“Those Who Can’t Do, Teach.” A Commentary on Lighting Design Education


I’ve been having a discussion with some friends of mine about the future of lighting education in the world, but preferably in the United States.  One of those friends asked what education programs for lighting design in the world are doing to improve the industry, and then said “well hey – you know what they say, ‘those who can’t do, teach!’

I just kinda sat there, still dazed from such a comment from such an intelligent individual.  I’m still kinda in that realm of belief that this kind of thought is still pervading the thought processes of people who are out there working in the world.  Something I have been holding onto for quite some time now is the fact that I have recently taken a lead faculty job in the Midwest at a private college, leading the Lighting Design program and developing curriculum that will give back to our beloved industries.  I’m not going to say which school quite yet, but that’ll come soon.

I’m a working individual – I have a company that is known for design work, I have a company that is known for light art, and Light Associated Media, LLC – which includes JimOnLight.com and bulbr.com.  I feel that it is my responsibility as a person who wants to educate the world on lighting to be as connected to that industry as humanly possible, and then some.  This is not a view expressed by the majority of people in the world of education across the thousands of degree programs that exist today.  I feel that this is a shame, mostly because it is our responsibility as lighting designers, production specialists, electricians, and general light lovers to make sure that the next generation of lighting professionals holds the industry up in as high of a standard as I do.  I mean, what other alternatives are there?  If you’re going to do something, do it to the full range of your abilities.  Otherwise, pick something else, because the industries of light are not for people who don’t want to do the work.

Another comment was made during this conversation that I feel needs addressing:
“The world of academia and education, even in the college level, is different from the ‘real world’ in most instances.”

I have to call BS on this comment.  It’s true about the world being different in academia, but it’s mostly because of the way that professors and other faculty-level positions are governed.  It’s true that a large percentage of tenured faculty take advantage of their status as a tenured professor in many fields of study, and I feel it’s fair to say that once a person reaches a tenure-level position, they have reached a pinnacle of their career.  I feel that the opposite is true; I want to become tenured at some point in my career because the bennies of such a title are nice, including a small bump up in salary.  But if you’ve ever been a teacher, you know that you don’t do it for the cash.  A tenured faculty member has a responsibility to continue to provide the highest level of education that is possible by a human being because you’ve reached that special rank.  The lighting industries are changing, and drastically.  It takes a lot of work to be a professor in this field, because you not only have to push your students hard to learn new, updated materials, but you as an educator have to push yourself hard to know the new material and to keep yourself abreast of the sweeping changes that the lighting industry is constantly undergoing.  LEDs are changing.  Light sources are changing.  Optics are changing – I mean, look at the trend right now with the big moving heads out there, and the 8″ aperture.  Things change.  Educators in lighting have no choice but to keep up, it is your educational responsibility.

What is different, however, about academia is on the professor side, with having several different people to which you must report.  In the real world, if you’re slacking off or you just suck, you get fired.  We should implement this on the educator side of the world.  Academia can be no different than the real world for students, with the slight variance that, if you’re screwing off or not getting the material, you get counseled on what you’re doing wrong, and what you need to do to fix it.  The same rules should apply to students in the University setting as do in the professional world – things like “on time is late, early is on time.”  We must educate our lighting students to be the professionals of tomorrow that the industry depends on having in order to make that industry better.  Having a half-assed lighting program with a professor who hasn’t done anything since the days of Century base-ups is over.  Times are changing.  Professors must change with the times.  This goes pretty much for all aspects of the entertainment business side of education, from Costume Design to Sound Design, Scenic Design to Technical Direction.

What professors in the lighting world need to realize is that if you’re not up-to-date on the industry, you’re doing your students a disservice because they will be at a disadvantage when they go out and try to get a job in the world.  That reflects poorly upon you, the student, and your institution.

It is true that there are a lot of programs out there today handing out degrees, even some graduate degrees, that are far below sub-par.  As a student, it is partially your responsibility to make sure that you’re choosing a program with some reputability, and looking for your professor/mentor to be active in the lighting industries.  One thing must be said though regarding the student side of lighting education:

We cannot do it for you.  You have to work harder than you’ve ever worked in your life.

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  1. I don’t mean this to be a commercial for my school, but I chose Parsons for my graduate lighting education for many of the reasons that you stated, Jim — professors and administrators who are actively working in the field of architectural lighting design, who genuinely care about the lighting industry, and who make a tremendous effort to stay on top of the constantly-changing technology so they can pass that information on to us. The same went for my undergrad alma mater, Emerson College — all of the theatre professors were working in their field. I think it’s becoming less and less common to have a professor who isn’t working in their field, because universities are now demanding it, too. I have a very high respect for the educators I have met in the lighting field — I know, at least at this moment in time, that I wouldn’t be able to handle that job.

    On the subject of academia being different from the “real world,” though, from a student’s perspective, I believe that is statement is true only if you don’t make the effort to connect the two. Yes, if you go to class, do the homework, and go home every single day then academia will seem extremely different from the real world. What blows my mind is that some students, once given the opportunity to study lighting, don’t take advantage of any of the amazing opportunities handed to them as a part of that education that are put in place to close that gap between academia and the real world. From extracurricular projects and contests to simple meet-and-greet networking events, some don’t see the value of bridging that gap with these kinds of opportunities. I saw it in my undergrad theatre lighting education and I’m seeing it on an even more shocking scale in grad school. They are perfectly content to go to class, do the homework, and go home.

