By Professor Ryan Daniel
Over the last ten years, I have engaged in a number of research projects exploring the impact of a higher education degree in the creative and performing arts for graduates seeking a career in the creative industries. In essence, I have discovered that a creative arts degree provides students with three significant career-building opportunities: 1) the opportunity to develop deep discipline knowledge in an area or areas of creative practice, 2) a network of peers and industry contacts and 3) the opportunity to engage with spaces and equipment that they would not necessarily be able to interact with outside the tertiary environment. On the other side of the coin, my research has identified that graduates in industry often report that they are insufficiently prepared for the complex nature of the creative industries work environments and the need to have business, enterprising and entrepreneurial attributes and a range of soft skills in what is a rapidly changing world and Asian century.
The non-arts area of learning and development can represent the major challenge for tertiary educators working in the creative and performing arts. There is no question graduates will need the deep discipline knowledge that the creative arts curriculum provides, however they also need in-depth understandings of the employment sector, as well as a range of soft skills that will enable them to be successful over a long period of time. While academics are certainly more than capable of designing curriculum and learning experiences that cater to these emerging needs, involving graduates is important. Currently, this is commonplace with many art schools involving graduates via such methods as sessional teaching staff, as guest lecturers and speakers, as examiners or assessors, or as practitioner case studies. Through surveys and interviews with scores of graduates over the years, it has become clear to me that they are a rich source of knowledge, however it is a source that tertiary art schools might arguably involve even more strategically.
While it brings with it some complications in terms of administration and ongoing oversight, one area that is arguably underutilised is in terms of formal mentoring. Setting up an informal mentoring program is certainly an option, but there is a tremendous opportunity to embed a more formal system into the curriculum, to create a mutually beneficial arrangement between a student and a practitioner. While on the one hand academic staff become de-facto mentors, aligning a student with an industry practitioner (graduate) would certainly value add to their learning. Embedding such a formal mentoring program into the curriculum makes students are aware that it is a key part of their learning. This embedding could take the form of informal discussions in class (e.g. What has your mentor taught you about the current state of their/your industry? What feedback on your creative work have you been able to obtain from your mentor and in what ways have you responded to this feedback?). This could even be an assignment or tested under examination conditions. While the advantages for students are obvious, graduate mentors would also benefit from this type of arrangement; they would be able to garner insights into the latest knowledge or skills being taught in their field, they might pick up interesting concepts or ideas from their mentee, or they may even be able to engage students in some form of collaborative project or even employment (e.g. editors, assistants, administrators).
Feedback that I have obtained through interviews with graduates who have moved into different areas of employment is that a creative or performing arts degree provides them with several benefits. Firstly, they are usually highly disciplined, having spent thousands of hours over many years passionately pursuing creative practice. Secondly, they are creative thinkers who ponder, reflect, challenge and unpack problems and the status quo. Thirdly, they are willing to be innovative and not afraid to take risks. Fourthly, they are typically passionate individuals who have interesting observations of the world and how art can enhance any area of the economy.
Australia, to a large extent, has a way to go in terms of engaging their alumni in comparison with the United States for example which has a very strong history of engagement. To do so will require that art schools or departments resource this properly, in order that graduates are engaged strategically and for mutual benefit. Given the currency of graduates’ experiences in what is a rapidly changing industry, and their usual willingness to give back and help students, there are certainly opportunities to consider and to explore for those of us in the Australian tertiary arts sector.
Professor Ryan Daniel is a senior researcher at James Cook University and has authored over 50 peer reviewed publications. His research is published in Studies in Higher Education, Journal of Australian Studies, Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography, Creative Industries, International Journal of Cultural Policy, Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, CoDesign, International Journal of Music Education, Music Education Research and the British Journal of Music Education. His research publications can all be found at the following research portfolio site: https://research.jcu.edu.au/portfolio/ryan.daniel/