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Project Connects Coursework and Real Life, Focuses on Creative Social Action

Andrea Singer | January 29, 2007

What happens when we reach across boundaries — whether social or cultural, geographical or political, visible or perceived — to listen to stories, which are different from our own? People from different walks of life often never connect with one another, even though they may pass each other on the street.

Sixth College UCSD
San Diego Community College

Creative social action is the focus of Andrea Singer and her husband, Bill Stewart, in an interdisciplinary, cross-institutional project, which brings together art and philosophy students from San Diego City College, Sixth College students from the University of California San Diego and recovering substance abusers from A New Path, a non-profit organization of parents, citizens and community leaders who focus on treatment rather than incarceration for non-violent drug offenders. "We wanted to create a peak educational and community-based experience for our students,” says Singer, professor of art and design at City College. She and Stewart, who is a professor of philosophy at City College, decided to put theory into practice by inviting students to make connections between their coursework and real life, reaching out to members of the community with whom they would not typically have contact. Singer and Stewart also teach a practicum course at Sixth College.

Working with graduates of A New Path, students from three college courses participated in the project. The Sixth College practicum course focused on the interplay of culture, art and technology by asking students to engage in a community-based project, develop collaborative skills, adopt an interdisciplinary approach and use creative work as a basis for inquiry. Stewart’s City College philosophy course, Perspectives on Human Nature and Society, took students on an introspective journey by looking at how different cultures view the idea of the individual and the role of the individual in society. Singer’s City College art and design course, Studio Practices, gave students an opportunity to go beyond the typical classroom simulation, where students produce “paper projects” as an end in themselves. The objective of this course was to engage students in the complete art-making process, from start to finish. According to Singer, it is important for students to “experience what it’s really like to be a producing artist, with all its joys and hiccups.”

Singer emphasizes that an important intent of the project was to work in partnership with another academic institution and an organization in the community in order to “create a more diverse learning environment for students.”The work students completed was designed to have a lasting effect on the community. Singer adds that one of the outcomes of the project was “to bring the stories of Prop. 36 graduates to a broader audience and help reduce the stigma of substance abuse and addiction.” The Substance Abuse and Crime Prevention Act, also known as Prop. 36, requires that people arrested for non-violent drug possession for the first or second time be given the option of a year in treatment rather than going to jail.

Each student in the project was paired with a New Path graduate in order to interview them about their life and their experiences, from addiction to recovery. Students were then asked to represent these stories by creating poetry and a final art piece that reflected their interview and took shape as a handmade book, a multimedia presentation, performance art, or an installation. The “found poems” (created by selecting quotes from the interviews) and the participant’s artwork will be part of an exhibit entitled “We Pass Each Other on the Street.” The exhibit will be held at Sixth College on the UCSD campus. An opening reception will take place from 4 to 7 p.m. Thursday in the lobby of Pepper Tree Canyon Hall. Excerpts from the poetry and interviews will also be brought together into an artist’s book, a comprehensive outcome of the project created by local graphic designer Lisa Starace.

Stewart points out that one of the objectives of the project was “to create art with a purpose, to show students that art does not have to be produced simply for art’s sake, but can be a vehicle for transformation. Art can illuminate, educate and create positive social change.”

UCSD student Marilyn Shapley said of her experience interviewing her Prop. 36 partner: "I feel like all preconceptions and stereotypes are broken down when a face and a life are attached. I always thought of drug addicts as something outside of my life. When I met Suzanne, I realized we had so many similar personality traits. Looking at her made me realize that addiction is not as far away as I might like to think."

A City College student reflecting on the outcomes of this educational experience said, "I think these classes will have a very long-lasting impact on my life in the way that I consciously react to other people and the way I view the world."

Singer and Stewart found that students were deeply moved by the stories they collected and believe that the exhibit will reflect the powerful transformative process, which was experienced by both the graduates from A New Path and the college students. According to Stewart, “In a society that emphasizes the merits of rugged individualism, the importance of personal wealth and the drive for status, this intersection of courses seeks to offer students alternative ways of thinking, alternative ways of behaving and alternative ways of moving through the world. We challenge them to consider: What if life is not just about us? What if it is about our relation to others? What if success is not simply measured in terms of personal material gain but in terms of how we touch the world and others?”

“When education is most successful,”adds Singer, “it teaches students not simply to hold new ideas in their heads, but it shows students how to allow those ideas to positively transform their lives and the lives of those around them.”

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