Balance of agency and flexibility helps students develop their own artistic process

This post is republished from Into Practicea biweekly communication of Harvard’s Office of the Vice Provost for Advances in Learning

Out of appreciation for Professor Shultz’s commitment to flexibility in artistic expression, this issue of Into Practice employs a slightly modified format. 

Balance of agency and flexibility helps students develop their own artistic processNora Schultz, Assistant Professor of Visual and Environmental Studies, encourages experimentation and a diversity of readings for her courses Shape Shifting Your Reality and Object Matter of Jelly Fish: Sculpture Course. Her goal is to create a “structure that gives students the awareness and ‘space’ to develop their unique creative processes.” One assignment, for example, involves students visiting “The Onion” sculpture by Alexander Calder outside of Harvard’s Pusey Library and then creating a short dialogue between the sculpture and its surrounding buildings. Schultz also encourages students to add to the course reading list and has found that student-provided readings can significantly shift the discourse.

Encourage studio time. Schultz encourages students to use the sculpture studio outside of class hours and works with the department to coordinate optional intensive workshops. “It’s important to have access and understanding of the range of tools at their disposal, so they are aware of different possibilities.” As a result, at the end of the course, students “may end up with 30 completed projects or just one that may not even be finished, and they have all succeeded.”

Increase awareness about our physical environments. A balance of student agency and flexibility in the courses helps students become critically aware of their environment—people often take public structures and architecture for granted—while their individual process is developing.

It isn’t about the final product. “The physicality is not the most important part.” Schultz refrains from grading students based on “completion,” and instead evaluates the level of commitment demonstrated throughout. Students must have certain levels of commitment to practice, independence, and maturity to make full use of the course and the VES department resources. This can be difficult given students’ many competing demands: “It’s important to provide time for students to support them as individual artists.”

Flexibility allows students’ personal interests to be integrated with the conceptual frameworks they are learning and it enables them to develop creative and critical thinking.