Many institutions, including my own, include creative activity from art, music, theatre and other disciplines as part of undergraduate student research. Given the creative nature and output of these disciplines, what can this look like?
A recent discussion on the Council on Undergraduate Research Member Forum addressed this very question. Most participants seemed to agree that creative output was radically different from more “traditional” research. They also agreed that under the rubric of undergraduate research, it must go beyond the performance or the production of art. Iain Crawford, Shirley Huston-Findley, Peter Mowrey, and Kitty McManus Zurko argue that there are aspects of research undertaken by students in the fine arts that mirror undergraduate research at large, including mentorship by a faculty member and the development of a research question. In addition, students such as those in theatre “apply their research in a laboratory setting–in this case, on stage–and test their hypothesis through artistic engagement. . . . The result for most majors is a keen awareness of the historical, theoretical, and analytical components necessary for artists to move from investigation to application” (24). Crawford et al apply the language commonly associated with STEM-based research, the language of experimentation, to performance.
Crawford et al also link the inquiry-based nature of undergraduate research to music performance: “Student performers are expected to have undertaken a thorough review of literature (written and musical) and significant research into historical context, style, and performance practice prior to (and during) the preparation of their culminating recitals. . . . Some of this research will make it into their required accompanying documents, which usually take the form of extended program notes addressing selected aspects of the recital program for a theoretical and/or musicological perspective” (28). While all students may be required to undertake a recital as part of their music major, those involved in undergraduate research undertake additional work that grounds and contextualizes the performance.
In both cases, creative activity as undergraduate research represents something more. It is a systematic and deliberate approach to performance and art, which is at the heart of the research process. The result differs from more traditional research in that its evaluation may be more subjective. Yet, because the student engages in the major parts of the research process, they receive the same benefits from the high impact practice as their counterparts in other disciplines. At the same time, students engaged in creative activity also produce products that parallel that of other disciplines, such as artist statements and program notes for recitals, both of which reflect “a serious review of literature, a high degree of critical thinking, experimentation, thorough evaluation of alternatives, creativity and great attention to detail” (Crawford et al, 26).
Crawford, Iain et al. “Undergraduate Research in the Fine Arts at the College of Wooster.” Creative Inquiry in the Arts and Humanities: Models of Undergraduate Research. Eds. Naomi Yavneh Klos, Jenny Olin Shanahan, and Gregory Young. Washington, DC: Council on Undergraduate Research, 23-32.