Working in a Specialist Higher Education Institution is unlike working in a university. Although we have the same regulatory requirements, we are much smaller (we have about c.1000 undergraduate and postgraduate students) and our programmes and research are focused only on music, dance and their associated disciplines. Our curriculums are practice-based and intensively taught. Long hours, and long terms are the flavour. The majority of teachers are active in international arts practice and come from the creative industries.
Our roles are two of the few academic ones that are institutional, meaning that we do not work in one discipline, but across both, and develop the institutional infrastructure for Learning and Teaching and Research respectively. We essentially have the archetypal academic management roles, writing lots of documents and attending many meetings. Louise has a portfolio including learning support, technology enhanced learning, academic staff development and supporting the development of the learning and teaching culture. Jonathan leads the doctoral programme, which offers mainly practice-based research degrees, and coordinates things such as the Research Excellence Framework, and developing the research culture.
Because of the size of our institution, our cross-institutional roles have to interact much more closely than perhaps they would at a larger, multi-faculty university. At a time when, certainly in the UK, the division between Research and Learning and Teaching is evident in funding and in contractual changes (where Research is sometimes perceived as privileged, and teaching as the lesser of the desired roles in HE) being able to ensure that both Learning, Teaching and Research development are seen as part of the same institutional sandwich is a significant benefit. Our belief in what a higher education is for is complementary rather than competitive: research and learning & teaching, in our view, should not be perceived as opposites but connected in a reciprocal way.
There are many theories and approaches to collaboration. The way in which we have approached collaboration has not been particularly systematic but borne out of our need to answer questions about our arts forms and educational practices. We work usually having identified something that has irritated us. Separately, we compile different composite parts. Louise tends to work on context, literature scoping, and identifying the actual gap, while Jonathan constructs the analytical approach and applies this to the problem.
Our initial way of starting to collaborate was particularly random: when we delivered the first presentation about our initial ideas neither of us had much idea of what the other was going to say, which made the whole experience quite interesting. Jonathan even questioned the use of a quote Louise was preparing to use in a PowerPoint, and whether she was actually supporting the idea they were supposed to be dismantling.
Our chapter Aesthetic Education, Critical Pedagogy, and Specialist Institutions (due to be published later in 2017 in Richard Hall and Joss Winn's edited collection: Mass Intellectuality and Democratic Leadership in Higher Education) was the result of our initial attempt at collaborating. In this chapter, we speculate about the role specialist arts institutions could play in the future of higher education, in particular the way that educational practices could develop further a role in promoting the way arts can Other.
We took several connected issues as our starting point:
1. We are currently functioning in a political climate that is driven by austerity of the economy, creativity and imagination;
2. Higher Education has needed to respond to this and is also part of the mechanism by which this is controlled;
3. The arts are increasingly commodified and reduced to their economic value in order to rationalise their inclusion in the public space.
Spaces for exploring these ideas are limited to the periphery and our work is aiming to explore further how the specialist arts education institution can function as such a space. Therefore we want to promote, via a critical pedagogical framework, an 'ethos of experimentation that is orientated toward carving out spaces for resistance and reconstruction here and now.' (Coté, Day, and de Peuter, 2007).
Our key question in our work, is:
What is resistance and reconstruction within an aesthetic education and how does critical consciousness emerge from aesthetic engagement?
What we suggest is an aesthetic education that is more than arts training: technical development must be coupled with critical thinking and socio-cultural awareness; there must be a refusal to disconnect the procedures and processes of art-making from the transformative possibilities of its reception; and aesthetic negativity, i.e. the refusal of predication on the part of the art works informs negation, rejection, and contradiction that disrupt and question cultural dominance. This, we argue, is located in the production art through its receptive possibilities and the potentiality for art to enact social and political change via the provocative otherness of the aesthetic sign. We should note, however, that we do not adhere to the original concept of aesthetic education that was very much about 'arts for arts sake' and did not clearly engage with non-western modes of art and culture.
This piece of work took a lot longer than was probably necessary as we were trying to understand the ways in which our ideas intersect. Misunderstandings about approaches, jargonised language, and discipline specific oddities had to be navigated in order to work out exactly what our manifesto was. Additionally, because we work on many institutional projects, both together and separately, it is sometimes easy to forget that we actually have to identify time to discuss our collaborative work and not just assume that something will appear osmotically.
Since beginning this collaboration, we have been invited to events to speak about doctoral supervision and student engagement, and why engagement is not just a customer service issue but one of artistic and critical consciousness; performing arts and the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF); formulated a Symposium on Critical Pedagogy and Music Education for the Royal Musical Association; and contributed to the Freedom in Ambiguity: Creative Practices’ Pedagogical Perspectives Symposium, held at the Society for Research into Higher Education Annual Conference, organised by the wonderful Vicky Gunn.