Re-Authenticating the Dialogue Among the Disciplines in Liberal Education: Bridging the Gap with Art and Technology

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A National Symposium

November 22–23, 2013

University of Miami
Miami, Florida

The value of a liberal education may be argued from many different disciplinary perspectives as each discipline perceives the centrality of its own voice as an essential component of academic discourse in its field. However, a larger discussion of how the disciplines should dialogue with one another in a liberal arts context has emerged at many points in the academic narrative as part of the critical inquiry for validating the indispensability of liberal learning as the hallmark of the well-educated and proficient intellect in today’s society. Academicians have reflected their apprehensions of the failure of liberal education to implement a broader social dimension of its mission. As reflected in the quality imperative of the Association of American Colleges and Universities,1 the criticism characterizes one central problem, the emphasis on profitable skills that accentuates an insular territory of pre-determined conceptual frames, methods, and angular vision supporting a micro-dimensional knowledge of the world. How can independent disciplines program learning experiences that demonstrate interdependence in liberal learning while motivating and empowering the student to become protagonists in our complex global society? Ideally, undergraduate liberal education should provide those educational experiences that create opportunities to innovate, explore, and navigate the connections that more specialized graduate training will later reinforce. Disciplines such as painting, sculpture, print making, photography, and other visual media can provide those experiences that link reflective practices and cognitive interdisciplinary engagement of the student imagination beyond discrete disciplinary environments. The instructor facilitates open access between familiar and unfamiliar discursive modes and intellectual methods in reflective preparation of course materials, activities and student outcomes, assuming a position analogous to that of the student as the lifelong learners that we should be and that we hope that they will become. In shared experiences of writing courses, Literature, Social Sciences, Natural Sciences, Common Core experiences, and divisional studies there are advantages to collaboration. A progressive development of reflective practices absorbs students in review, application, and revision of ideas as one dialogues with one’s own ideas, those of one’s peers, and the resources that one uses.2 Upper-class students entering more specialized disciplinary studies through this process will have embarked on mastering essential constructive modes of thought and action as diverse practitioners of intellectual inquiry and experiencing collective or multi-perspective engagement with their work.

Idyllically, language and literature instruction, achieves the conceptualization of a complex system of notions, contexts, and functional grammar, supplanting the decontextualized and rigid mechanical conjugations of verbs and identification of gender markers of nouns and adjectives. Relating visual media through its images to interdisciplinary concepts and applications, professors and students can become reflective practitioners,3 articulating course goals and learning outcomes with common expectations of collaboration facilitated by online learning tools and resources. Technology consequently becomes an instructional partner of accessibility to the obstructive isolation of scattered disciplinary fields. Without diminishing the quality of student research initiative, “reserving” vital resources online creates constructive organization of effective activity.

In particular, at Spelman College, using the National Standards’ 5 C’s of Communication, Cultures, Connections, Comparisons, and Communities4 a Spanish instructor might inquire: Does women’s clothing have a communicative symbology in pre-Hispanic and Hispanic traditional and contemporary society? How does clothing demonstrate a socially and culturally communicative function of language? The basic learning outcomes for this activity are to have students acquire information in order to identify specific practices in the types and use of clothing and their social communicative function in the culture being studied. Students in advanced levels would investigate the symbology of clothing that identifies specific practices of the culture in representing or negotiating meaning, and the comparison and contrast of those practices with those of their own culture. Whether through available museum exhibitions for observing authentic images that support the student’s research, or if not possible, photographs, images, paintings, website links to images and video, virtual museums, and articles in digital reserves, faculty make materials available in appropriate technological repositories.

This project requires student resources such as concept maps and Venn diagrams, an image bank of women’s clothing beginning with clothing in cartography.5 For example, medieval cartographers’ representations of women as geographical maps, mapped not only a conceptualization or symbology of women’s identity and roles, but also the complementary symbology of their clothing. Progressing historically and globally, in the investigation of women’s clothing the instructor may introduce pre-Hispanic contexts for Aztec women, comparative contemporary contexts of Spanish-speaking women in Mexico and those who share their heritage in the United States, American and African American women in the United States , European women, and women from Africa. On the campus Learning Management System, or a free service such as Dropbox, the student will find the helpful resources that focus on the use of assignment prompts, images, articles, website links, blogging, voice threading, concept mapping or Venn diagrams, and interviewing, with culminating activities including presentations and portfolios, if the activities are to extend for several weeks or are part of a seminar course or module such as the Free-Thinking Women Seminars. Technology becomes a tool for stimulating conversations online and continuing within the classroom setting with reports, student-lead discussions and debates relating such topics as group identity, cultural exchange, and international trade through prompts such as: clothing as a communication of social roles, of cultural traditions/cultural norms and values, as a response to external cultural influences, as an adaption to environmental conditions, for self-expression, for individual and social status or interpersonal communications within groups. Such a project might also lend itself to campus Research Day or conference presentations.

