Thinking Inside the Box
The trouble with teaching art
The humble BA is studied and derided in equal measures—the subjective elements rile the quantitative-natured BSc students, often offend the utilitarian sensibilities of the BE ilk, and make the BCA crowd crimson with cost-benefit analyses. This week, Salient investigates whether there are any right answers to the subjects infamous for having “no wrong answers”.
‘The arts’ is a fantastically broad category, and for the purposes of this occasion the term shall refer to those specimens of the fine arts which can currently be studied at university level; theatre, music, writing, and (occasionally) visual art.
At Victoria, the arts fall under the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences. Degrees in a number of arts subjects—film, music and theatre—may be completed under Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Music programmes. Victoria’s International Institute of Modern Letters (IIML) offers a Master of Arts programme in script writing and writing, and a PhD in creative writing.
Problems arise in the classification of certain arts, and it’s a line in the sand which seems largely arbitrary. At Victoria, theatre, film, English, and media studies fall under the same banner, while at the University of Otago music, theatre, and performing arts share the same school. At Harvard, arts offerings are split between the Department of Music and the Department of Visual and Environmental Studies. While no consensus exists on which domain of the university framework the arts belong, there is even less evidence to support any consensus on how they should operate within academia.
The current model of university study— lectures and examinations at the core—has been standard practice since the 11th and 12th centuries. While minor changes have naturalised themselves over time, no great revelation has occurred.
Salient spoke to Victoria University theatre lecturer James McKinnon for a local perspective. While McKinnon rejects the idea of a “standard model of teaching”, he does admit the university framework is restricting. Large class sizes and a lack of student-student contact (especially between, say 100-level and 300-level students) facilitate the difficulties he encounters. “Class size is an obstacle, creating relationships doesn’t occur until the latter stages [of a degree program]. Interaction between one another is the most important thing that can happen”.
To IIML PhD student and Massey University creative writing tutor Pip Adam, “constraint is always good for creativity”—though she isn’t referencing constraint in terms of class sizes as McKinnon was—“having to fit my work to meet university requirements and culture has produced some really exciting exercises in craft and teaching”. For Adam, university is a place where one can be “cross-pollinated by other disciplines,” and in that sense university is a productive environment for the arts—Adam shares a hallway with psychology scholars, script writers, linguists, statisticians and ESOL teachers. “I learn a lot from them and their views definitely bleed into my work,” she says, inadvertently echoing McKinnon’s emphasis on interaction.
Grading is a fraught process, stuck between the rigid categoricalism of the standard university marking structure and the subjective disciplines, or ‘fluid arts’: the tension is a difficult one. Say you were walking around a gallery and asked to—in the most objective way possible—decide whether a painting achieves an A- (75 to 79 per cent) or a B+ (70 to 74 per cent). Would you be comfortable completing such as exercise? When it comes to academics, everyone has what McKinnon calls “their own knowledge frameworks and personal epistemology,” and it’s sometimes difficult for the outsider to see how this can translate into a letter categorisation. While the structure of McKinnon’s courses mean he has a wealth of data to draw from when assigning grades, grades are not the aim for his students; more important is ensuring that “positive learning and long term retention” occur. He worries that “studying for assessment pressure [rather than] intrinsic pleasure can switch deep learning to surface learning”, but does stress that “assessments are important and must be valid”. Adam believes “the idea of grading art is always an uneasy one,” but “it’s possible to rank, say, four short stories or eight poems in some kind of order”.
The way universities teach the arts reflects their inherent subjectivity. Though no quantification or cost-benefit analysis could do it justice, universities are institutions which do add significant value to artistic pursuits. While there seldom is a ‘right’ method, the exploration of processes and outcomes is just as important as the final product.