Dean of the College Dolan: pioneer of feminist theater criticism| September 22, 2015
Jill Dolan, the Annan Professor in English, Professor of Theater in the Lewis Center for the Arts and Director of the Program in Gender and Sexuality Studies, was named Dean of the College this June. Dolan, author of the award-winning blog “The Feminist Spectator” and expert in women’s and LGBT theatre, performance and popular culture and drama and performance studies, has taught at Princeton since 2008.
“I know one of the things that’s very important to Jill herself is being present to our undergraduate students and to the faculty as a dean who cares about what’s happening in the curriculum and who cares deeply about teaching,” University president Christopher Eisgruber ’83 said.
Appointment as Dean of the College
“I’m delighted to be in this role,” Dolan said. “I think it’s one of the most interesting positions to be in at the University.”
She explained that she is excited to see how the University’s curriculum fits together as well as to work with myriad offices and staff across the University. Dolan explained that the first priority that she will be taking charge of is the General Education Task Force, a group that looks at reevaluating the University’s distribution requirements. The task force, she said, will be getting underway at the end of September.
“That’s going to be really exciting and forward-looking work because really what we’re charged with doing is thinking about what an educated person needs to know in the beginning of the 21stcentury,” Dolan said.
Other priorities, she explained, include thinking about online teaching methods as accessible means of education, expanding international projects like the Bridge Year Program, study abroad options and questions of diversity, belonging, inclusion and access at the University.
“Ultimately, the students are the people my office serves,” Dolan said. “I think it’s really important for any administrator on a diverse campus to really know who it is we’re working with.”
Dolan says she finds out what students think and care about when she teaches. She said she hopes to continue teaching, though not this year as she adjusts to her new position of Dean of the College. She noted, however, that she is still accepting invitations to speak on panels and events across campus.
“That’s really where you keep your ear to the ground and hear what’s going on and what people are interested in or frustrated by or excited about,” Dolan said.
Eisgruber noted that Dolan is assuming her role as Dean of the College at a time when the University is looking to undergo various key changes, namely the strategic planning of a reevaluation of the University’s distribution requirements and general education curriculum as well as the residential colleges. Eisgruber noted that, while the residential colleges are doing a terrific job, there is always room to look for improvement, something Dolan and Vice President for Campus Life Rochelle Calhoun will work on together.
“I think Jill will be a terrific leader for that process,” Eisgruber said.
Eisgruber explained that, while there were many terrific candidates for Dean of the College, Dolan brought a remarkable range of talent and experience to the position, making her the right choice.
“She is someone who cares deeply about students and deeply about teaching and does it well,” Eisgruber said.
He noted Dolan’s extensive administrative experience within the University, explaining that she has served on the Committee of Three and Priorities Committee and has led the University’s Program in Gender and Sexuality Studies.
One of the most impressive things about Dolan, he said, in addition to her values and her caring for students, is her ability to get things done in administrative processes. Eisgruber added that Dolan has the ability to bring people together and make things happen with a light touch and charm.
Eisgruber further said that Dolan’s teaching experience will afford her a solid foundation to build upon during her time as Dean of the College.
“I think the fact that Jill has such a passion for teaching and scholarship and is so distinguished as a scholar will give her great credibility as she does that and will bring the right kind of vision,” he said.
Dean of the Faculty Deborah Prentice explained that the initial search committee for the next Dean of the College was made up of four faculty members and two students. According to Prentice, a call went out asking people to nominate others or self nominate. There was also a town hall meeting for students to nominate people. People interested in the position were then interviewed and a short list of three names was forwarded to Eisgruber. Eisgruber then conducted a set of interviews with his cabinet and made the final decision.
“She’s done a great job of building the program in gender and sexuality studies as its director for a number of years,” Prentice said. “She has contacts across campus in many different units and across the divisions of the University.”
Prentice noted Dolan’s broad reach, explaining that Dolan has a very good way of listening to both faculty and students and building consensus around common ground. She noted that the search committee got nominations for Dolan from every corner of the University.
Eisgruber said that he knows Dolan will be an engaged and visible Dean of the College.
“I especially hope and I think she hopes that undergraduate students will be able to view her as their dean and one of the people who, when they talk to the University about their hopes and aspirations, they think about Jill Dolan and they think about the Dean of the College,” Eisgruber said.
Dolan served as head of the theater department at the University of Texas at Austin, on the faculty of the University of Wisconsin at Madison and the City University of New York Graduate Center before joining the University’s faculty in 2008. While at the City University of New York she was the Executive Director of the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies at the Graduate Center, and while at UT Austin she headed the Department of Theatre and Dance’s MA/Ph.D. program in performance as a public practice.
