I had a revelation about dreaming thanks to a search committee meeting.
It’s hiring season in my department. We’re doing four faculty searches along with a college-wide dean search. I’ve logged hours in nitpicking conversations, waded through a metric ton of applications, and posed countless HR-approved questions to candidates over jittery, time-lagged Skype connections.
In such interviews, our final question is typically some variation of “Do you have anything to ask us?” Interviewees train for this, preparing something that combines “I’ve done enough research not to ask something bone-headed” with “I’m perceptive enough to formulate a clever insight.”
A few weeks ago, though, a candidate asked the committee where we see ourselves and our college in five years. A simple enough question, right? We had even heard it before and had laughed off some answer about winning the lottery. But for whatever reason the candidate persisted this time, pressing to find—for real—what we saw for our future.
Silence and blank stares—from me and from my peers gathered around the webcam.
We were stumped.
Finally someone coughed and offered that perhaps our difficulty answering was itself an answer.
I went away from that meeting shaken to realize the degree to which I’d given up on thinking in the long term. It’s been a hectic couple of years. Our department’s endured some generational turnover, my book finally got published, and my tenure case got approved. And throughout, we’ve weathered the aftermath of the 2008 crash—quite admirably, I might add. We’ve taken a licking and kept on ticking.
We’re working harder with fewer resources and still attracting more students. More cuts? The show must go on. Faculty overloads? We’ll get it done. Unfunded mandates to increase enrollment by twenty percent or more? Yessir.
The upshot? I’d become used to running on fumes, bracing for the next cut, not seeing any further than surviving to the next year, the next semester, the next production, or sometimes even the next class. My vision—my capacity to dream—had contracted to no further than the next tentative step.
I know I’m not alone in feeling this way. Even as I mark my weariness, I recognize how relatively lucky I’ve been. Our ATHE community includes grad students struggling with tighter budgets and shorter timelines and higher expectations than I ever remember enduring. I hear from PhDs and MFAs working three or more adjunct gigs while simultaneously applying to jobs, keeping pace with scholarship/productions, and breaking the bank to get to conferences like ATHE. And I have friends in institutions hit much harder than mine, who do brave and praiseworthy work to stay above water and serve their students.
For all of us, the prospect of dreaming or of a conference dedicated to dream acts can seem ludicrously naïve. I don’t have time to dream! I’m too busy doing. And to be sure, no dream act will by itself rejuvenate budgets, swell enrollment, conjure tenure track appointments, or moderate overloads.
But I cannot exist, I find, forever in the desert of the real. I discovered a need for something more hopeful ahead of me. Without it, my present becomes nothing more than a desperate scrabble for brute existence. I need to dream. I’m reminded of William Nicholson’s play Shadowlands about Christian writer C. S. Lewis. There a character asks Lewis, who at this point is caring for his terminally ill wife Joy, why he prays. Does he hope to move God to cure Joy? Lewis says no. “I pray,” he says “because the need flows out of me all the time- waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God— it changes me.”
I’m coming to think of dream acts in a similar way. I need dreaming not because it changes fiscal or political realities but because it changes me. It gives me a sense of perspective. It challenges me to imagine a tomorrow where my students, my field, my research, my colleagues are not only surviving but thriving, pursuing a goal, making manifest a hope.
That’s what I hope to find in Scottsdale in July: a taste of something more, a glimpse of possible futures that can transform me in the immediate present—an oasis of shared visions in the heart of the desert.
John Fletcher is the Interim Chair of the Department of Theatre at Louisiana State University. His book Preaching to Convert: Evangelical Outreach and Performance Activism in a Secular Age came out in November from the University of Michigan Press.
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