STILLPOINT Archive: last updated 12/05/2013

Arts, Liberated

By Rini Cobbey '96

Rini Cobbey with student

My best friend in my first year of college was an art major who went on to excel in medical school. One of my best friends at my job today is a biology professor who writes beautiful poetry. Some of the best students I’ve taught and mentored through the Communication Arts major at Gordon recall as fondly (and effectively) their sociology and philosophy courses as they do our film and public relations curriculum. These are creative, intelligent, curious, professionally successful, culturally influential, and liberal- arts-educated people.

Creativity is collaboration and connection. It’s always some kind of newness in tension with some measure of familiarity: reshaping existing materials, affecting emotion and understanding through perspective. A liberal arts education nurtures lifelong creativity because it emphasizes learning and interacting across categories, building bridges that elevate participants above the limitations of too close or tight a view of the world.

No one in the “real world” after college is just a chemist or economist or filmmaker or journalist or teacher. We are these professions in intertwining, relational, mutually influential ways.

Ask successful, professional—most importantly, creative— filmmakers what to do to be like them, and they will say “read, read, read” as often as they say “write, shoot, edit.” A liberal arts education, in its dual emphases on classical knowledge and skills and on interdisciplinary learning, enables artists to make better art because they have an understanding of the art that has come before, the anatomy that is below the skin of the subject, and the culture in which their creative work participates. That culture is economics, chemistry, mythology, language . . .

LabA tactile, visual artist will sculpt or draw the human form with more truth and insight if he is familiar with how muscle, bone, and sinew that we don’t see directly provide shape and movement for what we do see, and for what the artist’s work helps us to see in creative ways. A CEO will provide more effective and redemptive leadership in the economy if she is familiar with the psychology of how humans make decisions as well as the history of how the society who make up her customers has been shaped by technology, biologic environment, and popular and religious stories. No one in the “real world” after college is just a chemist or economist or filmmaker or journalist or teacher. We are these professions in intertwining, relational, mutually influential ways. We are also storytelling and story-consuming creatures, and our work, no matter the discipline, thrives in these overlapping realms that connect and distinguish and challenge us.

In Communication Arts at Gordon, our curriculum emphasizes visual storytelling. There’s plenty of need for in-depth technique, technology, and other discipline-specific study and practice, but ultimately the most stimulating, entertaining, persuasive, or informational narrative artifact—in fiction film, advertising, or documentary—depends on acuity in navigating cultural context as well as trade-specific tricks. Imagine a journalist who knows all about inverted pyramids and AP style and little to nothing about our political system or environmental science (or how to find and interpret and apply knowledge about these topics) writing a series about the EPA. Or a filmmaker who knows the latest digital camera and editing suite inside and out but nothing about astronomy or computer science (or how to find and collaborate with people who do know about these topics) making a film about gravity and space travel. Our liberal arts approach is designed not just to expose students to information across disciplines, but also to foster in them an appreciation and skills for continuing to learn throughout their lives, for asking questions, making connections, discovering information.

My academic field arguably has changed more dramatically than many other realms of knowledge, theory, and practice in the past 100 years—even just in my 12 years of teaching “media studies” at Gordon. Among other courses, I teach media criticism and visual storytelling as applied to a variety of media and genres. Colleagues across campus in every major adjust pedagogy in response to 2001’s Wikipedia, 2005’s YouTube, 2006’s Twitter, and 2007’s iPhone. But these truly revolutionary modes of communicating and being human in community transform my very subject, vocabulary, theory, and practice.

But I, and so many of my colleagues, were educated in the liberal arts and so approach an ever-dynamic world and our individual content specialties with knowledge of what remains the same and fundamental even as we creatively and critically engage the classics alongside what is new.

There is nothing new under the sun, of the making of books there is no end, and yet somehow also there is creativity and entropy. We are prepared to ask, “How does this fit in the flow of ways that humans understand who and why we are?” and “What are the costs and benefits of these choices?” and “What is beautiful and true in this story?” These questions, and the complicated, productive conversations that ensue, thrive in the light of the liberal arts, the knowledge and enjoyment of context, and interdisciplinary and classic education.

Rini Cobbey, Ph.D., is an associate professor of communication arts, and department chair. She reports that prospective students and their parents often ask her about the value of a liberal arts education.


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The Promise of Religious Liberal Arts Colleges | Thomas A. (Tal) Howard

Rich Soil for New and Noble Ventures | Carter Crockett

Leadership and the Liberal Arts | D. Michael Lindsay