Dolan received the Distinguished Scholar Award for Outstanding Career Achievement in Scholarship in the Field of Theatre Studies from the American Society for Theatre Research in 2013. She was also inducted into the University of Texas at Austin’s Academy of Distinguished Teachers in fall 2006, after receiving a College of Fine Arts teaching award earlier in her UT career.
Among her proudest accomplishments as a professor, Dolan said, are the teaching awards she has won over the course of her teaching career. She said she is particularly proud of being part of UT Austin’s Academy of Distinguished Teachers, which, she noted, only about 5 percent of the school’s faculty were invited to at the time.
According to Dolan, the fields that she grew up in, theater studies and performance studies, were just starting to look at women and performance, feminist performance theory and LGBT performance and theory when she was starting her career in the late 1990s. She said that if there is one thing she is most proud of, it is that she got to help the field establish itself and flourish at the various academic institutions at which she worked.
“I’ve worked with a lot of different students, both undergraduate and graduate students, who have gone on to use the kind of feminist criticism work that I’ve done over my career in their own lives and their own theater practices or their own work as doctors or lawyers or wherever they’ve gone,” Dolan said. “I feel like I’ve been lucky enough, as any teacher is, to have some effect on the people that I’ve worked with just as they’ve certainly had an effect on me.”
Cameron Platt ’16 has had Dolan as a professor twice, once in Dramaturgy, the practice of doing textual, historical and visual research for the theater, and once in Performance Studies. Platt said that Dolan goes above and beyond to know her students outside of the classroom, attending many of her students’ events on campus.
Platt added that Dolan is also an excellent facilitator of discussion, often picking out what is insightful about students’ statements and then making that insight come to life for the whole class.
“She just cares so much and pours so much love and thought into her work,” Platt said. “She’s incredibly brilliant and so humble about it.”
Adin Walker ’16, an English concentrator with certificates in Gender and Sexualities and Theater, took Dolan and theater professor Stacy Wolf’s course in performance studies which he says was an amazing introduction to the field and first exposed him to the incredible teaching skills of Dolan. He described Dolan’s presence in the theater department and among her students as incredibly dynamic, explaining that Dolan will not only attend shows but also lead discussions and otherwise engage with students around campus.
Working with Dolan, he said, helped him find a sense of confidence as a student while navigating his gender identity and identity as an artist.
“It’s hard for me to put into words how much she has impacted my experience here,” Walker said.
Hendrik Hartog, Class of 1921 Bicentennial Professor in the History of American Law and Liberty, said he and Dean Dolan taught at the University of Wisconsin at the same time, though they did not know each other at the time. He first got to know her, he said, when she began to run the Gender and Sexuality Studies Program at the University of Wisconsin and he was the director of the American studies program.
“She’s very principled. She has a strong vision of how a university should be run,” Hartog said.
He added that Dolan believes in the intersection between various academic disciplines, adding that this intersection is just beginning to find its identity at the University.
Jessica Del Vecchio '99, who was a graduate student of Dolan’s at UT Austin, says she was first exposed to Dolan’s "The Feminist Spectator as Critic" as an undergraduate at the University, but later got to know her as a mentor at UT Austin, where Dolan began the Performance as Public Practice Program in their theater department. Dolan was Del Vecchio’s masters thesis adviser.
Del Vecchio described Dolan as a progressive and caring mentor.
“She is a person who is a wealth of knowledge and who is very generous with that knowledge,” Del Vecchio said.
Del Vecchio also noted that when she graduated from the University in 1999, it was still a pretty conservative place.
“I emailed my friend [when I heard about Dolan’s appointment] saying the feminist spectator has been made Dean of the College,” Del Vecchio said. "If that had happened in ’99 I think our heads would have exploded off of our bodies."
Career outside the classroom
Dolan has been editor and publisher of various publications including her blog, "The Feminist Spectator." According to its website, "The Feminist Spectator" discusses theatre, performance, film and television, focusing on issues such as gender, sexuality, race, other identities and overlaps and our common humanity. The blog also discusses the arts and the role they play in our lives.
Some of the recent works Dolan has enjoyed include Ava DuVernay’s “The Middle of Nowhere,” Olivier Assayas “The Clouds of Sils Maria,” Annie Baker’s “John” and “The Flick,” the musical “Hamilton,” Laura Hankin’s “The Summertime Girls” and Kent Haruf’s “Our Souls at Night.”
“I’m a cultural omnivore,” Dolan said.
Dolan says that her aim in the future is to write as much as she can and to enhance the conversation about the arts in general and theater, film and television from a feminist perspective.
