How to get art students to write is a question near and dear to me. For the last 12 years I have been teaching art and design students how to write about their projects. I remember my start in 2007 at the Art University in Linz. I mostly focused on language skills. Over time I came to understand that the main challenge is not vocabulary, but how to trigger the desire to write.
Somehow for art students - mostly working with non-verbal artistic materials – sitting down to write is either seen as an unnecessary burden, or is turned into an artistic endeavor itself (an opportunity to twist every little piece of information into artistic prose). Academic writing seems to be foreign and challenging. As a teacher I felt I had to convince my students in one way or other to start writing.
It took me a while myself to understand that writing can be a very helpful tool to clarify, specify, back-up and publish one’s ideas: to contextualize your thoughts by researching other projects, to compare and to reason, and to get in touch with art and academic communities.
It is important to stress that, in writing about art, we are not taming the art. Writing about art does the contrary. We awake our senses to complex perceptive processes and invite others to share our experiences (Cp. Sontag, Susan (1961): Against Interpretation and Other Essays. Picador: New York). With writings about art we offer a platform to start discussions and research processes. I see writing as a way to make artistic processes visible, to learn and understand more about your own work and the work of others, and to push art students’ self-confidence through becoming part of bigger networks and discussions.
I invite my students to imagine: What if we would write and discuss art as much as we verbalize, discuss and describe soccer or the weather? How far would that propel the arts?
In Training writing skills: A cognitive developmental perspective,Kellogg shows us the different stages of knowledge processing that may be achieved through writing. We may start with “knowledge telling”, proceed to “knowledge transformation”, and finally master the skill of “knowledge crafting”. (Cp. Kellog, Ronald T. (2008): Training writing skills: A cognitive developmental perspective. In: Journal of writing research 1/1. p.4, figure 1).
The first step for me as an art teacher is to convince students that writing about art can be more than a description of what we see. In class we start with best ofwriting examples. We discuss how new knowledge is crafted through writing about art. A second element are in-class writing challenges. There we focus on observation and group discussion to collaboratively make the step from “knowledge telling”, to “knowledge transformation”. Learning about the insights from the other students can be the next step to “knowledge crafting”.
The next challenge is to contextualize one’s own work with other sources to come to a new understanding. The second step is to make the transition from material-based writing (e.g. writing on one’s art project) to discursive synthesis writing (to contextualize and compare your source with other sources.) (Boscolo, Pietro; Arfé, Barbara; Quarisa, Maria (2007): Improving the quality of students’ academic writing an intervention study. In: Studies of Higher Education 3274. P.419-438, 422.). I learned that I have to set up a “bildungsnahe” family situation at school. Students, no matter what background, who are not used to research on their own, have to practice in a welcoming and supportive community. It is my task as a teacher to provide sources, take the students to art shows, or send them engaging links. Further I have to make sure that we all stay on track: I set up writing teams, plan coaching sessions, and add do-able short writing homeworks that build up to longer texts.
The third task I identified is to personalize the writing process. Academic writing is commonly taught as something impersonal and abstract. Research is seen as something general and remote. For art students it is important to lose their distance towards academic writing by making personal connections.
During the MA or PhD studying and writing phase, research should benefit more than one person. Yet I have had the experience that for BA art students, establishing an artistic identity is a very personal and individual growth process. This process cannot be skipped. Understanding that writing is also part of one own’s personal development makes the students more engaged (Williams Mlynarczyk, Rebecca (2006): Personal and Academic Writing: Revisiting the Debate, p.1. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ773395.pdf, last visited on July 29, 2019). Asking art students to write about things they are not interested in may turn writing into a life-long hate relationship.
David Elbow, one of the pioneers of freewriting, states that: “If academics were more like writers - wrote more, turned to writing more, enjoyed writing more - I think the academic world would be better.”(Elbow, Peter (1995): Being a Writer vs. Being an Academic: A Conflict in Goals. In: College Composition and Communication 46.1, p. 72-83. 82. ) For art school students, I want to expand his statement: If artists were more like writers – their art would be better and the academic art world would be better.
The big question is: How to get art students to write, and stick to it? In the world self-help literature, one tool to learn a new habit is to piggyback the new habit onto an already existing habit (Sincero, Jen (2013): You are a badass. Philadelphia.). E.g. If you are brushing your teeth every morning, why not getting into the habit of reading a French poem right after you brush your teeth to practice French every day?
One of the pedagogical tools that is often used in art and design school education is the sketch book. Sketch books are a helpful tool to remember insights and useful information, connect to other sources, and pin down ideas. Usually the students love their sketch book.
Let’s connect sketch books to the tooth-brush-French-poem example: In my art writing classes, I realized how helpful it can be to ask the students to write down ideas, sources, references in their sketch books daily, or whenever they read or see something useful and inspiring. Piggybacking the writing habit onto the sketching habit has proven to be a serviceable tool to get into the habit of writing, to accumulate material, to contextualize the artistic project and start the process of academic synthesis. Linguist David Bartholomae argues that “there is no writing done in the academy that is not academic writing” (Bartholomae, David (1995): Writing with Teachers: A Conversation with Peter Elbow. In College Composition and Communication 46.1, p. 62-71, 63).Extending that phrase to writing in sketch books would turn artistic writing into academic writing.
Writing can be a scary task when first introduced to art school students. There is probably not one single solution to engage art students. The following steps I identified might be useful to set up a writing-friendly atmosphere:
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