September 2008
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Oklahoma City University
Oklahoma City University used grant funding from the Robert and Ruby Priddy Charitable Trust to create two centers dedicated to arts integration on campus.


Oklahoma City University Integrates Art Across the Curriculum

Oklahoma City University professor of history Marie Hooper, in her ninth year of teaching multiple sections of World Civilization to 1500, is familiar with challenge of making a survey course engaging. “This course is five thousand years of history in fifteen weeks,” she says. But a few years ago, Hooper found that her students became much more interested in the material when she made one important curricular change: adding art. “Most world civilization texts focus on people and issues and throw in the occasional illustration,” she says. “The students don’t get it, they don’t get the connections. But using art can help students focus on the distinctions, see that all ancient civilizations were not the same. They learn to see art as an artifact of the civilization that produced it.”

Arts across the Curriculum

Hooper’s innovative approach to teaching world history is part of a larger movement.  Many colleges have well-developed “writing across the curriculum” models, and more schools are developing similar approaches to teaching quantitative and other skills. At Oklahoma City University, an organized effort is in place to integrate the arts across the curriculum, and especially in general education courses. The university’s Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETL) and its Fine Art Institute (FAI), both created in 2005 as part of a $4.6 million grant from the Robert and Ruby Priddy Charitable Trust, are dedicated to fostering appreciation for and engagement with the arts across the university curriculum—not just in arts courses. Through faculty workshops, portfolio training sessions, conference travel grants, and an annual arts curriculum guide, the CETL and FAI support faculty and students in arts-related endeavors.

OKCU’s effort to integrate arts throughout its curriculum is designed to advance students’ achievement of important learning goals, including goals that AAC&U has highlighted in its initiative, Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP). For example, in the 2007 LEAP report, College Learning for the New Global Century, AAC&U recommends that every college student have access to “integrative and applied learning”—courses that require them to bring together diverse perspectives and disciplinary lenses, and apply them to complex problems in new settings. LEAP also recommends that every student “engage the big questions—both contemporary and enduring.” OKCU’s arts curriculum is designed to advance both these important goals.

Developing Teacher-Leaders

OKCU also recognizes that any serious new learning goal or curricular innovation must be supported with well-developed faculty development opportunities. The most ambitious arts integration project at OKCU is its Priddy Fellows program. Built on a “learning community” platform, the intensive yearlong program aims to develop faculty into “teacher-leaders” in arts integration by examining and practicing ways to incorporate greater creativity into all disciplines. “Arts, literature, and music help us understand the human experience,” says CETL director Christopher Garret. “Broadening the scope of our courses beyond the textbooks will enhance the experience and engage our students.”

The Priddy Fellows program started in 2006 with eight OKCU faculty members from disciplines as divergent as justice studies and theater. The key, Garrett says, is that at the end of the yearlong experience, fellows develop and teach a course in their discipline using arts integration methods. The new courses are specially designated in the course catalog, and the university plans to make each course a recurring option, not a one-time offering.  Now in its third cycle, the Priddy Fellows program has produced eleven unique arts-integrated courses, with six to seven more planned for spring 2009. The current class of fellows includes faculty members from biology, religion, business, and law.

Oklahoma City University
Priddy fellows participate in an intensive weeklong arts immersion experience.

Reaching Out with Art

One of the cornerstones of the Priddy Fellows program is the belief that arts and creative processes are part of everyday life, says Fine Arts Institute director Roxanne Reed. “It’s more than just ‘exposure to the arts;’ it’s realizing that art is part of life.” In that vein, Priddy fellows, in addition to their readings, discussions, and pedagogical research, participate in a weeklong arts immersion project on art in life. In 2007, the group spent a week in Chicago, focusing on architecture and ultimately developing “ideal classroom” architectural plans. This past spring, the 2008 Priddy fellows visited San Francisco and created a sensory map of the city. Often, fellows’ experiences from these intensive arts retreats find their way into the courses they eventually teach.

“On the whole, it’s kind of a new thing for most Priddy Fellows to be using the arts in their teaching,” Garrett says. When applying for the fellowship, potential fellows must have in interest in the arts and arts integration, but aren’t required to have experience in those areas. In fact, Garrett says, the program is happy to have those whose disciplinary backgrounds don’t include any art. “This year, we have a biology professor as a fellow. She’s working on redesigning a general education course called Science, Technology and Society that every student must take. It’s a challenge to teach, because so many students in the course are non-science majors, but that really opens it up to being interdisciplinary—the arts component will help reach more students.”

In addition to reaching more students, Reed says, the CETL and FAI aim to broaden the scope of arts integration beyond the Priddy Fellows program and even the OCKU campus. “Arts integration should be recognized and understood by the entire campus and community, not just those currently taking arts-integrated courses,” she says. A Priddy Arts Integration Symposium, where past and present fellows will share their work, is planned for November 2008. The event will be Webcast to extend its reach. 

Benefits and Challenges

Marie Hooper, the OKCU history professor, was among the first Priddy Fellows in 2006. Her students, she says, have been vocal about their enjoyment of her arts-integrated World Civilization classes—much more so than before she introduced the art. “It expands their learning,” she says. Hooper’s students have demonstrated their understanding of the arts’ role in history in interesting and surprising ways—one student group, for example, explored the connections between Irish step dance, African dance, and tap.

The Priddy fellows’ classes have been well-received at OKCU, Garrett says, partially because the university has several well-regarded arts programs and a great deal of student interest in the arts. “We produce a lot of students who go on to be professional artists and performers, so you don’t have to look too far for ways to integrate arts into our teaching.” Still, he says, there are challenges. Many students come to OKCU will a lot of experience in a particular area, like photography or dance, and are hesitant to open themselves to other art forms and outlooks. “We’re trying to show them that even if you have expertise in something, it doesn’t mean you can’t open yourself up to other perspectives,” Reed explains. “We don’t have a lot of data yet, but anecdotally, students are opening up to this approach, though it’s not what they are accustomed to.”

Though funding for new Priddy fellows will continue for only one more year, Reed and Garrett emphasize that the arts initiative will persist. Past Priddy fellows remain active within their cohorts, sharing ideas and teaching strategies, and the Fine Arts Institute is exploring ways to partner with community organizations and schools to foster arts integration at other educational levels. “We want to see fellows to make their teaching public, assess effectiveness, and document the way learning occurs,” Garrett says.

Hooper says the arts integration experience benefits the faculty members as much as the students. “The Priddy Fellows program has made me more collaborative and really changed the way I think about teaching,” she says. “It’s not just ‘add art and stir’ to make an integrated course. It’s made us all a lot more reflective and aware of what we’re doing.”

Oklahoma City University is a member of AAC&U’s Campus Action Network, a part of the LEAP initiative that brings together campuses and organizations committed to liberal education. More information about the Priddy Fellows program, the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, and the Fine Arts Institute can be found online.