Feature: Creativity-Infused Pedagogy to Foster a Civic Consciousness

By Carol-lynn Swol, Project Associate, Association of American Colleges and Universities

Art and design curricula empower students to be thoughtful and engaged with society. The creative process, course assignments, and studio practices help cultivate students’ ability to explore civic dimensions through their message, craftsmanship, and materials. The act of creating art in their classes not only nurtures creativity and communication skills but also gives students a way to reflect on and express compelling ideas that have social impact, and it fosters the courage and resilience to put those ideas into the public realm.

It was based on these concepts that Adrienne Hooker, assistant professor at James Madison University; David Wang, assistant professor at James Madison University; and I presented a workshop, “Focusing Creative Energy in Shaping Society: Practical Examples for Project-based Curriculum,” at the Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement (CLDE) annual conference this past summer.[1]

A few weeks after the CLDE conference, I traveled to Amsterdam and Berlin. I spent much of my time in museums and seeking out maker spaces and “fab labs” (fabrication laboratories). Though it was an entirely new context, the themes that arose from the exhibits I saw and events I participated in mirrored many of the same issues presented at the conference—explorations of anonymity, identity, freedom, migration, and equality. I do not believe this thematic cluster is accidental or by grand design. Artists and designers respond visually to society’s “wicked problems” to elevate these issues for the world to ponder through a new perspective. The material culture that artists and designers produce as expressions of social commentary (see work by Banksy,[2] Icy & Sot,[3] Barbara Kruger,[4] Robert Mapplethorpe,[5] Sally Mann,[6] Richard Serra,[7] Kara Walker,[8] and many more) sometimes causes discomfort in viewers, which can lead to calls for censure. Although the viewing public can debate the merits of the message or seek to censor visuals that bring discomfort, there is much to be gained by exploring social issues visually.

ICY and SOT are artists in Brooklyn, New York. Originally from Tabriz, Iran, the brothers’ murals, interventions, videos, and installations—which depict “human rights, capitalism, ecological justice, social and political issues”—have appeared in Iran, Germany, China, Norway, and the United States (see fig. 1). According to their website, the artists “transcend their histories of artistic and political censorship by using public art to envision a world freed from borders, war and violence.”[9]

As faculty in the art and design fields, or as advocates for civic education, it is our responsibility to meet the needs of budding artists and designers in their quest to respond to the wicked problems they are motivated to highlight. We are tasked with helping students develop the best way to visually create their messages, master the technical skills to manipulate their materials, and participate in ongoing dialogue to explore ideas and share feedback with classmates and others to refine their work.

As such, art/design project-based studio courses are often structured to support the development of civic consciousness. In our workshop at the CLDE conference, Adrienne, David and I posited that the creativity model often used in project-based studio courses can be used in other academic disciplines. As illustrated in figure 2 below, we recategorized the civic knowledge, skills, and values that had been charted in A Crucible Moment[10] and CLDE’s Emergent Theory of Change blog series[11] into three new areas (content, ambiguity, and dialogue) to make them clearer and more applicable for other fields seeking to infuse a creativity model that inherently cultivates a civic consciousness into their curricula. Mapping some of the best practices used in project-based art and design curricula, we were able to determine how the approaches in the art and design fields aligned with the established and emerging nomenclature for civic learning. This was an exercise in translation for us and might also be useful for others in higher education seeking to foster a civic consciousness while stymied by language barriers between silos. Although terms used for civic learning and democratic engagement are not regularly used in art and design departments, we found related vocabulary in terms such as social impact, solutions, personal and original approach, risk, and constructive critical analysis.

The Creative Energy Model encourages student agency and engaged learning in the content they explore (see fig. 2). In art and design project-based courses, assignment instructions push students to create work based on the topics they are interested in pursuing, and, in doing so, students are encouraged to engage their curiosity and deploy their internal catalyst. Because students must initiate content, there is a level of ambiguity that needs to be nurtured and guided throughout the semester and subsequent courses. Faculty and students must build trust to allow creative, technical, and conceptual risk. Creating a visual culture for public audiences requires vulnerability, humility, and courage, but it also requires dialogue. The iterative dialogue process is ongoing in a project-based course as faculty guide students through a multistep process of creating and analyzing multiple resolutions.

The foundation-level visual communication course at James Madison University, taught by Adrienne Hooker, assistant professor in the School of Media Arts and Design, includes one example of a project using self-initiated content, iterative dialogue, and the ambiguity that comes from the creative energy model.[12] Once students are accepted into the media arts and design major, usually during their sophomore year, this course sets the stage for building civic capacity throughout the major. The forty to sixty students taking this course each semester not only address topics of social importance in their own work at their level of expertise, but also critique and revise with their peers in an environment of trust and exploration, building a space that reinforces feelings of belonging and promotes autonomy and self-expression. Students select a local nonprofit to research, and they develop a meaningful call-to-action campaign based on that organization. The project’s parameters require that the various media used for the final products be intentionally connected with the consistent use of message and visuals.[13] (See fig. 3 for an example of one student’s journey through the iterative process of identifying, brainstorming, analyzing, refining, and deciding on a campaign.) Faculty and fellow students guide each other through a personal discovery as they discuss, ideate, and critique multiple resolutions that inform the students’ ultimate design.

Not every student in an art/design course creates work with socially conscious content or themes. Even when the work itself does not feature such content—for example, work based solely on formal design principles—the process of creating and communicating, and of sharing and being critiqued, still educates students in the skills needed to be civically engaged.

Artists and designers have been at the forefront of instigating change throughout human history as their work reflects on and stirs society. Faculty teaching creativity-infused courses have a wonderful opportunity to help students foster a civic consciousness throughout the academic program and beyond. Learning and practicing how to put curiosity to work by initiating projects intended for the public sphere—particularly projects that address social problems—is a skill not readily forgotten, which can be drawn on for a lifetime.


[1]  “2018 Civic Learning & Democratic Engagement Meeting, Organized by ADP, TDC, and NASPA,” American Association of State Colleges and Universities, http://www.aascu.org/meetings/clde18/.

[9]  “Bio,” Icy and Sot, https://icyandsot.com/bio/.

[10]  The National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement, A Crucible Moment: College Learning & Democracy's Future (Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2012).

[11]  David Hoffman, Jen Domagal-Goldman, Stephanie King, and Verdis Robinson, “Building a CLDE Theory of Change: 5 Essays and an Invitation,” NASPA: Student Affairs Professionals in Higher Education, April 27, 2018, https://www.naspa.org/constituent-groups/posts/building-a-clde-theory-of....

[12] “SMAD 201 Syllabus,” James Madison University School of Media and Design, http://www.jmu.edu/smad/our-program/foundation/201.shtml.

[13] “SMAD Foundation 201 Projects: Call to Action Campaign,” James Madison University School of Media and Design, http://www.jmu.edu/smad/our-program/foundation/201-projects.shtml.