headshot_sandraWe can dance if we want to
We can leave your friends behind
‘Cause your friends don’t dance and if they don’t dance
Well they’re no friends of mine.

I say, we can go where we want to
A place where they will never find
And we can act like we come from out of this world
Leave the real one far behind
And we can dance

—- “Safety Dance” by Men Without Hats

[Pictured: Sandra L. Burton, Lipp Family Director of Dance]

Big decision at the faculty meeting tomorrow is whether or not to approve the creation of a Dance Department, moving dance at Williams from being a minor part of physical education to a full-fledged academic department. Interested? Start with Record coverage (here and here). [Is it just me, or is the Record website the worst of any paper at an elite college?] Check out the reports available from the office of the Dean of the Faculty.

Summary: It would be ridiculous to create a Department when we only have 1.75 faculty FTE. But, the “Williams way” is generally fairly accommodating. If a small minority of the Williams community care intensely about a Dance Department (and the future chair of that department is tight with the Bob Lipp ’60, the previous executive chair of the trustees), then why should I make them angry by voting “No?” Given these conflicting forces, I have no idea what will happen on Wednesday.

My rant below.

If I were on the faculty, I would vote “No.” A financial crisis is no time to create new departments, especially departments without majors. Table the topic for a few years and then revisit.

1) Readers may recall that I argued against a Dance Department last fall.

Don’t turn Dance into an academic department. This isn’t a cost cutting suggestion per se, just a way of avoiding spending more money on an activity that is currently classified under athletics. As always, in a world of infinite money, one could make the case that Dance, like Studio Art or Theater, should be an academic department, but not within our current financial constraints. Does anyone have an update on this proposal? The Record reported in September that:

After more than three decades as part of the department of physical education, the College’s dance program is on its way to becoming an academic department, with a new Dance Committee formed to oversee the transition. According to Holly Silva, assistant director of dance, the College is “committed … to a move towards dance in an academic setting.”

Since its inception in the early 1970s, the ultimate goal of the dance program has been to become a comprehensive academic program and eventually offer a major in dance, Silva said. In 2007, the College ordered an outside peer review of the program, and in the coming year the Dance Committee, consisting of faculty, administrators and two appointed students, will be looking into logistics of the potential change.

Silva may be in for a surprise.

Or maybe I am in for one. I never would have expected the process to continue this far, given the budget crunch. And, judging from the Report, the proponents of Dance recognized that they could not fully staff a new Department given the current crisis. But they are still attempting to create one and then leave the staffing for a later fight. This strikes me as smart politics. Get the Department now and fight for the resources later. But, from the point of view of the College as a whole, it is a bad idea.

2) In theory, I am responsive to the basic thrust of the argument. Students should be able to major in what they want to major in. The College has artistic majors like Music, Theatre and Studio Art. If those three are reasonable majors, then Dance is as well. Dance is extremely popular at Williams. [Of course, my “solution” to this inequity is to remove Music, Theater and Studio Art from academic offerings of the College. Treat them as extra-curricular activities, like athletics. Barring financial Armageddon, that will never happen. ] Still, if the bull market were still rumbling and there was good evidence that Dance classes would be filled and that there would be at least 10 majors a year, I might vote “Yes,” just as I was a fan of Williams in New York. Still, Dance proponents should not try and oversell their similarity to Theatre and Music. From the Record:

“As I see it, the primary argument for making dance an academic department is that dance, as an art form, has the same amount of academic and intellectual rigor as every other art form,” said Jenny Danzi ’09, a dance teaching assistant who has been involved in the program throughout her four years at the College. “Since we have departments with majors for theater, music and art history and practice, it follows that dance should be housed the same way.”

This is a bit po-mo-ish for me. Dance has the same “intellectual rigor” as Music? I will take the other side of that claim. One measure of the “intellectual rigor” for field X is whether or not one can earn a Ph.D. and also whether or not possession of a Ph.D. is taken as a qualification for claiming expertize, at least as a teacher. Every (?) music professor at Williams has a Ph.D. No dance professor does. Either you don’t really need a Ph.D. to teach dance, in which case the field is not as intellectually rigorous as Music or you do need a Ph.D., in which case Williams lacks the faculty to start a Dance Department.

