Practicing Presence: Dialogic Education in the MFAIA

Excerpts from talk about the MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts program presented for a panel, “Distance Making? Studio Pedagogy On and Offline,” at College Art Association, Feb. 2015
In reflecting on how students and faculty are present to one another, I would like to begin with the words of recent graduates. This is how they describe the transformative journey that characterizes graduate study in the MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts at Goddard College:
In her final self-evaluation Christine Brubaker (MFAIA’15) writes:

Upon entering my graduate studies, I defined myself primarily as an actor for both stage and screen…My scope of art making and possibilities for performance have expanded greatly. I am now directing, writing and creating original work.

California Thrasher Eggs
“California Thrasher.” Glassmaker Aaron Kirchhoff (MFAIA ’15) collaborated with the Maryland Ornithological Society to create glass eggs that are replicas of rare or endangered birds.

Aaron Kirchhoff (MFAIA ’15) states, “my artistic development benefited immensely by pursuing ethical engagement, performativity, and scientific research methods as fundamental components to my art making.”
Donia Salem dancing
Donia Salem (MFAIA ’15) photo by Alexy Lanza

Donia Salem speaks of the totality of her graduate experience:

How I inquire, mother, think, act, respond, speak, interact with myself, family, and community are changed. It has been overwhelming, at times, to recognize and acknowledge how incredibly rich and awakening this pursuit has been thus far.

In the call for papers for this panel, organizer Deborah Bright emphasized the importance of studio critique, where faculty, peers, and on occasion visiting artists or critics come together in a room to “access achievement in the presence of the work.” I would like to examine the full implications of this concept of presence.  In an educational setting where much of the interaction is mediated by digital communication, I will explore how the profound experience of presence results in transformational learning.
Goddard education is individualized. In consultation with their advisor students design their own study plan for the semester. Throughout the educational process students are asked to be very present:

  • In their initial study plan identifying their fundamental questions— what they want to learn and how to go about it.
  • During the semester in dialogue with their advisor and peers—stating what kind of feedback they would find most helpful, listening carefully, and responding mindfully to the work of others.
  • At the end of the semester evaluating their work, which is only then followed by an evaluation by their advisor.

Furthermore, instead of “presence” in the studio, in the MFAIA emphasizes the presence of the art work in community. Students and faculty come together at the beginning of each semester for an eight-day residency—an intense, exciting time, including advising meetings, workshops on many topics, performances, exhibitions, and more informal sharing and discussion of creative practice.  But then, upon leaving the residency, students are asked to be present as artists where they live, to take responsibility for creating their “studio,” or locus for generative creative work, as well as identifying or creating the community or communities with whom they engage or share their work.

"Oh for a Muse of Fire: An Interactive Shakespeare Experience," facilitated by Christine Brubaker (MFAIA '15), Gwen Reitz (MFAIA '16), and Catharine Slusar (MFAIA' 15)
“Oh for a Muse of Fire: An Interactive Shakespeare Experience,” facilitated by Christine Brubaker (MFAIA ’15), Gwen Reitz (MFAIA ’16), and Catharine Slusar (MFAIA’ 15)

Being present with one’s artistic practice in the world results in growth in new and unexpected directions.  Community takes many forms for Goddard students. For some, community is very intimate.  Amanda Hancock (MFAIA ’14) began her practicum by collecting recipes from her grandmother and six great aunts to reclaim the domestic arts of east Texas.  Not only did she create a magnificent cookbook, with recipes, stories and photographs, but engagement in this process also transformed her painting practice. Amanda now sees her paintings as part of a process of creating community fellowship.
Amanda Hancock, (MFAIA ’14) page from her portfolio, "I Am My Sister’s Keeper"
Amanda Hancock, (MFAIA ’14) page from her portfolio, “I Am My Sister’s Keeper”

Fran Krause (MFAIA ’14) was a skilled animator, already teaching full-time when he commenced graduate study, whose community was primarily on-line.  For one of his many experiments, he started a simple one-page comic to explore his irrational fears.  When he ran out of ideas he created an online submission page to solicit ideas from his readers. By the time of graduation he had 60,000 subscribers across Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, and Instagram, and a publishing contract.
"Deep Dark Fears," by Fran Krause (MFAIA ''14)
Deep Dark Fears, by Fran Krause (MFAIA ’14)

