Imagining Difference: Arts-Based Methods and Study Abroad
By Karen Rodríguez

This article discusses arts-based methodologies as an option for study abroad pedagogy. It argues that this sort of creative and critical approach can afford students new ways of seeing, processing, expressing, and ultimately, knowing, which all get at the critical thinking goals espoused by international educators. After introducing arts-based methods, it examines why these approaches might be particularly well-suited to this student generation and to study abroad, and then briefly mentions several examples of how these methods have been used at CIEE’s Study Center in Guanajuato, Mexico. The article suggests that incorporating such methods can greatly enrich current pedagogical approaches in study abroad.

One of the fundamental challenges in international education is to cultivate students’ awareness of difference in a way that does not blanket-highlight everything in US-Other terms that tend towards generalizations and oppositions. Such an experience of difference relegates each culture to its respective corner instead of pulling everything into dialogue and opening up room for deeper learning. How can we get students to both see and embrace more nuanced levels of difference? Working in a middle-class university city in Mexico, our program has struggled at both extremes – we have searched for ways to keep difference in view when some of the material aspects of daily life are not so exotic in appearance, and we have also worked to highlight underlying human similarities when values differences loom large in students’ experiences.

This article discusses how an arts-based approach can enhance more traditional programming strategies, examining how creativity and imagination serve as important pedagogical tools in our quest to get students engaging with difference in critical and empathic ways. Drawing on examples from CIEE’s program in Guanajuato, Mexico, it argues that experimenting with new methods may pull students to new understandings of encounters with difference.

Arts-based methods Arts-based methods use the arts as conceptual tools and modes of inquiry to understand the self, the other, and social realities. Researchers who apply these methods posit that approaching the other through less common methods allows us to transcend our closed ways of looking and thinking, thus breaking us out of stale methodological/epistemological paradigms. These approaches are largely grounded in the work of educators such as Barone, Greene and Eisner, among others, and tend to be used in teacher-training and in the study of classroom cultures. Eisner (2004) even goes so far as to argue that we should prepare students as if they are artists, by which we mean individuals who have developed the ideas, the sensibilities, the skills and the imagination to create work that is well proportioned, skillfully executed, and imaginative, regardless of the domain in which an individual works. The highest accolade we can confer upon someone is to say that he or she is an artist whether as a carpenter or a surgeon, a cook or an engineer, a physicist or a teacher.

This move towards the artistic has been paralleled in the social sciences, where the crisis of representation has also led researchers to seek out new methods for understanding and communicating qualitative knowledge about cultural others. Such arts-based approaches have been referred to as “artful-science” (Ivan Brady), “scholARTistry” (Lorri Neilsen), and “sensuous scholarship” (Paul Stoller). What these methods of inquiry share is a reliance upon the imagination, emotion, and reflexivity to expand our understandings of cultural others. They subscribe to Maxine Greene’s assertion that, “..of all of our cognitive capacities, imagination is the one that permits us to give credence to alternative realities, (1995: p. 3)” which is one of study abroad’s essential goals.

Possibilities for Millenials abroad What possibilities do arts-based methods offer for this particular generation of students and for the study abroad sojourner in general?

Arts-based methods fit the Millenial generation rather well for several reasons. First, this generation is exceedingly visual. Indeed, the visual pervades everyone’s existence as we are bombarded by images through mass media and the advent of new technologies. In the classroom, correspondingly, Richards (2006, p. 38-39) notes: “ …teachers recognize that drawing pictures, photography, and videotaping events are valuable intervention strategies that encourage students to make deeper personal connections with the content of their writing initiatives” and I would add, with their experiences. An arts-based pedagogy thus draws on this way-of-knowing to go beyond simply illustrating a lecture to working with visual literacy and to complicating the taken-for-granted nature of images we are presented with. The applications for study abroad are tremendous since students abroad are flooded with new images. They can learn to think critically about tourist representations, their own photograph-taking, iconography in the study site, and a host of other such things. Visual methods thus play into a type of literacy that students of this generation have developed, and allow them to critically refine their gaze while abroad, whether as viewers or producers of imagery about the local culture.

Related to the overload of fast-paced imagery, is an oft-noted lack of ability to pay attention and to fix their concentration on one thing at a time. Arts-based projects help students narrow the field of new things to look at and think about while abroad by allowing them to slow down and to attend to more intricate details related to a specific topic. In artistic projects, they can choose their words more carefully and stare at details until patterns emerge. Furthermore, these methods release students from the monotony of traditional learning methods, challenging their jaded boredom, or what Maxine Green refers to as the “sensation-seeking ordinariness of young lives” (1995: 40), underlining the power of expressive language and image to stir us back into engagement. If one of the reasons students travel abroad is to seek out the sparks of difference, we could provide this not only in terms of landscape and language, but also in terms of methodology.