Interestingly the Aztec woman’s clothing included formal and informal attire with symbols designating social status, affiliation, and gender. Specifically, in their classical Nahuatl language, the couplet cuēitl huīpīlli “skirt [and] blouse” was used metaphorically to mean “woman.”6 Questions for the students might include: How does clothing contextualize the public social and communicative symbology surrounding the Aztec female as found in codices and images of the epoch? What are the results of the outside cultural contact such as conquest or cultural exchanges?

For a contemporary perspective on clothing in the Spanish-speaking world, Hispanic females in such public functions as the quinceañera, witness the convergence of traditional and contemporary society. The celebrations of rites of passage into adulthood connect students again to pre-conquest indigenous civilizations. In researching and discussing this topic, the prompts instruct the student to compare and contrast the signifying symbology and communicative function of the Pre-Hispanic and the contemporary Hispanic female’s indumentum as it has evolved since its traditional manifestations. Students interrogate this issue with questions such as: How has the convergence of traditional and contemporary practices in the symbology of clothing communicated a change in the quinceañera tradition?

Consistent with projected learning outcomes, the students should compare the cultures studied with their own. This step engages students in more inclusive knowledge of cultures through reflective practices regarding their own culture. At Spelman College, Founders’ Day, Class Day, Baccalaureate and Commencement provide historical or contemporary perspectives on student’s attire in traditional and contemporary contexts.

How does clothing contextualize and signify the public social symbology and communicative function of the Spelman woman’s attire for such official public college functions mentioned? How does clothing comment on the symbolic and communicative function of clothing for the Spelman graduate in contemporary academia, and occasion participation in the larger cultural environment beyond?

Another inquiry paralleling the Hispanic quinceañera, would be to select the United States celebration of Sweet Sixteen. What are the symbolic and communicative differences between traditional young women’s clothing for these celebrations and the contemporary ones?

A third option for upper-level expanded research project might include such topics as: “Historical perspectives from the East African use of the Kanga cloth.” Bridget O. J. Omatseye and Kingsley O. Emeriewen note that African cloth speaks and inherent in its aesthetics is a symbolic communication through its motifs and colors.7 Worn by women with its images and printed proverbs, kanga cloth creates a literacy conveyed in symbols, communicates sentiments and develops cultural proficiency.8 How have factory printed cloth and Western styles impacted the communicative cultural symbolism of kanga cloth?

“The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York exhibition on the national surcoat of the Netherlands.” In the 17th and 18th Century Netherlands Hindeloopen region, the Dutch East India Company trade supplied hand-woven fabrics for women’s use in the traditional wentke, a long-waisted long-sleeved coat, made of colored chintz from India and Persia. Significantly, the color used for mourning was blue. Three important differences in the Dutch woman’s clothing discern the status of women in early Hindelooper: the number of costume accessories determined if a woman was married or not, as did the use of a more elaborate headdress and a chatelaine for the housekeeping money. A string, ring or gold pin held a silk checkered cloth, clasped at the neck. The married woman wore this tie on the left; the unmarried girl wore it on the right signifying that her heart on the left, was still available.9

“The MET exhibition of the French robe a la polonaise”. Many historians trace this style to the Polish robe called the ‘kontusz.’ Around 1778, after the death of the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, women’s dress began to follow practical lines, perhaps respecting his admonitions regarding their impractical state. Known as “Jean-Jacques” polonaises, they represented an “enlightened” style in women’s attire. As a slightly shortened length of dress, polonaises also responded to the conditions of streets in which mud was a frequent complication for women’s outings.10

“The example of African clothing from West Africa traditional Egungun rituals of Nigeria.” The traditional Egungun masquerade is performed by males. The word “egungun” means “powers concealed.” Although exclusively worn by males, the Egungun costume conceals the identity of its wearer with a screen fabric covering the face. The masker makes the costume beautiful and powerful, decorating it with wood, braids, sequins, tassels, amulets, and cloth lappets or long flaps draped in a colorful patchwork of patterns drawn from Yoruba, Islamic and European traditions. These sociocultural symbols expressing wealth and social status are said to communicate with ancestral spirits.11

