Asking the Right Questions

Blog Home    |     06.02.2016 by     |    

Maggie Bell

It has been interesting to watch my questions change since the beginning of the Public Scholar seminar–both expanding, and becoming more focused. I have encountered many questions that I realized I hadn’t yet addressed in a rigorous way upon entering this program. For instance, our initial question “what is a public?”, made me consider more pointedly who exactly it was that I was hoping to engage through my project this summer, and think more carefully about the existing relationships among members of that community, which includes myself as a resident of Isla Vista and a graduate student at UCSB. I will be interviewing children about their experiences of art in their classrooms and community environments, but these students do not exist in a vacuum—how might I address the network of teachers, family, friends and university volunteers who interact with these students on a regular basis?

Woven throughout our seminar was also the question “what is public scholarship?”. As these things always go, we did not land on a definition, but rather began to explore the diversity of meanings for this sort of work. It has become apparent through learning more about the projects of my fellow seminar-mates that public scholarship encompasses many different goals and methods, with an equally diverse array of opportunities for discovery, but also for derailment. Speaking with and learning from others in this program, as well as our guest speakers, has encouraged me to be bolder, to imagine other ways to ways to pursue my project that explore and push the boundaries of “scholarly” inquiry in such a way as to open this inquiry to the participation of people who are not entrenched in academia. In this way I have been required to let go of the control I imagined I would have over my project, and have learned that as in any partnership, compromises and conversations are central to success.

Speaking of success, I have also realized that now at the end of the seminar I am not afraid to look a particular question in the face, one that I had been keeping in my peripheries from the beginning: “what if I fail?” What if my questions don’t yield interesting results, or what if my partners decide they can no longer participate? As we’ve discussed over the course of the Public Scholar program, failure can be a flexible term, and is a frequent part of the process. In fact it is the process that can be most revealing and fruitful. I have accepted that by the end of the summer I may not accomplish all I have set out to do, but am eager to see how far I can get. (Now if only I could translate this approach to my dissertation…)

I am currently in the process of developing more questions–those that I will ask of fourth and fifth-graders regarding their experience and understanding of art. I was nervous about this central aspect of my project, having never conducted interviews before, but now feel that I have gained very practical introductory knowledge that leaves me in good stead, including what sort of equipment to use, and whether or not I should complete an IRB (which I have just done).   The questions themselves are so far difficult to write, because to talk about art and community is second-nature to me as an art historian, but perhaps less so to young students outside of the field. I am, however, ready to be surprised.