The Future of the Arts in Research Universities

April 14, 2016

What is the future of the arts in research universities?

That question is on our mind, and it’s probably on yours if you are reading this. To even pose that question is to suggest some uncertainty. After all, no one can predict the future [1. No one can predict the future. However, some judgements about the future may be better than others.].
And yet, uncertainty about the future is just that: uncertain. The future can go in so many directions. Alternatives are possible. Change is inevitable.
But so is stability.
And rather than feeling trepidation about the future, embracing the inherent uncertainty is an awesome opportunity. Everything is suddenly possible.
And that’s our task.

An art class in the Quadrangle of the Lawyer's Club.

“An art class in the Quadrangle of the Lawyer’s Club at the University of Michigan. 1930.” http://quod.lib.umich.edu/b/bhl/x-bl000002/bl000002. University of Michigan Library Digital Collections.

Embracing uncertainty means figuring out what you know and what steps to take to understand what you don’t know. Because as much as everything changes, it also stays the same.
When I joined ArtsEngine and a2ru as the Research Director in early January, I picked up where my predecessors left off: building a process to figure out what we know about the role of the arts in research universities. Working with a2ru’s Research Committee, we are mapping a plan for Phase 2 of the Mellon SPARC[2. Supporting Practice in Arts, Research and Curricula] research project. The goals are to build clarity and provide meaningful next steps for integrating the arts into the culture of America’s research universities. Here is a taste of what that looks like.

1. The Arts and Identity are Interlinked.
Umichigan_color_sealOne of the things we can be fairly confident about is that the arts and identity are closely linked. Because our sense of identity plays such an important role in interpersonal relationships[3. Tajfel, H. , & Turner, J. C. (1979). An integrative theory of intergroup conflict. In W. G. Austin & S. Worchel (Eds.), The social psychology of intergroup relations (pp. 33-48).Monterey, CA: Brooks/Cole.Tajfel, H. (1982). Instrumentality, identity and social comparisons. In H. Tajfel (Ed.),Social identity and intergroup relations (pp. 483-507). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.], this connection may have profound implications for how we envision the future of the arts and its role in the research university culture. At the University of Michigan, for example, the arts sit atop some of our core values (literally, it’s first in the list on the university’s seal), and it’s been that way for over 120 years. But like a person’s identity, how we interpret those values can shift over time. The questions we now face are, “What do the arts mean for who we are today?”, and “What will they mean for us tomorrow?”.

2. Three Key Questions
In mapping the needs of a2ru’s partners and the broader community, there are three key questions that will help frame and guide the work ahead:

  1. What is arts integration?

  2. Why does it matter?

  3. How do we do it?

These three key questions are driven by the need for advocacy and implementation. For advocacy, answering the questions “What is arts integration?” and “Why does it matter?” will help us clarify and communicate relevance. For implementation, “How do we do it?” is an obvious set of concerns.

Within these three key questions, the research team is identifying and prioritizing an extensive list of sub-questions, use-cases, and community concerns to guide the development of our research outcomes. The a2ru Research Committee is one source for this information. The transcribed interviews from Phase 1 of the Mellon SPARC research will be another. Informal conversations, observations, and occasional workshops are additional opportunities that we use for input.

3. Research Outcomes

For a2ru’s research agenda ahead, our primary outcomes are driven by the Mellon SPARC research project. The aim is to provide a meaningful foundation for the adoption of arts-integrative practices across the cultures of research universities.

Following from the Phase I data collection, Phase II of SPARC Project (2015-2018) seeks to synthesize and disseminate the research findings with the aim to: (1) support research universities in the adoption of arts-integration practices, (2) help fully educate and empower our students, and (3) maximize the creative production of faculty.

Currently, we are in the process of transcribing video-based interviews from Phase 1. With the primary source data in hand, we plan to analyze and synthesize the array of topics, themes, and insights contained among the interview responses. A web platform will serve as a means to contextualize the data, interpret narratives, and share the distribution and abundance of topics discussed.
The results will be transformed into three tangible resources for broadening the adoption of arts-integrative practices: 1) partner profiles that provide the basis for inter-institutional comparisons, 2) a keystone guide to support the local definition, design, and adoption arts-integrative practices, and 3) shared practice modules to map exemplars, trends, and cultural norms for collaborative activities in emerging, high-impact interaction fields.
Research insights will be propagated through a series of onsite, regional, and national workshops with a2ru partners, aimed at heightening the experience and impact of arts integration.
Our current priorities through May 2016 are the transcriptions, development of the keystone guide, and select shared practice modules.

In addition to this work, there are a few additional initiatives in process, designed to respond directly to the emerging needs of a2ru’s partners. We’ll share more about our direct outcomes as well as those emerging projects on this blog and through a2ru’s listserve as they develop.

But given that our goal is to better integrate the arts, I want to leave readers with a single question:

“What would success look like?”

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