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School of Arts and Sciences

Integrating the Arts Across Disciplines

Friday, September 26, 2014

Tufts Students Participate in Conference to Foster Interdisciplinary Collaboration

By Shehryar Nabi, A14

Tufts graduate student Matthew McMahan displays showmanship as his group pitches a a new business called "Aspire Airlines" at the a2ru Emerging Creatives conference at Stanford University.

The Emerging Creatives conference included a design thinking bootcamp at the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford.

Bill Burnett, Executive Director of the Design Program at Stanford University, leads the school bootcamp.

(above photos: Yuto Watanabe)


The arts are sometimes cast as the "extras" in higher education — as co-curricular activities on the periphery. But another trend is emerging to counter the notion that the arts are secondary: the idea that instead the arts occupy a central role in advancing the educational excellence of the university. Nancy Bauer, Dean of Academic Affairs for the School of Arts and Sciences, is a strong advocate of arts-integrative interdisciplinary efforts at Tufts. "Art is not something that's confined to the music department, the drama department, studio arts or creative writing," says Bauer. "The arts enhance what we're doing in our mission both educationally and co-curricularly across all sorts of activities that happen on campus.

Dean Bauer, in cooperation with Tufts faculty and administration, has worked to incorporate Tufts into the Alliance for the Arts in Research Universities (a2ru). Founded in 2012, a2ru is a partnership of 30 research universities dedicated to creating new spaces for integrating the arts across disciplines and researching best practices for successful interdisciplinary collaboration. Tufts recently demonstrated its commitment to the partnership by sponsoring three students to participate in the a2ru Emerging Creatives Student Conference hosted at Stanford University. They joined students from 25 leading research universities for a skills intensive conference designed to further their experience in interdisciplinary collaboration and design thinking.

The faculty-nominated students with broad interests in the arts, humanities and sciences worked in groups to generate ideas for project proposals, made on the last day of the conference. The proposals were wide ranging in their application: from an innovative airliner equipped with work stations to a "Human Powered Park" in which people use their own energy on an exercise bike to power an LED screen. Students also heard from scholars and entrepreneurs about current interdisciplinary research and initiatives. "It was one of the best conferences I've attended," says Matthew McMahan, a Drama graduate student, who adds that the event influenced the ways in which he promotes himself, as well as some of the language he uses.

While studying the arts alongside other disciplines is often considered an unorthodox choice, the conference made visible how applying the arts across disciplines is taken very seriously within academia. Dylan Portelance, a music and computer science major pursuing graduate studies in Child Development, was pleased to see how receptive conference attendees were to his interests.  "It was nice to be validated by this conference and the people who were saying that breadth of experience is a good thing," says Portelance.

Although the conference revealed the enthusiasm for greater collaboration between the arts and other disciplines, students noted the challenges of having meaningful exchanges between people from different educational backgrounds. Language was a key issue. While at the conference, Quinn Wongkew, a senior studying Mechanical Engineering, realized the extent to which his own major's academic jargon didn't quickly register with students from other disciplines. Within his major, Wongkew says, "you learn a specific dictionary of things like 'residual stresses' and 'moments of inertia." "Giving people a common translator would be helpful and is the most difficult part," he adds.

But Drama graduate student McMahan encountered unexpected similarities during his interactions with science-oriented students in how different fields use terminology. "As someone who does a lot of improvisational comedy, I was surprised by the amount of improv terminology they were using," says McMahan. "The word 'empathy' was used — this is a term that actors really latch onto."

Drawing on both cross-disciplinary differences and similarities, a2ru has set a long term goal of "creating a common lexicon—consolidation of meanings and terms—that allows already-established research and practice to travel beyond the bounds of specific campuses." A standardized, interdisciplinary language would help open new spaces for productive exchanges that may be difficult to find at the current university setting. Tufts maintains these kinds of collaborative spaces through its partnerships with the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, the New England Conservatory of Music, the Experimental College, and the Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service.

a2ru has helped identify and promote a broad collection of projects that bring together arts with a variety of other fields. "a2ru got us to take an inventory of what we were doing and notice the extent to which wonderful artistic collaborations were already underway," notes Dean Bauer.

Last year, Dean Bauer and Professor of Music Joseph Auner carried out a survey of projects within the Schools of Arts and Sciences and Engineering that apply artistic theory and practice to teaching and research. They found multiple art-related collaborations happening on campus, such as a project between the Tufts Art Gallery and the Tufts Silk Lab for communicating and designing the biomimetic functions of silk.

"It is exciting to see how many faculty in the sciences, engineering, and social sciences are already enriching their work and teaching through engagement with the arts," says Professor Auner, the faculty sponsor for a2ru.

In addition to its annual national conference for scholars and creators, a2ru intends to make the Emerging Creatives Conference a yearly event to encourage student collaboration in arts-integrated interdisciplinary learning. After generating more interest and documenting projects across the country, the organization plans to introduce new platforms for scholar-student engagement, construct methodologies for effective research, and demonstrate the relevance of arts education to markets outside the campus setting.


To learn about a2ru's currently archived projects, see its Knowledge Base.

Tufts a2ru page