This is just a thought, not fully formed at all. I was talking to a professor of psychology the other day; he specifically works with PhD students who do research about the impacts of meditation and “mindfulness activities” on people who experience stress and trauma including police officers. It sounds really interesting in general, but part of what I’m fascinated by is the way that his teaching institution allows him (facilitated by grant money, which has been traditionally more available to science and social science than art) to work with students directly on projects which the students get credit (academic and professional) for doing. He said he doesn’t teach traditional classes anymore except when he feels like it, just to keep his classroom skills honed. I think I need to spend some time observing how this all works and talking to more people about the ways that these sorts of educational structures are implemented. I want to figure out if that model could be applied to art education programs.

Traditionally, MFA programs don’t engage in direct research and practice in which a student would work in a collaborative and credited capacity with a professor on their professional work. A professor might hire a student to work as an uncredited assistant (I was in that position in grad school and I definitely learned a lot more and in a quicker and more enjoyable way than I did in most official classes), but mostly MFA students are limited to doing work on their own studio projects and get occasional feedback, and take fairly normal seminar type classes on theoretical topics.

I’m pretty convinced that existing systems and structures are what determine possibilities and appreciation, and not just with art, but with everything. Bach and Beethoven and the Beatles may have created revolutionary music, but it was able to be valued because it fit into an existing system that allowed it to function—there was an audience, distribution, funding, critical analysis etc, etc. I could list all sorts of “genius” creators and work through a similar examination— and the vast majority will also conform to the status quo structures that support those particular practices. It is harder to identify the people and projects that produced not just interesting work, but which also launched an unorthodox support system at the same time. It is likely (also because of systemic influence) that there are fewer examples (I can’t seem to think of any off the top of my head) of those attempts in general, but really we will never know because part of the problem is that kind of work, when not successful, largely disappears because there was no way to formalize it, so no one knows if it happened or not.

This state of affairs applies to a broad range of activities, but has a lot to do with unusualness of the emergence of Social Practice as a formalized art approach. If the support systems (adapted traditional arts institutions and funding, and totally new approaches including funding and presentation outside of the art world) can form into place in time it may be that Social Practice becomes an example of a type of unorthodox production (still based on precedent, nothing comes out of no where) that operates largely in a different way from the status quo and survives to tell the tale. I’m not going to hold my breath, but it has been an interesting last couple of decades to observe and experience from that perspective.

Now back to the question about MFA programs and collaborative work between students and professors. Could arts education operate to some degree like science and social science advanced degree programs? Is there a way to break from tradition to be able to borrow and adapt a more direct way for students to work with their professors on applied projects and for that to take the place of traditional class or studio credit? One issue is equitable participation. If you had a group of fifteen grad students in a MFA program would all of them need to work with the professor or professors in the same way? That seems doable if the project is designed for a whole class of people with different interests and abilities, but it might not be the most effective way to make good work. Could there also be a place for selection of students based on the appropriateness of a given project? So for instance, if I was working on a commissioned project on a specific subject or in a specific geographical location could I decide to work with a student or small set of students who had experience or interest in those specifics, and not work with the other students? Does that happen with science students? I was watching a documentary with my daughter the other day about orcas and two of the featured researchers were a university professor and one of his grad students. How did that pairing happen and how did it officially relate to the professor’s teaching and the student’s education? I’ve also heard many times about professors sharing credit with grad students for papers that they have written for academic journals, etc. Once again there must have been some kind of selection, because its just one or two grad students who are credited not a whole program or class. So I think some kind of ability and affinity selection takes place in academic science collaboration, and it doesn’t necessarily seem like a bad thing, instead there are many advantages—the partnerships are not forced or obligatory (at least, from what I could tell, not in the case of the orca example), but instead allow students and professors to work together on common interests with mutual benefits.

From my perspective an ideal program situation would be in which a group of arts grad students would work on their own individual and collaborative practices, inclusive class and program projects, and specific credited collaborations (in a variety of ways) with a set of different professors based on their existing work and opportunities, and that the educational institutions would support and value that work by funding professors (for example by giving them release time from teaching regular classes), and students (possibly through tuition remission) while also allowing them to apply that work as credit towards graduation. Its true that not every student would wind up with the same opportunities, but that’s how it works once you get out of school, and its never too soon to start getting used to how that works.

I’ve tried in many different ways over the years to do this kind of work in largely informal ways, but as noted earlier, because there isn’t really a support system to recognize and institutionalize these kinds of practices they are not easily available to function as models to build on. My hope is that as social practice becomes more accepted it will also be understood that new approaches to teaching will be necessary and supported as well.