“The exhibition at the Hammond’s House Museum12 in Atlanta entitled ‘A Different Eye: Sistagraphy13 Celebrates 20 Years of Photography.’” Lynn Marshall Linnemeier revealed some provocative interpretations of the Egungun tradition in a unique exhibition and lecture series on history, storytelling, and memory through the West African costume called the Agan, the main feature of the Nigerian Egungun masquerade. Linnemeier’s Agan included lappets with photographs of persons, private documents, and words from oral histories of residents of Lithonia, Georgia. Their pictures appear on the lappets on the sash tied around the waist of a woman’s long white dress, disclosing the identity of its wearer as female.

Finally, “The cultural symbology of the self-sculpting of the African American artist, Chakaia Booker.” A reflective choice, Booker comments: “When I get up each day, I begin with myself, as far as sculpting myself…” Booker’s “self-styled daily wear includes a giant headpiece of multicolored yarn, layered into an oblong mound that covers all but the oval of her face.”14 Booker further states, “My intention is to translate materials into imagery that will stimulate people to consider themselves as a part of their environment— one piece of it.”15

What does all this mean in terms of institutions of liberal learning? All might argue a characteristic common purpose of formative and generative integration of the liberal arts in the construction of character, as well as global thinking as the paradigms necessary for transforming the students to meet the professional demands of a changing society. However, preventing this is a seeming structural schizophrenia pervading the conceptual disciplinary architecture of the liberal arts. Diversity and interdisciplinarity return us to the concept of uniting the disciplines in a university, identifying points of homogeneity. The broader use of visual media accomplishes the networking of bridges connecting disciplines through meaningful signs or symbols. From this point of departure, we can use images as one effective orientation of students to reflective articulation of liberal education’s social mission of inclusive excellence, positioning the foundation for its global imperative of interconnectedness in learning, and designing educational practices that foster intellectual and practical skills in the arts, humanities, social sciences and natural sciences.


1 AACU, “Strategic Plan 2013-17. Big Questions, Urgent Challenges: Liberal Education and Americans’ Global Future,” Washington, D.C.

2Blake Yancey, Kathleen. Reflection in the Writing Classroom. Logan: Utah State University Press, 1998. All USU Press Publications. Book 120.

3Schon, Donald A. Educating the Reflective Practitioner: Toward a New Design for Teaching and Learning in the Professions.

4Standards for Foreign Language Learning: Preparing for the 21st Century. (ACTFL).

5Davis, Henry, Consulting. Index of Cartographic Images Illustrating Maps of the Late Medieval Period 1300-1500 A. D., February 18, 1998.

6Chibanda, Thando Adrian. “What did the Aztecs wear?” “Huipiles: A Celebration.” Historical Essay: Ellen Riojas Clark. Shain Gallery, Charlotte, NC. 2007, and “The Aztec History and Culture. The Aztec Culture.”, March 11, 2012.

7Omatseye and Emeriewen. An appraisal of the Aesthetic Dimension of the African Philosophy of Cloth. Journal of Language, Technology and Entrepreneurship in Africa, Vol. 3. No. 2, 2012: 57-67.

8“Kanga from the Erie Art Museum Collection.”

9Molkenboer, Th., “The Gutenberg EBook of the Dutch National surcoats, February 27, 2007. (#20665).

10Van Cleave, Kendra, and Brooke Welborn. “’Very Much the Taste and Various are the Makes’: Reconsidering the Late-Eighteenth-Century Robe à la Polonaise.” Journal of the Costume Society of America, Dress. Volume 39; no. 1 (May 2013): 1-24.

11“Work of Art: Egungun Masquerade Costume.”

12Hammonds House is a historical site and an Atlanta museum of African American and African Art.

13Sistagraphy is an organization created on July 17, 1993 by nine African American female photographers who assembled in order to discuss ways to creatively express themselves through photographic arts.

14Shuster, Robert. “The Radial Radical: Sculptor Chakaia Booker Never Tires of Tires, Village Voice, March 2009, and

15Crow, Kelly. “The Michelin Woman: In a Pair of Exhibitions, Chakaia Booker Turns Tires into Art,” Wall Street Journal, July 2008, and

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Spring 2014: Reinventing Liberal Education