A Word With… Lisa Brooks, dean of Jordan College of the Arts

Photo of Lisa Brooks by Francie Wilson.

AUDREY DAVENPORT | amdavenp@butler.edu  | OPINION COLUMNIST

Editor’s Note: questions have been slightly edited for clarity

The Butler experience is a combination of different factors — classes, events, friends — but surely a very important one is the professors. Beyond standing at the front of their classrooms or staring at you from a computer screen, they have phenomenal insights that all students should be aware of. “A Word With” is a weekly series that highlights some of the professors who make the Butler experience what it is.

After I spoke with Lisa Brooks, dean of the Jordan College for the Arts, it was wildly evident that she cares deeply about each of her students and the college as a whole. She told me about her passion for music, social justice and her vision for the future of JCA. 

Brooks is genuine, empathetic and approachable, which makes her a favorite among students. Even in our short conversation, it was unmistakable that Brooks has big plans for JCA, and won’t let anything stand in her way.  

What kinds of hobbies did you have as a child?

When I was really little I was very much a tomboy. I had a brother who was less than two years older than me, and there were four boys who lived next door, and we rode our bikes and climbed trees. No cellphones, so my parents would have no idea where we were all summer. You just took off and came back when the mosquitos and lightning bugs came out. 

There weren’t organized things to do, like you didn’t play soccer when you were three. You were just outside. I was a Girl Scout, so that was pretty standard. I also started playing the violin in public school in Pennsylvania in fourth grade. We had a violin in the family so I played the violin. 

In high school there — again — weren’t organized things to do, especially for girls. So when I got to high school, weirdly enough for a violinist, I was quite the athlete. The choices for girls in the fall were field hockey or a football cheerleader, so I chose field hockey. I also played basketball and was on the track team. I was a three sport varsity athlete, which wasn’t unusual at the time.

So, you were playing the violin and all three sports. Were you just an incredibly busy high school student? 

Yeah, but looking at students now it’s no different. They say, like, ‘okay I need to do this, this, this and this to get into college.’ We didn’t really think of it that way — it was just whatever you did, you did. I so appreciated and needed music, sports and academics. I think they all contributed to who I became. The intersection of those things.

Where do you find yourself landing in that intersection of those things at this point in your life?

They are all similar in the sense of commitment and discipline. I think that that was the case. Musicians, athletes and academics are all committed to what they do. And I think as a violinist, the same sense of teamwork and collaboration and cooperation, being willing to say that you’re not always right, that you’re part of a team. I think those are very similar too.

After high school, was college always going to be the next step for you?

Yeah. I’m not sure why I say that, but my father had gone to college and my mother was a registered nurse, so she had gone to nursing school. It was just, ‘yeah, I guess I’ll do that.’ For a long time, like most people, I said I’ll be what my mom was, a nurse. But apparently, I played the violin pretty well, so I said ‘I’ll stay in orchestra.’

I didn’t start studying privately until I was a sophomore in high school, but I had a really gifted orchestra teacher in high school. When I started studying as a sophomore, my teacher encouraged me and she started taking me along to these gigs or jobs, church services and weddings. I thought ‘wow, people are paying me to play the violin, this is kind of cool. Maybe I’ll actually do that.’ I think her influence made me think that music could be a good career.

So going into college, you were looking at music programs. And where did you end up landing?

I went to West Virginia University. My violin teacher wanted me to go to a conservatory, but I said ‘I’m not doing that.’ I can’t say that I would have gotten in, but that was her idea for me. I had a couple friends who went to West Virginia University, and I auditioned there and got a big scholarship. It was actually a really good fit for me. They had a perfect music program, but they had a heavy academic component to it too.

While you were pursuing your violin performance degree, was there ever a moment for you where you wondered if you wanted to do something else?

I always felt pretty good about that path and that choice. I never had the sense of doing something else. And again, I always took a lot of academic classes, above and beyond what I needed, but I felt pretty confident about what I was doing and the experiences I was getting as a performer. 

I had some really impactful music history professors who really got you to dig deep into the music. You get to know… about when and how it was written, so those were really impactful. And of course, my violin teacher. Usually, music majors find their private teacher to be a pretty impactful person, and my teacher was. I also had a pretty significant core of academics, so I took a semester of Italian and a ‘physics of music’ class. I took an anthropology class, a traditional math class and some literature classes that were very impactful. I always enjoyed all of those and I enjoyed the academic side of it.

Now, outside of music, did you find yourself returning to any of those other disciplines like literature?

I ended up graduating a year early, so I ended up staying another year and a summer to do my masters. I was 21 years old with my masters. So I moved back home and started freelancing, and taught at home. 

I had about 30 students and played in a lot of regional orchestras, but my point is that at the local university I ended up taking four semesters of Latin, just because I felt like it. And two semesters of classical Greek, because I felt like it. And then I ended up going back for my doctorate. And even when I had my doctorate and was teaching here, I took some classes down at Indiana University. And then I moved into administration, and that in a sense is like taking another course. 

I feel like I’m a life-long student in those regards: there are different delivery methods rather than taking courses, but I’m reading a lot and investigating things in a different way.

What was your doctorate experience like?

It was fabulous and much too short. When I met my husband, he was finishing his doctorate, and I was thinking about going back for my doctorate. And we made the decision to do academia. 

