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Engaging with Art: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

Since 2012, when the Mellon Foundation first began funding positions at UMMA whose main task is working with university classes, UMMA has made engagement with classes that address issues such as race, class, and gender a central priority of our contribution to university learning. 

Class visit to UMMA's Study Center for Works on PaperAs the University of Michigan nears the end of the first year of its five-year Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DE&I) initiative, UMMA wanted both to evaluate and share its own contributions to undergraduate learning in these areas.

In many respects, UMMA has placed itself on the leading edge of these campus efforts. In any given semester, between one third and one half of all classes visiting UMMA address DE&I-related topics. In order to evaluate UMMA’s contributions to the DE&I initiative beyond these numbers, however, we decided to survey students in several classes about their study room experiences. The responses show that students find UMMA’s contributions to the DE&I initiative to be engaging and substantial. Students identified the selection of art and especially the teaching style of UMMA staff as key ingredients of their experience.

UMMA practices a pedagogy of engaged learning that works especially well for addressing topics of diversity, equity, and inclusion. We primarily ask students questions that get them to look closely, analyze what they are seeing, and make connections to the themes being considered in their class. UMMA’s sessions for DE&I-related classes encourage students to think critically about the ways different groups of people have been represented and are represented in visual culture.

Numerous students remarked in the survey that this teaching approach enabled students to bring their own personal experiences and their knowledge from class to the discussion. One student in Cecilia Morales’s class, Communities, Borders, Identities, wrote, “The leader did a great job of asking the class questions and allowing us to connect the dots about the meanings of the art and connections to topics in class.” Dana Nichols, the instructor for one of the classes, commented, “While I certainly knew [my students] were learning a great deal about visual culture and American history, you never really know exactly what they're making of everything. It was a pleasure to hear them bring those ideas together into insightful and thoughtful comments about the artwork.”

Students appreciated the fact that the study room sessions did not shy away from addressing how difficult and painful such issues can be. In the session for the class Africa and Its Diaspora, for instance, the class looked at objects from the past that propagated hurtful stereotypes about African-Americans and at art by black artists who are responding directly against those stereotypes. One student remarked, “I really liked that as a class we didn’t shy away from any intense topics and the facilitator was also really willing to go there with us.” Another student elaborated, writing, “The artifacts that we saw teach about the dark past of race science and popular perceptions of African-Americans, as well as celebrate the history and art made by people in the black community actively fighting against these harmful stereotypes. I think this balance of unedited history and recognition of the positive work and commentary of these artists is a good way to start a conversation on diversity, equity, and inclusion and offers important insight into how to approach this type of initiative.”

The results from the survey suggest that from the perspective of students UMMA is making substantive and powerful contributions to student learning and experiences. Asked to evaluate how this kind of study room session helps students engage with topics related to diversity, equity, and inclusion, one student summed up their remarks by saying, “It creates a safe space to talk about these topics. Using art is also a really interesting form to talk about these topics because it makes you really think about diversity, equity, and inclusion and how it can shape all forms of our life including art and art can help create diversity, equity, and inclusion.”