In 2013, Dustin Goltz received the prestigious Lilla A. Heston Award for Outstanding Scholarship in Interpretation and Performance Studies from the National Communication Association. An associate professor of performance studies and rhetoric, as well as director of the Organizational and Multicultural Communication program, in the College of Communication, Goltz teaches courses in performance of literature, performance for social change, and the rhetoric of popular culture.

Okay, the first question is obvious: What is performance studies?

In the field of performance studies, we look at communication not only as an exchange of verbal messages, but also as an embodied and contextual process: I’m interested in how bodies move in space and time, and how that movement suggests assumptions and relationships. For example, if you think of gender not as what a person is but what a person does, identity becomes both active and momentary—that is, in the moment. 

We are constantly reproducing a gendered system, moment by moment, with every choice: the way we sit, the way we dress, the way we smile and nod.  When we are aware of that, we can become micro agents in a macro system. Growing up, we’re taught to think and feel about big issues, but are less attendant to what we “do” about them or within them. Becoming an agent means saying “I can engage with others in radically different ways.”

So does performance studies focus on the social or the personal?

I would say it’s a tethering string between the two worlds. What’s the connection between immediate gestures and larger social theories? Focusing only on the personal is dangerous, but focusing only on the structural can be distanced and hopeless. That truth holds for any important framework, such as gender, race, class, sexual orientation and age.

I want my students to understand that we move in packs, we move en masse, we move through patterns, we move in systems, but we’re not just cogs in a wheel: Each of us is an agent, and we can act differently. Through performance studies, they should say, “Wow, I see how concept XYZ is actually manifested and reproduced in my movements and actions; what I do has cultural implications.”

How do you get that idea across in the classroom?

One thing I like to do is engage students about their own futures.  For all of us, the future—positive or negative—is an inherited, discursive model that’s shaped by many things, including each person’s experiences, media consumption, gender, race, class, sexual orientation and age. Any projection of the future dictates our moment-by-moment navigations in the present.

For example, an imagined future affects how students go to school or how they think about ideas. They arrive here with scripts, and those scripts shape their daily performances. But the university years are the perfect time and place to question those scripts, to push back against structures that are potentially inhibiting.

Truly, I think we’re all radically uncreative when it comes to the future. We’re all invested in fairly uniform systems—marriage, money, a profession or job—that don’t guarantee happiness or fulfillment. I want my students to think of the future as a creative project; I expect them to imagine interesting, exciting, liberating relationships and worlds. Then, they can become active builders of a future instead of passive recipients.

Also, there’s a practical, applied skills component to performance studies. Students learn to be conscious of their bodies; they learn that the way they carry themselves delivers a message. For example, they typically don’t know to be engaged and engaging during a job interview, so this is something we work on—how to enter a room, how to sit, how to make appropriate eye contact, how to have a dialogue.

You have two other, related interests: queer theory and media criticism. How do these fit with performance studies?

A major drive in my research is how media affects the way gay males view aging. The “I don’t want to get older” sentiment, which is pervasive in our culture, is virulent among gay men. Why? Twenty years ago I began looking into media messages around what it means to be an old gay man, and those messages were downright wretched: The subjects were depicted as sinister, menacing, predatory, sad and suicidal.

I think that’s when I started asking: What do we mean when we talk about “future”?

Of course, the future exists only in communication, only in discourse; it has no tangibility, no materiality. Each person’s narration about the future comes from previous stories—stories about sexuality and health, about marriage, procreation, children and inheritance: People use these narratives to make sense of their lives, but queer bodies are too often excluded from or demonized within these stories. The future is a symbolic construction with many tacit assumptions, and in the LGBT community those assumptions can lead people to berate and devalue themselves.

The philosophical inquiry—“What is the meaning of the future?”—can be pretty intense. Now, because gay and lesbian cultures in the Western world are rapidly changing, there’s a growing generation gap between gay men in their 60s and 70s and those in their 20s. Yet, while the very notions of gay identity or community are in transition, many denigrating cultural narratives about aging gay men remain.

Your essay, “Frustrating the ‘I’: Critical Dialogic Reflexivity with Personal Voice,” received the Ellis-Bochner Award for Autoethnography and Personal Narrative Research from the Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction.  What’s it about?

“Critical dialogic reflexivity” means that as you tell a personal story to me—say about your train ride to work this morning—it’s no longer entirely yours. It’s not mine, either. A story is not—cannot be—completely truthful; rather, it’s a space of contestation and negotiation across different persons and social locations.

When telling a story, you package yourself in a very particular way, and you cast the listener as your audience. The story is made, not found: it’s a collective experience and a symbolic act. The listener also speaks through your story. How do you let the story sit outside yourself, not in your possession? How does the other ethically enter the story? That’s dialogue, and without it communication is oppressive. We’re all guilty of that.

Performance studies explores, among other things, embodied communication as an active and contested process, not an all-or-nothing game. Very little in real life is black and white.