To be or not to be, that was the question. A theater and dance major, collaboratively designed by faculty from the two disciplines and proposed by Associate Professor of Theater and Dance Robert Bechtel, was turned down this week by the Bowdoin Curriculum and Educational Policy Committee (CEP).
The proposal, which Bechtel submitted in March, was returned by the committee with a series of questions expressing concerns with the major. After an extensive reply from Bechtel, the proposal was shelved earlier this week.
"I got a list of questions from the committee that immediately spelled trouble," said Bechtel. "They were questions that clearly didn't take us seriously. We had to prove our intellectual worth and prove that we belonged at a liberal arts college."
Bowdoin currently has only a theater and English coordinate major, but has greatly expanded its theater and dance departments in the last two years. According to Bechtel, that expansion is what prompted the move toward a major.
"We just finished the search for two new professors," said Bechtel. "Suddenly the department went from having one tenure-track professor to having three. In my mind, we're just ready to go with the new faculty and curriculum."
In addition to hiring new professors, the theater and dance departments have also benefited from many of the construction and renovation projects in the last decade, according to Dean of Academic Affairs Cristle Collins Judd, the chair of the CEP and one of its two ex officio members.
"In the past year we put in a brand new dance studio at Maine Street Station, the fitness center, the yoga studio was equipped with a spring floor to accommodate dance, and we also just hired a new dance professor to a tenure-track position," said Judd.
"In part, the CEP decision [to deny the major] is recognition that the department has just done two searches and is in the continuing process of a lot of change," said Judd. "The refusal is just to make sure we understand how the courses will be offered, how they will rotate through the faculty. We want to continue the conversation between the department and the CEP."
In terms of the theater departments at peer schools and the role of the arts at Bowdoin, Judd said the College is at a turning point.
"We always look at what our peer schools do but we also look to do the best with the resources we have. I think we are in an extraordinary moment for the theater department," said Judd. "The crucial thing to recognize is that [President] Barry Mills and I are both advocates for the role of the arts in the liberal arts and as an intellectual endeavor—visual arts, film, art history, creative writing—and we believe that all of our departments represent deeply intellectual endeavors and a variety of ways of knowing."
Bechtel offered a different perspective of the College's position in terms of its support of the arts.
"I think the arts are important and Bowdoin has traditionally been behind the curve, especially today," said Bechtel. "If you look at the economy, it's a creative economy. I have students that come to me and say they are disappointed in Bowdoin generally because it's a pretty conservative school and it doesn't really support the arts."
Some students expressed dissatisfaction with the decision to shelve the theater and dance major proposal.
Lily Shapiro '12 was planning on switching her coordinate English and theater major to a theater and dance major if the proposal had passed.
"I think that theater has always been a recognized part of liberal education," said Shapiro. "Looking at a lot of peer schools, a lot of them have majors and have for a while."
"I do think theater in particular is very close to the epitome of what a liberal arts education aims at," she continued. "The best theater made is a synthesis of other areas and draws on knowledge learned in other subjects or other interests you are passionate about."
Shapiro, who said she is contemplating self-designing a theater and dance major, has started a Facebook group in opposition to the CEPs decision and has met with Mills and Judd on the issue.
"I've met with Barry Mills to talk about what students like myself should do, and he strongly suggested self-designing and meeting with the theater and dance department," said Shapiro.
Khalil LeSaldo '11, a current psychology major, said he was perturbed by the decision to deny the major and agreed with Shapiro on the interdisciplinary potential of theater.
"Who would doubt the legitimacy of theater as an area of study? It's a medium for the examination of many other disciplines," said LeSaldo. "Couldn't the same be said about an English or anthropology major? We all presumably speak English, but there are millions of facets, eras and subjects, which means plenty of teachable classes to fill out a major."
Lesaldo, who tried to develop an Arabic major but was unable to, said he will return to his previous psychology major.
Judd recognized the disappointment of students hoping for the approval of the proposal, but said that new majors take semesters, and sometimes even years, to pass.
"It's unfortunate if students were depending on a not-yet-approved major and that being implemented instantly, and I can understand their disappointment," said Judd. "It's very common that when a new major is accepted it may be phased in over a series of years. It's not that often that new majors are proposed. So it's not a process that happens in a series of weeks."
In light of the refusal of the proposal Judd and Mills are offering help to those students looking for a new academic path.
"I'm happy to meet with any of the students to work with them on how they work in their existing major and if their theater-English major can satisfy them," said Judd. "For some, self-designed majors would be appropriate. I want to help students to navigate the curriculum so they can realize their passions."
While the proposal remains open for future examination, Bechtel said the theater and dance major is not only important for current students interested in the department, but for the College.
"It's not just student demand, it's healthy for Bowdoin," said Bechtel. "Theater trains the imagination and the imagination can be applied to any field. The most groundbreaking scholarship in every field involves some imaginative leap. It's about bringing two things together that have never been together before."