Not every student will graduate with a book contract, but the intense dialogic exchange offered by the MFAIA fosters tremendous growth and development. Advisors are very present to student’s creative and intellectual growth.  Throughout the semester, students are in continual dialogue with their advisors, through one to one written exchange and occasional video conversations, as well as larger group discussions.
Speaking personally, I find that the combination of written and oral exchange allows for greater depth and intimacy of communication then what I’ve experienced during face-to-face interaction in independent studies with graduate students at a traditional residential university. At the residency, I start by encouraging each student to identify the fundamental questions informing their study.  We spend time exploring how to create robust questions, questions that generate curiosity, surface underlying assumptions, and point towards the possibilities at the core of a student’s practice. Then every time I receive the student’s work during the semester, I begin by careful listening, i.e. viewing, reading– experiencing the work. When responding, I first reflect back to the student, describing what I experience, sharing the meaning I find in their work. Then I raise questions to encourage further exploration. Finally guided by the student’s intentions, I may offer suggestions. I find that the space and time provided by sustained conversation, as well as the format of providing extensive feedback in written form, allows me to probe more deeply, to ask questions that might not have occurred or felt safe to ask in a single conversation. Similarly the students have time to read my letters repeatedly and reflect upon them before responding.
Learning at Goddard combines various levels of inquiry. As is traditional in academic practice, Goddard students engage in what can be termed “third-person” investigation, examining the meaning, implications and critical context of a text or work of art. In addition students are encouraged to write process papers, reflecting in the first-person on their artistic process, clearly identifying the personal questions that drive their artwork, informing their critical examination of theory and the development of their personal theory of art. Both of these inquiries are shared in second person, dialogical exchange.
This mixture of forms of inquiry, including critical, dialogical and personal reflection, is well suited to our programmatic emphasis on praxis.  Praxis, as described in our graduate handbook, engages, “the ways that ideas can be enacted and embodied through action, as well as the means by which art practice is advanced through its relationship with theory.”
For instance, Amanda Hancock was trying to imagine how her painting practice could create fellowship. She was part of my advising group of visual and performing artists where we chose as group question, “How is our art a relational practice?”  Our group readings and discussions gave her language and specific models of how to actualize her desire to utilize art to create stronger social ties.  Her work and that of so many other students embodies Paulo Freire’s definition of praxis in Pedagogy of the Oppressed– “reflection and action upon the world in order to transform it.”
In William Cronin’s article “Only Connect: the Goals of a Liberal Education,”he states: “More than anything else, being an educated person means being able to see the connections that allow one to make sense of the world and act within it in creative ways.”  At our last residency, each of the graduates gave moving testimony as to how their understanding of, and presence in, an ever growing web of interconnections was at the heart of their Goddard experience. Every one of them described how graduate education offered a tremendous expansion of vision and possibility.  They spoke of how they had gained much greater understanding and confidence of themselves as artists, as agents in the world.  While they had many potent accomplishments to celebrate, many were also in the middle of new projects, graduate education having set in motion even greater accomplishments to come.
"Mister Ordinary: An Autobiographical Journey of a Bipolar American"
Law Tarello (MFAIA ’15)

Let me conclude with the words of one of the recent graduates, Law Tarello MFAIA ’15):

Here’s the bottom line… I’ve spent the majority of my life honing and working to expertly wield the craft of acting and improvisation. It has almost become too easy. This new work was not easy….The Latin derivation of the word entertain comes from the words inter, among/between; and tenere, to hold. I would like to reclaim that word, removing from it the negative concept of diversion from attention. By highlighting the idea that if you share your deepest self, giving those willing to be inspired by the experience something to hold onto, the result is transformative.

Important Announcement

The Board of Directors for Goddard College have made the difficult decision to close the college at the end of the 2024 Spring term.  


Current Goddard students will have the opportunity to complete their degrees at the same tuition rate through a teach-out with like-minded institution, Prescott College. Updates and scholarship funds will be available in the coming weeks and months. Information will be posted to

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