Noone denies that the College ought to provide the resources and instruction for students to pursue excellence in Dance, just as it does for students who seek excellence in Lacrosse. But a Dance Department? Alas, in the current climate, there is just not enough money for this sort of foolishness.

3) I am incredibly suspicious of any process that leads off with a pseudo statistic.

In 2007 an external review committee visited the Williams Dance program. The committee was unanimous in their recommendation that dance be brought into the academic curriculum and, like the other performing arts on campus, provide training for students in the history, theory, performance and creative practice of the discipline. As one of the reviewers noted, “[fewer] than two percent of the colleges and universities in the United States still house dance in a Physical Education Department”.

Those are the first two sentences of the Executive Summary. Let us count the ways that the 2% claim is misleading.

a) We don’t care what happens in the vast majority of US colleges and universities. That South State Nowhere does X has a minimal bearing on whether or not Williams does X. We care if schools like Williams do X. Now, just because Amherst or Bates or Pomona does something, does not mean that we should. But the quoted percentage is useless because it ignores the relevant peer group.

b) Even if the peer group is correct, the question is not. Williams does not care if Amherst houses Dance within the Physical Education Department or someplace else. The issue today is whether or not Dance should be an academic department, with all the assorted rights and privileges, like tenure. Maybe it should. Maybe it shouldn’t. But whether dance is housed in PE or the Deans Office or in its own special administrative structure is not the topic.

c) No (proper) source is given. Are we operating in an academic environment or aren’t we? Now, the authors of this report might claim that they are just quoting one of the reviewers. But, still, if you are going to only make one empirical claim of fact in your executive summary, then you ought to footnote that claim. Who thinks that this is really even true? Not me. In fact, I think that it is positively misleading in the way that it is used here.

4) I am unimpressed with the process, although kudos to the Office of the Dean of the Faculty for making the reports publicly available. First, the outside reviewers seemed to have been handpicked to reach the conclusion that they did.

The Director of the Dance Program Sandra Burton asked senior staff to initiate a review of the program so that it could be assessed by peers from liberal arts institutions with which Williams routinely compares itself. The need for a review of the dance program and for an assessment of its role at Williams was recognized by the Dean of Faculty and he authorized an external review that took place during the fall semester of 2007. Sandra Burton and Assistant Director of Dance Holly Silva prepared a self-study and assembled additional information to send to the external reviewers—the directors of the dance programs at Bates, Carleton, Harvard, and Swarthmore.

Did we even need to read their report before we knew that they would say? “Yes! Williams needs a Dance Department!” Big surprise! This is not a reasonable process for making an important decision. You need to consider both sides.

Second, the Williams committee seemed staff with people who would do whatever it takes to save Dance, despite the financial crisis. Now, this is probably OK in that you can’t have a committee about Dance at Williams without including the faculty who currently teach Dance. Still, is there anyone stepping back and looking at the big picture? There are many academic classes at Williams that are significantly over-enrolled. Why not fix that problem first?

Third, none of the Reports provide any evidence (contrary opinions welcome) that there is much demand for Dance as a major or Dance classes for academic credit. What enrollments do they expect? What are the numbers like at other schools? Swarthmore is held up as an example, but, if if were only going to steal one thing from Swarthmore this year it should be engineering not dance.

5) Are you a faculty member thinking about just voting “Yes,” because you don’t want to make trouble? Think ahead. From the Executive Summary:

Assigning the administrative structure of a department to the current program will provide the dance faculty with the same opportunities as all programs and departments to apply to the college for increased resources as they become available. New courses and, possibly, a route to a major, will be reviewed and approved through established college procedures.

Exactly right. Dance as a department means fewer resources for your department in future years. You can either piss off Sandra Burton now or piss her off later. An author of the Report (John Gerry?) has even helpfully italicized that first sentence where it appears later in Section IV.

6) The Report claims that making Dance a department does not cost the College anything. Really? I suspect, but do not know, that Dance faculty are currently paid like coaches because they are all part of the physical education department. And coaches are paid less than 1/2 as much a professors. Will Dance faculty be paid like academic faculty or athletic faculty if Dance is an academic department? The question answers itself. And don’t forget about sabbaticals and other benefits.

