Jeanmarie Higgins

Higgins receives Association for Theatre in Higher Education outstanding teacher award

Jeanmarie Higgins, associate professor of theatre, is the 2021 recipient of the prestigious Oscar Brockett Outstanding Teacher Award, given by the Association for Theatre in Higher Education (ATHE). The award honors a college-level faculty member whose superiority as a teacher of theatre is recognized by students and colleagues, who has provided inspiration through instruction in theatre, and who has created strong, effective interpersonal communication through advising, mentoring and all aspects of the student/teacher relationship.

“This award is such an honor—my texts and email have just blown up,” said Higgins, who is head of Penn State’s B.A. in Theatre Studies program. “I was surprised by the nomination—a lot of people kept it secret for a long time.”

A new works dramaturg in dance and theatre, Higgins is the dramaturg for #HereToo, a project that amplifies the voices of youth activists through performance. She is the editor of Teaching Critical Performance Theory in Today’s Theatre Classroom, Studio and Communities (Routledge 2020), and is at work co-editing a collection about teaching theatre and dance in remote and hybrid spaces, with dance colleague and fellow Penn State Theatre faculty member Elisha Clark Halpin.

Barbara Pitts McAdams, cofounder of #HereToo, spearheaded the nominations, compiling letters of support from colleagues and students throughout Higgins’ career.

According to Robin Witt, with whom Higgins taught at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte (UNCC), Higgins is an “extraordinary teacher” whose dedication to her students is unrivaled.

“When she arrived at UNCC, the number of our students who applied to and who [were] accepted by graduate programs skyrocketed. Her mentoring skills were astonishing,” wrote Witt, an associate professor of directing, in her nomination letter. “She always found time for her students no matter how much work she had. She not only inspired students to do their best, but by holding them up to a higher standard of work, they rose to meet her expectations.”

Frederick Miller, current Theatre Studies student at Penn State, echoes Witt’s praise.

“The word mentor cannot begin to describe the impact Dr. Higgins has had on my education and the opportunities I have experienced at Penn State,” wrote Miller in his nomination letter.

She has been a constant advocate for my work, my education and well-being.”
-Frederick Miller, Theatre Studies student

During the pandemic, Higgins was instrumental in persuading the Penn State administration to offer a student grant program to support remote projects. Ultimately eight of her students—including Miller—received grants and used the funds to develop the #HereToo Podcast, which was produced regularly during the 2020–21 academic year.

After 18 months of teaching remotely, Higgins said she looks forward to returning to the classroom this fall. While pandemic teaching obviously had its challenges, she said she appreciated the ease of having one-on-one meetings via Zoom.

“Meeting individually with my grad students helped me to know them a bit better and allowed me to help them more with their writing projects,” Higgins said. “I want to keep having individual conferences in the future.”

Looking ahead, Higgins said she will continue to focus on curriculum, which has been her priority since she joined the Penn State faculty in 2017.

“Curriculum has to be flexible, has to change, has to be fluid. We are always having to respond to different priorities—from the College of Arts and Architecture, from the General Education office—and I enjoy that challenge.”

The B.A. in Theatre Studies recently received official approval. Higgins developed the program with Halpin, coordinator of general education for the School of Theatre.

“Elisha and I wanted to make it a program where you could transfer from a commonwealth campus to University Park seamlessly,” Higgins explained, noting they partnered with the Comparative Literature program to make classes cross-listed.

“One of the reasons I love Penn State so much is because you get things done through the relationships you develop with other people—and there are so many people here who want to build new programs.”

Higgins received ATHE’s Oscar Brockett Outstanding Teacher Award during a virtual ceremony, viewable here (see also Higgins’ interview with the award committee chair). The ATHE annual conference, where the award is typically presented, is being held virtually, August 5–8.

Higgins said the award has given her an opportunity to reflect on her career and to see how others view her work.

“I get to see myself in a different way, to tell myself a different story about my career and how I arrived here—it’s been a weighty experience for which I am grateful.”