Why I Left Academia

AlexandraDavid-126
Photo: Roberto Araujo

It’s been a little over a year since I stepped down from my post as a voice teacher at a competitive musical theatre program. Since then, I have been reflecting on why I really left and whether or not I would take on a long-term position at a college or university again. I’ve decided to publicly share these thoughts in the hopes of starting a productive conversation with teachers and administrators about how we can better help students succeed in an already frightfully challenging industry.

As someone who has taught at the undergraduate level for over ten years, I can confidently say the issues I experienced were not necessarily unique to the institution where I taught.  I see many of the same problems at other programs. The fact they appear to be so commonplace is precisely why we must speak about them.

A Lack of Vision

When I was writing research papers in high school, I clearly remember my English teacher, Mrs. Kimball, reminding us that every paragraph of our paper had to support the weight of the thesis statement. If it didn’t, the paper would fail to make relevant points and convince the reader.

Similarly, I believe each musical theatre program’s choice of degree offerings, classes, and faculty should be an outward and unified sign of the school’s mission. When this doesn’t happen, the administration and faculty don’t place value in the same things, causing an atmosphere of confusion and distrust. A new tenure track position or high-profile hire will not solve the problem. If a program is not built on a solid, constantly maintained foundation, it will fail its students and eventually hurt the program’s credibility.

Keeping Up with the Industry

The musical theatre industry is changing at warp speed, yet many college programs are relying on a long-expired curriculum. If programs don’t keep their finger on the pulse of industry demands (along with the natural evolution of how to impart this information), they will not adequately prepare students for a successful career.

This includes making sure students have a solid audition book covering multiple styles   and having them work with voice teachers who can help the student find a healthy vocal approach to each of those styles. It also means helping students put together websites and reels, providing an up-to-date musical theatre industry class where they learn how to harness their many gifts (especially those beyond the performing arts) to make a living, and building a strong alumni network.

A Lack of Communication

When I brought concerns about my program to the administration, the response was not productive. No one wanted to have an open conversation.

Sadly, this was on brand for the department. Often times, the faculty seemed purposefully kept in the dark, leaving them to hear about changes in shows, auditions, and even faculty from students, not from those who ran the program.

The department was filled with talented, passionate teachers, who spent considerable energy tiptoeing around each other. It also harbored others, who were not engaged or engaging. Because everyone worked in isolation, no one knew where they stood with the department or if their work was even appreciated. In fact, that seemed very much the desired effect.

Fear-Based Atmosphere

What this all comes down to, of course, is creating an atmosphere of fear and intimidation rather than community. Ironically, it’s the exact thing we’re supposed to help our students overcome so they can be more expressive performing artists.

We are sending students into a field where collaboration is the keystone of our art form. We have to ask ourselves if we’re modeling that sense of collaboration at the college or university level.

At the end of the day, I couldn’t be part of an institution that preached one thing and did something very different behind closed doors. In my opinion, the student’s experience was sacrificed at the feet of those who ran the program. I wouldn’t be a part of that, knowing the hundreds of thousands of dollars my students were spending for an education. Since no one wanted to talk about it, I spent a year preparing for a freelance career and resigned.

***

These are the reasons why I chose to leave. In sharing this, it is not my intention to alienate current and former colleagues. As I said, I have seen similar issues at other well-respected musical theatre programs.

My question is: what are we going to do about it? When will we learn to celebrate our colleague’s gifts rather than be threatened by them? Where can we find ways to collaborate? How will we continue to put students at the center of all our decisions? Can we at least agree they deserve that?

Shining a light and talking about what’s not working and is more appealing to me than simply airing dirty laundry. That’s what I’m attempting to do. Will you join me? Let’s create a forum where teachers and administrators both can talk about ways to overcome these issues. I would love to be a part of that conversation. My email address is david@contemporarymusicaltheatre.com. Please feel free to email me or comment on this blog and I will respond.

To the students reading this: politics are part of most any musical theatre program, but if they get in the way of your education, you must speak up. If you’re not getting what you need (within reason, of course), say something. Be a part of this necessary change.

If you’re a high school student (or supporting parent) looking at college musical theatre programs, ask the following questions when you meet the faculty and administration:

  • How has your program’s curriculum evolved to keep up with the changing industry?
  • How do professors in the three main area of musical theatre study (dance, drama, voice) collaborate with each other to benefit of the students?

And then, talk to students in that program. Get their perspective of what works and doesn’t. You’ll have to take their answers with a grain of salt because they will be subjective. If you listen closely and pay attention to the “vibe” of the school, though, you will be able to discern whether or not it’s right for you (or your child).

I love teaching and, despite my negative experience, I love teaching college students. But when I go back, it will be to serve with colleagues who are on the same page with each other (or are at least on speaking terms), want to collaborate, and are continually bettering themselves and those around them. I am not in search of Camelot. I know conflict is inherently woven into the fabric of academic institutions. But I still hope that somewhere there’s a program filled with intelligent, emotionally aware people who can have productive conversations about how to work together to give students the best education possible.

I look forward to finding that institution. In the meantime, I am grateful to be a freelancer and freely speak from outside our institutions’ gates.

I hope someone will listen. 



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4 thoughts on “Why I Left Academia

  1. Dear David,

    I wanted to congratulate you on your recent post. It moved me deeply. I’m a singing teacher who had 10 years as Lecturer at Sydney Conservatorium, 5 years at Wollongong University, and, most recently, 5 years as Co-ordinator of Classical and Music Theatre Voice at the Conservatorium of Music, University of Tasmania. So much of what you wrote absolutely mirrored my thoughts and experiences, and last year, after such a long time teaching for Universities, I walked away, to teach privately. I felt almost broken by my inability to offer a voice of reason and compassion, so bureaucratised has it all become, with focus moving away from what should be the primary focus, the students, and their experiences.

    I would love to continue this discussion. Your words were so affecting.

    Thank you, and I’ve shared your article on Facebook also.

    Jane Edwards
    Hobart, Tasmania

    1. Dear Jane,

      Thanks so much for sharing this with us. I’m so sorry to hear leaving academia was the right choice for you as well. But I do feel that, being on the outside, we have an opportunity to make change in a way those ensconced in the machine of academia can not. I will be in Australia in October, as I’m a (very fortunate and excited) keynote speaker for the ANATS Conference this year. Are you coming? I would love to meet you! All my best!! David

      1. Hello again David. Very sad to say, I’m not able to attend the conference this year. I hope it’s a great success, and that you enjoy your spell in Australia. Looking forward to seeing more discussion about your post too. Cheers, Jane Edwards

  2. Thank you David! I think that the atmosphere of collaboration instead of competition is sorely needed in our entertainment industry. We definitely need to be excited when others succeed, and only compete with our own ideal best. Well I can’t wait to study with you!

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