Using the arts to flip understanding: An arts intervention for non-arts researchers

By Margot Greenlee, Martina Jerant and Veronica Dittman Stanich

1. Margot Greenlee (biography)
2. Martina Jerant (biography)
3. Veronica Dittman Stanich (biography)

What do the arts bring to interdisciplinary research? Can arts practices lead STEMM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Medicine) researchers to new insights on their work?

We—a choreographer-and-professional-facilitator (Margot), a scientist-athlete-facilitator-entrepreneur (Martina), and a dancer-turned-arts-researcher (Veronica)—had a hunch that the arts have something to offer STEMM researchers: a different understanding of their own work.

We posited that thoughts are intertwined with actions, and when there is no opportunity to do things differently, it’s hard to think differently—to get a fresh perspective. By “actions”, we mean the practices researchers do every day as part of their work: for example, read, collect data, analyze data, present ideas in written form, revise that writing. Whatever the typical practices of a field or discipline are, as researchers train and eventually become experts in that field, its practices become habitual. We speculated that if researchers who don’t have arts practices as part of their daily work were given the opportunity to do some art-making, this shift in practice would open the door to a shift in thinking, to understanding something differently.

With the support of a2ru (the Alliance for the Arts in Research Universities), we developed a workshop in which people for whom the arts are not part of their daily work have the opportunity to try on practices and approaches of the arts. We have led the workshop six times in virtual and in-person formats. Participants are usually university faculty members, administrators, and students, from disciplines including the natural sciences, medicine, information science, and engineering.

In the workshop, we ask participants to identify a “stuck place:” a too-familiar part of their work that they can’t think around or through, that they keep getting hung up on. That stuck place becomes thematic material which participants explore in creative writing, movement, and found object sculpture. (The Museum of Modern Art defines a found object as “An object—often utilitarian, manufactured, or naturally occurring—that was not originally designed for an artistic purpose, but has been repurposed in an artistic context.”)

We encourage an open-ended, exploratory approach to this art-making, one that doesn’t worry too much about the end-product and doesn’t require training in the arts.

First, participants write about their stuck places in plain language; then they shift from the prosaic to the poetic, creating metaphors for their stuck places. We offer examples of this metaphorical writing such as “My neglected book chapter is a pair of satin dress shoes in the back of the closet, sitting there and slowly browning on the edges.” We encourage participants to write several metaphors, then choose the one they think is strongest.

Participants go on to build their metaphor out of everyday materials; we provide these materials when the workshop is in-person, and participants scavenge them from their own homes or offices in remote workshops. We then lead participants in looking at their sculptures from unexpected vantage points: from the side, from directly above, from as far away as possible. With insights from those additional perspectives, they rebuild their sculptures to embody a desired “unstuck” state. Finally, participants make a list of action steps that get them closer to that desired state.

Example of materials provided at an in-person workshop for building sculptures of participant metaphors of “stuck places” (photo credit: Martina Jerant)

The entire workshop is punctuated with a recurring simple movement phrase done to music. The phrase remains the same, but its intention and framing evolve as it becomes a familiar touchstone in the experience.

Throughout the two-hour workshop, participants toggle back and forth between being in a “flow” state of making and analyzing what they’ve made: companion modes of engagement that are experientially quite different from each other. When participants are engaged in making, we suggest they suspend judgment and revel in the materials and the moment, allowing new, unplanned possibilities to arise. Then we model a process of critically analyzing artworks—noticing aloud the formal properties of art such as shape, texture, and spatial relationships, and making inferences based on these observations. Participants do this sense-making both alone and with a partner. These processes of art-making and art analysis represent a departure from many researchers’ ways of working—the shift in practice we had hypothesized.

Example of a sculpture developed by a workshop participant for their metaphor of a “stuck place” (photo credit: Anonymous)

The surveys we administer after every workshop indicate that the workshop meets our goals for a great majority of participants; they think about familiar things in unfamiliar ways, make art that’s useful to their thinking, advance their thinking or come “unstuck,” and get valuable new perspective. In addition, participants identify workshop outcomes we hadn’t anticipated. Many write about the importance of having time to step away from their usual obligations and devote their full attention to this stuck place. They also mention how valuable it is to talk with another person, to hear an outsider’s perspective on what they’re doing. These responses speak to the hectic, often untenable pace that many academics try to maintain, and to our need to connect with other people. Shared arts experiences, then, satisfy on several levels.

Another example of a sculpture developed by a workshop participant for their metaphor of a “stuck place” (Photo credit: Martina Jerant)

However, a small percentage of our participants consider the workshop “touchy-feely,” just a way to take a break, or a childish waste of time. We can point to the results—to the physicist who changed the direction of her research because of the insights she gained from the workshop, and to all the open-ended responses describing an exciting and valuable new perspective—but these outcomes aren’t possible when there is resistance to the activities themselves. We hope to propagate the understanding that arts practices have a rigor of their own, that even though they look different from the methods of other fields and disciplines, they yield valuable results.

If you are a researcher in a STEMM field, what is your impression of the arts? In what ways have you utilized arts practices in your STEMM practices? What would you think about trying an arts process as part of your scientific inquiry?

