The Arts in the Research University

Today I’m at the University of Michigan, at a meeting sponsored by their ArtsEngine initiative (with the subtitle “Art making and the arts in research universities”). The first meeting one year ago generated a lot of excitement among university leaders, because the potential is to significantly enhance the undergraduate experience by consciously introducing creativity and the arts. After all, in a creative age, when innovation is more important than ever, we have a responsibility to nurture creativity in our students.

Along with Elizabeth Long Lingo of Vanderbilt, I wrote a white paper for the event titled “Creativity in the Arts: Its unique role in the university.” The creative process in the arts has many similarities with the creative process in other disciplines, including sciences, engineering, and humanities. But the arts are unique in at least a four ways:

1. Compared with other academic disciplines, the problem finding process in arts-making is relatively unconstrained by external forces. In the sciences, most problems are well-known to researchers in the field, and a larger proportion of daily activity falls into the “problem solving” category. And even when creative problem formulation is necessary in the sciences, the range of possible formulations is constrained by physical reality.

2. In sciences and humanities, students must learn a large amount of material before they are equipped to engage in creative practice similar to what professionals in the discipline engage in. In biomedical engineering, for example, students must take several semesters of calculus, biology, chemistry, etc. before they are prepared to engage in authentic disciplinary practice.

3. Courses in arts-making, even at the introductory level, commonly include assignments that require students to generate many possibilities. Arts pedagogy is designed to prevent students from moving too quickly to their first idea—to slow them down and require them to explore a range of possibilities (Sawyer, 2012b). In the sciences and humanities, it is more difficult for students to do this effectively, particularly at the introductory levels.

4. Perhaps the most distinctive feature of arts-making is that an external, visible product is created. More importantly, the student’s developing ideas are visible from the very beginning of the process. When a student externalizes his or her developing thoughts, it enhances reflection and metacognition, and this results in more effective learning (Sawyer, 2006).

In arts-making, there is a constant dialogue between ideas and execution—for example in fine art painting, where MFA students are taught to come up with an “idea” or “concept” for a body of work. But quite frequent is the experience of starting with an idea, beginning to make the work, and then after working a bit, realizing that the work being generated actually isn’t about the original idea at all. Then the artist has to figure out, what is the idea that is really behind these works I’m generating?

Engaging in the arts-making process thus can help students learn about the relationship between concept and theory, and execution and implementation in reality.

In other university departments, in contrast, it is often difficult for students to externalize their developing understandings in this way. The material is often primarily abstract, conceptual, or linguistic in nature, not necessarily lending itself to visual or spatial representation. And yet, we know from studies like that of John-Steiner (1985) that exceptional creators in the sciences and the humanities think in and work with visual representations.

Thus, one unique benefit of the arts is that students learn to engage in a process of externalizing their developing ideas, a process that may transfer to creative work in other disciplines.

3 thoughts on “The Arts in the Research University

  1. I am a music teacher for little kids and I work with an integrated curriculum. This article is interesting to me because I constantly work on trying to find ways with which to integrate with the sciences etc in a creative fashion.

    What has been written about this very tricky endeavor?

    1. Your work sounds fascinating! There have been a lot of studies of “arts integration” in primary and secondary school. Here is a good recent report:

      Burnaford, G. (2007). Arts integration frameworks, research, & practice: A literature review. Washington, DC: Arts Education Partnership.

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