Living Within Tension: Collaborative Learning in the Arts

c. Peter Hocking 2015
c. Peter Hocking 2015

In his essay, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at Community,” Parker Palmer writes, “The most common connotation of the word community in our culture is intimacy, but this is a trap.” Too often I fall for the trap, avoiding a more complicated reality. Unlike intimacy, which is always a choice, and which requires reciprocity, in the course of my work I often find myself navigating communities that are contingent, situational, instrumental, and indifferent to my individuality and desires. Living in community requires intention, is often very hard to navigate, and challenges me to build specific skills, like compromise, negotiation, patience, and accountability. While intimate relationships often require these skills, too, in community they very often must be engaged with people I’d otherwise never choose to spend time with, who I may find vexing, and who very well may have no interest in me. In this way, community also requires that I develop my capacity to work across difference, to engage conflict productively, and accept that all conflicts can’t be resolved because all parties may not be committed to living in community according to my values. In those ways, a commitment to community is a commitment to living within tension.
What does this mean in the context of an educational community? What does it mean for artists? How do we cultivate the skills to live productively and fully in relationship to the communities in which we find ourselves? These are some of the questions graduate students in the MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts program confront when they engage our degree criterion focused on ethical engagement and thoughtful action. And they’re questions at the forefront of my mind when I plan and facilitate group studies.
c. Peter Hocking 2015
c. Peter Hocking 2015

While our core educational philosophy prioritizes individualized dialogue between students and advisors, increasingly collaborative learning has become a critical element of our program. Over the last year, faculty advisor Jackie Hayes and I have co-facilitated two group studies, Critical Composition: Think, Make, Write and Addressing Absence: Practices of Making What’s Missing (descriptions below). We’ve noticed how group studies allow students to encounter ideas, artworks, and perspectives they might not easily find through individualized study—both through prompts Jackie and I offer and by virtue of the perspectives and resources all participants bring to the table.
Furthermore, these groups are a rich context for students to explore the quiet intentions that lie beneath their practice and articulate new lines of inquiry—animating both graduate study and art practice. Unlike traditional graduate seminars, group studies aren’t tethered to faculty expertise or bodies of prescribed disciplinary knowledge. Rather, like any rambunctious community, they’re contingent and situational, developing in dialogue with the group’s interests and needs, and confronting intellectual quarrels and assumptions as they arise.
In addition to being a context for negotiating group dynamics, two other group studies I’ve recently facilitated, Curating the Self and Others and Artists As Public Intellectuals, have offered students opportunities for direct collaboration and community outreach. In Curating the Self and Others, participants met with independent curator, Ian Alden Russell, to explore contemporary curating practices. Participants interviewed a curator in their home community, presenting their findings within our seminar. And finally everyone developed a curator’s statement for another member of the group by conducting an extensive interview, reviewing their colleague’s artworks, and situating their work within a theoretical framework. Similarly, students participating in Artists As Public Intellectuals worked collaboratively to analyze and present contemporary artworks to the group through the lens of the public intellectual tradition.
c. Peter Hocking 2015
c. Peter Hocking 2015

