All Together Now: Four College of Fine Arts Courses That Use Collaborative Learning

Tuesday, February 12, 2019
illustration of a hand building a room

by Jen Reel / Illustration by Moira Scrimgeour

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When two or more people work together toward a common goal, great things can happen.

Studies show that collaborating with others can improve our well-being in a number of ways: It can foster deeper communication and refine our social skills, develop our critical thinking and our self-identity and engage our creativity and imagination. When used as a learning tool, working collaboratively can also lead to greater cognition and long-term retention of information.

Here in the College of Fine Arts, our faculty uses collaborative learning methods in their classrooms to challenge, elevate and inspire. When students work together, not only can they gain a deeper understanding of their disciplines, they can also learn how to be more thoughtful, focused and confident. We believe these skills will advance them not only in their careers, but throughout their lives.

With hundreds of courses offered in our college, choosing just a handful was tough. But we’ve selected four classes, one from each department, that we think exemplify creative, collaborative learning.


Performing Art History: Joan Jonas

Department of Art and Art History

Taught by Associate Professor Ann Reynolds, this Art History class examines the evolving practice of performance artist and video pioneer Joan Jonas, whose work offers a critical lens to the rise and historical relevance of minimalism, video and performance in the U.S. and Europe in the 1960s and most recent decade.

The class reviews and evaluates one performance piece each week, reading existing critiques and creating their own peer-evaluated assessments. Reynolds says the focused group discussions bring more voices and ideas to the table, resulting in more thoughtful and engaging dialogue and helping them move past the fear of sharing their thoughts and findings with each other.

At the end of the semester, groups are tasked with identifying critical materials for class review and leading class discussion based on those materials.  Reynolds says the groups have shown a lot of creativity and enthusiasm when leading discussions—one group even developed their own video in the spirit of Jonas, assigning everyone parts, complete with props, and using it as a way to better understand her work. Reynolds hopes the intense group focus on one artist will help students to not only think about an artist’s evolution as something to learn, but also as a tool for thinking about their own work, too.


Branding Spaces

School of Design and Creative Technologies

Although this spring marks the inaugural offering of Assistant Professor of Practice James Walker’s upper-level elective course in Design, its popularity was felt before class even started; The waitlist could have filled another class. Maybe that’s because of its unusual objective: students are tasked with redesigning a space that they themselves experience on a daily basis—the Doty Fine Arts Building lobby. The space currently is mostly void of any signage, furniture, art or character; quite bland for a place that serves as starting point when traveling to the Dean’s office, Office of Admissions, Student Affairs, Fine Arts Career Services, Bass Concert Hall, Fine Arts Library and the School of Design and Creative Technologies. 

To add to the course’s uniqueness, the project is budgeted across four years, so students will need to consider long-term and tiered solutions since new students will inherit previous students’ work each semester and build upon it.

Every part of this course requires thoughtful teamwork, and not just among themselves and future classes, but also with those who utilize the lobby—the students, prospective students and their parents, staff, faculty, administrators and concert-goers. It’s a monumental task that requires extensive observational and interview-based data gathering as well as group research to understand what kind of information people moving through the space should receive and how the space should make them feel. Teams will focus on accessibility, inclusivity, placemaking and wayfinding, and will consider everything from furniture, lighting, installations, exhibitions or sculptural work and even paint color to make it happen.

illustration of a band playing

Music and Culture

Butler School of Music

Not only does this class involve a heavy amount of student group work, it’s run by a teaching team as well. Created by Associate Professor Sonia Seeman and customized and carried out by multiple instructors each semester, this course debuted in spring 2017 and is required of all first-year Butler School of Music students. Its main objective is to give students the tools to understand and shape their roles in society, and although there is an extensive amount of peer-evaluated writing in this course, the biggest collaboration comes from their group discussions. The depths students are willing to go do not disappoint.

They talk about everything from politics and identity to copyright, colonialism, creativity and privilege. They question how institutions determine curriculum and discuss the importance of giving back to their communities. They ponder professional ethics and personal, creative meaning. They ruminate on questions from “How can we do the most good in the world?” to “Why does music matter?”

The class offers a deep and collective inward look into the moral and motivated psyche of not just individual artists, but professions in music as a whole. What better foundation for first-year students than one that teaches them how to turn a critical eye to their own motivations and goals?


Production Design Studio: Realizing a Visual Concept from Script to Screen

Department of Theatre and Dance

Do you know what goes into creating a set for a television show? Students in Instructor Yvonne Boudreaux’s class can tell you after spending an entire semester researching a script and working together to build a set from scratch. 

Students are placed in groups to cover all the positions in set production, from decorators to builders and prop managers, and everything in between. They break down a script and research the scenes, then set about fabricating every single item to fill their set, just like in real life, where the option to use name-brand items can be tricky and varies from show to show.

Although Boudreaux opens the course to both undergraduate and graduate students from all disciplines, her class has attracted mainly Theatre and Dance, Architecture and Radio-Television-Film (RTF) students, and their diverse skills have proven critical to the learning process. Theatre and Dance students help explain Vectorworks software, Architecture students bring their knowledge of building, and RTF students demystify the language of film. They share knowledge, take creative risks and come together in the final moments to build and dress their sets. And the best part? Boudreaux has them take photos and organize their collective work into their own presentations that can be used in their portfolios.


**Although this story came in after our production schedule for the magazine, we'd like to include an article on Art and Art History Associate Professor Stephennie Mulder's fall 2018 Art of Islam course. Read the full story, written by Director of Communications Lauren MacKnight, on how Professor Mulder chose to scrap the course’s final paper requirement and try something new: to have her entire class generate edits for Wikipedia articles on Islamic art. 

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