Professors on the importance of integrating the arts into life and work

Six professors on a videoconference
A virtual discussion with Penn faculty about pursuing both their artistic and academic interests was held by the Kelly Writers House for Homecoming, featuring (left-right, top-bottom) English Professors Al Filreis, Simone White, Herman Beavers, and History Professor Firoozeh Kashani-Sabet from the School of Arts & Sciences, and Fine Arts Professors Ken Lum and Sharon Hayes from the Stuart Weitzman School of Design. 

While there are some challenges, universities provide an environment for faculty to pursue both their artistic creativity and academic scholarship and to encourage their students to as well, Penn professors said in a discussion Monday afternoon.

English Professor Al Filreis, faculty director of Kelly Writers House, led the discussion among five Penn professors in the School of Arts & Sciences and Stuart Weitzman School of Design: Herman Beavers, professor of English and Africana studies, a poet and author who works in the field of African American literature and culture; Sharon Hayes, professor of fine arts, a visual artist whose primary medium is performance; Ken Lum, professor and chair of the Fine Arts Department, known for his public art installations; Firoozeh Kashani-Sabet, professor of history, focused on Iran and the Middle East; and Simone White, assistant professor of English, a poet who focuses on the experiences of African Americans, especially Black women.

The hour-plus virtual discussion, attended by more than 150 people, kicked off Penn Alumni’s weeklong virtual Homecoming 2020 celebration. Because the traditional gathering was not possible due to the pandemic restrictions, public programming is scheduled through Saturday.

Two questions posed by Filreis during the wide-ranging discussion addressed the barriers and opportunities for scholar-artists at universities.

Is there, institutionally or structurally, a barrier to being a member of the faculty who is both a scholar and an artist? What gets in the way? 

Beavers: The big disadvantage is time. They literally call it a tenure clock, and it is ticking. I will say in my first three or four years at Penn I really contemplated stopping writing poetry. It just seemed insurmountable to get past the notion that as an African American professor, I’d be jagging around writing poetry when I was supposed to be writing my book. I heard that voice in my head and I started to ignore it, but that didn’t happen until after I got tenure.

Hayes: I think one of the strongest barriers are institutional norms. Those are norms that regulate boundaries: A class begins here, a class ends there; you have 14 weeks of courses across a semester, two semesters a year. These are all norms that can impact how our knowledge or understanding materializes and is produced. Even those that regulate the boundaries between our teaching and our service and our scholarship are somewhat specious and create a barrier to a more open, generated sense of what forms do we need in order to execute our research, our training, our teaching, and to have relationships between those practices.

Kashani-Sabet: I was told when my novel came out that, well, it is really nice, but it’s not going to ‘count.’ We produce these works not for anything having to ‘count.’ We pursue these kind of endeavors because there is some greater desire. Should this be weighed? Does that matter? One thing I feel is really important is that for me, when I define my identity, I have always said that I’m an intellectual and a social critic. And, so, I don’t see these rigid disciplinary boundaries. I get frustrated when within the university structure these types of impositions are placed because I see myself as someone who is here to think. But on the other hand, we do also have many opportunities to express our art.

Lum: I’ve worked at a number of universities and I’ve been fortunate enough never to encounter hindrances in terms of promotion. Why? Generally, the feedback I get is, wow, great, you have a great exhibition record but even better you have this publication record. The exhibition record was seen as secondary: that was just the cherry on top. The real record, even though I am an artist, was the publishing record. Even here at Penn when I applied for a faculty research grant, the language is not tailored for the artist. It is tailored for social science. I have to do acrobatic feats to twist my project to conform to language and expectations for the grant.

White: I think I have the best academic job in the country for a poet. This job is unlike, structurally, any other job in an English department for a creative writer. I am an assistant professor who is 48 years old, because I had a law career before I had this job. I’m also a single parent. I got hired at Penn with the understanding that I’m all these things. I was the person who might be able to push through the door of tenure with the kind of record an English department expects to have publishing as scholars. I really count myself fortunate that I don’t think that much about barriers. I don’t think of barriers so much as constraints on my ability to grow my practice as an artist. I can grow as a scholar all I want, but there might be time constraints on my capacity to grow as an artist into areas that other writers who aren’t working teaching, who are primarily focused on their creative output.

What has been a constructive, advantageous aspect of being a scholar-artist?

Beavers: I feel fortunate, blessed even, that I came to Penn, which is in Philadelphia, which is a city where lots of stuff bubbles up from the ground and you can get swept up in it. That’s one of the things I love about the Philadelphia art scene. More and more, people want me to be involved in the conversation because I do both poetry and scholarship. One of the things I work on is jazz, and being asked to be part of those conversations is really advantageous. I used to think Penn was a barrier to that, but it actually is not. The great thing is that I get to moderate discussions with jazz musicians on the subject of storytelling, and then I get to turn around and think about how that impacts my own creative practice.

Hayes. What I find in terms of my collaborations at Penn, I think of them as trans-disciplinary, that touch across disciplines, really to engage with the necessary kind of questions, tactics, and methodologies that can be deployed to open up a set of questions, with a sense of urgency. There’s a whole heterogenous set of methodologies and tactics that scholars across the campus employ. So, when it works, those are amazing kind of openings for me. I often arrive at a table and think, ‘How am I a part of this collaboration?’ It is not with a worn path, let’s say. So, it means that we can construct what contributions art might make.

Kashani-Sabet: The greatest advantage is the privilege of being a scholar. It’s a privilege to have the opportunity to spend your life reading and writing. Whatever the medium, we are so lucky to be able to pursue these interests. I said in my last comment how my fiction makes me a better historian. Now I want to say the reverse, which is I am working on a second novel that takes place in Iran at a particular historical moment. My knowledge of that history, having been able to read newspapers from that era, enabled me to imagine things that I would not have been able to imagine. It’s just having the opportunity to be in an environment where writing is encouraged, reading is encouraged, where we are being paid to do these things. It is such good fortune. Sometimes I wake up in the morning and pinch myself thinking this is really an extraordinary privilege. And to be able to say things relatively freely. My whole life was overturned as a result of a political upheaval, and watching the fight for freedom of expression unfold. I get chills even talking about it, the ability, the opportunity, and the space, to be able to push the boundaries and ask the tough questions.

Lum: One of biggest advantage is the resources: the libraries, the breadth of interest of an amazingly strong faculty across the University. These are the resources I take advantage of and I find indispensable in the courses I teach. I’m the co-founder of Monument Lab, and I don’t think that Monument Lab could have come about if I had not been in a place of higher learning.

White: I think of teaching as one of the primary factors I have, because my time is super limited, to think about what I’m going to think about, and retrospectively to think about what I’ve already learned. Teaching this course on W.E.B. Du Bois has reminded me about things I had forgotten about Black politics and revisit and think about what I need to bring to my undergraduates, and that’s good stuff. I love teaching. I feel good about it.