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The Art(s) of Teaching: UMS Mellon Faculty Institute on Arts Academic Integration

at the inaugural faculty institute
Photo: At the inaugural Faculty Institute.

How can a symphony inform a course in environmental science? What can a dance teach us about literature? How might we use a play to discuss history, psychology, or political science? In an innovative new program for faculty at the University of Michigan’s College of Literature, Sciences, and the Arts, UMS is tackling those questions in order to create exciting new learning opportunities for U-M undergraduate students.

The UMS Mellon Faculty Institute on Arts Academic Integration is one of the signature programs of our UMS Mellon Initiative, a three-year pilot funded by the Andrew W. Mellon foundation to bring UMS’s performances and arts-integrative learning strategies into undergraduate classrooms across the curriculum at the University of Michigan. An inaugural cohort of fifteen faculty fellows is engaging in a two year process that will culminate in the 2015-2016 academic year with the creation of new or substantially revised courses in their home disciplines that incorporate UMS performances and/or performing arts learning strategies.

The members of our first class of UMS Mellon Faculty Fellows are:

  • Kelly Askew: Associate Professor, Anthropology and Afro-American and African Studies
  • Ruth Caston: Assistant Professor, Classical Studies
  • Jacqueline Courteau: Lecturer and Academic Adviser, Program in the Environment
  • Deirdre de la Cruz: Assistant Professor, Asian Languages and Cultures and History
  • Scott Ellsworth: Lecturer, Afro-American and African Studies
  • Jeffrey Evans: Associate Professor of Psychology and Faculty Counselor, Residential College, and Adjunct Associate Professor of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, the Medical School
  • Linda Gregerson: Professor, English Language and Literature
  • Colin Gunckel: Assistant Professor, American Culture and Screen Arts and Cultures
  • Petra Kuppers: Professor, English Languages and Literatures, Women’s Studies, Art and Theatre
  • Farina Mir: Associate Professor, History and Director, Center for South Asian Studies)
  • Adela Pinch: Professor, English and Women’s Studies
  • Colleen Seifert: Professor, Psychology
  • Carol Tell: Director, Lloyd Hall Scholars Program, and Lecturer, Sweetland Writing Center
  • Cody Walker: Lecturer, English Language and Literature

We launched the program in May with a two-day intensive of workshops and talks that I co-facilitated with Marjorie Horton, the Assistant Dean of Undergraduate Education in the College of Literature, Sciences, and the Arts (LSA). The intensive was designed to create a strong sense of community among the Faculty Fellows and to provide them with strategies and specific examples from experienced arts educators to inspire their own course development process.

The event included:

  • A keynote and workshop on arts and civic dialogue with Michael Rohd, Assistant Professor of Theatre at Northwestern University and the Director of the Center for Performance and Civic Practice.
  • A roundtable discussion on arts-integrative teaching with University of Michigan faculty.
  • A workshop on incorporating live performance into the classroom across disciplines with Aaron Shackelford, the Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at Carolina Performing Arts at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
  • A workshop on incorporating movement into the classroom with Clare Croft, Assistant Professor of Dance at U-M.

Fellow Ruth Caston wrote of her experience at the intensive: “I went in rather naively expecting that I would learn about how to incorporate several performances from the UMS schedule into my syllabus. Instead you exposed us to some amazing arts instructors who shared ways to teach and interpret ‘big ideas’ through the lens of music and movement. I found it incredibly interesting and inspiring, and it has given me new ways to think about how I went to integrate the arts throughout the semester, rather than at a few set junctures.”

Fellow Jacqueline Courteau added: “I am inspired to think about how I can incorporate the performing arts in any number of ways, and I am really looking forward to working with you over the course of the coming two years. I am eager to continue interacting with such a distinguished, interesting, and thoughtful group of colleagues. . I feel incredibly lucky and grateful to have been included in this group.”

