Training Scholars - Interview with Professor Odai Johnson

Odai Johnson
Odai Johnson

Professor Odai Johnson came to the University of Washington School of Drama because he wanted to work with doctoral students. As head of the PhD program in theatre history, theory and criticism for nearly a decade, Professor Johnson has seen the range and promise of the program expand, while keeping the focus on the program’s strengths and emphasis on training scholars.

He quotes the poet E.E. Cummings to summarize his scholarly outlook:

All ignorance toboggans into know

And trudges up to ignorance again.

“It’s that slow process of trudging up the hill with your sled in tow – that’s the working part – you have to do that,” explains Professor Johnson. “But you also have to have the wild ride from the top down. You have to be exhilarated by something in the field.”

Read on to learn more about Professor Johnson and the defining characteristics of the School of Drama’s PhD program.

What are the important elements of, and philosophy behind, the UW’s PhD program?

One of my first decisions as head of the program was that we weren’t going to give up vital areas of training in order to accommodate a larger world of performance. Instead, we expanded our curriculum from two years of course work prior to dissertation to three. This offers a very wide range of training. Whatever the student’s area of specialization, they will end up being hired to teach a curriculum that is wider than that specialization, and our program will equip them to be able to do so.

At the UW School of Drama, we look at our MFA programs as very polished, discreet, professional programs. And we look at the PhD as a very polished, discreet, professional program. The trajectories are not the same. We are not training practitioners in theatre. We are training scholars of theatre.

How does the program prepare graduates for the transition from student to professional?

We like to provide our students with a portfolio of teaching opportunities. We like them to be very developed teachers. We make sure they get out to conferences. We’ve been pushing them to develop organizational skills like hosting conferences. We coerce them into getting publication credits before they graduate.

One of the things we do is our ASTR dinner. It’s a tradition I started 10 or 12 years ago to coincide with the American Society for Theatre Research conference. I wanted a way to get influential people together with our students. I invite guests from across the field and what we end up with is a snapshot of the profession all around the table. We each take a turn to answer two questions: “From where you are now, what things come easy to you and what are the things you struggle with?” That’s the first benefit of the ASTR dinner. The other is introducing perspective candidates – our students finishing their dissertations – to faculty members who may have an opening at their college or university, so that there is an established familiarity before the formal application process.

What about doctoral students makes them exciting to teach?

I like the range of curiosities. Teaching is never about knowing things. It’s about wondering about things. If you only teach what you know, you have a very finite range, but if you teach things you’re curious about, the range is huge. I don’t worry much about training a specialist in this or that period or genre. I want to train curious people, so that they have the capacity to ask the questions that have scope to them, and to be able to find the answers. That’s what we call critical thinking and it’s so much better than critical knowing.

What distinguishes the UW’s program from other PhD programs?

During the recession a lot of programs, in their bid for agility, shifted to take on different kinds of teaching strategies. We are a very traditional program. Other programs shifted to make their training more public. Others put an emphasis on Performance Studies in the bid to be more marketable. We remained teaching to our strengths: history, criticism, theatre, dramatic practice, and critical practices, with the intention of training scholars. We had a few lean years, but we emerged from the other end strong and stable with the tradition of quality intact.

What was the genesis of the Center for Performance Studies and how does it work?

When we lost faculty lines, there was a risk that we were not able to cover the curriculum. Many smaller humanities programs could not support the depth of their graduate studies. What I did was pull together faculty from across campus – people who teach performance and performance culture, but not in our department – and proposed that we share students. We found the borders between disciplines and made those borders porous for our students, so that at the end of the day two-thirds of our grad students’ curriculum is in-house – that is we offer the seminar – but one-third the students pull from other departments.

If there were no limitations of resources or time, what would you do for the PhD program?

It’s a dream of mine to be able to take everybody in the PhD program to the historic theatres of Europe for a summer class. We would go to the marvelous, old, baroque theatres, like Český Krumlov in the Czech Republic, the court theatre at Versailles, the Globe, and the Burgtheatre in Vienna because they remain concepts until you go there and you see the charisma of these spaces. That would be a dream experience.

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