7) The dog that grumbles without barking is the simple idea of adding Dance to the Theatre Department, just like they do at Amherst.

Theater and Dance
The boundaries between theater, dance, and other performance forms are blurring. The Department of Theater and Dance sees these several forms as different expressions of a single aesthetic instinct. Thus we explore, from different perspectives, the many relationships between live performer and audience sharing the same time and place. Ours is not a conservatory training program in the arts of theater and dance. We do not narrowly prepare students for careers as actors and dancers.

If we are going to move Dance into academics (not unreasonable) and we lack the resources to have Dance as its own department (definitely true), then why not just add Dance to Theatre? That is also the way that Middlebury does things.

My guess is that the faculty in Theatre and/or the faculty in Dance would prefer not to be stuck with each other. If I were a faculty member at the meeting, I would push hard on this topic. The Report sidesteps the debate by claiming that:

The Resource Subcommittee found no budgetary advantage to joining Dance to the Theatre or Music departments, nor did this committee find any curricular advantage to such an accommodation.

20030912_bakerwhiteWeird, huh? First, this is not just an issue for the “Resource Subcommittee.” This is the most obvious solution to the problem of Williams not offering dance classes for academic credit. Why fob off discussion onto a subcommittee focusing on bean-counting? Why not have the whole committee, especially key decision-makers like Burton and Theatre Professor Baker-White provide their opinions on this obvious solution. What are the pros and cons of this approach?

I suspect that the Theatre Department wants no part of Dance. If true, there is probably a reason . . .

8) Theatre does not want Dance and (unsurprisingly?) Physical Education can not wait to get rid of it.

Otherwise, the subcommittee recommends that the P.E. curriculum and the dance curriculum be clearly and cleanly separated. P.E. will no longer offer dance courses, though they might offer courses that will be beneficial to dancers. And the Dance Program will no longer offer P.E. courses, though they might offer courses or other opportunities that will count for P.E. credit. The same recommendation—a distinct separation—applies to staffing, budgeting, and allocation of space. P.E. should no longer depend on Sandra, Holly, or any other dance faculty or staff member to provide service to the P.E. department. And therefore, dance would have no special claim to financial, spatial, or other resources within the PE department

[I think that the sentence ends there but perhaps the posted copy of the Report is messed up? Why are the last few pages blank?]

melendyVeterans of bureaucratic turf warfare will note how strange PE’s attitude is. (Lisa Melendy, Associate Director of Athletics, was on the Committee.) In general, group X will hate to give up any of its resources, people and power, however much “sense” it makes in terms of the interests if the larger institution. Why is PE so eager to get rid of Dance? Why is it in a rush to lose access to those resources?

Something tells me that Theatre faculty like Baker-White and Athletic faculty like Melendy are not charter members of the Sandra Burton fan-club.

But, if I were a faculty member, I could not care less about personality conflicts. But I would refuse to vote for an idea — like Dance as an academic department with only 1.75 FTE faculty — that seems personality-driven, and not in a good way. Can you act like you “come from out of this world” and “leave the real one far behind?” Not if you want the rest of the Williams faculty to play nicely with you. This Record quote is damning:

However, Danzi acknowledged the mixed feelings towards the idea of the transition, and also believes that the program could use improvement. “Given that dance at Williams has never been in the academic realm, it is understandable that there is a lot of resistance to the proposed change,” she said. “The current program, while it has many strengths, is an unsuitable foundation for a major that meets Williams’ standards.”

She cited areas such as lack of feedback to faculty, denial of sabbaticals and insufficient reviewing of curriculum by yearly steering committees as facets of the dance program that should be improved, regardless of whether or not it becomes an academic department. “The dance program certainly enriches the College and its students’ lives, but it does not meet the school’s standards of excellence,” Danzi said.

Recall that Danzi is a teaching assistant in Dance. If even she thinks that the Dance program does not currently meet the “school’s standards of excellence,” then I think there is a problem, the sort of problem that sabbaticals and extra money won’t necessarily fix. Have any readers taken Professor Burton’s ARTS 202(S) Movement and Art Making? What does FacTrak report?

If you are still reading at this point, then you should obviously go to the source documents themselves rather than spend more time with my ill-founded speculations . . .

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