Learning to Forget What We Think We Know

As a fourth year PhD student in Theatre and Performance Studies, it was a privilege to be able to reconnect with the Walpole Children’s Theatre over this past summer for my remote immersive fellowship with Humanities Engage. I’m currently wrapping up my comprehensive examination process and plotting my dissertation prospectus, and so this immersive was a much-needed change of pace from my usual deep dive in reading and writing.

Thinking of this immersive retrospectively is tricky for me, as I currently am still engaging with WCT in continuing discussions. My remote work with WCT covered several different types of projects this summer, but the one I am most enthusiastic and proud of is still very much ongoing into this fall and beyond. I am lucky and humbled to be able to work with WCT’s Board and community members on a recently formed Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee. Beginning over the summer, our committee came together to address the ways even this small and scrappy little company might make a world of difference in the lives of more children in the wider community – especially the ones who need it most. These conversations have been exciting, difficult, and most importantly, ongoing. I am confident that I have been able to bring more humility, sense of self, and gravitas to this process because of my doctoral training, especially in relation to the Theatre Arts seminar curriculum which heavily focuses on issues of critical race theory, gender identity and expression, LGBTQ and women’s studies, disability studies, class and labor disparities, and other issues of accessibility.

In reflecting on this experience for prospective graduate students and interested faculty, I am impelled to share my takeaways and applications from this tumultuous summer and the ways in which my skillsets have developed such that I am better able to navigate this stormy semester and to approach the looming job market with better psychological equanimity. Even though I aim for and focus on job prospects in the professoriate, I am well aware of the dire straits PhD students face applying for dwindling options in tenure-track and contingent positions. Fortunately, my immersive was within the industry in which I am currently aspiring to stay. Still, in many ways, I was very salient of the type of meta-skills I was bringing from my doctoral training to this different working modality and the generalizability of that process. Along with honing my analytical and critical abilities to break down and translate such projects into meaningful deliverables, the more ineffable muscles I was able to flex involved teamwork, adaptability, self-sufficiency, and other types of soft skills. While they may be trite and mundane, we all have learned not to take these basic social skills for granted in this new world of Zoom-specific etiquette. On a personal and professional level, one of the things I learned most from this summer, however saccharine, is how difficult it is to listen, and how much effort such thoughtful attention requires.

I cannot say one way or another how this experience will impact my trajectory beyond Pitt. Certainly, I gained a new understanding of how different theatre companies have “pivoted” in this last year in order to survive (and in some cases, thrive) amidst this pandemic, one which has dealt an especial blow to performing arts communities. This ideally suits me should I desire and be lucky enough to find employment in the non-profit arts sector. Having worked for several years in a variety of corporate, non-profit, and government settings, I think the “alt-ac” conversation is often too one-sided and defeatist. Much of our discussions for scholars in the academy focus on extractive notions of taking our knowledge from the academy and deploying it in the real world, inserting ourselves into situations about which, too often, we think we have some privileged information. Relative to this immersive structure, and coming back to the theme above of listening, I have learned that part of this “beyond academia” implementation is learning to forget what we think we know, or forgetting what plan we think ought to happen. Instead, what happens if we meet people where and when they are? One of the most pressing and relevant lessons these immersive experiences can provide is to “just” be at ease with the all-too-familiar feeling many graduate students with imposter syndrome feel and try to forget: that we don’t even know what we don’t even know.

On a personal note — having known this organization for over three decades — I have been able to reflect on the way my career in theatre has been in formation long before I considered myself a viable academic or artist. And this is important not for my own edification, but rather because groups like WCT have the privilege and responsibility to educate, encourage, and safely steward young people as they model the kind of sensibility towards professionalism they can continue to develop long after their time on WCT stages has ended. Speaking of ends, I am glad that this experience is not a capstone nor an end at all, but rather the start of more remote support and engagement with this organization nearest and dearest to my heart. I thank Pitt, my Humanities Engage cohort, and most of all, the Walpole Children’s Theatre for giving me the opportunity to extend myself further than I initially hoped this summer. In this way, we can model the type of engagement and impact a lifetime in the humanities can achieve.

Christopher Staley
Theatre and Performance Studies
October 14, 2020
Learn about all the Summer 2020 Immersive Fellows and their experiences with their host organizations.