Just do your (art)work!

This week’s readings came at just the right time for me. I needed some validation and bucking up.

My students’ final assignment is to create a work of art — collage, photographic series, painting, song, sculpture. It can be anything, but it needs to represent work, labor, or the working class and connect with one or more of the themes we wrestled with this semester. They are also required to write an artist statement justifying their decisions and do a short oral presentation to the class. To me, this is a fun project. It has some restrictions in terms of themes, but it wide open to genres and interpretations. What’s not to love?

Unfortunately, I have a small contingency of students who are not enthusiastic. On Thursday, I asked them what their level of discomfort with the project was on a scale from 1 to 10, 10 being the most awesome ever. It’s a 1.5. They’d rather write a research paper. I almost gave in. Instead I ended up giving a spiel about the importance of humanities to foster critical thinking, yadda, yadda. I followed that up by mentioning the need for creative thinkers to solve problems in fields like engineering and science. I even heard myself say, “If you’re struggling with it, it’s probably good for your brain.” I LITERALLY just embodied my mother.

Needless to say, I found this week’s readings validating, but I have a few takeaways for future semesters:

  1. Dan Edelstein uses the word innovation. I should use that. Innovative thinking is a phrase that likely carries more meaning and weight to science-types than creative thinking.
  2. I need to be more transparent with students throughout the semester about the value of art, literature, film and music. I often expect students — as we talk about constructed narratives, social change, and the arts — to come to an understanding about how the arts shapes our lives in real and important ways. I need to be explicit.*

*Full disclosure: I said the phrase “Let me be explicit …” in class last week and they snickered at me. Then I made them look up the definition of the word on their phones. Then we talked about why it has come to mean graphic or offensive. This is an example of why I am not the cool one. So uncool.

  1. I need to stop thinking about the loftier reasons for humanities’ importance (citizenship! Empathy for others!) and learn to better justify it, like Edelstein says, in terms of professional success. I believe in the arts and in their importance. I should be ready to fight for them.


Filed under Contemporary Pedagogy GEDI Spring 2018

35 Responses to Just do your (art)work!

  1. You make such a great point regarding the integration of these teaching concepts – students don’t always love it. I think you have described a well-thought out plan for addressing this in the future! Your project sounds great!

  2. Robert H

    Sarah, great post. I prefer hitting them on the back of the head with a 2×4 but apparently that is illegal or something. Yes, today’s society pushes empirical thought but not creative thought. Work the problem but don’t come up with a problem because that ain’t your job. Specialization and compartmentalization are the tools that kill creativity. Students should learn the world, not the problem. I really like your realization and appreciate your insight.

  3. jschlittepi

    That’s really awesome that you leveraged art to enhance creativity. Was this in a class or cohort where artistic creation was not previously and expectation?

    • Sarah Plummer

      Hi. This is a humanities class. So I think mostly students would expect to interpret art, music, literature and film within historical and theoretical contexts. But…I mean…art shouldn’t be a total surprise in a humanities class, right? I was on my syllabus from day one, too. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

    • This is also what I have been searching for all along. Art in general or music in particular are the things I pursue throughout this life.

  4. Kristin

    I can understand some of the push-back from students who don’t want to do an artistic project, since sometimes its easier to crank out a lame essay on some topic that meets the bare minimum criteria. But at the same time I wish they would appreciate these awesome opportunities to engage with the material in a much more introspective manner. Creative (or innovative, take your pick) projects tend to be more memorable and more meaningful to me, so I say stick with it. They may thank you in the end.

  5. chris

    I really like this idea. So much freedom to do what you want. I don’t know what student wouldn’t want to do that as a final. It is so open and completely up to them to make the meaning of what they create. You can be a crappy artist, but that poorly drawn figure means something to you. Now tell us why it means what it means. How is that not easier than a term paper? If they are truly that uncomfortable with the assignment, someone should have figured out they could have disguised a paper as an essay. I agree with what Robert said about the learning to solve the problem, not make one.

  6. Amy Hermundstad

    I loved this post and the final assignment sounds awesome! Having a wide-open assignment sounds super amazing and it is always amazing to me when students would prefer to do an assignment that is so rigid and structured. The point about making the reasoning behind the assignment more explicit really resonated with me. There still might be some push-back from students but I think that open and honest conversation is so important.

  7. I think the final assignment sounds awesome! If it’s any comfort, I will confess that I have encountered similar levels of resistance when I’ve proposed projects that involve creativity and integrative work across different domains. Usually I can get them over it (have to start small and build up to the main project), but it can be a struggle. I think that many college students have had little experience or support for the idea that their authentic, original ideas and creativity are valuable. Part of the resistance (I think) comes from lack of experience and being uncomfortable about risking something, but there’s also the effect of a lifetime of “learning” being framed largely in terms of “skills,” “standards,” “outcomes” and testing.

  8. Sarah, I really enjoyed your discussion. Your students do not understand how lucky they are in terms of having a teacher that creates these creative assignments. I think what is happening is very similar to what happens in many classrooms. Students are not creative, they do not want to be. I found that engaging with them throughout the semester, but even then some of my students are uninterested. Yeah solving a single problem is, pardon my English, problematic. We need to get involved!

  9. Shaun Respess

    Great post. I find it admirable that you stuck to your decision and explained to them why such a skill and task was necessary/beneficial. It may be outside of their comfort zone, which is exactly how it may be useful for them. Even if it is not directly, being able to flexibly tailor your work in a variety of ways matters and should continue to matter. We should all keep fighting for the humanities. Furthermore, we should all seek to be more transparent and open. These moves allow our students to see more of us and to follow our train of thought at important times.

  10. ab90

    Sarah, uuugh such frustration that students resist creative projects. I wonder how would it would go over to discuss pedagogy with students and have a debate about teaditional assignments versus those outside the box.

  11. I totally agree with you. Continue with your (art)work and claim the importance of humanities.

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