University of Kansas: Lessons Learned

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Build on existing interdisciplinary structures and partnerships. The Lied Center of Kansas and the Hall Center successfully partnered on a variety of projects before the implementation of this project. This extension of our established partnership used the Hall Center’s interdisciplinary faculty colloquia and faculty seminars as implementation strategies to directly engage faculty and students.

The Commons is an existing research partnership between the Biodiversity Institute and the Hall Center for the Humanities, created for the discovery and dissemination of knowledge of coupled natural and human systems and their reciprocal impacts. Its goals are to generate collaborative research by uniting disciplinary domains, to engage public dialogue, and to be a catalyst for unconventional thinking, interdisciplinary inquiry and unexpected discoveries. These goals corresponded with the theme and goals of the Creative Campus project, and the Commons was highly receptive to the Lied Center’s initiative to partner on the Tree of Life project. By engaging with artists, students, and professionals from both KU and beyond, the Creative Campus project allowed for utilization of the University’s creative energies and the contribution of fresh perspectives from those outside of academia. The multiple levels of partnership amongst KU research centers and departments were successful in the creation of an original work, Tree of Life, as well as in the many thought-provoking dialogues on creativity and the important partnership between the arts and sciences.

Develop mechanisms for continuous communication among partners. Considering the large number of partners in the project, a particular challenge was ensuring the continued participation of each member throughout the two-year grant period. Logistical issues such as personnel changes and economic circumstances for departments and research centers meant that increased communication and commitment were required from all participants. With so many partners and groups involved, it was important to foster an environment of open and honest discussion about what was working or not working, and to address and remedy any issues as they arose. However, the project encountered relatively few setbacks, due in part to the continued dedication of nearly all those who initially signed on to participate. Continuous communication, along with strong commitments from those involved, helped avert any large problems.

Pre-planning and relationship development are directly proportional to the success of the project. Central to the creation of the artistic work was the collaborative dialogue engendered between artists and scholars. In the first year, emphasis was placed on interdisciplinary research dialogues through the formation of the Creative Research Team comprised of the artists Balakrishnan, Suzeau, Cohan, and Reaney, joined by faculty members from the sciences and the humanities and graduate students from these respective areas. This team interacted in a research-intensive Hall Center Colloquium Series at the Commons in year one, and a Hall Center Seminar Series in year two focused on the dissemination of the research. The time and funding committed to the development of professional relationships within the creative team proved invaluable to the project.

Support from campus administration and departments is critical. KU Faculty and research staff surveyed in October 2007 and at the end of the project in May 2009 indicated that support is needed from the administration so that interdisciplinary research and teaching can flourish at KU. Of those responding, the findings showed:

  • 70% – 85% see interdisciplinary research or teaching as moderately or far more valuable than single disciplinary research.
  • 75% – 80% feel there are real barriers to interdisciplinary research and teaching at KU, which include:
    • Funding for course development
    • Release time from other duties
    • Interdepartmental sharing of Student Credit Hours
    • Administrative recognition in promotion and tenure

All faculty artists who participated in the project were supported by their respective departments to devote teaching and research time to this project. Faculty who participated in the spring 2008 Hall Center colloquium were also supported with a stipend. These sorts of rewards for collaboration are invaluable to ensure faculty’s continued participation.

Engage a visiting artist to work on campus over an extended period of time in order to build relationships with faculty. The long-term residency model employed by the project was critical to its success. David Balakrishnan began his relationship to the project by participating in project planning on campus in October, 2007, and then had three extended residency periods in 2008 and 2009 of two to four weeks, returning in April 2009 for the final rehearsals and performances. During these periods, he worked closely with both humanities/science faculty and artist faculty to develop an approach to the Tree of Life and to create and perform the culminating commissioned work.

Involve students throughout the project. Of utmost consideration throughout the creation and implementation of the project was the involvement of students, who played a variety of roles in the many Creative Campus events. Those involved in the production of original work for seminars and other academic events, as well as the Tree of Life performance, benefited from their collaboration with fellow academics, artists, and peers. By participating in the multitude of activities and discussions occurring throughout the University, students not only gained perspectives from artists, researchers, and faculty, but were also allowed to contribute their own voices and opinions to discussions and creative processes. This involvement was important not only because KU is at heart a teaching and learning environment, but also because it is students who will continue to think creatively and participate in fields beyond academia, and in areas far from Kansas.

Engage as broadly across campus as possible. The variety of campus events (lectures, colloquia, seminars, and other forms of collaboration) stimulated participants’ minds and made the Lawrence campus a more vibrant and creatively charged environment throughout the grant’s two-year span. These opportunities set a precedent for increased interaction among departments, administration, and students at all levels. The dialogue was particularly strong in the exploration of evolution and the connections between the arts and sciences, a bridge too often overlooked or ignored within both academic environments and society as a whole. The Creative Campus project engendered a discourse and debate over the nature of creativity, and welcomed the contribution of individuals from all areas of the University. Such opportunities for open creative thought are rare, even in academic settings, and all those involved gained the important perspective that comes from the discussion and dissemination of ideas in the public sphere.

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