Please take the opportunity to peruse the latest installment of New Paradigms in Graduate Education's: Outside Academia, a series of profiles on PhDs in Theatre and Performance Studies who work outside the academy.
Interview conducted on March 25, 2015 and transcribed by Amanda Boyle, PhD candidate (ABD) at the University of Kansas.
David Escoffery is currently the Senior Director of Higher Education Assessment within the Assessment Division at the Educational Testing Service (ETS) in Princeton, New Jersey. Similarly to other profiles, Escoffery followed a unique path from his time as a student to his current position. Escoffery earned his BA in English from Princeton University in 1995. From Princeton, he decided to pursue a joint MA-PhD program at the University of Pittsburgh. He completed his PhD in Theatre History, Literature, and Criticism in 2001.
Journey To and Through Graduate School
Like many theatre practitioners and scholars, Escoffery’s interest in theatre began through participating in high school theatre; he caught the “bug.” He was drawn to the collaboration and the ensemble that theatre rehearsals afforded him. “I was going to be an actor. That would be my future. But I realized I was a bad actor in college, which is fine,” Escoffery told me with a laugh. He acknowledged that if he spent the time training and working that there was potential for him to be a decent actor, but he was not willing to commit to it. He added, “But I loved everything about theatre. I loved history and literature.” So, Escoffery talked to his professors at Princeton, including Michael Cadden, about his future and career. There was some consideration of pursuing a DFA in Dramaturgy, but Escoffery realized he desired the option to teach while in graduate school and that the DFA would not provide the type of training he needed. It was then that he realized an academic career in theatre history would give him everything he wanted because, “teaching is a performance,” he noted. He found a way to do what he loved while he studied the topics he was interested in: theatre, history, and literature. Escoffery explained, “In a way, it became a natural path to a graduate degree in theatre studies.” The decision to attend the University of Pittsburgh was the “right decision for sure,” he told me.
The next decision was to commit to the two-year MA track or the MA-PhD track. Escoffery described the choice to take the MA-PhD path as being “locked in,” but in a positive way. I asked him about his first impression of graduate school. He answered, “This may seem unusual, but I thought, ‘Wow. This is exactly what I wanted. This is exactly what was looking for.’” As an undergraduate English major, he never took a theatre history course, but he did read a lot of plays. He said, “I did not have a historical sweep of history, art, philosophy, and how that connected to plays in production, theatre buildings, audiences, and how all those things interact in interesting ways.” Also, the program at Pitt requires the MA-PhD students to pick an area of special focus in acting, directing, dramaturgy, or playwriting. Escoffery chose playwriting and wrote a stage adaptation of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel The Double (1846).
Escoffery’s other research focused on early twentieth-century avant-garde movements. A classmate and Escoffery proposed a course on avant-garde theatre from realism through theatre of the absurd and they were given the opportunity to teach it. He explained, “I’m intrigued by people who want to question the status quo and expand ideas about what makes something a work of art or a piece of theatre.” He went through the standard comprehensive exams for the PhD, which included selecting a playwright, a time period, a theoretical approach, and learning all he could about that particular combination. Escoffery’s interest in the avant-garde led him to his dissertation topic, which investigated Luigi Pirandello and his affiliation (or lack of affiliation) with Mussolini and issues of historiography. He questioned, “How do historians write the stories they are telling? Why do they focus on this instead of that? What is in the historical record? When and how is it contradictory?” Pirandello’s story has been told by many historians and in very different ways. “I was examining how Pirandello was a Pirdandellian character who refused to be one thing in a consistent way. He sort of lived what he wrote about,” Escoffery explained. After five years, he completed his coursework and his dissertation and was ready for the next step.
The Precarious Brink of Academia
I asked Escoffery if he considered work outside of academia while in graduate school, but he never really did. Non-academic work was not discouraged at Pitt, but it was not something he explored. He knew where he wanted to be and what he wanted to do. Escoffery graduated and found work as an adjunct. Teaching was what he hoped it would be, the life-style of adjuncting was not. He acknowledged, “I knew I had to ‘pay my dues,’ but I was often roped in with ‘we are going to have a tenure track position soon.’ But the funding would not come or someone else was hired.” Despite the exhausting schedule, it was a very good experience in terms of training to be a good teacher, to work on “teaching muscles.” One semester he taught theatre history to thirty actors in a conservatory in the morning, and in the afternoon he would drive forty miles away to teach the same material to four freshman girls in a small liberal arts school. “That actually happened. That was my Monday-Wednesday-Friday schedule one semester,” he tagged on. Escoffery admits, he did not make much money and spent more on gas than he made, but he did build his CV.
