Design by Katharina Brenner. Photo by Fabian Tabibian.

Elizabeth White is an interdisciplinary artist and educator. Her work explores “social, psychological, and political themes including maintenance and self-preservation; security and freedom; control and anxiety; and confrontation with the unknown.” Her projects—which was been exhibited globally, including at the Tate Modern in London—are usually site-specific and shaped by research. They often incorporate the images, objects, and words of others.

Since 2011, White has taught at Bennington College as a member of the faculty of visual arts. She also directs the Museum Fellows Term, a five-month program in which students do a work-study semester at a major cultural institution in New York City. Over coffee, sporadic text messages, and shared documents, we discussed what she means by “teaching for the whole student,” a method of pedagogy she helps employ at Bennington.

You mentioned that Bennington uniquely positions itself as “teaching for the whole student.”⁠ What does that entail, and how does that end up looking in practice? 

As an institution, Bennington is designed to support students’ exploration and reflection, and to help them identify and pursue their own questions and interests. A key component of this is the significant amount of time faculty members end up working with students outside of the classroom, as advisors, plan and review committee members, and teachers.  

Class sizes are small, and courses emphasize participation and incorporate individual meetings. Students also complete a “work-integrated learning” requirement every year. This structure encourages students to bring their education into new contexts, to test their ideas, explore possible careers, and ultimately to inform their future pursuits, bringing those experiences back to campus to enrich conversations with peers, faculty, and advisors.

“Where students are from, what they’ve learned from their families and communities, what feels comfortable and foreign, varies greatly.”

What has your experience been in that role?

In 2014, a group of colleagues and I developed a proposal for the pilot year of the Museum Fellows Term⁠—now run in partnership with the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation. The program offers students internship experience working at a major cultural institution, in tandem with self-directed, inquiry-driven academic coursework. 

It’s a big shift for students to move from a small residential campus community in rural Vermont to New York City, and part of my role is to help rebuild the resources and infrastructure that support their learning in this new environment, which include housing, food, and transportation, and as well as access to medical care and mental health services. I’ve come to see how widely students’ insurance coverage, family support, and access to emergency funds varies and have been thinking more and more about the toll that acute and chronic stress can take, and its cognitive and physical, as well as emotional and psychological, impacts.

Recognizing that higher education is not a level playing field, and that many factors beyond our control can compromise students’ ability to work at their potential, what can we do?  How might we redefine “professional development” taking some of these factors into consideration? 

Are there specific methods for teaching towards the whole student that you’d encourage others to bring into their classrooms?

One thing we can do is listen to students and try to understand and be responsive to their experiences and perspectives. Where students are from, what they’ve learned from their families and communities, what feels comfortable and foreign, varies greatly. Generally speaking, working in arts administration in a New York City museum means stepping into a particular set of expectations related to dress, communications, and shared references that feels more familiar and welcoming to some than others. I think it’s useful to discuss this explicitly, and to create a space where students can share their questions and frustrations and realize where their experiences are similar and different. 

In addition to acknowledging students’ differences and helping them access relevant resources, I also aim to help them identify and access their own internal resources through regular reflective writing, individual meetings, and group conversations. 

“Trying to complete assignments while worrying about your or your family’s health, immigration status, access to care, or ability to afford housing, is multitasking of a different order.”

The aim is to cultivate a classroom community where students feel comfortable taking risks, are curious about each other’s interests, and are open to feedback. This requires a sense of trust, and that every student feel heard and respected by their classmates as well as their instructor. On the first day of class, I often have students interview and introduce each other, and make time to collaboratively come to an understanding of how we communicate engagement and respect. Students are often in agreement about things like “putting away your phone” and “asking questions,” but making these guidelines together also allows for divergent ideas to be raised and discussed. For instance, in one recent class a student noted that some mental disorders make it difficult to maintain eye contact, and this comment made space for a productive conversation on neurodiversity.   

