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Transcending academic silos through the arts

by Hilary Stunda

Who says a visual artist can’t lend their expertise to science? And vice versa? The University of Arizona Graduate College has a long-standing tradition of interdisciplinary degrees, where cohorts of faculty assemble and develop Graduate Interdisciplinary Programs (GIDP) whose topics range from Indigenous Food-Energy-and Water Systems to Entomology & Insect Science.

As the need for solutions to global challenges grows, interdisciplinary graduate degrees are increasingly important. Launched last year, Applied Intercultural Arts Research (AIAR) is the newest GIDP and the first to focus on collaborations with the College of Fine Arts. The program celebrates the value intercultural arts research provides to problem-solving in a wide range of disciplines and contexts.

Photo of Jennie Gubner

Dr. Jennie Gubner

This past January, PhD ethnomusicologist, violinist, and visual ethnographer, Dr. Jennie Gubner joined the University of Arizona to Chair this new program. AIAR is housed with the other GIDPs in the Graduate College and operates in partnership with six other colleges: Fine Arts, Education, Humanities, Public Health, Science, and Social and Behavioral Sciences. In addition to her post as Chair, Gubner also serves as Assistant Professor of Music in the Fred Fox School of Music, teaching undergraduate and graduate ethnomusicology courses.

Gubner grew up in the Pacific Northwest informed by an education rooted in experiential learning. By the time she graduated from Pitzer College with a self-designed interdisciplinary BA in International and Intercultural Studies through Languages and Music, she was on her way to Buenos Aires with her violin to research tango culture.

That seminal experience has informed her interdisciplinary research ever since: Latin American popular music. Intergenerational participatory music scenes. Music, dementia and creative aging. Ethnomusicological filmmaking. Her research and films have been published and shared in leading international ethnomusicology, humanities, and health sciences journals and conferences.

Gubner explains that students in the AIAR program develop expertise in arts alongside, and in dialogue with, a secondary area of study of their choice.

“You might be a dancer interested in public health, or a visual artist interested in biology, or a musician hoping to work in health care systems or archives,” she said. “Similarly, you might be an architect, nurse, or educator wanting to integrate applied arts into your career by minoring in AIAR. All of these combinations are possible through our program.”

It’s a degree that allows the student to carve out a path of their own.

Ask a question about the program | Visit the AIAR website | Dr. Jennie Gubner’s bio | Rebecca Thompson

Q&A with Ethnomusicologist Dr. Jennie Gubner

Tell us about your background and how it brought you to your new post as Chair of the AIAR program.

When I graduated from college, I received a year-long Thomas J. Watson Fellowship to conduct independent, experiential research on tango music culture across eight different countries. My violin became my business card into relationships around the world. I realized that year that if you show up somewhere with a violin and time, eventually musicians will find you and start sharing with you their music and their stories. Later, I added filmmaking to my ethnographic research toolkit after becoming frustrated at how global stereotypes of tango as a hyper-sexualized dance form were overshadowing the community-based music scenes where I was living and conducting fieldwork. Those stories and experiences have shaped how I research, teach, perform, write about, film, and understand the world.

How did the culture of tango bars become the focus of your research?

These grassroots neighborhood music scenes were highly intergenerational – full of incredible musicians in their 70s and 80s – which eventually got me interested in working with older adults. I later realized that if I could use film to diversify narratives of tango away from damaging stereotypes, I could also use film as a powerful tool to destigmatize dementia and promote stories about creative aging through music and intergenerational connections. Music, ethnographic writing, and filmmaking have given me tools through which to know, and share knowledge about the world in different ways.

How have interdisciplinary collaborations been important to your own research?

