How Harvard Teaches Artists (Or Doesn't)

Muhammad H Tahir

Angelique P. Henderson '14 plans to pursue acting after graduation, despite concerns over Harvard's screen acting course offerings. "I’m not going to waste time. I’m going to go into it now and pursue my true passion,” she says.

Until recently, students largely pursued the arts at Harvard outside the classroom. But over the past few years, the College has increased the curricular presence of the arts—particularly the performing arts. In 2007, Harvard introduced a dramatic arts secondary field that allowed students to receive academic credit for their theater classes. And for the first time this year, the College is offering course credit for students’ participation in the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra and the Harvard Dance Project; next year, students will also be able to receive credit for the HR Collegium Musicum, the Glee Club, and the Radcliffe Choral Society.

These developments come for many as a sign of progress, but are they enough to change what some describe as a culture that dissuades students from pursuing a career in the arts?


“I spent this last summer in Los Angeles for six weeks. I fell in love with the city. I fell in love with the acting industry, so I'll be moving to Los Angeles after graduation to pursue film and TV acting full time,” says Angelique P. Henderson ’14. The aspiring actress, speaking with confidence as she describes her career plans, is one of the few Harvard students who will be pursuing a career in the arts immediately after graduation. However, if the results of recent years’ Crimson Senior Surveys are any indication, a much greater portion of students will wish that they too were entering into an arts career post-graduation. In fact, in the 2012 survey, a plurality of students—a whopping 17.7 percent—indicated that arts was their top career choice.

And yet, despite the arts’ high desirability, only a miniscule 4.1 percent of survey respondents actually planned to pursue a career in the arts after graduation, putting them in eighth place out of 10 on the list of actual careers chosen by Harvard seniors in 2012. The 2013 survey showed a similar trend, with career sectors such as consulting, finance, and technology topping the list of students’ immediate post-graduation plans.


While financial concerns may be a source of hesitation for some of Harvard’s would-be artists, many of Harvard’s graduates currently in artistic fields and undergraduates considering similar career paths say they feel that the College as an institution encourages a sort of learning that does not promote creative development and often fails to present the arts as a viable career path for Harvard students.


Rachel V. Byrd ’13 got her first taste of working in the entertainment industry as a young child, but it was not until she arrived at Harvard that the recent graduate set her sights on pursuing a career as a film actor and director. “My parents had put me in TV and radio commercials as a child, up to the age of three and four, but I went through middle school and high school without doing much of any performing art. Then I got to college and I realized that I really missed it, and that's when acting became a priority for me,” Byrd says. During her time at Harvard, Byrd became involved with a host of film- and theater-centered extracurriculars. As a freshman, she joined the Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club, and, after directing a play entitled “for colored girls / for black boys” during her sophomore year, she became a member of BlackC.A.S.T., Harvard’s Black Community and Student Theater group. By her senior year, Byrd was the group’s president and had acted in a number of other plays, as well as directing productions such as BlackC.A.S.T.’s “Dreamgirls.”

Byrd is currently working on a variety of film-related projects, but she says she feels that Harvard does not do enough to present the arts as a legitimate career path, or even a field of study. “The administration sees how much work we put into our extracurriculars, and, in my experience, that has been an excuse to not focus on the arts in an academic setting or as potential future careers,” she says.

During her time as a student at Harvard, Byrd felt that even with her extensive involvement in Harvard’s theater scene, she was not getting enough experience and training if she hoped to become a successful actor after graduating. She therefore decided to design her own concentration, entitled Cinedramatic Arts, to combine her passions for both film and theater. Her efforts to develop this concentration, she says, were not met with much enthusiasm from administrators. “Opposition is a strong word, but I would say there was some pushback from the College when I wanted to create a concentration that was centered around a sort of vocational training in the arts,” says the young actress. “I was told that the liberal arts degree that Harvard College prides itself on is meant to be just that—a liberal arts degree, not necessarily one designed for vocational training to prepare a student for a career. My argument was that a lot of our peers who are studying economics or pre-med are most certainly getting vocational education in college, so why is it different for arts?”

But Deborah Foster, a senior lecturer on folklore and mythology and director of studies for Special Concentrations, asserts that traditional concentrations like economics reach beyond professional skill-building. "Economics concentrators are not being trained as accountants. [They are] using economics to analyze the world," she says.


Unlike Byrd, who has devoted her post-graduation life entirely to the pursuit of a career in the entertainment industry, Leah Reis-Dennis ’13 has chosen to take a more conservative approach as she attempts to carve out a spot for herself in the music industry. “To be honest, I'm not taking as many risks as I could be,” she says. The jazz vocalist and songwriter is currently working on writing and recording her first demo but relies on other jobs on the side—including working as a masters’ aid in Mather House and as a course producer for HarvardX, the university’s branch of the online learning venture edX—to earn money as she makes a name for herself as a musician.

Reis-Dennis feels she suffered as a result of the step-by-step education that Harvard provides, a type of instruction that may not be the most conducive for the sort of creativity and risk-taking often necessary to make it as a professional artist. “As Harvard students, we're taught to follow the rules and complete a set of tasks that leads to a particular goal—whether it's doing well on a standardized test or completing a thesis in an organized way in order to graduate or whatever,” she says. “Harvard unfortunately doesn't always reward the kind of unorthodox and creative self-determination that it takes to pursue a career in the arts.”

The formulaic path to success that Reis-Dennis describes may earn the students a degree but can leave them frightened of the sort of risk-taking necessary to become a successful artist. In jobs with contracts and regular paychecks, Harvard graduates may find that their practice of following specific steps is very conducive to achievement. But in the arts, the path to success is never quite so clear. “If you ask professionals in the industry how they achieved what they achieved, each person has a unique path, and it's impossible to replicate,” Reis-Dennis says. “Getting a career in music can be the luck of the draw. It can be who you know and what connections you have, and it's certainly not certain.”