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Collaborative Learning: The Self in Context

Peter Hocking, MFA's picture
MFA Interdisciplinary Arts Blog
Collaborative Learning: The Self in Context

Education is a social process. Education is growth. Education is, not a preparation for life; education is life itself.John Dewey

To be changed by ideas was pure pleasure. But to learn ideas that ran counter to values and beliefs learned at home was to place oneself at risk, to enter the danger zone. Home was the place where I was forced to conform to someone else’s image of who and what I should be. School was the place where I could forget that self and, through ideas, reinvent myself.  – bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress

Taken together, these insights from John Dewey and bell hooks highlight the tension between self-directed and collaborative learning that lies at the center of the MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts (MFAIA) program. 

Stated plainly, they ask us to examine what we individually need and want to learn, while simultaneously asking us to consider how our learning occurs within the context of our relationships. They challenge us to consider how learning can draw us into community; and conversely how learning can transform our context, how it presents opportunities for us to transgress the preconceived expectations others may project upon us, and how it allow us to shed habits and assumptions that don’t serve our aspirations. 

The MFAIA program is designed to ask questions and to provide contexts for pursuing the challenges and opportunities that Dewey and hooks imply. Specifically, it asks students and faculty to consider how one individually pursues one’s questions and social passions while simultaneously learning from and contributing to the learning of others. It asks how, by being present to the learning of others, we might catalyze transformations in our ways of being; and how others’ perspectives might similarly be transformed when we make evident our processes of discovery.

The program grounds these questions in a practice of dialogue—not idle conversation, but a process of deep listening and an openness to disorientation and transformation—finally asking learners to consider how inquiry and dialogue might become the fuel for meaningful living and art making.

It’s a mistake to think of self-directed learning as learning in isolation. Rather than pursuing a standardized curriculum, self-directed study places the questions, passions, curiosities, and life experience of students at the center of their learning process. Through the practice of dialogue—between the student and teacher, among peers, across cultural boundaries and intellectual territories, with other artists and thinkers, and between the self and the world—and by being present to the ideas, discovery, and learning of a diverse range of other people, we learn to let go of preconceived expectations of who we are supposed to be, what we are supposed to learn and, as bell hooks suggests, open ourselves to the possibility of reinvention and discovery.

With these things in mind, in dialogue with an advisor, each student builds a self-directed study plan that honors their experience, while enabling rigorous and socially engaged pursuit of their learning goals.

While the MFAIA program begins with the experience and goals of each student, it also acknowledges and supports the community’s shared learning goals through group studies, collaborative learning opportunities, and peer seminars. Often collaborative learning is integrated directly into a student’s study plan, reflecting the centrality of dialogical, interactive, and relational learning to our approach.

Collaborative learning projects are proposed and developed by both students and faculty, often together, and two or three opportunities are usually offered each semester. 

Listed below are examples of collaborative learning projects offered over the past several years. They should not be mistaken for traditional academic courses. Often designed collaboratively by students and faculty, they draw upon the learning methodology of many different research, learning, and inquiry traditions. Some reflect the tradition of the collaborative studio, while others more resemble research colloquia. Many combine field study and careful reading of shared texts; others utilize the creative work of students and faculty as fuel for conversations and inquiry. While some enable the development of new technical skills, all are focused by a joint line of inquiry, the pursuit of understanding of a shared question.

The Learning Artist: Vital creative practitioners have the ability to frame a line of inquiry and the skills to fully explore it. How do artists learn? How do they undertake research? How do they transform their insights into meaning? How are these skills different from the learning and research undertaken by other fields? This group will look at a variety of ways that artists prepare themselves to be intentional, self-directed, inquisitive, creative learner-practitioners. The peer seminar will discuss readings by Ellen Dissanayake, Miwon Kwon, Beatriz da Costa, Carol Becker, Morris Berman, Leif Gustavson, Samuel Steinberg Seidel, among others.

Ecoaesthetics and Perceptual Ecology: Designed as a semester-long workshop, the seminar dives into the heart of fundamental ecological issues in this historical moment. What does it mean to be an artist in the age of the Anthropocene, the name Paul Crutzen suggested over a decade ago to describe the age of human domination of biological, chemical and geologic processes? We hear daily reports of environmental disaster and injustice, species extinction, environmental refugees. Many would say that ecocide is the result of humans’ disconnection from the earth. We propose that honing our perceptual abilities can reconnect us with the biosphere to initiate a reconciliation between all inhabitants of the earth. This semester-long workshop/seminar will offer us a chance to hone our perceptual skills, to learn to listen closely to the “more than human world” (Abram 1997). Our work will also further the cultivation of empathy as a vehicle for expanding awareness of other life forms and the cultivation of an eco-aesthetic. We will each embark on a daily practice of perceiving our local environments, documenting our perceptual exercises by whatever means the artist finds most appropriate. We expect to “meet” virtually three times over the course of the semester to share our evolving perceptual practices and to collaborate on creating a project to be shared at the next residency.

Beyond and Between: Context and Location Deconstructed (a Treasure Hunt): Once upon a time art was inseparable from life...Our work does not need to be located or contextualized within a prefabricated box for it to be meaningful and important. To deepen our understanding of where our art fits into the world demands a discovery and honoring of all that we are connected to-the traditions, events, experiences, people and places that have come before us and those that impact us now. This study will use readings from Lucy Lippard, bell hooks, Maxine Greene and others--as well as our own creations--to reveal how our work is connected to our lives and how our lives are connected to the larger world.

Insider/Outsider: What's the difference? takes up the question of how we engage with communities as artists. What difference does it make if we come to a community as an outsider, as opposed to relating to the community as an insider? How can we understand the ethical dimension of relational practices and how can we discover our own ethics of community-engagement?

Performativity and Social Identity:  How we talk, walk, look, speak, gesture, stand, dress, eat, etc. --how we move through the world--expresses many things about who we are individually and as social beings. In this peer-seminar, our inquiry revolves around the performativity of social identities; we ask, how do our everyday gestures and actions contribute to the construction of social identities, and how do social constructions of identity shape our movements? How do artists disrupt images of "throwing like a girl" or examine social wounds deeper than the "only skin deep." Some artists and scholars that will contribute to our study include Adrian Piper, Coco Fusco, Judith Butler, Roland Barthes, and Iris Marion Young; we will touch on theater/dance/performance art, feminist and gender studies, semiotics and cultural studies. Seminaractivities will include one group conference call per packet period to discuss readings/videos/sound recordings, embodied research ‘scores’, and our blogged documentation/responses to these materials.

Transcriptions: Site, Object and Gestures: A series of "studio visits" in New York City in which participants will create and share new time- and/or site-based works. This process will be supported by readings and exercises/experiments that we will explore together, investigating the transcriptive potential of object and gestures in relation to site. With research as a jumping off point, we will investigate a variety of methodologies with emphasis on collaborative processes. (Note:  artists working in any discipline or across disciplines are encouraged to participate – including sound, dance, film/video, writing, performance, sculpture, web art, painting, public intervention, etc.).

 

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