Why the Arts Engagement Project?
As a long-time staff member at the University of Michigan, by 2010 I had a great deal of my career working with students and student organizations engaged with co-curricular arts engagement during their time in college. As an alum of the university in theatre, I knew first- hand about the passion, skills, and dedication students brought to their creative practice, and how they wanted to continue their meaningful participation in the arts – regardless of their chosen field of study. I also knew that advocacy to administration on these students behalf – for facilities, for funding, for credit, and attention – was often met with assertions that their endeavors were “extra” curricular – in addition to, rather than in support of ,their university learning – or could not be taken seriously, as their output lacked rigor, excellence, or any valuable developmental purpose. University officials thought students “enjoyed” dancing on concrete floors, or didn’t mind having to haul heavy instruments., or store project or student organization equipment in their crowded residence hall rooms or apartments. They saw the funds they needed to spend off-campus for rehearsal or performance space, or those that were restricted from them for materials due to a poor connection between routine performance needs and criteria for grant awards as just part of the student experience. And while students used this amazing energy to create a climate of culture, inclusion, and vitality for the campus, and were proud when their work was showcased in university marketing and recruitment materials, they struggled with feeling that their contributions were overlooked or misunderstood.
Finally, when the arguments were made around the real impacts of college arts engagement – on academics, on learning outcomes, on skill development, on cultural competence, or on career and graduate school success, I was often met with the question, “well, where is your data?” And I thought, “okay, let’s go get some!”
As it happens, while there was a large amount of data around K-12 arts engagement, and the impacts that engagement engendered for younger students there was (and continues to be) a dearth of research done on the impacts of student arts engagement in college. And I was not a trained researcher. But I knew that if we could conduct a comprehensive and multi-modal survey over at least a few four-year cohorts of undergraduate students at U-M – following them from their entry into the university through their graduation – we might be able to create a baseline of understanding about the impacts of arts engagement in college (or at least for students in colleges similar to U-M), and then those findings and survey design could be used to inform additional research at both U-M and at other colleges and universities. But my initial, and strongest, motive for conducting this research was to tell the story of our students’ creative journey at U-M to ourselves, so that we might better support and recognize the value the arts bring to a Michigan education and the development of the whole student as a learner, contributor, and citizen.
With the help and financial support of a number of U-M administrators, graduate and undergraduate research assistants, actual research directors, and internal grant funding, we were able to collect responses from over 4000 individual students at U-M from 2010-2015, and conduct analysis to answer some of the initial and subsequent research questions from 2015 to present.