To find out more:

A video of a short version of the online workshop conducted by Margot Greenlee is available at starting at 32.34 minutes. It is the second of two presentations in a webinar entitled “Reflexivity and readiness tools: Evaluation criteria (Di Giulio) and Model the metaphor (Greenlee).”  The webinar was broadcast and recorded on 11 May 2021 and is part of a webinar series organised by the Interdisciplinary Integration Research Careers Hub (Intereach). In this case, the sculpture built was of the metaphor used to describe a team that the participant is a member of.

Biography: Margot Greenlee MFA is a choreographer, theater director, and artist educator located in Washington, DC, USA. Her approach is based on twenty years of experience in community arts engagement, first as a solo artist and later as a company member with the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange. Her work is focused on making the arts accessible to people of all ages and abilities. Her company, BodyWise Dance, is a performing arts ensemble of neurodivergent actors and dancers who share all levels of artistic leadership and project decision-making.

Biography: Martina Jerant MPH is a program manager for the Ronald Weiser Center for Prostate Cancer at the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA. Using collaborative tools like Strategic Doing and Creative Problem Solving, she leads diverse groups of students, faculty, and researchers to collaboratively work across disciplines, build community, and generate innovative ideas to advance research, education, and patient care across the University of Michigan. She is also an accomplished professional and Olympic athlete.

Biography: Veronica Dittman Stanich PhD is research program manager for a2ru (the Alliance for the Arts in Research Universities), an international network headquartered in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She is also editor of a2ru Ground Works, an online peer-reviewed journal for arts-integrated research. She researches best practices for arts integration in higher education, including interdisciplinary collaboration, impacts, and tenure and promotion practices.

10 thoughts on “Using the arts to flip understanding: An arts intervention for non-arts researchers”

  1. One of the harder transitions for clinicians is to learn to acknowledge the inevitability of ambiguity in the task at hand – to accept, to appreciate, or even to revel in the ambiguity! Amongst its other strengths, this intervention may be especially valuable for showing the intrinsic value of ambiguity in what might otherwise be seen as a linear, straightforward process.

    • Yes! We’re big fans of the ambiguity you mention, and do intend this workshop as a safe place to explore it. A participant’s stuck place, and the art they make to express it, is seldom clear-cut, and we hope that by investigating its ambiguity they are able to find something new. The idea of ambiguity comes up again when people discuss their artworks with others and find that there are other, viable interpretations of the same physical reality. It’s so interesting to think about how these approaches to and with ambiguity might be applied in different settings–thank you for your comment, Joel.

  2. I teach writing and psychology to first-year undergraduates. I love the idea of any of us (STEMM or not) re-imagining our work through a fresh medium – one to which we’re not accustomed or that seems fanciful or unrelated to the work.
    Focusing on the stuck place is really appealing; we’ve all been there. Thinking of my writing class, typical “stuck places” include the beginning or the ending (students who “never know how to start!” or how to write a conclusion that “isn’t just repetition”). Another is keeping in mind their goal or aim (what inspired my topic? What do I really want to say?) Even the medium itself might benefit from re-imagining (the student who “doesn’t like to write,” but, alas, the course is required anyway!) And when my students groan about revising or rewriting, I show them some of van Gogh’s haystacks and Cezanne’s multiples of Mont Sainte-Victoire, and then ask what Cezanne may have meant by “I paint in order to see.”

    • So much to think about in your comment, Jeff–it got us thinking about the “fresh medium” and how you don’t have to go far to find that freshness. In the workshop, we see that when people move from prosaic to poetic language (they’ve written a description of the stuck place, then have to write metaphors for it), it already starts to unstick their thinking. Then to make that metaphor physical and tangible is a next leap.
      And so interesting to think about the process of making as crucial to clarifying thoughts: the statement “How can I know what I think till I see what I say?” is a writerly response to Cezanne’s statement about painting.
      As to the process of iteration–of re-making and re-making and re-making as a way *through* the stuck place–that feels rare or at odds now with our culture that so prizes innovation and newness. Anyway, your students are certainly lucky to have you.

  3. I attended this workshop when I was having trouble with making an important decision. I participated in the activities described above wholeheartedly and it truly helped me gain a better perspective on my upcoming decision and gave me the confidence and clarity to move forward without stress. I sincerely thank the organizers for this innovative idea!

    • Thanks for the update, Ilakkiya. We don’t have any longitudinal data on impacts of the workshop over time, so it’s great to hear from you a couple months after the event. And of course, very glad to hear about moving forward confident and stress-free!

  4. I went to this event a while back! It was so interesting to take the internal anxieties I experience with my research and make them something tangible. It’s unique ideas like this that really help folks get out of those stuck places!

    • It’s so good to know that the experience was valuable in a STEMM PhD setting–thank you for the comment, Marcel.

  5. A fascinating project – thank you to the authors for publishing it. Interesting that it taps into the power of metaphor, which is also used by social change futurist Inayatullah and others. You might be interested in a paper I and co-author Dena Fam published recently on the shifts in (research) thinking enabled by engaging with art and literature as viewer/reader. Like the state of ‘flow’ you mention, the perspective shift induced by engaging with a work of art can transcend analytical or linear thinking. This is different from ‘doing’ art as in your own valuable work, but another strong reason to support the arts!

    Moderator: see Pause… How art and literature can transform transdisciplinary research by Jane Palmer and Dena Fam

    • We thank you for your comment, Jane, and for pointing us to your earlier post. Yes to the idea of the pause, and to being gently jolted from usual ways of knowing!


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