Spotlight on Alumna Ariana Stokas: Arts Educator ☆

Ariana Stokas in roller derby mode.

Ariana Stokas is the Assistant Dean of the College for Equity Initiatives, the Director of Bard Educational Opportunity Program and a Visiting Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Bard College.  She holds an MA (Math Sciences and Computing) and a PhD (Philosophy and Education) from Teachers College.   Stokas is an advisory board member on Learning Through the Arts (LTA) at the Guggenheim Museum, an artist-residency program that cultivates student creativity through art projects that support learning across the curriculum.  Stokas recently presented at the first PLATO (Philosophical Learning and Teaching) Institute, hosted at TC, where she spoke at the “Aesthetics in the Classroom” session.

How was your PLATO experience?

It went really well.  It was interesting for me because I’m not as involved in Philosophy for children as some other the people were, so the dialogue was something of a new exposure for me.

In your PLATO talk, you said that what you do today “balances both the philosophy of art and aesthetics”.  Can you please explain that?

What happened for me was an increased understanding of the distinction between the two and the resulting conversations.  My dissertation was on Aesthetics, with a big “A”, and not necessarily on the philosophy of art.

In education, we think about the role of aesthetics in the classroom and in education.  In education aesthetics have been relegated to the philosophy of art, which has stayed in the art classrooms, essentially–if there even is one.  Aesthetics, with a big “A”, permeates all aspects of educational life, if we understand Aesthetics as the embodied sensory lived experiences of individuals and that particular dimension of ourselves.  In this sense, Aesthetics is an aspect of how a teacher decides to design a classroom a certain way, or a tone she sets in a classroom, or the form that she allows her instruction to take.  This is an area of Aesthetics that hasn’t been well articulated in education, but is becoming more articulated because of things like cognitive science.

To rewind a bit, can you please share what first sparked your interest in Philosophy?

I first became interested in Philosophy rather accidentally.  I had a high school teacher who taught European History, and he taught us this history through Rousseau, Locke, Machiavelli and others.  That was 11th grade, and it was really the first time that I had read Philosophy or been exposed to it.  I’m an artist, so when I arrived at college, I went in thinking I’d study Art History or Fine Arts.  But I found the questions that I wanted to examine about art weren’t answered adequately by Art History.   They were answered more adequately by Philosophy, and that’s what leveraged me in that direction.

What did you after you received your BA from Bard College?

When I first graduated from college I had no idea what I was going to do with myself.  After graduation, I moved to Washington, D.C. where I worked for a policy think tank called The Center for Arts and Culture.   I was curious about how—and who—creates art and art education policy.  It was a real learning experience for sure.  The policy was often less about the art and the children, and often more about the people pushing the agenda—which at 22 was disheartening.  But it gave me an insight into how it works and it got me interested in is all the research that the policy makers were using.  It was clear that there was a real gap between the people making the policy “in the trenches,” as they’d describe it, and the people pushing and creating legislation.  It pointed me in a direction, for sure.

I spent a year at The Center for Arts and Culture, and then I left for New York City, where I worked for the Global Action Project, which is a non-profit, after- school program that uses media and the arts to help kids express themselves. I worked with them on an online art-making project.  We created a site where you can collaborate and actually create art online.

Was the non-profit a better experience than your policy institute stint in D.C.?

It was closer.  It was more fulfilling to work with the students on art and on particular issues.   For me, it was moving back in the other direction, back in the trenches, so to speak.   I got to see how a non-profit works, particularly the struggle of an arts non-profit and what they have to do to survive.  It’s not easy.  You have to really explain art to people and why it is important beyond just looking “pretty”.  It is something you have to articulate very clearly:  art makes us feel good and is as intellectually rigorous as any other discipline.

From this non-profit experience, you decided to come to TC to pursue your Master’s?

Yes.  My Master’s is actually in Math Sciences and Computing, and I studied technology and education in the arts.  I worked with Professor Robbie McClintock, and focused on Aesthetics and education, but in the realm of communication technology, and that leveraged me into Philosophy and Education.