Watch this video to get an inside look at the May intensive and hear more from our Faculty Fellows and guest speakers:

Throughout this academic year, UMS will be collaborating with a number of units on campus to craft a series of course-development seminars and workshops on different arts disciplines that support the Faculty Fellows as they ready their courses for the 2015-2016 year. Our fellows will also be getting an inside look at our season-planning process, so that they are able to take full advantage of our programming in music, theatre, and dance in their classrooms.

Interested in learning more? Starting in January, we will be accepting applications for the second cohort of UMS Mellon Faculty Fellows, for classes to be taught during the 2016-2017 academic year. Watch for application forms and detailed program information on

Performing Objects: Beyond Puppetry

Prelude to the Afternoon of a Foehn, Kiss & Cry, and Cinderella productions
Examples of object performance abound in our 2014-2015 season. From left to right, Prelude to the Afternoon of a Foehn, Kiss & Cry, and Cinderella. Photos courtesy of the artists.

A plastic bag caught in the wind. Two hands intertwined in a miniature embrace. A doll-like mask covering a dancer’s face.

Each of these performing objects will make an appearance on a UMS stage this season.

But what exactly are “performing objects”? Are they puppets? Or something else?

In the 1980s, puppet scholar Frank Proschan defined “performing objects” as “material images of humans, animals or spirits that are created, displayed, or manipulated in narrative or dramatic performance.” By design, this is an exceedingly broad umbrella term; performing objects include but exceed traditional definitions of puppetry, which are themselves expanding. As scholar Claudia Orenstein describes it, “When we say ‘puppet’ we are no longer speaking exclusively of the figurative, crafted characters dangled from strings, gloved on hands, or attached to rods that the word had previously evoked: the Punch, Guignol, Howdy Doody, Lamb Chop, Kukla and Kermit characters of our childhoods.”

Performing objects multiply the physical, psychological and emotional possibilities of what can be done on stage. Objects have movement capacities that humans do not possess; though objects can be anthropomorphized and ascribed humanlike emotional qualities, they are often used to push the boundaries of what is acceptable or tasteful, in ways that would be more difficult for audiences to accept with a human performer.

Last season, UMS audiences saw three masterful performances of puppetry. The UK’s Blind Summit created both the series of life-size puppets representing the title character in Complicite’s Shun-kin and the pint-size Biblical imp Moses in The Table; though these puppets were very different in appearance and in the role they played in each production, all were created in the bunraku tradition from Japan, which utilizes three puppeteers to operate each puppet. Our audiences were also able to see the work of another modern puppet innovator, South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company, in our National Theatre Live broadcast of War Horse. Their massive, startlingly beautiful and emotionally resonant horse puppets for that piece are critical to the impact of that World War I tale, which has played to great acclaim worldwide.

This season builds on those experiences and provides several rich examples of “performing objects” in Kiss & Cry, Prelude to the Afternoon of a Foehn, and Cinderella, where objects take on a degree of humanity, and human bodies and body parts are rendered as objects.

Behind the scenes with Kiss & Cry:

In Kiss & Cry hands, anatomized in close-up on projected film images, stand in for the whole person; the work’s dramatization of romantic entanglements takes on a level of revelatory strangeness while still maintaining the intimacy of genuine human contact. In Lyon Opera Ballet’s Cinderella, the traditional romance of the fairy tale and Prokofiev’s score are undercut and made humorous by the prominent use of toys on stage. Additionally, the dancers themselves are depicted as toys: faces covered in doll-like masks, they also move with the articulated stiffness of dolls.

A selection from the performance of Prelude to the Afternoon of a Foehn:

In Prelude to the Afternoon of a Foehn, everyday plastic shopping bags dance their own kind of ballet, manipulated by a single human performer and a series of electric fans. Tied to mimic the human form, reminiscent of balloon animals in a variety of bold colors, the bags beautifully illustrate Debussy’s score and complicate our notions of these objects as trash.

Performing objects mimic, illuminate, and make strange both the human form and human experience. Using a variety of materials, from the elevated to the everyday, the artists creating these works invite us to see the world in new and marvelous ways.

Have questions for Shannon? Ask them in the comments below.