Casting the Circle: An Arts-Based Inquiry into Creating Spaces for Emergent, Interdisciplinary Collaboration in Higher Education

ASU Author/Contributor (non-ASU co-authors, if there are any, appear on document)
Marisa Gwaltney Cornell (Creator)
Appalachian State University (ASU )
Web Site:
Chris Osmond

Abstract: Although higher education generally recognizes the value of interdisciplinary collaboration, few colleges and universities successfully encourage, facilitate, or evaluate collaborative work. Disciplinary structures, individualistic mindsets, and a lack of tangible support have been identified as common barriers to integrative knowledge creation among faculty, while situation-specific “minimum critical specifications” (Morgan, 2006) necessary for emergent collaborative work are more challenging to both articulate and establish. This qualitative case study examines the perspectives and processes of an arts-based, interdisciplinary group of faculty at a medium-sized public university in the Southeastern United States. The participant group, the Appalachian Expressive Arts Collective, developed intuitively and has continued to self-organize without formal institutional oversight. Framed by literature from the emerging field of expressive arts therapy, as well as from organizational development, complexity science, and professional satisfaction theory, this study combines ethnographic research methods with an arts-based, qualitative methodology known as a/r/tography–a “living inquiry” (Springgay, Irwin, & Kind, 2005) that supports the researcher’s aesthetic orientation toward data collection, representation, and analysis–in order to facilitate the emergence of relevant and meaningful themes. The inquiry into interdisciplinary collaboration is guided by six research questions that explore: how academic partnerships emerge organically; the relevance of the arts and complexity science to collaborative work; connections with curriculum development and professional satisfaction; and alignments between expressive arts and a/r/tography. The findings of this study suggest that the primary component of the Collective’s collaborations is deep relationship, facilitated by expressive arts perspectives and shared values, especially around creativity and healing. The Collective’s organizational development, structure, and working processes are aligned with the Community of Practice model (Wenger, 1998) and can be viewed metaphorically as a complex “living system.” Through a lens of complexity science, the Collective demonstrates that strong emergence is aided by a diversity of perspectives and a degree of relational tension. Educational leaders can support collaborative work by increasing opportunities and incentives for intuitive community-building among faculty, by providing holistic faculty development programs, and also by incorporating process-focused measures of collaboration into institutional assessment protocols. Implications for arts-based researchers and practitioners, aspiring collaborators, and institutional administrators are offered, as well as suggestions for further research.

Additional Information

Cornell, M.G. (2013). Casting the Circle: An Arts-Based Inquiry into Creating Spaces for Emergent, Interdisciplinary Collaboration in Higher Education. Unpublished doctoral dissertation. Appalachian State University, Boone, NC.
Language: English
Date: 2013
Higher education, Interdisciplinary collaboration, Expressive arts, Professional satisfaction, Complexity science

Email this document to