By: Robert L. Hill, Michigan State University
Although I am usually a skeptic about lists of things graduate students should do, I nonetheless turn to such lists frequently. It can feel overwhelming to juggle the many commitments of academia, and anything that helps me draw a map to my PhD – and beyond – is valuable.
In this blog post, I propose some reasons to involve yourself in the arts in your academic life. I see the arts as helpful to multiple facets of the graduate student’s life (or the life of any academic, really), including their scholarly work, their wellness, and their connection to their community and the world around them. Because art can be valuable to a scholar in so many ways, it seems natural to recommend becoming a patron of the arts.
Before I start, I want to name a bias upfront: I studied theatre in my undergraduate years, and now the arts are part of my scholarly agenda. The arts have been integral to how I have experienced the world throughout my life, so it makes sense that they continue to be important now, in my scholarly life.
But you don’t have to have a degree in an arts field to appreciate it. Art truly is for everyone! And, as I’ve said, art is especially great for academics, for at least five reasons.
A ballet dancer performing. Free photo access by CC0 Creative Commons.
1. The arts offer opportunities to expand your thinking outside your scholarly interests…
The arts transport you, figuratively and literally. The arts invite their audiences to a variety of topics and perspectives. This can have a figurative transportation effect: the images and sounds of places far away, real or imagined, can transport the spectator. Audience members will sometimes reflect that they “felt like they were right there,” somewhere – somewhere else. In this way, the arts can be respite from the often-stressful life of academia, and can challenge a spectator’s preconceived notions of the world.
But the arts do not just transport figuratively. When you involve yourself in the arts, you leave your home or office to go to a gallery, concert hall, theater, or the like. You are literally going elsewhere. You intermingle with an audience, a group of strangers, to witness a performance or gallery. You leave your comfort zone. In moving into a new space and exposing yourself to the previously-unconsidered, you broaden your experience of the world. If you believe that academics should push themselves out of their disciplinary siloes in order to grow, consider that the arts are one route to doing just that.
2. …and in your scholarly interests too.
In writing about human science methodology, Max van Manen (1990) argues that artistic media can help illuminate meaning for a research project. Although he is writing about a specific subset of qualitative research, his point holds no matter your research orientation. An art form is a medium, just like our primary scholarly medium is the written piece. The performance, the painting, the symphony, the sculpture – the content of these are not necessarily alien to your scholarly work. Rather, you and an artist may be interested in very similar topics and questions, but express those interests in different ways.
I challenge you, the reader, to identify, and then engage with, some pieces of art that relate to one or more of your interests. The pieces you find may advance your scholarly work in surprising ways. You may find that the words slipping from an actor’s mouth express a tricky idea in such a way that you want to mimic in your own writing or presenting. Or a dance performance may offer embodied expression to an abstract concept you’ve been wrestling with. Maybe a painting evokes an unexpected reaction from you, which nudges you to think about affectivity in regard to your topic.
3. You can slow down.
We graduate students, and indeed academics of all roles, are notoriously busy and overworked. One antidote to this condition may seem counterintuitive: slow down. This is part of what scholars like Barbara Seeber and Maggie Berg (authors of The Slow Professor), and Kimine Mayuzumi and Riyad Shahjahan (authors of the website Being Lazy and Slowing Down) argue for. Slowing down, Shahjahan (2014) argued, “is about reconnecting to our embodied selves and nurturing ‘depth’ in our work for equity and social justice in the academy, and about improving our quality of life and work” (p. 499). Thus, graduate students must ask themselves how to slow down. I argue the arts pose one such opportunity.
When you watch a performance, you surrender to the performance. Attending a gallery or museum can have a similar effect. In these moments, you allow yourself to be taken elsewhere. You have the opportunity to marvel in the thrill of the moment. By being a spectator to a work of art, you reject that your time must necessarily be committed to your scholarly work and accept an invitation to feel, to experience, to be in the moment. In this way, art can help scholars be richer versions of themselves rather than just workers in the academy.
4. Arts offer a stage for political conversation.
Can the arts be political? Certainly. Many artists and writers, from Bertolt Brecht to Toni Morrison to Lupita Nyong’o, go a step further by asserting that art is inherently political.
If we accept that art is political, then we must also find that art is essential – and timely. At a time when political leaders debate (and sometimes ignore) issues of great consequence – such as appropriate responses to white supremacist acts, policies that limit minoritized people’s life chances, and (in)actions which exacerbate the damages of global climate change – commentary and dialogue on these issues is not just important, but necessary and urgent. And importantly, our scholarly writings don’t often go as far as we would like them to in such commentary and dialogue. The arts offer affective and creative platforms to advance necessary conversations. As theatre artist Anne Bogart (2016) argued, “imagination is exactly what is required” to navigate our contemporary political climate.
To those who believe there exists art which is not political, I would direct your attention to Toni Morrison’s argument about the political nature of the arts. She suggested that art which does not seem to comment on politics is still political because it advocates for the status quo (Nance, 2008). I agree. Art which does not challenge, inherently celebrates the way things are. At a time when change is needed to protect and affirm the lives of minoritized people, and to ensure an inhabitable planet for future generations, celebrating the way things are now is unacceptable. Perpetuating the status quo in this way is itself a political act.
Now is a time to engage politically. The arts contain many a language to do just that.
5. Your community deserves patronage.
Art is happening all around you. I imagine most, if not all, the readers of this blog are situated on college campuses. If there is someone on your campus interested in art, there is almost certainly art on your campus. Not to mention, the arts on your campus may be more accessible than you think. Here at Michigan State, many concerts in the music college are free, performances by the theatre and dance department offer deep discounts for students, and the campus art museum relies on suggested donations, rather than admission fees. Many colleges and universities operate this way. Additionally, there are a variety of community and professional arts organizations – those beyond the bounds of your campus – which host events, showings, performances, and more. There is art all around you.
The artists working in your community want you as a witness to their art. I do not say this to suggest that artists just want others to celebrate them. Artists want an audience because art is a conversation. And, with regard to live performances, the piece simply wouldn’t exist if no one sees it. A movie will be the same whether someone watches it or not. By contrast, an audience is an essential part of a live play or concert – and because the moments of the performance are fleeting, every instance of that performance will be different. To me, this is exciting. We can, as audience members, bear witness to something truly once-in-a-lifetime.
This list isn’t exhaustive by any means, but I hope it sheds light on the value the arts can have for a graduate student or other academic. Art can play a major role (pun intended) in aiding a scholar’s quality of life, and even their scholarly work. Becoming a patron of the arts could do more for your work, for your mind, and for your soul than you might imagine.
Robert L. Hill is a Ph.D. candidate in Higher, Adult, and Lifelong Education (HALE) at Michigan State University, where they study college curriculum and student success. At MSU, Rob is a Graduate Fellow for Undergraduate Teaching and Learning in the Residential College in the Arts and Humanities, Graduate Assistant in the College of Veterinary Medicine, and research associate with the National Study of LGBTQ Student Success. In addition to their scholarly pursuits, Rob is a performer and director for the stage.
Bogart, A. (2016, Dec. 30). In praise of doubt [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://siti.org/content/praise-doubt
Nance, K. (2008, November/December). The spirit and the strength: A profile of Toni Morrison. Poets & Writers.
Shahjahan, R. A. (2015). Being ‘lazy’ and slowing down: Toward decolonizing time, our body, and pedagogy. Educational Philosophy and Theory: Incorporating ACCESS, 47(5), 488-501.
van Manen, M. (2001). Researching lived experience. Cobourg, Ontario: Transcontinental Printing Inc.