Has the Graduate School ever considered setting up theater/improv style workshops for graduate students?

Date: August 2017


Hello Deans,

I will be on the job market this Fall. Hopefully interviewing, delivering talks, campus visits, all with absolute and total confidence. Unless, I am, just as many of us, a bit of a nerd, shy, stressed out, and not at all fully confident in those crucial moments. There are of course many other elements in the process that may get me – or not – the job of my dream, but self confidence is a plus that shall be counted in I believe.

But a friend of mine – nerdy, shy, and stressed out – who works in the private sector, recently told me how they greatly benefited from theater and improv’ workshops set up by the company they worked for. I don’t know if it is a myth but apparently, it gave them tools to be more aware of how a voice carries out in a client presentation, of postures to assert confidence while remaining calm an approachable and, in the end, how to gain self-assurance and be more at ease with your interlocutors.

It seems to me that those tools, apparently frequently used in other sectors, could be of great help to graduate students in all activities stretching from conferences presentations to interviews, from class gravitas to networking events.

Has the Grad School ever thought of setting up such workshops (either on an occasional or regular basis) specially targeting our needs rather than our aspirations for Actor Studio redeployments? 🙂

Many thanks in advance,

A nerdy, shy, stressed out grad student


Dear Stressed Out Grad Student,

Thank you for your Ask a Dean question. 

It’s great that you are thinking about what being on the job market will entail, and learning from the experiences of your colleagues! Many companies and also academic divisions are beginning to explore theater training, including improvisational theater, as a way to enhance communication skills and ability to think on one’s feet. Author and Assumption College faculty member Sarah Rose Cavanagh wrote about the importance of risk-taking and passion in “All the Classroom’s a Stage” in the Chronicle of Higher Education this summer.

Several units at Cornell have been exploring this recently in different ways. In particular, the cross-disciplinary graduate seminar ALS 6014: Theater Techniques for Enhancing Teaching and Public Speaking is offered as a collaboration between CIRTL at Cornell and the Center for Teaching Innovation, as a seven-week fall semester course. You can find a visual syllabus here, on the fall Cornell Class Roster. The instructors still have some spaces left, and so will gladly send you a permission number to enroll if you contact them directly. Also, don’t hesitate to reach out with questions about the course. We developed it based on a curriculum used with graduate students at the University of Wisconsin, so we hope it will meet your needs.

Other great opportunities also exist, such as shorter workshops offered by the Center for Teaching Innovation as part of the GET SET series and University-Wide Teaching Conference. The BEST Program at Cornell (Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training) works with communication and science faculty and students to offer weekend workshops, coursework, and an annual ComSciCon event as well. Be sure to check out the Pathways to Success programs and events list as well for upcoming workshops on communication skills and preparing for your career from the Graduate School and partnering units.

To end on a more personal note, despite what teaching an improv course might imply, I can well relate to feelings of doubt, fear, and insecurity. Not that long ago, I was a PhD student myself, and as a shy introvert, teaching was way outside my comfort zone, and started as a necessity of funding sources, rather than a calling. Through much repetition and sheer “faking it until I make it,” I now find it equally exhilarating, exhausting, and rewarding. The ability for creative expression as you help a learner see an idea from a whole new angle is unparalleled, in my opinion. Plus, as you get more practice with presenting, you can appreciate other’s techniques and the extent to which it is an effort for them as well!

Looking forward to seeing you at events this year.


Colleen McLinn
Program Director for Cornell University’s Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching, and Learning