If we look at the specific nature of the study abroad experience, the application of these methods is easy to make. As we all know, trying to function in a new language and a new culture is inherently a creative venture. Students rely on a wealth of conscious and unconscious creative strategies to get in and out of language situations, to remember their way home, to build up a local identity, to solve problems. The adaptation process is highly creative in this sense. It involves ideas and insights, failures and editings, and increasing levels of refinement over the course of the experience. Students are forced not only to pay more attention to things they might ordinarily take for granted, but also to use other modes of learning to compensate, extrapolate, and stretch their understandings.

As they turn to the visual, the aural, and the like, the experience becomes more sensual versus simply cerebral. Students are keenly aware of the bodied nature of the study abroad experience as they listen to new sounds, smell and taste different foods, experience other ways of dressing and other rules of physical contact. This more attentive way of being in the world, provoked sometimes by sheer necessity, positions students within a creative, sensory mindset. It primes them for more artistic ways of learning that as a field, we have yet to fully capitalize upon.

Imaginative inroads The possibilities for incorporating creative methods of inquiry into study abroad are infinite and could include any area of imaginative work, from creative writing to painting, from sculpture to dance, from music to cooking. To mention just a few examples:

Students in Guanajuato have used creative writing to try to understand what it would be like to be married at nineteen with your husband working on the “other side”, to imagine balancing complicated family commitments and individual desires, to think about how living in a brilliant mango-orange house might change your perspective on things. Many write short stories from imaginary points of view; others write fictional letters, diaries and poems. One student doing an independent research project at the local food bank incorporated poetry into her final paper, interspersing the “usual” write-up with poems about the individuals she got to know. In these poems, she tried to capture something about the local volunteers’ motivations and desires for engaging in these efforts. Another student used poetry-writing first in a mix of English-Spanish and then entirely in Spanish to explore her own “becoming” process in another language, finding “a place deeper than literal translations and factual essays” and bonding with other bilingual writers she interacted with as part of the project.

Students have worked with visual arts as well, sketching host-families, photographing local scenes, and participating in workshops such as one on perspective that gets them looking at Guanajuato’s unique, gravity-defying architecture in new ways as they struggle with the inevitable 15 vanishing points at any angle and consider cultural understandings of space and color.

Making things and creating works of art permit a sense of play as well as a sense of achievement. In workshops with clay, paint, and paper maché, students have repeatedly commented on how the physical experience of working with new materials allows them to work through things in their minds. One pre-med student undertook a research project with a local weaver, commenting on how strange it was to do something creative after many years of concentrating solely on science. She used the metaphor of weaving to think about her relationship with the weaver, her experiences with difference in Mexico, and what she would take home from all this. In her final paper, she writes about how the experience was liberating and how working in a new medium allowed her to finally grasp difference. Anxious to start medical school when she returned home, she concluded nonetheless that ..I will hang my tapestry on the wall and remember the lessons I learned in Mexico. I will remember that different is good and interesting, that creativity should be valued, and that sometimes life is sweeter when it is not on a schedule. ..I will remember these things because they are woven into my tapestry, and they are woven into my life .. “

These very brief examples leave out more than they tell, however our experiences on-site have shown that students who undertake the learning from these unexpected, artistic angles bring back a notably enriched perspective. Within these projects, they more easily challenge their ways of thinking, grasp onto new metaphors, listen harder to others, and truly imagine difference in ways that are difficult to achieve through our usual classroom strategies. While in Guanajuato we still base most of our pedagogy in traditional, critical writing-based modes, we have found that the addition of creative projects has radically transformed students’ learning and has helped a wider range of students connect more empathically with the realities of otherness. This shows up in their classroom writing as they create more nuanced, tentative representations of local others, and in the caliber of their interactions with others in town as they lean deeper into difference with more confidence and interest.

Conclusion Students abroad are often quite inclined to consider other ways of learning. Rather than try to reproduce an educational model based on a Cartesian separation of mind and body that privileges only the cerebral, perhaps we should remember why we invite them abroad in the first place. Study abroad is supposed to be a fundamentally different experience than a semester (or year or month) at a home campus. It is supposed to be about the people that speak the other language and enact the other culture; it is supposed to be a fully social, personal, bodied experience. Why not follow Eisner’s call to prepare students as artists working with all this intercultural material? Why not think of our students as crafting their ears, eyes, and other sensibilities that are so closely tied to cultural immersion experiences? Why not teach them more about drafts and practice, lessons and apprenticeships, and the power of the imagination to pull us into difference? Arts-based methods may indeed offer us ways to plunge into cultural difference, to encourage positive risk-taking in learning, and even to revitalize our own ways of seeing and knowing these experiences abroad as we engage students’ creations.

Works Cited Eisner, E. (2004, October 14). What can education learn from the arts about the practice of education? International Journal of Education and the Arts. 5(4). Retrieved 10 May, 2005 from

Greene, M. (1995). Releasing the Imagination: essays of education, the arts, and social change. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Richards, J. (2006, March) “Post Modern Image-Based Research,” The Qualitative Report, Vol. 11, No. 1, 37-55. Retrieved 15 May, 2006 from