Student Reflections on the 1st Mason Arts Research Center Conference

Author note: This blog is cross posted Thalia Goldstein’s Psychology Today blog. 

We’re pleased the present the first of many blogs that will come from the October 18, 2019 highly successful first Mason Arts Research Center conference. The focus of this conference was looking at connections between research, practice and policy, with an emphasis on organizations local to the Washington DC area. Below, you’ll find short reflections from the 5 PhD students who put in many hours and much effort to successfully organize and run the conference day. Without the work of Megan, DaSean, Alena, Amber and Tevis, this meeting simply would not have happened. We are very grateful to each of them.

The students raise a few reoccurring themes that will be echoed in and expanded upon in upcoming blogs: That there are, actually, many people who are interested in these topics overall, and despite previous assumptions, arts organizations are deeply interested in research of all kinds; this is an exciting time to be in the field of arts research but there are still noticeable disparities across art forms in research foci; and collaboration will take the efforts of all who care about the arts and child development and education, and it will take a true spirit of collaboration across groups who may start out speaking different types of languages.

Megan Stutesman, PhD Student

In non-arts science and research communities, I often get weird, confused, and a bit pessimistic looks from people when I tell them that my research interests are focused on how dance affects children’s development of social cognition. They look at me as if this idea is so far out of the box. During the speed networking session at the conference, despite being the only dance researcher, not one person gave me this look. After the conference, when my dad asked me how it went and I recounted this to him, his response, “you have found your people,” resonated. Yet, I was conflicted by this idea that I had found a group of like-minded people because my threshold for like-minded merely required them to not give me the weird, confused, and slightly pessimistic look regarding my research interests. As a dance artist, teacher, and burgeoning researcher, perspectives from my art form seemed vastly underrepresented compared to the other art forms represented at the conference. I feel happy and enthusiastic about the conversations and connections that were made, however, I’m disgruntled by the lack of dance represented. Where were all the dance people? And why does music and visual art always take the mainstage?

Tevis Tucker, PhD Student

I think the biggest takeaway from the conference is that there are a lot more people interested in/working on/advocating for arts education than what we had probably imagined before MasonARC19… and the scale of the conference was still relatively local. Thinking of the national and global implications of getting us all under the same roof is inspiring. I thoroughly enjoyed getting to meet a lot of new people throughout the course of the conference and hearing about all the work they do in one piece of this bigger picture of “the arts.” By communicating and collaborating with one another, we become a stronger entity to “fight the good fight” and continue to explore all of the different ways that the arts are beneficial to child development. I believe we all have an obligation to reach out to other ecosystems within the arts as we are moving forward with our respective projects. There is no reason for us to not be using all of our available resources (i.e., each other). I am very excited for what conversations will come out of the next MasonARC convening.

DaSean Young, PhD Student

The MasonARC conference was an empowering experience for me as a graduate student. Being a researcher in the arts, I personally struggle with feeling disconnected to the arts community. I felt as though the worlds of arts practice and arts research were completely segregated. At the MasonARC conference, I was able to realize that there is a place for research in practice. During the interactive sharing session, I sat with representatives from several arts organizations and got to talk to them about the research they want. I will repeat that for those in the back – arts organization want arts research. I was surprised. We were discussing program evaluation methods, specifically how to do program evaluation on a budget. My official position at the time was as a note-taker and I was nervous to add any input to the conversation. After swallowing my nerves, I brought up researcher/organization partnerships as a possible avenue. I was surprised I hadn’t heard it in the earlier brainstorming. The representatives were interested in the idea and wanted to know more about how it would work. In a moment, I realized that for many, the potential collaboration between practitioners and researchers was not made explicit. As such, our conversation shifted to how using researcher/organization partnerships, cleverly described as “using/knowing your neighbors,” allows for researchers and practitioners to get their respective research/evaluation questions answered and their capabilities elevated. At the MasonARC Conference, I was able to see I am a part of a much larger arts ecosystem, vast and interconnected.

Alena Alegrado, PhD Student

My MasonARC conference experience runs deeper than just the October 18, 2019 meeting. The MasonARC team spent months planning and preparing for this conference. Together we spent hours on logistics, designing sessions, and invitations.  The final few days before the conference were long, but before we knew it, it was conference day.

One of my main responsibilities before the conference was to identify potential speakers, and attendees for the conference. I searched for local arts professionals, and learned about interesting arts-related work in our area. By conference morning, I’d learned so many names that greeting registrants in the morning felt like my spreadsheet of impressive professionals came to life.

On the day of the conference, I was a mixture of sleep deprived and excited, so I found a way to participate in the conference – make myself useful and not sit down too long. I spent the day walking and talking with stragglers. After our morning panel sessions began, I escorted late arrivals from the registration desk to the panel session. Those 1:1 interactions were probably my favorite parts of the day. I gave genuine “elevator talks” about my research as we made our way from the lobby to the 3rd floor. I chatted with professionals from many different organizations, including the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Association for Music Education. These face-to-face interactions humanized organizations that I’d previously thought of as powerful resources inside my computer. Of course, these organizations are driven by people, but it was great to get to know the people behind the data and be among others who share my interest and concerns within the arts.

Amber Zhang, PhD Candidate

In this conference, I was one of those few who don’t consider themselves artists but are really interested in arts education and arts research. I gained a better sense of arts research and current gaps through the panel sessions and poster session. I really enjoyed the speed networking session where I heard about interesting work done by people from different backgrounds. I was very interested in the research the Kennedy Center is doing to examine how professional development (e.g., workshops) helps teachers incorporate arts in their classrooms. I am curious about how teachers apply arts in non-arts classrooms, and how the incorporation of arts impacts both students and teachers. Coming from China, I experienced how arts were undervalued (e.g., arts classes were always taken up by teachers of other “main” subjects, like Math) and disconnected from other classes in my K-12 education many years ago. I appreciate how people from different sectors are working together to advocate for arts education as well as to make it accessible to all students. Also, this was my first time to be involved in organizing an academic conference, which will definitely benefit me in the future to plan a conference. What’s more, collaborating with my amazing colleagues makes the planning fun. Overall, I enjoyed and learned a lot from the conference.

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