Did you jump right into your Ph.D. studies?

Between my Master’s and Ph.D. I took about a year or so without working.  My mother was quite ill, and I was taking care of her.  She passed away over that time period.  It was a difficult, transitional time.  The Philosophy and Education program came into my life and created a really significant foundation and an incredibly supportive community, which was fortunate.  It really is a nurturing, supportive kind of community of people without that kind of tear-you-down competitiveness that you sometimes see in doctoral programs.   So that was a very fortunate transition at that time in my life.  And it pointed me in a direction, because I wasn’t necessarily thinking, “I’m going to get my Ph.D.”.  I had questions that hadn’t been answered for myself, still.  I met David Hansen while I was doing my Master’s and took a bunch of classes in Philosophy and Education and realized that was the right place to be.

Can you tell us about your Ph.D. research?

My dissertation is on what I call “sensitive perception”.  The idea is that as you develop as a teacher, you refine a sensibility where you can connect what I call “concrete experiences” or “empirical data” to conceptual structures that surround them.  For instance, take the example of introduce an apple to a child.  They don’t know the whole conceptual structure that surrounds it.  They know it as an apple.  They don’t know it as an atom or a fruit with debate surrounding it (organic, pesticides).  All of these conceptual issues that will eventually arise, with historical and ethical implications.  So then a teacher develops this ability, and it is actually quite important to their relationship with the subject matter.

In structuring classroom curriculum, it is important to structure it in such a way that students have access to real material in the world, because increasingly in school we see that information and knowledge is treated like data bytes.  Students are becoming disassociated from real things.  They are sitting at desks with worksheets and while the worksheet talks about an apple, how many students will actually get to do an experiment with an apple, or go apple picking?  This experiential dimension has largely been taken out of a lot of public school environments.  So I investigate and think about what are the ramifications of that for learning and for the way we construct knowledge.

What is your current role at Bard College?

I am the Assistant Dean of the College for Equity Initiatives and the Director of Bard Educational Opportunity Program (BEOP).  I oversee students admitted through BEOP and Posse Foundation scholarships and am a resource for educational equity in college-wide initiatives.  I support students who are financially and educationally disadvantaged.  Plus, I advise faculty, the registrar, admissions, academic deans and the dean of student affairs office on issues related to the recruitment and retention of historically underrepresented groups, and work on projects related to maintaining the college’s commitment to an equitable educational environment.  I’m also a Visiting Assistant Professor of Philosophy.

How did you secure your position as an advisory board member for the Guggenheim’s Learning Through the Arts (LTA) program?

That happened accidentally too.  I think they approached David Hansen initially, and he had too much on his plate.  He asked me if I would be interested in doing it.  I had been teaching a course at TC, “Education and the Aesthetic Experience,” so it was a logical fit.  And I had done work with Maxine Greene so it was a logical extension.

What is your opinion of the Guggenheim as a building and as a museum?

I’ve had a great experience with the LTA program.  But I think the Guggenheim, like a lot of museums, suffers from feeling very insular.  And some of the exhibits can feel very alienating, and just for the intellectual elite of the art world.  The building itself, I think, can feel a bit alienating.  Especially for people who didn’t grow up with the arts, and then encounter this very conceptual, avant-garde art.   So, I don’t think it is a hospitable environment at first, but in a way it needs to be that.  I think that’s why they began such a well-funded, well-established art education program.

How is the LTA curriculum developed?

Professional artists work with Art Education staff at the Guggenheim to develop the curriculum.  It is a very collaborative relationship.  In the process that I’ve observed, they take a piece of art and they start to think about the artwork itself and what’s important to know about this work of art.  Not just in terms of the material and how it was created, but the historical context.  Then they start to think about how it might coordinate and fit according to some of the normal curricular stuff that is going on in the classroom, like in Social Studies.   I’ve heard them talk a lot about how to access the world the children are living in, as they did in the “Bridges” project, which was a great cultural module on bridges.  The Brooklyn Bridge isn’t far, and bridges surround New York City.  So the project helped kids think about bridges as a literal thing, but also as a metaphorical and imaginative symbol.

