Finding New Perspective: A Pilot Arts Workshop for Researchers

a2ru News

Dec 3, 2021

Veronica Stanich, a2ru Research Program Manager

Like many workshops and interventions proliferating across higher ed (e.g., Strategic Doing, KnowInnovation, facilitated on-campus ideation sessions and grant sprints), the workshops that a2ru currently offers rely directly or indirectly on methods associated with design thinking. These include the concept of the “sprint” itself, structured hands-on activities that promote a group creative process through divergent and convergent thinking, and some prototyping along the way.

Over the past two years, I’ve watched a range of institutions demonstrate the efficacy of design thinking-inspired activities for research teams, especially in STEMM disciplines, and I began to wonder what an arts thinking workshop could offer to researchers. What do the practices and approaches of the arts have to offer researchers in non-arts fields?

One answer to that question is new perspective (see New Perspective, Understanding, Awareness: Impacts of Arts Integration and Interdisciplinary Practice); engaging with other disciplines helps us see and understand even familiar content differently. Perhaps researchers who don’t usually engage the practices and approaches of the arts could use them to get new perspective on their work.

I needed expert collaborators to help design and execute an experience that could explore this possibility, and found them in Margot Greenlee of BodyWise Dance and Martina Jerant of the Center for RNA Biomedicine at the University of Michigan.

Together, we focused on the idea of a researcher’s “stuck place”—a conundrum that they can’t think their way through or around, that bogs down the work. We designed a workshop that asks its participants to take on the artist’s practice of making, creating micro works of art in movement, literary, and visual forms. Participants toggle between an artist’s open-ended, exploratory approach and a more critical one that seeks connections between the artworks they create and a stuck place in their current work or research (decided ahead of time). We posit that the arts could enable generative new perspectives on all-too-familiar problems, perhaps enabling researchers to come “unstuck.”

We piloted the workshop at the University of Michigan in October, in-person (masked) with fourteen faculty, staff, and students from a range of disciplines including natural sciences, law, engineering, information, and education. Thanks to their generous feedback, we know that indeed the workshop enables new perspectives; most participants thought about familiar things in unfamiliar ways, at least somewhat (see below).

From survey responses, we also know that making micro-artworks was useful or somewhat useful to all participants’ thinking, and that a few of them indeed came unstuck in their thinking. We hope to strengthen these impacts in future iterations of the workshop. We would love to enable more researchers to have the experience of the participant who wrote, “It was incredible! I went in expecting to enjoy the change of pace and find the interactions with new people stimulating, but I was skeptical that the workshop would help me resolve an area where I was stuck in my research….I emerged fully convinced of how I should move forward. The workshop allowed me to resolve the problem that I actually had, which was not in fact the one I thought I had.”

Survey responses from a2ru pilot “arts thinking for researchers” workshop, October 2021.

Top image: Workshop participants choose materials for their “found object” sculptures. 

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