Walking the Narrow Path of Academic Careers in the Arts


Cyan Larson

(Graphic by Cyan Larson | The Daily Utah Chronicle)

By Hannah Keating and Frank Gardner


Adjunct and full-time professors alike have had a difficult couple of years of adapting to online teaching and trying to work through the emotional toll taken by the pandemic. Many of the challenges professors face during this time are not new, but are magnified by the external pressures of the last several semesters. We spoke to a few professors about what that has meant for their careers in academia so far, and what their hopes are for the future.

Balancing Passion and Academia’s Demands

Mark Fossen is an adjunct professor at the University of Utah and Westminster College, who taught one class at each institution this past fall while advising the student dramaturgy opportunities in the Theatre departments on both campuses. In addition to teaching, he works at Salt Lake Community College managing their website and online content, is a dramaturg for Hale Centre Theatre Orem and works with the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas.

After many years of working as a professional actor, he got his BFA in Theatre from the U in 2014 and began working as a teaching assistant and leading classes of his own while receiving his MFA from the University of Idaho.

“The first semester is always the hardest,” Fossen said. Having to generate coursework, assignments and projects for the specifics of classes like theatre history and script analysis is a lot of the work for adjunct professors, and they usually have very little lead time. “Every semester is a sort of surprise,” Fossen said, describing one horror story of having to step into a class with only three days of prep time — no curriculum, no “packet” of what the professor before had, just a syllabus and his own prior knowledge of theatre history and analysis.

“The desire to teach at the college level was why I went back [to school], and it’s still my goal,” Fossen says. “I don’t think we need any more fifty-year-old white guys in theatre, but I want to make theatre better for people who don’t look like me.”

Would Fossen ever work as a full-time adjunct professor? No — the work is so sporadic, and he loves the simplicity of adjuncting. “There’s no committees, no publishing, no politics,” Fossen said. “I just get to teach […] and that’s what keeps me coming back: the students.” That removal from the inner workings of academia is a blessing and a curse. “Sometimes your ability to cause change in a department is limited […] you’re not there in the halls.”

The Pandemic’s Added Pressures

Like many of the performing industries, theatre has experienced a huge paradigm shift post-COVID-19, involving everything from gender and identity onstage to how we discuss consent and wellbeing. “I think there are a lot of educators who are teaching the way we’ve been taught … and I’m not interested in that.” With COVID-19 restrictions, Fossen noticed that “we don’t push through illness anymore, and I am fully behind that. I don’t want to be a professor who pushes students to ‘suffer for their art.’”

Especially with such a short amount of time to adapt their coursework and change the modes in which they taught, the restrictions brought on by the pandemic meant a lot of work for adjunct professors.

Art history professor Meekyung MacMurdie said part of that work for professors has been figuring out what practices educators can take from the pandemic for future semesters. “We’re always interested in responding to our students’ needs and making our classes better,” MacMurdie said. “So we will take the things that worked really well during the pandemic and keep doing them.”

She also says it’s important to be mindful of the emotional impact the pandemic has taken on students and teachers alike. “We’re all at a different place now […] we are realizing now that we need our institutions to provide for us. We can see flaws in the structure that maybe we didn’t see before and we can realize more clearly how they impact our lives.”

Hope for the Future

The pitfalls of pursuing a career in academia have become especially tenuous as in-person connection with helpful contacts has been limited. After working abroad at a university in Switzerland, Professor MacMurdie says that there are some major differences in how the American system operates in comparison to a European model, but both systems are awed: “Both models are cruel.” The pathway to a viable career in academia, with limited open positions, is very narrow.

Especially in the arts and humanities, where universities usually allocate much less funding, it can be incredibly difficult to imagine a sustainable career in academia. Many professors, like the ones we spoke with, can see the cracks in the system but have hope that post-pandemic academia will be more empathetic and better equipped to fix the problems in place.


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