us for the field as it stood. There is a sense of change afoot – an increase in OA scholarly journals, of digital projects, etc. – and there are certainly scholars who embrace the accessible and collaborative precepts of DH: but it seems to be coming slowly.

In a recent talk on “Cultural Change in the Digital Humanities” at Columbia, Arienne Dwyer suggested that we must work both within scholarly communities and institutionally to combat the lone-scholar approach. Dwyer’s presentation discussed the pitfalls and tensions around past projects (particularly the Dead Sea Scrolls) that occurred when scholars and institutions were unwilling to share materials. The sharing of knowledge to a broader audience clearly cannot occur if scholars and researchers are not going to share materials amongst themselves. Digital Humanities (although I am not supposed to call it that anymore according to Pannapacker) has been drastically changing the models of scholarship available to us. As I am familiarizing myself with the tools of DH, I see the incredible potential in the scope of collaboration and accessibility afforded by its methods for those interested in theatre and performance. While I do not envision my dissertation work immediately drawing upon these tools, I dream of 19th-century US theatre research projects (GIS projects of theatres and touring circuits! searchable archives of personal and newspaper accounts of performance events! receipts for productions and management materials! transcribed scripts, once only available in archives! images galore! OA articles that assemble and analyze the data at hand to describe its bearing upon 19th century US history and popular culture!) conjured up with a few clicks in the digital imaginary of the future. I would like to develop these projects, to have scholars and students in related fields to contribute to such projects, to create dynamic and open source tools for research for those within education and those who are simply curious to know more. I am not suggesting that DH is a panacea for the field’s troubles – but I, personally, see the wider relevance and power behind such projects in conjunction with my own investments and interests in theatre history studies.

About to become one of the many in a vulnerable, precarious position – released, degree in hand, into the wilds of the job market – I must ask, in a selfish turn, what is an ABD theatre student with all these thoughts, concerns, and uncertainties plaguing her mind to do? For this, I have no easy answer either. I will proudly take my degree, and brace myself to enter the fray in the fall.

But my reflections on the field, the crises at hand, and the emergence of new frameworks for thinking and research give rise to a series of questions: how are we – who would like to perhaps enter the conversation and help shape the field, but are confronted with the reality of not necessarily having a future in that very field – to proceed? It is possible for an ABD – in a field where the word “crisis” is the most prevalent descriptor – to champion collaboration and open exchange if we see potential in these methods, or  is it to our advantage to simply tend to our personal areas of purview?  And how can we afford to be stalwart guards of these clearly delineated territories of interests, when technology is changing the very nature of scholarship? And what, if anything, would be the “something elses” that Bérubé references, the alt-ac career beyond the realm of scholarly work and teaching? Are we prepared to be “something elses,” and what would that look like?


  1. H.S. Nathans says:

    Dear Bethany–

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments — it does indeed seem as if the conversations will be challenging as we go forward, but they need to happen! It is incredibly helpful to read thoughtful pieces like this.


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