When the LTA educators walk into classrooms, do the host teachers have open arms?

Some are, because they are really excited to have their students work with art and materials and are excited to see what their students produce.

Is there recognition amongst the communities you work with that experiencing art is far more important than, as you were saying, “this is a pretty picture”?

At first, there is not.  I think working with art is a culturally held value that people know is important because a certain population says it is.  And when people gain wealth and power, the first thing they tend to do is buy art.  So art can be more of a status symbol, and there can be a cultural issue with it.

Then there is another thing that comes along with it:  There is “I like looking at art.  It feels good.  It’s interesting.  It compels me in some way,” and then we can explore an answer as to why one feels that way.  But, it can be what I call “a hard sell”.  Why is it worth spending more time, spending 45 minutes on art, rather than preparing for a test?  So it can be a hard sell, depending on the community.

This has to do with my research now, where socioeconomic class really plays a factor.  In a wealthier school district, it’s a given that the arts exist.  You’d never walk into President Obama’s daughter’s school and say, “We are going to cut art and replace it with test prep”.  It just wouldn’t happen.  It’s a question of, why it is okay to do that in low-income districts?

What do you feel is the value of art in children’s education?

At the LTA, I worked on “The Art of Problem Solving,” a study that was seeking to show that engagement with the arts can make you a better problem solver.  Anecdotally you see that ability in a lot of artists.  Take architect Frank Gehry—he has a great quote, “An artist looks at the world with restlessness”.  He wants to change something about it.  That spirit is a type of creative impulse.  An impulse to solve a problem and to give legs to something that hasn’t had a leg before.  So, you can say that art makes us better problem solvers.  And that’s great for an economy that is being driven by innovation.  We want that.

And then there is another part that for me is just as significant:  We are creative, aesthetic beings.   Our world is saturated with aesthetic products.  Whether or not they are considered fine art, they are creative products, and we are highly illiterate about them.  We don’t think that critically.  We have children in a world that is saturated by media, and we haven’t taught them to be literate about that media.  There is symbolism embedded in media—and that’s important.  To teach people that we are creative creatures is something that is kind of inherent to what human beings are.  It is an expressive, creative, tactile part of ourselves that is important to include in an education.  It is essential and I don’t think it is an option.  Because it is related to our expression and our bodies and making and creating, it has been demoted since the time of Plato, in favor of the more “intellectual”.  When actually the arts are more like science than people think.

Is the research that the LTA releases, about how art impacts the way children learn and perform, necessary in the current political climate where arts are on the chopping block?

Yes. Because for something to be an educational essential, if you want to talk in the language of the marketplace (which has invaded education in some ways), it has to be worth time.  Time is our most valuable commodity in education.  So if there is something we have to spend time on, we have to show how it is contributing to the desired outcome.  And the outcomes right now are higher scores on these particular standardized tests.  So I think it is a strange concession.  The ends of education have to change in the public school environment. The private school sector has largely been untouched by this, and it is really in low-income public schools that bear the brunt of it.

Tell us about your own artistic pursuits, and how it works being both an artist and an arts educator.

Being an artist is a lot more selfish.  It is only time for you.  You’re giving something, but it is a very different experience than giving to a person.  You are giving to a thing in a strange way—the creative process.  I find it a great balance to all the rigorous, analytical thinking that is my work.

Right now I’m a mixed media portrait artist.  I’m becoming more and more interested in bringing education into the artwork that I make in some sort of critical way.

I write children’s stories too.  And that’s also a release, or a different mode of expression.  It’s a goal to get one published.  I tend to work a lot of philosophical concepts into the writing of the stories.  And my other hobby is that I roller derby.  I’ve played for about four years now.  It’s really fun and you get addicted to it, for sure.  It is a great release, it’s physical and tough, and it’s a great community of women.  I’m a big advocate of it.  I think everyone should play!