After two years as an adjunct, Escoffery was offered a position as Assistant Professor and Director of Graduate Studies in the Department of Theatre and Dance at Missouri State University (formerly Southwest Missouri State University). Missouri State has a good-sized undergraduate theatre program and only a handful of graduate students. Escoffery told me, “It was a great place to be. It has a large BFA program for actors and an even larger BFA musical theatre program.” Escoffery was tasked with redesigning the theatre history curriculum. He came up with a new model and the department faculty and the faculty senate approved it. The challenge of the position was part of what excited him about the program. “It wasn’t just teaching. I got to take on other responsibilities: advising students, serving on committees, etc. I was learning all sorts of new things,” he expressed.
While he enjoyed his role at Missouri State, he also had to consider his personal life and, for Escoffery, that meant trying to work his way back east.
“I left a tenure track position with nothing in hand. No job to head to. But the best self-motivation is to be unemployed,” Escoffery shared, lightheartedly. Once he returned to New Jersey he applied for every theatre history position that was open in the area, but quickly realized he would need to apply to anything and everything that might seem relevant. He laughed as he said, “Yes, I could be Dean of the School of the Arts or an Admissions Officer, sure!” He looked for jobs in academic settings although they were not directly connected to his training. Editor positions and other types of adjunct roles were among the ten to fifteen job applications he filled out daily. “I was saved from teaching ‘Composition 101’ and editing/proofreading jobs by finding work at Educational Testing Service,” he explained. In fact, he had applied for a job there while still at Missouri State and later found out that he was not considered since he was not living in the area. As part of his New Jersey job hunt, he found that ETS was looking for people to do ten-minute recorded lectures to use for listening comprehension as part of TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language). After recording several lectures, he began grading TOEFL essays as well. He recognized, “I wish I knew about this holistic way of grading while I was still teaching! If I knew that way of grading, I would have given more writing assignments. It was a challenge, but a great experience.” Soon after, ETS posted a position for verbal and writing assessment, which Escoffery applied for. On subsequent days, Escoffery interviewed for the ETS position and a theatre history slot at a college, but took the ETS job. “What I found out at ETS is that I really enjoyed it. I was somewhat surprised by this because I loved teaching and theatre history,” he said. Escoffery explained that it had never crossed his mind to think that someone had to write those standardized test questions. He found it to be an interesting task to construct valid test questions, as he noted, “You think when you are teaching you know how to do it, but it’s different when you have to write a question that 400,000 people have to answer.” He described ETS as a “half-way-house;” half way between the academic and corporate options.
Finding Fulfillment at Educational Testing Services
At ETS there is more flexibility for advancement than in the academic tenure and promotion system. Escoffery moved through the ranks fairly quickly. Soon after Escoffery was first hired, he was handed the state of Texas licensure tests for teachers of theatre, speech communication, and dance, and within a few years he was managing people. He started at ETS in 2006 and by 2012 he was in the position he currently holds, Senior Director of Higher Education Assessment within the Assessment Division. In this position, Escoffery manages the work of around seventy test developers who work on a wide variety of assessments for writing, reading, literature, and other language skills. These developers are writing questions for the SAT, GRE, AP courses, and more. One element of ETS that he truly enjoys is that there are constantly new opportunities that come up and there is always a demand for people willing to take on new projects.
I asked Escoffery about skills that he acquired during his academic training that have translated to the work he does now. He told me that the two that stand out the most are critical thinking and the ability to write clearly. “Those two skills will serve you well no matter what you do, and in the realm of assessment, they are essential,” Escoffery noted. A lot of the work he continues to do at ETS is collaborative, therefore he is still able to be a part of what first drew him to theatre: the ensemble. He explained, “Nothing is done in a vacuum at ETS. A lot of people touch each project, because it has to be right.” In general, communication is vital to the work he does. The back-and-forth exchange between test writers, clients, colleagues, etc. is a large part of his work, and it is part of what he loves about the job.
As far as advice for current graduate students, Escoffery offered this, “Don’t discount non-academic careers outright just because it is not what you are trained to do or because you think it might make you look bad. All the skills you’re gaining can be applied in many different places. Look around, perhaps before you are desperate. Just see what’s out there. There could be fascinating work that you may have never considered.”
Although Escoffery is no longer working in academic theatre, he still finds ways to get his theatre “fix.” He still works on the licensure tests for theatre whenever he gets the chance, he attends New York productions whenever possible, and he recently took up improv performance.