When I decided to go back to school, I had been studying with a woman who was teaching in Manhattan who had joined the faculty at Stony Brook University in New York, so I auditioned to go there for my doctorate and got in. It’s a great school and the faculty are so amazing out there. It’s a very big contemporary music school, so there are a lot of world premieres and it was just a really vibrant place. 

But because my goal was to go into academia, at the end I was there to get the piece of paper, get the degree. And then my husband and I entered academia. We taught for a year at the University of Wisconsin in Eau-Claire, then four years at Baylor University. So, then we saw an advertisement for a job at Butler and came together as a ‘job share.’ It was a perfect fit for us. It gave us a chance to teach, and be parents, and play with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra.

Do you feel like Indy has changed a lot since you’ve been here?

Yeah, I think so. I think in a lot of really good ways. The downtown has become a lot more vibrant along with the arts scene. The current leadership at the Arts Council of Indianapolis is fantastic and they’ve done a really good job during this pandemic. As you can imagine, this has been a devastating time for artists, and they have done a masterful job of keeping the spirits up and keeping a sense of community, and community engagement. And Butler has certainly changed over that time as well. There was no College of Communication when I first started here. Everything has changed in a really positive way.

You had mentioned that you made the decision to go into academia, so what drove that decision for you?

Two things: my husband shares with me this sort of life-long learner thing. And we enjoy being students ourselves, and we enjoy teaching. Part of my assistantship at the doctorate level was to be my teacher’s teaching assistant for undergraduates and non-majors. So, we both love teaching and both love learning. But the other aspect of it was financial.

How has the deanship been for you?

The first search for the dean failed, so it continued. At that point our interim dean of the college became our associate provost, and came to me and asked if I wanted to become the interim dean. I said ‘okay, sure.’ So that was the summer of 2017, and after doing it for a couple of months I thought ‘well, I could do this. I think I might like to do this.’ So I applied for the search and was appointed the dean. 

It has been a good challenge. I’ve always been pretty good at being an administrator and details. This has been a combination of that, but also having a chance to look out and think about vision and think about bigger ideas and where we are headed. It has been a continued learning experience for me. 

I have been very intentional and committed about moving us forward in the area of social justice. Starting from the infamous whiteboard in the Diversity Center that kicked it off. I immediately got all the music students together and we put them in groups and we talked about it. And then I did the same thing with the dancers, the theater students and the faculty. And coming out of that we created a social justice and diversity task force, so committees looking at our curriculum and everything we do. 

And last year we had our first ever social justice and diversity convening. So, we cancelled all of our classes and rehearsals on a Friday afternoon and we all met, almost 400 JCA faculty and students, and we spent two hours where Gina Forrest from the Diversity Center came and we talked about social justice and vocabulary. And then we broke up into groups and we talked.

What drove you to have that event?

I just thought, ‘we must do this.’ And a lot of that comes from our students. We met with the students in dialogue sessions, and it’s so impactful to hear people’s stories. And a lot of it was really what the students thought. ‘What should we do, what do we need to know?’ They said we need to keep talking, we need to keep the dialogue going. We are always reactive, reacting to something like this. But having a couple of conversations is not enough. We need to think about it in a more sustained way. So, I decided, yes, we’re doing that. And again, because the students indicated, and the faculty too, said we need to make this important.

What about working with students is so great for you?

From the moment I took over as dean, I continued to teach violin majors. Some of whom come here to study with me. I can’t imagine not teaching. Because, you know, if you don’t teach and interact with students, you lose touch with the very thing that you are supposed to be advocating for.

I appreciate the opportunity to try and be supportive of them. And this past fall, I taught a music history class for our first-year dancers, and I loved it. I hadn’t been in the classroom like that in years. I just loved it. There were 50 first-year dancers, and they’re so eager and they love music. They were just all over it. I was so thrilled to be back in the classroom.

You mentioned that you were in New York for some time. Have there been other places that you have gotten to go to with your career that you may not have gotten to go to?

Back from when I got out of college and I actually toured with a Pennsylvania ballet company, we went on a six-week tour. Those days, they had money to travel with a full orchestra, which is kind of crazy, but nowadays they would never do that. But yeah, touring through the Midwest, spending a week in New York, going out to Seattle and up to Vancouver, and having a chance to do that. Now as the dean, I travel a lot to conferences, which are in pretty great places. You get to become immersed into the arts scene of the city and go to a concert and go to a gallery. I haven’t travelled internationally much professionally, but personally, yes.

Are there any role models that you have?

It’s funny, I was watching the Australian Open, you know, tennis. And watching Serena Williams at age 39 make it to the semi-finals. I feel like the door has swung open, and, you know, when you reach a certain age, that doesn’t mean you’re just put out to pasture. I became the dean when I was 57.

Is there anything that you wish people knew about JCA that just isn’t widely known?

I think it’s inevitable that a lot of people still [feel] that the arts are sort of extracurricular. I mean, I would challenge anybody any day to follow a dance student around. They dance about 40 hours a week, every week. And I think people still think of it as a club or singing in the choir. I think that we are not as valued. And I wish that somehow that extracurricular idea could be broken. I don’t know what the answer is. I don’t know how to make other students in other disciplines understand. 

I would challenge any Big East school to have the kind of arts program that we have here. I mean, DePaul in Chicago is different. They have a conservatory, but I put our orchestra up against Xavier or Creighton. I don’t know that anyone appreciates that we are sort of the icing on the cake of this liberal arts school that we have here. That we are that thing that most schools don’t have that are like us. The skill sets that these students have are highly valued, but some people don’t see that.

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