One of the first things my friend, and mentor — and Columbia University in the City of New York professor — Howard Stein told me, was that he was once a produced, and award-winning Playwright, and when he decided to teach other Playwrights at the University of Iowa for a living, he gave up his Playwright life because he didn’t want to compete with his students. I thought that instinct was honorable and right and the lesson sticks with me today. New plays have a hard enough time getting produced on their own, and when you’re in direct competition with your professor for stage time, and production dollars, you quickly discern how easy it is for the amateur Playwright to fail in the same professional arena as the Professor.
Howard told me a story about his time at the Yale School of Drama when he, and internationally famous set designer Ming Cho Lee, were examining student work together. Ming was teaching at Yale and one of his graduate design students was Santo Loquasto. When Howard and Ming came to the set piece Santo designed for “A Glass Menagerie,” Ming nodded his head and said, “Now that’s competition!”
You can’t give a higher compliment to a student than to consider them a peer as a professor — competition, indeed! — but Howard’s initial point to me was proven: There are a limited number of stage productions per year and Ming Cho Lee was still actively designing while on staff at Yale Drama while Santo Loquasto, his competition, and student, was hoping to make his own professional mark.
Does a professor help or hurt a star student? Help, and a career can deconstruct; hinder, and the generation behind you dies in your hands. It all depends on the moral compass of the professor, not the student, and not all professors are dutiful or of the Gods.
The young have to eat the old before the old chop off their heads. It’s an unfortunate fact of life, but in the American system of education, and production and business, it isn’t enough to just be good — you have to be ruthless as well.
For Ming and Santo, everything worked out because they both had outstanding design careers and continued to help each other.
Next, we are taken to the example of genius international stage director Liviu Ciulei — who, by necessity and urging — lived to compete with his directing students. We’d see Liviu in the Columbia University hallways making international pay phone calls during class time breaks because, as Howard loved to say, “Liviu hustles!” — and he always wanted to bum a dime from you to feed the payphone. The smart grad students lingered in the hallway during breaks with pocketsful of dimes.
Liviu’s hustle translated into a visible desperation because he never knew when his next directorial debut would happen or where he’d be living next year. NYU finally offered him some solace in his old age, a full time teaching position with salary and benefits and housing — mainly because Zelda Fichandler made a slot for him after the great, foundational, work he did for her at Arena Stage — but he still earned his daily bread and directed while teaching directing at NYU.
Yes, adjunct professors will always compete with, and indirectly repress, their students because they are working professionals in the field — but full time professors on salary, with benefits, and job security — should not leach to compete with their students.
Here’s the story of a golden-voiced radio professional who left commercial radio to teach radio production at a local land grant university. This professional-turned-academic created several radio programs for the college radio station and, to this day, decades later, still hosts and produces the on-air shows himself.
This example shines most brightly the point of my argument: There are only 24 hours in a day, and when a professor on salary is culling hours from that day for his own radio show — no matter how little, or how often — those hours are lost forever to the amateur student paying tuition.
A limited argument may be made that the professor is “teaching-through-doing,” but that only goes so far, and would require only one show as demonstration. Sure, we all need backslapping, but it should not be at the expense of the student.
I’m making the case against professorial competition in the Performing Arts and Broadcast Entertainment, but other business offers matter, too. University professors are duty-bound to not compete with their students in the marketplace, or directly grub limited resources for their own parasitic satisfaction because the student should be learning-through-failure and testing success against real life contentions.