As art history majors in WWU's Department of Art, my students eventually encounter the difficult point at which they must determine where their degree will lead them once they graduate. Not every student is interested in teaching at the college level, and some are unaware of how they may use their knowledge, skills, and understanding of visual culture in related careers such as museum studies. Those who are majoring in journalism, graphic design, art education, and anthropology face similar challenges. Students in all of these disciplines are drawn to my senior level class, Exhibition Theory and Practice, which provides the opportunity for students to discover relationships between the university and the community. The course serves as a bridge to the students' future by leading them from their traditional course readings and writings into a community-based senior project.
Some students pursue these community ties further by becoming interns at regional museums or galleries under the supervision of the department faculty. Thus the classroom experience brings the community to the students and vice versa. The exposure to the knowledge, abilities, and skills available in this larger community serves as an important transitional stage to the post college world they will soon join. Through observation, dialogue, and shared responsibilities, the students find teachers and role models in the community. Through courses such as these and internship opportunities they are provided with a strong foundation for graduate education or employment in regional arts organizations.
Several years ago, I conceived the course, Exhibition Theory and Practice, from a desire to better connect my students' acquisition of knowledge with the process of learning. It gradually evolved into an interdisciplinary and integrative course using the resources of the Western Gallery on campus and local museums. The course materials drew upon the experiences of art historians, critics, and museum-based curators and educators. Students read articles and case studies generated by scholars, teachers, educators, and museum professionals. Through field trips, reflective essays on their own experiences, and short research papers, students were given the opportunity to apply their readings in new contexts. These exercises, however, were secondary to their readings and remained external to the course as hypothetical experiences. Reading about the experiences of those in the field or having students visit the sites was beneficial, but it did not create an authentic experience for them to draw upon in the class, nor did it prepare them to develop critical thinking and problem-solving strategies useful beyond their education.
The conviction that I needed to include a community-based learning project in my course became stronger after meeting Western colleagues who integrated service-learning in their courses. The ongoing campus conversations on bridging the relationship between theory and practice affirmed the value of the service-learning strategy. Ernest Boyer's report for the Carnegie Foundation suggested that theory and practice not only support each other but also are shaped in turn by teaching. He expanded the model for academic scholarship to include discovery, integration, application and teaching as viable functions. Although Boyer distinguishes each component as a distinct model, they certainly overlap. I would argue that the "integration, application, and teaching" components form a network enabling revisions and revitalization of theory and practice. Having the students become classroom researchers within Exhibition Theory and Practice seemed a natural progression from my initial goals in teaching the course and to further extend my students' learning into the community.
The most fundamental change for this course developed from using service-learning as an inquiry model. That is, we were able to draw challenging questions from the scenarios the students faced in their community-based learning projects. As a teacher I had to become more flexible in my course structure. The service-learning project became the nexus for observation, discussion, problem solving and analysis in every class meeting. It made the readings immediately relevant and it fostered a greater sense of agency for the students and in relating to each other's work. As problems or concerns arose, these became teaching opportunities. My role shifted to team member and site visitor when the class moved off campus. The project's evolution can be summarized as a series of stages:
It is important to note that the staff of our Service-Learning Center was crucial in ensuring that the process was working successfully for the students, the community host, and supervisor.
The introduction of a community-based learning project into the course enabled the students to test their understanding of a central learning objective of the art history program: to understand the ideas, values, and symbols that pervade and shape the exhibition of culture. We live in a world that often uses images rather than words to communicate information. What systems of knowledge and strategies of interpretation do we need to employ in order to understand the past and present? How does the location of culture in the public spaces of museums, galleries, and parks affect our sense of community identity and its institutions? Students enhance their abilities and skills in creative thinking and problem solving by applying the course questions and issues to real world situations. They learn strategies for negotiation and encounter differing viewpoints within their community.
The service-learning project offers my students insight into their abilities and interests within this field and the careers available to them. The journals, response papers, and class discussions provide opportunities for self-reflection and critical analysis that move beyond the hypothetical. The classroom becomes a shared community of learners whose engagement in the course is present from its inception. The classroom environment functions as a mirror to self-knowledge and a critical lens to challenge unexamined thoughts and ideas about the visual environment. The final presentation of their projects to their host institutions affirms that the classroom is the community and the community is the classroom.
In addition, two questionnaires at week four and six led them through the design and implementation process of their projects and toward projected completion and self-evaluation. The projects differed in the degree of autonomy they offered in their design and execution, and they enabled students to match their self-identified skills and abilities with the project. Some chose to work with partners because of shared interests or learning style preferences.
As this first experience with service-learning in the classroom ends, I can affirm that it will form an essential component of my Exhibition Theory and Practice class in the future. I look forward to developing further ties with local and regional communities interested in fostering the visual arts. The feedback from students will be a critical factor, and the projects they produced will play an important role as a teaching tool for those to come. How this class enabled students to achieve the course goals and objectives will be an important assessment issue. Some have mentioned that they intend to work in arts-based organizations or plan an advanced degree targeting non-profit organizations.
For teachers at the university, the course will be valuable because it demonstrates that one can integrate service-learning into an existing course. For instance, those who use an inquiry based model, or who use case studies as a tool for the development of critical thinking and problem solving abilities, can find strategies of value for implementation in their own courses. Others in disciplines such as sociology, psychology, or anthropology might be drawn to the course's focus on issues of community identity. The rewards of service-learning cannot be limited to any one of the previously mentioned strategies; rather they affirm the relationship between theory and practice for both teacher and learner within the community and beyond the classroom.