Audiences & Technology Series: Wesleyan fuses art and science

Students participating in Feet to the Fire: Feast or Famine

Wesleyan University is experimenting with fusing art with science in the classroom, and precipitating change across the entire campus.

We spoke with Pamela Tatge, Director of the Center for the Arts at Wesleyan University, about Feet to the Fire, a project that is working to infuse the arts and sustainability into the very core of the university.

This is one of a series of conversations with leaders from eight organizations convening in December 2011 around the topic of Audience Engagement and Technology.

Piama Habibullah (ArtsFwd): Can you tell me about Wesleyan University Center for the Arts?

Pamela Tatge (Director of the Center for the Arts): The Center for the Arts (CFA) is a department within Wesleyan University, a private liberal arts and sciences university located in Middletown, Connecticut. The CFA serves as a cultural center for the campus by presenting a wide spectrum of events and exhibitions, ranging from student and faculty works to internationally acclaimed ensembles.

PH: Can you describe your project Feet to the Fire?

PT: Feet to the Fire puts the arts in dialogue with different disciplines in ways that integrate the arts across the Wesleyan campus. Our greatest achievement was the founding of the College of the Environment that allows for students to double major in the arts and sciences. It is predicated on the fact that you cannot study environmental science in a vacuum. You have to study it in dialogue with all disciplines, including the arts. Our larger goal is the Creative Campus Initiative, which is not just focused on environmental sustainability issues, but different disciplines that are thinking about integrating the arts.

Feet to the Fire was originally born right before Al Gore came out with his movie, An Inconvenient Truth, when climate change was not on the radar. People were not talking green anything. It was a very different time. Together with Barry Chernoff, Director of the College of the Environment, we created a project which was multilayered: putting an artist in the center of a planning process, taking nine months to plan something before we even began, which was a new step for us, and finding ways to look at climate change from multiple lenses and multiple scenarios. Many of the project activities were pedagogical exchanges, teaching a scientific topic using the arts as a means of knowing and understanding that scientific topic. Activities include co-taught classes pairing artists and scientists in the same classroom, commissioned works by both faculty and visiting artists centered on issues raised by global warming, and campus-wide festivals premiering new works.

We have a skillset for integrating the arts in a liberal arts college setting as well as providing artists with a research and development site for their work. In effect, the robustness of the Creative Campus project grew out of the success of the partnerships and types of interactions that we experienced through the Feet to the Fire program. The sorts of activities that we’re doing now are not solely related to sustainability issues and reach across the entire campus.

PH: How has this affected student life and how the university operates as a whole?

Students participating in Feet to the Fire activities

PT: We’re dealing with a student body nationally that is, because of economic issues, driven to wanting to get what they want out of their education so that it can get them a job. Even at places like Wesleyan, we were finding some narrowing of minds. There are some people that are wondering why they are dancing in a science class. And there are others who say it’s the most profound learning experience that they’ve had. Some of the salient themes that have come through are that students feel more deeply connected to the non-arts material because of their interaction with the artists in the classroom. The students didn’t anticipate this so they discovered something new about themselves and the discipline that they want to know more about. This is asking them to think about disciplinary boundaries. Why do we study some of these things in isolation from the other? What should that say to the student in terms of how they plan their path through the Wesleyan curriculum?

There have been some challenges related to pedagogy. Some of our junior faculty is the most excited and participatory in this project, but this kind of experimentation pedagogically is something that they’re dissuaded to do by senior faculty members. It’s our job is to make it possible for anyone who wants to play to play, there are some institutional barriers to that effort.

Another challenge is that co-taught experimental courses don’t yield as strong teaching evaluations for the faculty. Is that a bad thing? Is it ok to make students uncomfortable and do things they otherwise wouldn’t? We’ve learned that we have to be more transparent and communicative with expectations of the students.

Finally, this sort of work takes a lot of planning. It’s much easier for the professor to just teach the course the way they’ve always been teaching it. In order to add a module takes a lot of planning time plus convincing them that it’s worth it to incorporate a new way of learning.

Challenges involving the artists include navigating the academic calendar and finding artists who are free to be here for a creative residency, so that the process can be open to our students. Also, finding artists who are generous enough to want to open themselves up to this kind of learning and have a genuine research interest is difficult. We need to be open to more possibilities.

PH: What are your questions for the Continuing Innovation convening and for the field?

PT: Part of what we would like to do better is using social networking to communicate and disseminate what we’re doing as well as engage more students and community members in our work. We have a unique opportunity because our primary population is tech savvy and plugged in, unlike some of the other organizations.

We want to make sure that for people at all levels, we are communicating properly and using our web presence to our advantage. Increasingly we’re grappling with declining audiences. What are the new paradigms that relate to engagement or participation?

Piama Habibullah is the former Online Producer + Communications Manager at EmcArts.