Author Archive for Maggie Bell

Asking the Right Questions

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.


What can I do over a summer?

What can I do over the summer? As I’ve progressed through graduate school I have become increasingly aware of the fleetingness of those precious months between May and September, which always begin with grand plans of productivity that end up being significantly scaled down. My Public Scholar project will be no different, I imagine, and in an effort to curtail being overwhelmed and disappointed (and disappointing others), I am trying to set realistic goals.

This has been difficult in part because my community partners have been very encouraging. At the moment it seems reasonably possible that I will be able to conduct interviews with thirty fifth graders about their experience of art in school and in their communities, develop lesson plans based on the results of these interviews, and facilitate the students’ artistic intervention Isla Vista, where most of them live, through a collaborative mural project. But similar to my experience of most works of art, it is easier for me to see the big picture than to hone in on the small and large decisions, the labor, and the brush strokes and chisel marks (if we are sticking to traditional media) that are involved in producing a final work.

Despite my hopeful ambition, I know that as I move forward with these different projects, the little things will inevitably slow me down. These are already beginning to take the form of bureaucratic paperwork, endless emailing, meetings and informal conversations that add new twists to the project, increasing amounts of reading, and the slow acquisition of new skills, like for instance, how to interview children or design a mural.   I realize that these experiences, viewed another way, are not necessarily detours or snags but in fact the point of the Public Scholar program. Through doing this project I am developing project management and research skills, along with rich community ties that I would not have otherwise, and that being “slowed down” by the process is as, if not more, beneficial than the end product. Most importantly, despite all of the small, sometimes aggravating decisions that make up the process of executing this project, I have come fully appreciate the power and joy of collaboration. While the increasing number of participants in this project has added to the complexity, I also see on a regular basis the innovation that is possible when multiple brains approach problems.

Realistically speaking, I may not be able to do all of the things I hope to achieve this summer. I may only be able to develop one lesson plan, or create a mural design that may be carried out be someone else over the course of the next academic year. Ultimately, the attainment of these particular outcomes is less important to me than facilitating a sustained and meaningful connection between the Art History Department, art education, and the Isla Vista/Goleta community.

Finding My Experts in Isla Vista

Across the readings that we have been doing over the last five weeks for the Public Scholars seminar, my marginal notes have been full of questions, which, I believe, indicates that these texts and our resulting discussions have offered fertile ground for the development of my project. My questions are different from those that I encounter in my dissertation research. I’ve become increasingly interested in my position within my immediate learning and teaching environments, and my inquiry is now directed more pointedly towards the relationships among my roles as an academic and a researcher, as a teacher, as member of the university community, and as a resident on the fringe of Isla Vista—a remarkably complicated and compact beachside community primarily inhabited by undergraduates at UC Santa Barbara, but shared with a diverse group of permanent residents. Among the numerous questions that are generated by this kind of investigation, I want to focus on one that is at core of my current thoughts about my project: what does it mean for me to be an engaged scholar, and what is at stake when I do whatever that is?


Working as the Art History Education Outreach Program supervisor I had always considered myself an “engaged” person. But what does that mean in my case? Dwight E. Giles (2008), in an effort to move towards a definition of engaged or public scholarship suggests that “engagement is used inclusively to mean forms of service-learning, professional service, community-based research, and applied research that engage professional or academic expertise in partnership with local expertise to address real-world issues.” My current project seems to meet this criteria on a few fronts: I want to conduct interviews with Isla Vista Elementary School students to discuss their perceptions of art education and art, whatever that may be, in their own communities (“community-based research”). I want to take what I’ve learned and develop lesson plans that will be grounded in student experiences (“professional service”). And I want my current undergraduate interns to participate in this process (“service-learning”).

While I understand that engaged scholarship does not need to be all things to all people, I see now that I am missing what I believe to be a critical component–“partnership with local expertise” (and here is where it becomes very apparent that I am new to all of this!). Until recently, I perceived my Public Scholar project as an attempt to observe and assess a need, and then make something available that hadn’t been before. I had not yet considered how I would work with experts outside of or adjacent to the university, nor had I asked, “where is knowledge already produced in art education, or arts-engagement in Isla Vista?” In the last couple of weeks I have revisited my project with an eye towards learning from existing resources, and have found many. Not only are there numerous arts educators already teaching elementary schools and after school programs (of course!), but there is also a hunger for community-based arts projects in Isla Vista, such as the IV Mural Project, managed by residents who have lived and worked in IV for decades, and the upcoming LightWorks: Isla Vista, sponsored by the UCSB Art Department and Santa Barbara County Arts Commission, and done in commemoration of the 2014 shootings. I’ve reimagined the outcome of my project not only as a packet of lesson plans, but also a creative community project made in partnership with one of these organizations, and grounded in my research. In the next few months, I hope to play within the spaces between research, teaching and making, with the hope of facilitating new ways for students and teachers in Isla Vista to encounter and interpret their environment. Additionally, a summertime group art project just sounds like a lot of fun.

Mural inspired by Chumash petroglyphs, Anisq'Oyo Park, Isla Vista. Photo by author.

Mural inspired by Chumash petroglyphs, Anisq’Oyo Park, Isla Vista. Photo by author.

Why Am I Here: Off-Campus Art History

In 2009, I entered graduate school in the Department of the History of Art and Architecture at UC Santa Barbara, seemingly when the budget crisis was at its worst. The departmental mood was grim, due largely to financial anxiety, but also to the perception that the world had forgotten about us. My colleagues and I felt overlooked and undervalued, not only at an administrative level, but also within our classrooms. Students registered for Art History classes under a variety of assumptions—that they would earn an easy A, or that they would never “get” art, or that art was too subjective, too wishy-washy, to merit serious study.

Faced with low student morale and frightening statistics about dissolving humanities departments, I decided that I would save Art History at UCSB by explaining the value of my discipline in a moving, essay-like open letter to administrators. In proposing this to our then-graduate advisor, however, I immediately received the response: “Everyone writes letters. What else can you do?”

It occurred to me that the disconnect I sometimes encountered with my undergraduate students seemed to stem from their own sense that they were outsiders to thinking and talking about art, a position that has been exacerbated by years of budget cuts enforced on K-12 arts education.   In an attempt to rectify this in some small way, in 2011 I founded the Art History Education Outreach Program (still in need of a better title), designed to bring elementary school students to the campus museum, and art history lessons to their classrooms. My own outreach lessons, especially in the beginning, were often wildly off base. At the height of my cluelessness I found myself sitting at an outdoor picnic table trying to teach a group of second-graders about the ins and outs of Counter-Reformatory policies on religious images. Between the scattered soccer balls and the Council of Trent, you can guess which they found more interesting.

After several years of trial and error, the offerings of the Outreach Program have improved, but like any humanistic endeavor this project has raised more questions than it has answered, some of which I hope to address as a Humanities Public Scholar. I wonder now, for instance, what the desired outcome is for the Outreach Program. Is it to “save” Art History as I originally thought–to produce an army of future art historians? Or is it to introduce students to skills that the discipline of art history can offer? If so, what exactly are those skills, and how should we teach them? And while I am a true believer in the study of the faraway and very old, is there a way to make art history work for students in an immediate way, in their own familiar environment? What are there merits and downsides to doing this? And on a broader level, could the Outreach Program shape the Art History department’s relationship with the community of Santa Barbara, in what way, and why would it matter?


-Maggie Bell