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From multidisciplinary critiques to place-based learning: Curriculum Innovation Fund initiatives

Winners in the Faculty of Fine Arts are putting their projects into action
February 24, 2015
By J. Latimer

Something always bothered Eric Simon about the end-of-term critiques that customarily occur in Fine Arts courses.

“I couldn’t put my finger on it, but something was definitely missing,” says Simon, chair of the Department of Studio Arts. “The structure of critiques is too repetitive and formatted. I wanted to break the class mould and encourage risk taking and feedback without an eye on grades.”

Multidisciplinary art critiques

With that objective in mind, Simon and fellow team leader François Morelli, also a professor in the Department of Studio Arts, applied to the Curriculum Innovation Fund (CIF), a Concordia initiative that supports faculty members as they explore ways to improve classes and teaching methods.

A joint effort of the Office of the Provost and the School of Graduate Studies, the fund upholds the university's Academic Plan to provide students with dynamic programs and engaging learning experiences.

Simon and Morelli’s proposal, L’œuvre ouverte, was accepted and led to an experimental transformation of MFA critiques, in which doors were thrown open between different disciplines, such as painting and drawing, print media, and sculpture. The three 90-minute MFA Open Critiques occurred between January and April of 2014, on a voluntary basis, outside of class time.

“We used our funds to hire an MFA student to organize the events, as well as to document and promote,” Simon says. He reports that the Open Critiques attracted between 10 and 15 students per session.

“The tangible outcome has taken the form of a documented archive that will, over time, become a publication. But another ‘win’ was the nature of the exchange. Students recognized that people in other areas of art have different historical references and bring new ways of seeing. This builds community ties across disciplines and establishes a spirit of engagement within Studio Arts.”


“This is exactly the kind of outcome we’re hoping for with the CIF,” says Catherine Bolton, Concordia’s vice-provost of Teaching and Learning. “It’s always a delight to see what new ways of thinking can achieve in education with a paradigm shift and a relatively small budget.”

Bolton was equally pleased with Simon’s second CIF project, Self/Portrait/Text: Collaborations in Studio and Art Historical Practice, which Simon co-led with Cynthia Hammond, chair of the Department of Art History.

Our project was a collaboration and structured conversation between studio and art history students on the genre of self-portrait,” Hammond says.

“The key outcome was a professional-quality art publication that made horizontal the usual hierarchy within the university. By that I mean, there are professors contributing, undergrads, grads and professional artists. Eric didn’t want just a ‘student project.’ We wanted the students to have equal billing with professional artists.”

The bulk of their funding from CIF went to the printer for the limited-edition publication, which contains 40 portraits and a dozen reflective texts created within a transformational cross-disciplinary teaching module. The remaining funds went to hiring students to facilitate, document and promote a corresponding art exhibition at Z Art Space.

“It was about reflecting on the genre of self-portrait, and we had a lively debate, which really brought out the differences in how art history students are educated and studio students are educated,” Hammond says.

“It unearthed out some old tensions between theory and practice. As the project proceeded, more and more students wanted to cross the theory-practice divide. We had studio students wanting to write a text and art history students wanting to make a self-portrait. It broadened their concept of themselves.”

Place-based learning in Pointe-Saint-Charles

Hammond’s second CIF project, The Right to the City, was co-led with Steven High, the Canada research chair in public history and the co-director of the Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling at Concordia, and Edward Little, chair of the Department of Theatre.

“Our core idea was to bring students from different disciplines together in the same learning space and neighbourhood, namely Pointe-Saint-Charles. We wanted to explore architectural history/urban morphology, oral history and place-based theatre from the perspective of the residents, not experts,” Hammond says.

“It was an amazing experience that resulted in a full day of events in the Pointe last November. There was an audio walk based on original oral history, an exhibition about the neighbourhood's spatial history and activism, and a series of performances by the theatre students.” 

Their funding went to securing a space in Pointe-Saint-Charles to serve as an off-site classroom. Room was found within Share the Warmth, a local community centre and food bank. Remaining funds went to hiring graduate students to coordinate and promote the activities of the three classes.

It was a hugely successful learning experience for all the teachers because none of us had tethered teaching experience, which is different from co-teaching. In this case, we had ‘sister classes,’ which connected in time and space in the Pointe,” Hammond says. “The students experienced very hands-on learning with immediate access to urgent social activism.”

Next year, she hopes to acquire funding from CIF to focus on social and environmental ecologies in Pointe-Saint-Charles and connecting de-industrialized neighbourhoods where there are major concerns regarding environmental degradation, soil and water contamination.

Art Ed in the spotlight

Hammond also intends to bring her colleague Kathleen Vaughan on board next year. Vaughan, an associate professor in the Department of Art Education, finished her own successful CIF project at the end of June 2014. It transformed a summer-session course into a joint graduate-undergraduate Art Education studio intensive linked to the two-week Encuentro conference and festival.

Taught by visiting artist Oliver Herring, it focused on models of collaboration and improvisation, resulting in four events during Encuentro that temporarily transformed the art education studio into a creative learning-while-doing lab.

“The students surprised themselves and were able to access part of their own teaching and learning that they might not have previously encountered,” says Vaughan, who used the funds from CIF to hire a PhD student to assist with documentation and facilitation.

“Common feedback is that they have more scope now. They were surprised to find that they were able to engage deeply in collaborative work like this, since so much university work is oriented to individual achievement and grades.”

Vaughan, Hammond, Simon and their co-leaders all plan to re-apply to the CIF in 2015 to push their work further and explore more cross-disciplinary, cross-community opportunities for teaching and learning.

 “We don’t want to build these relationships, then just drop them,” Hammond says. “The whole point is sustainability and growth.”

Apply to the Curriculum Innovation Fund before the Friday, March 13, 2015 deadline. Read the full call for Curriculum Innovation Fund proposals; to submit a proposal, please fill out this form and send it back to Special Projects Coordinator Émilie Martel at


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