An Ongoing Conversation: Who is American Today?
Written by Chris Pasion, graduate assistant to The Graduate School.
Flavia Bastos, Ph.D., a professor is visual arts education in the College of Design, Art, Architecture, and Planning, is changing the way high school students perceive themselves by putting one powerful tool in their hands: a phone.
Flavia’s Who is American Today? research project investigates how high school students define the American identity and what they consider an “American” to be. One would generally think this sort of topic would be covered in a high school social studies class, but Flavia is challenging students to express their perspective in the setting of an art classroom. The project started in 2017 with a cohort of students at Utah’s Provo High School, where her research partner, James Rees, MFA, is an art teacher.
Flavia and James’ project has two key goals: (1) to engage high school students in critical thinking and dialogue about the American identity and (2) to challenge their students’ preconceived notions on art and how it can be made. Students were prompted to make a 2-3-minute video responding to a series of questions asking them to consider what they see as an American citizen today, what that person represents, and whether or not they see themselves as aligning with that representation.
The students’ responses to the questions were incredibly wide-ranging; many students pulled from their own personal life experiences, such as their family and heritage, to express themselves, while others examined greater societal ideas to pinpoint American identity. The tools they used to create these videos (i.e. their phones and laptops) were crucial. These technologies are very accessible, as they are an integral part of their everyday lives and allow for information to be easily and widely spread. "Their use of technology,” Flavia says, “is framed as a consumer, rather than a prosumer or creator.” Challenging students to use their tech as a tool for creation – rather than passive consumption – of content transformed how they treated something they use every day.
Flavia says the mission of the project is to “unleash the social imagination through art, through education, through conversation, to sustain the democratic values of respecting each other’s position, learning to work together, finding common ground, negotiating issues, and moving forward.” With high school students being the future of the nation (as well as the next members of society to become voting age), they must be encouraged to critically listen and engage with each other on complex issues. This project gives them a voice and the agency to let it be heard, while also encouraging them to hear from the perspectives of others.
One challenge that arose in this project was getting the students to see what they were doing as art. “High school students think that art is drawing and painting and sculpture,” Flavia says, “which is why there was confusion and pushback when the students were presented with this project in their art class.” Contemporary artist JR, whose own work is brimming with relevant social commentary, partnered with Flavia to print large-scale photos of each student to be displayed at exhibitions alongside the videos they created. The performative approach of hosting the students’ work in a gallery changed how they (as well as their families) perceived the project and was critical in getting them to see it as creating works of art.
Flavia and James have taken this project around the nation in the form of exhibitions and conferences (James even took the project abroad to a conference in Chile); it turns out that many of the overarching themes of identity are relevant everywhere, regardless of state or international borders. After sending two separate cohorts of students through the project in Utah, Flavia is bringing the project to Ohio with a local cohort, as well as opening the project to any instructors in the country who might see this as a valuable subject to tackle with their own students.
Graduate research assistants have been instrumental in developing this project into what it is today. From launching the project's website to developing criteria with which to evaluate the students' responses, graduate research assistants have provided vital support to the project. They also provide another frame of reference (one that is not too far removed from that of a high schooler) on what works for the project and ways that it can be improved to enhance its effectiveness. On collaborating with her graduate students, Flavia says "that kind of mentorship is fascinating and humbling, because more people offer more complex perspectives and I really like for my research assistants to have a voice.”
In a world of standardized testing and the decline of the arts in high schools, this project provides high schoolers with a radical shift in thinking. “Nobody is going to overcome adversity if they can’t imagine that something else could be,” Flavia says. “The place where you imagine alternatives is in art or in literature. You imagine that your reality doesn’t have to be the only reality, that there may be pathways to something different.”
Learn more about Who is American Today? and see the students' projects at whoisamerican.com.