What’re some challenges you’ve had to face in taking in the whole student, and blurring the traditional boundaries that have often existed in the classroom? 

Working so closely with students over time, and in multiple contexts, I’ve come to recognize that their “workloads” are much heavier than what is evidenced by a syllabus: that while meeting the demands of their courses, they are often simultaneously navigating significant personal challenges. Trying to complete assignments while worrying about your or your family’s health, immigration status, access to care, or ability to afford housing, is multitasking of a different order. Students across the country (and the world) are carrying these burdens and doing this work. 

 “As educators, we should do all we can to create spaces of care where students feel supported.   

When in survival mode, just trying to hold it all together, it’s nearly impossible to be fully present as a learner, and so it seems clear to me that as educators, we should do all we can to create spaces of care where students feel supported. Teaching to the whole student requires taking layered complexities into account and shaping a definition of success that incorporates students’ capacity to find personal fulfillment and make meaningful contributions to their communities; developing their skills to both navigate the world as it is and to make it as they want it to be. 

Do you have any reading recommendations to share from the Museum Fellows Term?

In the Museum Fellows Term, students customize a portion of their reading list to meet their own interests. In addition to the books we read as a group, which include classics like Brian O’Doherty’s Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space as well as more recent publications like As Radical, As Mother, As Salad, As Shelter: What Should Art Institutions Do Now?, recent student selections have included such titles as: 

    • Bishop, Claire. Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship. Verso, 2012.
    • Burton, Johanna, et al., editors. Public Servants: Art and the Crisis of the Common Good. MIT Press, 2016.
    • Cahan, Susan. Mounting Frustration: The Art Museum in the Age of Black Power. Duke University Press Books, 2016.
    • Cornell, Lauren and Ed Halter, editors. Mass Effect: Art and the Internet in the Twenty-First Century. The MIT Press, 2015.
    • Cox, Christopher. Sonic Flux: Sound, Art, and Metaphysics. University of Chicago Press, 2018.
    • D’Souza, Aruna. Whitewalling: Art, Race & Protest in 3 Acts. Badlands Unlimited, 2018.
    • Eichhorn, Kate. Adjusted Margin: Xerography, Art, and Activism in the Late Twentieth Century. MIT Press, 2016.
    • Fajardo-Hill, Cecilia. Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960-1985. Prestel, 2017.
    • Findlay, Michael. The Value of Art: Money, Power, Beauty. Prestel, 2014.
    • Filipovic, Elena. The Artist as Curator: An Anthology. Mousse, 2017. 
    • Gillespie, Michael Boyce. Film Blackness: American Cinema and the Idea of Black Film. Duke University Press, 2016.
    • González, Jennifer A. and C. Ondine Chavoya. Chicano and Chicana Art: A Critical Anthology. Duke University Press, 2019.
    • Hawkins, Joan. Downtown Film and TV Culture: 1975-2001. Intellect Ltd, 2015.
    • Jones, Amelia and Erin Silver. Otherwise: Imagining queer feminist art histories. Manchester University Press, 2016.
    • Jones, Kellie. South of Pico: African American Artists in Los Angeles in the 1960s and 1970s. Duke University Press, 2017.
    • Kholeif, Omar. Goodbye, World! Looking at Art in the Digital Age. Sternberg Press, 2018.
    • Mathur, Saloni. The Migrant’s Time: Rethinking Art History and Diaspora. Clark Art Institute, 2011.
    • Reilly, Maura. Curatorial Activism: Towards an Ethics of Curating. Thames & Hudson, 2018.
    • Steyerl, Hito. Duty Free Art: Art in the Age of Planetary Civil War. Verso, 2017.
    • Vikram, Anuradha. Decolonizing Culture. Art Practical + Sming Sming Books, 2017.
    • Voorhies, James. Beyond Objecthood: The Exhibition as a Critical Form since 1968. MIT Press, 2017.