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VPbanner.jpgDiane W. Bowers and Mary Trent, College of Charleston

Diane Bowers.jpgMary Trent.jpgEach fall semester for the last six years, our centralized Academic Advising and Planning Center has organized ART MATTERS:  A Student Art Exhibition.  Our interest in this exhibition developed from an appreciation of the creativity of our students, many of whom come from diverse majors and have wide-ranging career aspirations.  Our show is open and inclusive: we accept art from any student, any major, any medium.  Our open exhibition acceptance policy demonstrates our non-judgmental philosophy and our commitment to celebrating diversity.

We display the art in our main lobby and along the walls of the extended hallway into which all of our offices open.  Near the deadline, as the artwork starts to roll in and we carry it down the hall to await installation, the excitement builds.  Our staff gets glimpses of the vibrant, diverse pieces of art that we will live with for the next year.  Over the next few days, individual advisors begin to identify pieces that speak to them—a painting, a photograph, or a drawing that they would like to see outside of their office every day.  When we take down the previous year’s installation and all the walls are bare, our Center becomes shockingly stark and diminished.  Without the art, the walls feel institutional and cold.  But as soon as we hang the pieces of the new exhibition, the hall is energized by our students’ creativity and gains a bright, fresh look.  The ensuing Opening Reception of ART MATTERS is always an anticipated and lively event, complete with a student DJ and refreshments.   Students, faculty, and staff from around the college look forward to this event every year, and it is well attended.

This year we took the ART MATTERS exhibition to a new level by featuring a special Science/Art project, which was prompted by our awareness of students not having many outlets for exploring interests that traverse the disciplinary boundaries of science and art.   We paired six carefully selected student artists with a diverse group of six science and math professors. We charged the artists with learning about their professor’s research and, ultimately, creating a visual interpretation of that research.  At an early phase of the project, we provided students with some general tips about how to communicate with the professors and how to begin conducting and documenting their research.  The artists were very excited by this interdisciplinary opportunity to connect their interests in both art and science, something not afforded in traditional studio art classes.  One was a double major in physics/studio art, one in biology/studio art; one was undeclared and interested in computer science; and the others were studio art majors inspired by the natural world.   The science professors also had personal connections to art and were delighted to participate in a collaborative project beyond their disciplines.  These collaborations initiated new research and mentorship connections that would not have otherwise happened.

The resulting works of art were impressive—beautiful, dynamic, intelligently conceived—and each one conveyed the spirit of the professor’s research in interesting and unique ways.   Our office held a companion event during the spring semester in which the six professors each gave a five-minute talk about their research, followed by their student artists speaking for five minutes about their creative process and intention.  Students, faculty, and staff all enjoyed the event and came away from it impressed by the powerful connections made across campus.

How does featuring student art relate specifically to advising?

Incorporating student art into advising adds several high-impact practices to our developmental advising model: positive first-year interactions with college personnel, diverse learning experiences, collaborative projects, and undergraduate research.

The students in our exhibition feel a sense of pride seeing their art displayed on the walls of a campus advising office.  They feel that they have a home here and that their creativity is celebrated.  Several of the artists in the fall exhibit were students in their first semester in college.  They had never been in an art exhibition before and were very excited to be included.  This year, the student whose art we selected to feature on the exhibit poster was a first-year student from out of state.  Her parents proudly told their friends about their daughter’s experience, which led to a positive impression of our Center and of the college.  Advisors have also found that the exhibit presents a unique opportunity to engage with students and advisees.  Speaking about art and viewing the exhibit is sometimes an alternative way to connect with a student who otherwise may not be very forthcoming.

One of the artists in the Science/Art project was selected not only for his artistic ability but also because he was a first-semester transfer student, a student population often identified as at-risk.  He later expressed to us that being involved in this project during his first semester at his new school helped him feel included and showed him that people cared about him, his values, and his transition.  Valuing our students’ individuality through art serves to create deeper connections not only to specific advisors and our advising center, but to the institution as a whole.  And, research has shown that deeper connections ultimately lead to greater retention and student success (Nutt, 2003).

The Science/Art project added yet another high-impact practice by linking students and faculty  through research that would have been unlikely to otherwise occur.  Making these connections represents our advising philosophy in action—we talk with students about different academic disciplines, connecting ideas, meeting with professors, the importance of research, and how extra-curricular activities can complement coursework.  The six students involved in the science project benefited from having a forum in which to explore their interest in science and art, exposing their work to the public, and writing and presenting to a group of people. 

Beyond the effect of the high-impact practices, the fall and spring events have also increased the visibility of our Center and the value of advising on campus.  They brought science faculty and college administrators to our Center who had never ventured over before, and this gave us an additional opportunity to talk with them about how we work with students.  Several of the science departments are now interested in acquiring these works of art to display in their department offices once the exhibition closes.  Science professors (even chairs of departments) are already requesting to be chosen as faculty for next year’s event.  Consequently, this endeavor enabled us to establish a connection with the science and math faculty beyond our official advising liaison relationships.

The event has also been valuable to our own staff.  Advisors find that the opening reception brings a sense of energy to our office.   Its impact continues in more subtle ways throughout the year as advisors appreciate the colors, shapes, sense of movement, and ideas represented in the works of art.  Looking at a favorite piece of art after a long or tough advising session can be therapeutic, and the exhibit as a whole can be inspiring to view during everyday walks down the hallway to the photocopy machine.  Sadly, our offices do not have windows, but the photographs, paintings, drawings, prints, or sculptures often serve as a visually exciting alternative “window” to the world.

The ART MATTERS exhibition has helped our office work toward many of our goals at the micro and macro levels.  It exemplifies our commitment to developing individual relationships with students.  It increases creative connections and goodwill with faculty and staff across the campus.  It promotes the values of a well-rounded, liberal arts education.  Finally, we surmise that its high-impact practices impact the likelihood of student retention.

Art Matters.jpgDiane W. Bowers
Assistant Director
Academic Advising and Planning Center
College of Charleston
bowersd@cofc.edu

Mary Trent
Academic Advisor
Academic Advising and Planning Center
College of Charleston
trentms@cofc.edu

Susanna Brylawski, “Untitled,” 2013,
oil and chalk on wood, reprinted with permission

Reference

Nutt, Charlie L. (2003) Academic advising and student retention and persistence.  Retrieved from the NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources Web site: http://www.nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Clearinghouse/View-Articles/articleType/ArticleView/articleid/%20636/article.aspx   

Cite this article using APA style as: Bowers, D.W., & Trent, M. (2014, September). Art matters in advising. Academic Advising Today, 37(3). Retrieved from [insert url here]

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