At Indiana University, I developed a course to teach college students to engage with adults living with dementia through musical engagement and filmmaking. The success of that course led me to be recruited to the UCSF Division of Geriatrics to as part of a year-long research study about music and dementia caregiving relationships in San Francisco. As part of that inter-professional team, I conducted in-home research visits across the city, and learned to write health sciences journal articles and conference presentations in a completely new disciplinary language. These kinds of interdisciplinary projects are what I am excited to promote in the AIAR program, because if we don’t learn to talk to each other and educate one another about different approaches to research, we miss many opportunities for collaborative learning. In August 2019 I joined the Global Brain Health Institute as an Atlantic Fellow for Equity in Brain Health at UCSF. To be an ethnomusicologist researching in one of the world’s leading Neurology research centers alongside a global cohort of interdisciplinary scholars, clinicians, and artists all interested in dementia took my interdisciplinary expectations to a new level. As the Chair of AIAR, I look forward to helping students build collaborative interdisciplinary research relationships across campus, as well as finding creative and innovative ways through which to communicate their research findings to diverse audiences.

Would you say the essence of the AIAR program is exploring innovative research?

One of the goals of this program is to prepare graduate students with the skills to conduct critical intercultural research at the intersections of arts and their other areas of interest. Another is to give students the training needed to pursue innovative interdisciplinary careers both within and beyond the walls of academia. Ultimately, I see our program as a way to think about how arts research can be used to create knowledge that serves the public good. Whether working in a hospital, an indigenous community, or a school, learning to think about the arts through applied intercultural frames opens possibilities for productive collaboration. Just the other day I spoke with a professor from Biosystems Engineering about the potential to collaborate with AIAR on a project using visual arts to communicate complex concepts in a biology textbook. There are so many creative ways that arts can collaborate with and enrich other fields. For me, AIAR is an opportunity to celebrate the kind of knowledge that emerges at the intersection of multiple disciplinary and cultural lenses.

How does the medical world view your research?

I am inspired at the amount of interest I have felt from the medical communities with whom I have worked about integrating arts-based programs and embracing arts-based approaches to research. There are so many productive ways the arts can be used in the medical sphere. Developing ethnomusicology courses that nursing students, pre-med students, neuroscientists, anthropologists, musicians, health policy makers, etc. can take has the capacity to help train a new generation of citizens and health sciences practitioners to understand creativity and artistic practice as integral tools and resources for these fields.

What type of student is the best fit for the AIAR Program?

We invite applications from all students from the arts or other fields who are excited to explore the intersections of their multiple scholarly and artistic interests. This could be students trained in classical music, dance, film, theater, or visual arts who are interested in public health, medicine, anthropology, global studies, museum or archives studies, education, psychology, environmental science, or students from those fields interested in pursuing a deeper knowledge of the arts. We have an inspirational group of affiliated faculty who helped create this program who are eager to support students from all kinds of backgrounds. Our diversity is our strength and we would be delighted to speak with potential students about how their career goals and research interests might fit with our program.

Where do you hope your students take their degrees?

I look forward to seeing my AIAR students going on to work as professors and researchers in higher education as well as developing innovative career paths in museums, schools, non-profit organizations, hospitals, clinics, archives and libraries, and private/public arts organizations. In order to do this, we must study not only how to write great research papers, but also how to write collaborative grants, how to communicate our ideas beyond academic settings, and how to build and evaluate projects that are sustainable, ethical, and meaningful to communities with whom we work.

What does your research assistant / artist Rebecca Thompson add to the vision for the program?

Working with Rebecca has been wonderful. Her interests in visual art and health dovetail well with my own research interests in music and healthy aging. Working with students with different skill sets and perspectives about the arts is exciting. It pushes you outside of your comfort zone to think about possibilities that move beyond the tropes of your own discipline. I am inspired by Rebecca’s current collaboration with a neuroscientist, Annalysa Kelly Lovos, to bring video footage from the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum into the Banner Cancer Center. Rebecca and Annalysa are both University Fellows who were paired through a new science and art initiative to increase interdisciplinary research at the graduate level. Initially Rebecca was planning to work only in visual art, but after being introduced to ethnomusicology she became interested in acoustic research and the impact sound makes on health and wellbeing. This added another sensory layer to their project. I think this mixed-method research and collaboration exemplifies the potential of what students can gain by studying applied intercultural arts research., learning new perspectives and thinking about how this knowledge can be used to have a meaningful impact on a community.

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