Finding the Artist Within: Student Projects in the Humanities

Volume 25, No. 4 - Summer 2014
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Teaching can be an intensive learning process full of anxiety, frustration, trial and error, and an overwhelming sense of being lost. These feelings are especially magnified when we are confronted with teaching a class that has a great deal of subject material and no standardized syllabus. Such was the task confronting me when I was slated to teach the Introduction to Humanities course at College of Menominee Nation. I was by no means a nervous newbie, having taught for more than a decade at the college level in multiple disciplines. However, having the opportunity to shape a class in my discipline brought me to the brink of panic.

The first semester was important, despite all of its awkwardness, for laying the groundwork for what to do, and more importantly what not to do, in future versions of the class. Going into the first week, I felt that two required student presentations would be sufficient to foster interaction with various texts and artists. However, the perfunctory quality of many of the presentations left something to be desired. I concluded that the major problem with the class was that it had no culminating project or focus.

My goal in all of my classes is to foster a collaborative environment by stressing discovery learning and visual culture pedagogy. This is especially vital for a class as text-heavy as humanities. I decided that asking the students to do a creative project of some sort would be the best way to fulfill these goals. The assignment would be completely open, with the only requirement being that the project had to be original and not recycled from a previous semester.


JORDAN IN BEADS. Many students have created beadwork projects inspired by friends and relatives who make such art for a living. Beadwork by LaDonna Parker

A major aim of the assignment is to demystify the creative process by helping students to find their own strengths, talents, and interests throughout the semester. To more effectively keep students on track, I have emphasized that developing creative works is a process. The first task is to draw up an initial proposal, which is due around the fourth week of class. Second, is a midterm progress report, which is often when students express concerns and frustrations with their progress or when they adopt an entirely new project altogether. The final piece of the assignment—besides the completed product itself—is a 500-word artist statement in which the student reflects on his/her inspirations, motivations, methods, and approaches to the project.

The last week of the semester is devoted to student presentations, allowing them to discuss the respective works they have created. I always look forward to seeing, hearing, and experiencing what the students have accomplished. The presentations are a highlight of the semester for me and, I hope, for the students themselves.

Since instituting the assignment, students on the whole have taken advantage of the project to express their ambitions, dreams, sorrows, and often their heritage in a variety of vivid and powerful ways. They have produced a wide variety of projects, including paintings, plays, clothing, jewelry, cross-stitch, music, and even a salsa recipe. One of the unstated goals of the assignment is for students to use the opportunity to explore and express their heritage, Native or otherwise. Many students have taken advantage of that opportunity to wonderful effect.

While the creative project was the course’s primary vehicle for students to explore and express their heritage, the two other required presentations have become forums to discuss Native artists and art forms. What has been especially fascinating about the artist presentations is that many students have featured the lives, works, and careers of relatives or friends in the arts. One student recently brought the artist himself, who showed some of his work to the class. He spoke about his own inspiration and ambitions, while at the same time gaining a little additional exposure.

The creative project, which has resulted in some remarkable student work, has become an effective centerpiece and capstone for the Introduction to Humanities course at College of Menominee Nation. The class is designed to emphasize interaction with and the interpretation of works within the humanities. And the creation of an original project is the best and most relevant way to foster an understanding of how and why art is crucial to the human experience.

Eric Jurgens is faculty in the Humanities Department at College of Menominee Nation.

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