Reflections on Sketching in Practice: Re-centering the Arts in our Education and Professional Lives
Last week I had the pleasure of attending Sketching in Practice, a one-day symposium hosted by Simon Fraser University, exploring the value of developing visual thinking skills in different disciplines. The event has galvanized my mission to advocate for greater inclusion of the arts across the disciplines in higher education, and in our working world.
Growing up, I was a keen artist — I painted, made crafts, doodled on napkins, and drew a daily “comic journal” for an entire summer. My school notes were famous for their colour-coded mind maps. As I grew older, however, drawing fell to the wayside. This distancing started when I began to feel I wasn’t as skilled in drawing as my high school peers, and further cemented itself when I began post-secondary education.
Unlike in high school, the majority of post-secondary students never take a creative arts course, unless they are majoring in fine arts, and most courses do not include arts-based assignments, in favour of essays and exams. The skits and drawings that might still appear in high school classes are often perceived as a childish gimmick or a strategy to engage student’s attention, but not a form of serious academic inquiry.
In recent decades there has been an inspiring emergence of arts-based research methods across multiple disciplines that affirm the legitimacy of artistic practice as a form of data collection, analysis, and research dissemination (Leavy, 2009). Artistic forms like poetic inquiry, narrative inquiry, and performative inquiry are appearing in major journals and conferences, even though they have yet to trickle down to many of the undergraduate courses we teach.
In 2014, Nick Sousanis, the keynote speaker at Sketching in Practice, broke new ground by successfully defending the first dissertation written and drawn entirely in comics. Now published as the award-winning graphic novel Unflattening, Sousanis’ work is more accessible and engaging to read than the traditional PhD dissertation. However, Sousanis stressed that his comics are not a way of “dumbing down” his ideas, but rather an avenue for expressing ideas that are too complex for words alone. The standard essay format, he explained, doesn’t capture “what makes us thinkers, what makes us human” or “the way we feel, the way we move.”
Further, the speakers at Sketching in Practice emphasized that the process of drawing sparks a different way of thinking that allows unique ideas to emerge. In his presentation on sketch noting, Brad Ovenell-Carter stated, “if the paper was not there, I could not have these thoughts.” Similarly, Sousanis explained how his comics are not a picture of his thinking but rather “where [his] thinking happens,” and that the process of designing his panels led him into unexpected lines of research. Our insistence on text-based learning and sharing in education thus not only limits how we’re able to think, but also what we’re able to think.
Like many other artistic forms, visual arts actually predate linguistic writing as a form of communication, and can be a more efficient form of cognitive processing. Former artist for the National Geographic, and currently a professor at the State University of New York, Joshua Korenblat explained how visuals tap into the brain’s “pre-attentive processing,” our natural inclination to spot changes in form, spatial position, colour, and motion, communicating ideas in a fraction of the time reading them might take. This is why infographics are so effective. Ovenell-Carter explains that the rise of technology has, in fact, brought us back to these roots: decentralizing text in favour of audio, video, and images.
Visualization of information also aids in retention and comprehension. Humans have a limited working memory, the average person can only hold three to four things in their mind at once (Cowan, 2010), however images help us to process multiple ideas as one piece of data, expanding our potential retention. Sousanis’ work capitalizes on this, exploring the way the composition of a page can embody an idea, alongside or instead of sequential illustrations. When we read pages of text in an essay, we might struggle to remember previous ideas and understand the bigger picture. However, when we read the images and texts in one of Sousanis’ panels, the composition offers a visual metaphor that can communicate a complex idea without all the excess words that stress our working memories.
In the thriving field of arts for social change, or community-engaged art, various art forms are revolutionizing the way we approach complex problems across sectors, including in healthcare, the justice system, public policy, and the environment. However, the ASC! Project’s recent interviews with artists engaging in cross-sector partnerships have surfaced a need to continue advocating for the value and effectiveness of the arts in order to buoy support for the work and open doors for new partnerships. As an educator, I see higher education as an opportune space in which to build an understanding of our cognitive, emotional, and physical need for the arts. Expanding art education from a disciplinary study to a mode of reflection, inquiry, and dialogue in various fields can offer future professionals first-hand experience of the power of making art and collaborating with artists. Re-centering the arts in education can thus promote the integration of arts in research and professional practice in different sectors.
While engaging with the arts may initially be daunting for many students and teachers alike, the speakers at Sketching in Practice emphasized that regular practice and direct instruction on the “building blocks” of artistic skills can help build skill, fluency, and comfort in artistic modalities. Just as we develop a student’s textual literacy through assignments, the provision of resources, and tutoring services, we should be developing their artistic literacy. The goal is not necessarily to produce excellent pieces of art, but to learn to tap into the transformative potential of the arts in our personal and professional lives.
In the one-day Symposium, simple exercises such as Sousanis’ Grids and Gestures, Ovenell-Carter’s sketch-noting tips, and the tools Korenblat presented broke through my learned fear of drawing. I walked out of the event and into the art shop to buy myself some pens…
Cowan N. (2010). The magical mystery four: How is working memory capacity limited, and why? Current directions in psychological science, 19(1): 51-57. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2864034/
Leavy, P. (2009). Method meets art: Arts-based research practice. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.