restricted access Putting Collaboration Front and Center: Assessment Strategies for Theatre Departments
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Putting Collaboration Front and Center:
Assessment Strategies for Theatre Departments

In a time of economic downturns, the contraction of governmental funding sources, and shrinking budgets, academic departments increasingly find themselves locked in a struggle for limited resources. As much as we strive to make interdisciplinary connections, departments must carve out places for themselves within institutions. We need to swell our ranks by attracting students, for an increased number of majors leads to budget considerations, space allocations, and additional tenure-track lines. As students become progressively more concerned with their employment options after graduation, departments respond with well-defined messages about the valuable transferable skills gained through the major and the kinds of professional training acquired due to the curriculum. Alongside honing particular skills, developing critical and creative thinking, increasing an understanding of key terms, and acquiring historical knowledge, our mission statements often highlight collaboration as a key element to the educational experience.

This is not surprising, as theatre is by its very nature a collaborative art. In the presence of audience members and through the hard work of performers, artistic staff, backstage, and house personnel, theatre is made possible by a rich exchange among numerous individuals who rely upon partnerships and engage in acts of cooperation. The centrality of collaboration to pursuits is not shared by theatre alone, of course. In business, medicine, and science, it is only through the coming together and sharing of resources that the most substantial achievements are made. Some have even argued that collaboration, or working jointly together towards a shared goal, is fundamental to the human experience. In his book with the Dalai Lama, psychiatrist Howard Cutler has argued that “the tendency to closely bond with others, acting for the welfare of others as well as oneself, may be deeply rooted in human nature, forged in the remote past as those who bonded together and became part of a group had an increased chance of survival” (59). As a result, our proclivity for collaboration serves not only as a vital transferable skill for our students, but also as an extremely effective academic-survival technique for ourselves.

Collaboration, however, has not figured largely into our understanding of human nature for over a century; the idea that human beings are essentially selfish and only interested in meeting our own needs has dominated. Cutler points out that this view of human nature “is deeply ingrained in Western thought” thanks to canonical works by Thomas Hobbes and Sigmund Freud, to name just a few (56). Collaboration also occupies a rather tenuous place within academic institutions; from grading practices to the tenure-review process, we are embedded in an educational structure geared towards clearly delineating and evaluating an individual’s work. Grades are awarded and degrees are conferred to specific students, not to groups. The dominant discourse in the humanities and liberal arts, where most theatre departments reside, privileges sole authorship or intellectual property. Colluding together is viewed as plagiarism, worthy of academic sanctions if ideas are not correctly attributed to a specific individual. Jointly written pieces are often less valued than single-authored works, and faculty members must tout their personal achievements in tenure files even if engaged in collaborative art practices. The even larger dominant cultural discourse underpinning this is neoliberal individualism, where what is mine is mine and what is yours is yours. [End Page 53]

In addition, we are also witnessing a rise in the culture of assessment. Departments are asked to clearly articulate learning outcomes and then substantiate their claims by proving measurable growth in our students given pressures put upon universities by regional and national accrediting agencies. Many resent and even resist this trend, perceiving calls for accountability as external mandates or administrative tasks that take time and resources away from what we do in the classroom. Often, the payoff is seen as minimal and the impact on our students’ learning negligible or even detrimental.

At least for the perceivable future, however, assessment is here to stay. Given that reality, one possible approach is to do the least amount required in an attempt to minimize the impact on both students and faculty. Yet our field offers us insights that suggest...