On a chilly afternoon …
How did an artist and poet, and a leader in my spiritual community, a former “back to the land” advocate and environmental activist become a scholar in the systems sciences? It’s not an easy knot to unravel, but, herein, I will try. The genesis may have been an abiding interest in a broadly based and integrative understanding of inquiry in the social sciences as well as work experience in the arts and humanities.
When I entered graduate studies, I had a few “burning questions” (born of grassroots environmental activism) concerning the nature of society and how we will – collectively – go from here. As I researched graduate programs and encountered the “systems world”, it was because of – or, perhaps, despite – the prospect of finding a wholistic means to broaden and deepen the tools of gaining understanding (in the sense of Weber) that led me into this strange – and, perilous – county of systems thinking. The methods implied were both exciting and more than a little bit challenging. One important thread in my academic orientation has been in humanistic studies. Since the 1970s at Johnston College (now center) located on the University of Redlands campus in Southern California, I have had the unique opportunity to study with some the founding members of the “third force” in psychology: Rogers, Kubler-Ross, May, Z. Moreno, at the height of the movement and, more recently, Stanley Krippner at Saybrook Graduate School in California. As years went by, I continued within this intellectual tradition into professional work and, later, both in my dissertation research and into the “real world” designing programs in education and working in the arts.
I was ready to study the traditional determinist approach taught in most social science research methods courses, but kept seeking something more systemic in nature. After completing my MA thesis I found that I needed to back up a bit and rethink. This meant leaving graduate studies for a time to recoup and to focus on creative work and the work of social transformation. Meant to be a temporary leave of absence, this “recouping” became three years that included joining AmeriCorps, developing an inner-city literacy program in Oakland, CA, while also continuing to write and create new art. This led, in turn, to reviewing experiential learning paradigms. Because I had participated in experiential learning (on the model of A. S. Neill’s Summerhill) in a high school honors program and as an undergraduate at (then) Johnston College in Southern California, I had some practical knowledge with which to begin this inquiry.
All of this led to profoundly rethinking my graduate research goals.
While sitting on a beach in Western Sonoma county, at a particularly low moment in my quest, I cam back to this: I am an artist. As van Manen (1990) suggested, a research must, at times, discover or invent a methodological approach sufficient to the subject under research in order to create an energetic response. By happy circumstance, Stan Krippner, my thesis advisor at Saybrook, had sent a paper to me that explored the idea of “art-informed inquiry”. As I read through this paper, I became excited and, importantly, ready to begin again! Arts-informed inquiry is interdisciplinary and integrative and coupled with a systems approach, arts-informed inquiry has the potential to create a rich corollary to the Aristotelian episteme in the humanities and in human science research. It incorporates the questions of validity, legitimacy, and significance of traditional approaches as well as the questions of meaning and function that an artist asks in approaching work.
During I time as an AmeriCorps member working with students in the inner city schools I was confronted by the startling poverty of spirit experienced not only by my young charges, but also by fellow Corps members. Through this experience, I began to look at master’s work along with the dominant American educational bias, and the uses of arts-informed inquiry with different eyes. The AmeriCorps team “tried out” a quilt making project at a public middle school. The results were involved students engaged in inquiry! Arts-informed inquiry allows researchers to tackle elusive subjects such as the search for wisdom, our roles as thinking and aware beings within nature’s complex web or, as the students discovered, examining basic belief system underlying an educational program. It allows for the disciplined process of inquiry to be foremost in subjects of a personal nature such as gender identity or dreams and consciousness.
A second “thread” that is reflected both within academic and in creative work is spirituality in the form of an abiding interest in mystical literature. Specifically, the idea of amor as it has progressed through the centuries – from the works of the troubadour era and Mechtild von Magdeburg, through W. B Yeats and into modern lyric poetry – this led to my master’s work, Conversations with the Beloved: Art, Poetry, Spirituality and Systems Thinking. Within context of this thesis, I discovered that this research would benefit from a deeper and richer model of inquiry. Calling upon my background in the arts and in humanistic scholarship, I began developing methods using the tools of the arts research called “arts-informed inquiry” (Richardson, Cole, Knowles, Neilson, Luciani) in action research and experiential learning (e.g.: Rogers, A.S. Neill, Pangaro). This line of reasoning led to considering what such an approach might mean for disciplined inquiries into elusive and complex areas of human experience. I had found both my reason to return to graduate work and my dissertation topic. This work incorporates both academic interests and creative life as a writer, poet, and sculptor; the result is entitled The Elegant Solution: Toward Formulation of a Theory of Aesthetic Inquiry for the Human Sciences.
As I have continue in the arts throughout all these changes and intellectual questing, I will close with a short wrap-up of what I am doing currently. The use of arts-informed inquiry seemed to have “real world” potential beyond the traditional academic classroom and in using systems thinking in the development of projects and collaborations. I currently work within a collaboration of artists exploring experimental forms of theatre in Berkeley, California, publish a journal, Coreopsis, A Journal of Myth and Theatre, and edit Saybrook’s alumi newsletter. In my research interests, I am exploring an extended project concerning the challenges facing the emerging idea of the “independent scholar” who works outside the traditional university department or governmental agency.
Cole, A. L., Neilsen, L., Knowles, J.G, & Luciani, L. (2005). Provoked by art: Theorizing arts-informed research. Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada: Backalong Books.
Neill, A. S. (1960). Summerhill school: A new view of childhood. Great Britian: Penguin Books.
Neilson, L., Cole, A. L., Knowles, G. J. (2001). The art of writing inquiry. Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada: Backalong Books.
Magdeburg von, M. (1991). Mechthild von Magdeburg: Flowing light of the divinity. (C. M. Galvani, Trans.) S. Clark, (Ed.). (Vol. 72, series B, Garland library of medieval literature). New York: Garland. (original work published c. 1250)
Manen van, M. (1990). Researching lived experience: human science for an action sensitive pedagogy. London: Althouse Press.
Pangaro, P. (2002). Cybernetics and conversation. Patterns, ASCD Systems Thinking and Chaos Theory Network Newsletter. January, 2002
Richardson, L. (1994). Writing: A method of inquiry. In N. K. Denzin & Y. S. Lincoln (Eds.), Handbook of qualitative research (pp. 516-517). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.