Our degree criteria point to the many ways that contemporary artists situate themselves in relationship to others and how they engage many modalities, aesthetics, and situations.  The following examples of recent group studies offer examples of how they provide context for understanding the ways contemporary art practices have grown beyond established sites of artistic discourse, presentation, and performance.
Finally they show how collaborative learning can support students understanding of documentation and dissemination of knowledge they’re creating through research and art practice.
ADDRESSING ABSENCE: PRACTICES OF MAKING WHAT’S MISSING (Fall 2015): How do we build a life of meaningful practice in the context of graduate school? This group study focuses on how to shape a creative practice grounded in inquiry/artwork designed to move cultures forward in ways that may be otherwise elided or evaded by existing institutional structures and curricula. We will explore the intersections and synergies between inquiry, research, and dialogue, in an effort to make evident the thinking and conviction that scaffolds art and intellectual practice in a variety of forms. In addition to considering artworks by contemporary practitioners, we’ll investigate the thirty-year dialogue between bell hooks and Cornel West, the urban design curriculum developed by the African American Student Union of Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, and the digital humanities work being advanced by open source initiatives like Hybrid Pedagogy. Facilitated by Jackie Hayes and Peter Hocking.
AESTHETICS ACROSS TIME AND CULTURES (Fall 2015): Through a range of disciplinary lenses, including anthropology, art history, philosophy, and cultural studies, this group explored the concept of the aesthetic as it has been constructed in different cultures and times.  Inquiry questions included: How did the category of “fine art” or “high art” in the West come to be constructed? How has this western construction affected object making and cultural practices in traditional cultures? What are some views of the aesthetic in non-western cultures, including indigenous cultures of the Americas, the Yoruba in ancient Africa and in diaspora? The group also looked at contemporary artwork and considered how access to different cultural views and practices has been and is changing contemporary art practices in the US and abroad. Facilitators: Cynthia Ross and JuPong Lin
ARTISTS AS PUBLIC INTELLECTUALS (Fall 2014): Throughout history, artists have wrestled with questions — moral, spiritual, social — central to the experience of being human and to living in community. Such questioning often begins in an exploration of human suffering — poverty, illness, injustice. Other times it may begin as an expression of joy or ecstasy — love, compassion, happiness. Sometimes the search centers on the exceptional moments of life and sometimes around the everyday. For the artist, the intellectual, and indeed for every person, these moments of inquiry form a moral question: How is it that you, and I, shall live and act in the world? This group study explores the writing, art and direct words of artists, intellectuals and everyday people in an effort to both discuss the moral questions posed by our experience in the world. Certain questions — the relationship of art and education, the nature of social change, the intersection of place and identity, the relationship between poverty and wealth, and the experience of living intentionally (or being in the world) — will occupy our discussions. Facilitated by Peter Hocking.
CRITICAL COMPOSITION: THINK, MAKE WRITE (Spring 2015): Graduate education in the arts is not primarily focused on technique, nor is it intended to be an affirmation of an artist’s existing skills. Rather, through an intensive period of focused inquiry, it’s an opportunity to advance practice. This group study is designed to help students develop skills of critical communication and critical making. It will focus on articulating the intentions that live underneath an art practice, on organizing and composing bodies of work for presentation, and on translating the languages of the arts into writing and rhetoric. In addition to using writing techniques, it will utilize techniques of information mapping and critical making—simultaneously exploring writing as composition and composition as thinking. Facilitated by Jackie Hayes and Peter Hocking.
CURATING SELF AND OTHERS (Spring 2015): The word curate has been terribly abused by vernacular language. From Pinterest and J. Crew catalogs to Martha Stewart merchandizing and our bookshelves, were led to believe that to arrange or select objects in a pleasing manner is to take up the role of a curator. Yet, the etymology of the word tells a different, revealing, and potentially transformational story for artists of every kind: to curate is essentially to establish relationships—caring for, stewarding, and attending to people and things. This group study will explore how contemporary curators work to build relationships and help artists bring their work into dialogue with audience. Even though curating is a practice most often related to the visual arts, this group study will be flexible and attend to the interests and needs of performing artists, too. Facilitated by Peter Hocking.
MYTHOLOGIES:  SOURCES OF CREATIVITY (Spring 2015): Myth is a storehouse of human consciousness as it has evolved over the span of human life on the planet, its core elements shifting shape through time, geography, and culture.  Myth carries a sense of the numinous that adds depth and power to artistic work when it appears.  In this group study, participants combined reading, discussion, and creative practice in the probing of four areas:  origin myths and cosmologies; the animal powers; the heroic path; and the Arthurian tradition.  Resources included works by Joseph Campbell, Marie-Louise von Franz, Karen Armstrong; stories from Native America, Beowulf, The Descent of Inanna, The Mabinogion, selections from Perceval (Chretien de Troyes) and Parzifal (Wolfram von Eschenbach).  Facilitator: Cynthia Ross

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