    I wholeheartedly agree that “you have to work harder than you’ve ever worked in your life” if you want to pursue lighting, or any field for that matter. Students can’t just sit in school and wait for something to happen to them — they need to MAKE things happen.

    And there are so many opportunities and tools available to us as students today that make it EASY to make things happen. Social media and the internet, of course, number among them. It’s startling to me the number of people, particularly at my school, who scoff at the idea of using Facebook or Twitter at all. But that’s another topic.

    I see an undergraduate or graduate education as a two-way street. The professors and the students both have to put in an equal effort to make school a productive learning experience, and both parties must constantly push themselves to make things better.

  2. My second TD in university used to say just that, and I’d always look at him sidelong, wondering what he was really saying about himself. Because he couldn’t teach, either.

    My undergraduate program had several problems, but I think one of the biggest was that no one expected anyone from the program to actually go into the field. All of the actors (who had the majority of the profs) were all double majoring in Psych or Pre-Med or Engineering. I think there are maybe a dozen people I can think of from the last 6-8 years of the program that went on to work in theatre professionally. I’m one of them, and I have to say that I learned much more from hands-on work in theatres elsewhere than I did in the classroom or in school productions, because of that difference between wanting to be there as your profession, and wanting to be there as a side-interest. But I still wouldn’t have gotten into those professional places without the help of my faculty.

  3. “When I was in graduate school in the early ’70s, it was assumed that our class of designers would be heading to one of three professional destinations: Broadway, regional theatre, or college and university teaching. Although Broadway at the time was at a low ebb, some of us packed up our freshly honed design skills and headed off to New York. What most of us discovered was that the possibility of becoming one of a tiny handful of designers making a living on Broadway was remote.” -TCG January 2009

    And a lot of those designers became teachers, many of whom shouldn’t have.

  4. This is a fascinating post, Jim, and it’s part of a topic which I am both deeply passionate and also equally uncertain about. I’m going to tell a bit of my story because I feel it is important in shaping my current feeling on this issue.

    I am currently a senior at the University of Northern Iowa (UNI) and will be graduating in May with a B.A. in Theatre: Design and Production. When I was searching for a school I was really uncertain about my future. Theatre, and lighting specifically, was a big part of my life in high school, but I was uncertain about the viability of it as a career path. I chose to attend UNI for several reasons, including the warmth of the people, some significant scholarship money, and certainly a theatre program which my relatively uncertain high school self thought was great. There is no graduate program here, nor a B.F.A. program, which at the time definitely shaped my decision, as I felt I would have production opportunities not necessarily available in a larger program. What I did not ask about was the degree to which faculty were working professionally outside of the University. As I have progressed through school and been exposed to professional theatre through opportunities such as USITT and my internship the last two summers, I have realized that I would love a more active faculty. Many of them do make the trip to the USITT conference on a regular basis and work in small theatres around Iowa, but there isn’t a big amount of involvement in the industry hot spots.

    As a result, I’ve taught myself a lot. The list includes Vectorworks, Lightwright, a couple consoles, and some basic moving light programming. As I near graduation though, I’m naturally struck with the “I don’t know jack!” feeling. I don’t know if a more well connected faculty would help allay this fear, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt.

    My question then becomes, what do you say to the student at a smaller school, who only fully realized their passion halfway through undergrad? Is the willingness to be self taught enough? Where does that get you in comparison to students who may have had the foresight to choose a school with a well connected faculty right out of high school? I don’t feel like I should be limited after college graduation because I wasn’t completely sold on my future as a high school senior, but sometimes I feel like that is my destiny, at least for a while.

    I do know that if/when I pursue graduate school, I will definitely take these things into consideration. Thanks for the great post!

  5. I’m lucky in that the institution that became Lecturer in Theatre Production actually goes out of their way to recruit teachers with a proven real industry track record. And puts this record above academic qualifications, which I am doing alongside my teaching, while still fresh (?!) from the road. Then I guess, that makes the students lucky as well.

    During my application interview, I was asked how I would maintain my links with industry and keep my knowledge of show production current. I turned the question back on them “Yeah, how exactly am I gonna be able to do that on a full time contract?” It’s a fine balance, you instantly become unavailable for many gigs, are expected to engage in research and promotion of the institution and it’s works, plus in my case lead 4 modules. But I’m determined not to get cut loose from the sharp end of gigging and have been going out of my way to work in the industry at weekends etc.

    I’ll let you know how it goes…..



  6. Amen Jim,

    Something I have been struggling with lately up here. Thanks for spreading the good word brother!


  7. Jim,

    i stumbled upon your blog when searching the web for links on lighting education (always interesting for me to see what is out there). to respond to one specific topic you note in your above commentary, there is a site sponsored by the International Association of Lighting Designers that lists a group of academic institutions that offer degrees of various types in lighting design. go to learn2light.com for more informaton. those of us who practice and teach in lighting design care a great deal about its future. let’s work collectively to make it the viable, inspiring and rich experience for many more as we advance into the future….and let’s help them find ways to be educated.

    my best,

    Derek Porter IALD, IESNA, PLDA
    Director, MFA Lighting Design, Parsons The New School for Design
    Principal, Derek Porter Studio

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