“I feel like we just don’t talk enough about what we see, the theater we go to, the television that we watch, the films we go to see. There’s so much to say about how they influence who we are as people and how they help us to think about who we are as citizens, as a country and as a globe,” Dolan said. “I write about theater and film and television because I think they really give us information not just about who we are but also about who we could be.”
Dolan says she loves going to see theater, watching television and going to films. Criticism for her, she says, isn’t about negating that pleasure but, instead, about amplifying that pleasure.She said that the frequency of blogging may decrease a little now that she has become dean of the college, but she hopes that will only be temporary.
Dolan edited "A Menopausal Gentleman: The Solo Performances of Peggy Shaw," which won the 2012 Lambda Literary Award for Best LGBT Drama. Her other books include "Theatre & Sexuality," "Utopia in Performance: Finding Hope at the Theatre" and "The Feminist Spectator as Critic," which has been translated into Korean and was reissued in an anniversary edition in 2012. She is now working on a critical study of the plays of Wendy Wasserstein, a deceased playwright who has been described as an author of women’s identity crises.
Dolan is also a past president of the Association for Theatre in Higher Education and a past president of the Women and Theatre Program. She said that these kinds of organizations set the agenda for the field by gathering scholars and provide a platform for mentorship. In her position at these organizations, she said, she advocated for arguments about why people should study and write about theater as well as lesbian, gay and feminist studies.
Sara Warner, an associate professor in the Department of Performing and Media Arts at Cornell, where she is a core member of the Feminist, Gender and Sexuality Studies Program, the Lesbian, Bisexual and Gay Studies Program, and an affiliate faculty member of both Visual Studies and American Studies, first encountered Dolan while reading her books as coursework in graduate school.
“My scholarship and course of study has been greatly informed by her pioneering efforts,” Warner said. "She is one of the founders of feminist theater criticism and of lesbian gay bisexual transgender queer criticism in theater studies."
Warner explained that Dolan has been a leader in the field not only in terms of her scholarship but also in terms of her administrative expertise as President of the Women in Theater Society and of the Association for Theater and Higher Education and Director of the Center for Lesbian and Gay studies.
“It is absolutely important to have feminist leaders and queer leaders,” said Warner. “You’re getting both of those in one package with Jill.”
Warner noted how lucky the University is to have Dolan join the ranks of its women leaders.
As far as where she sees the fields of feminine and LGBT studies heading, Dolan said developments are institution-specific and have to do largely with faculty and student involvement.
“My sense is that, here at Princeton, feminist studies, LGBT studies are really going to grow together,” Dolan said, adding that she thinks those fields grow in conjunction with other interdisciplinary fields that are linked by an attachment to the social world and what’s happening in contemporary struggles among people who are still marginalized by the global society. She says that these fields of studies are becoming increasingly global in their scope as well as focusing more on integrating community and service-based learning.
Dolan noted that many of her former students are taking over the kind of advocacy and communicative work in which she has been heavily involved in in the past.
“I think it’s time to pass those batons,” Dolan said. “I plan to still go to conferences and be as actively involved as I can be, but I probably won’t have leadership roles in the same way that I did earlier in my career.”
Dolan holds a Ph.D. and masters degree in performance studies from New York University and received her bachelor’s degree in communications from Boston University.
“Everyone has such a circuitous route to whatever it is they’re doing now,” Dolan noted when asked about how her time as a student influenced her current work.
She explained she never expected to be a teacher, and started at BU as an acting major because BU was part of the league of professional theater training schools.
“The problem was, once I got there, I didn’t really want to act the way they wanted me to,” Dolan said. “They were preparing me for a very conservative and conventional career, and it just wasn’t what I was interested in.”
She switched to being an English major, then a broadcasting and film major. After she stopped acting, Dolan said, she began writing criticism for the BU Free Press.
“That’s kind of what became the thread in my career. When I went to graduate school at NYU, it was because I wanted to write feminist criticism in theater which didn’t even exist at the time, but I thought that graduate school would be a good place to figure that out,” Dolan said.
After she graduated from BU, she spent two years in Boston writing for a women’s newspaper.
“Even though that was a feminist paper, they didn’t know anything about theater criticisms,” Dolan said.
Once at graduate school, Dolan said, she could bring both of her interests together. At NYU, Dolan worked at the drama review and continued to be a writer and an editor. It wasn’t until she was almost done writing her dissertation, which would become her first book, that she set foot in the classroom for the first time as a teacher. It was at that moment, Dolan says, that all her interests came together.
“I actually realized that teachers are performers and students are audiences,” Dolan said. “The good thing about students is that they can talk back in ways that audiences can’t.”