Inspiring Scholarly Culture

Inspiring Scholarly Culture

As dean of Liberal Arts, cultural historian and ethnomusicologist Daniel Cavicchi heads up a team that includes more than 100 faculty members. “We’re the only division that serves the entire student population at RISD,” Cavicchi says proudly. “The majority of our faculty have PhDs—which is not typical at art schools—and an important question for us is how that active scholarly culture connects to studio work—which is at the core of a RISD education.”

Having taught in the department of History, Philosophy + the Social Sciences since 1996, Cavicchi is well aware of the Liberal Arts courses that link directly to studios. But it’s the connections students make themselves between the humanities, the social sciences and studio practice that he finds most compelling and most surprising.

“A student might find insights from a Shakespeare class working their way into an object he’s making in a Ceramics studio,” he says. “One practice is about reading and writing papers, which involves argument and sequence and logic, while the other—making objects—might be considered more associative or provocative. It’s the interplay between these practices that’s so interesting and unpredictable.”

RISD’s Liberal Arts professors face the unique challenge of creating courses that complement and contextualize the work students are doing in studio. “RISD students tend to have both academic and creative abilities,” says Cavicchi. “The issue is not academic readiness, but time. You have to engage in written arguments in order to become a scholar, but reading and writing take a lot of time.”

Since students do a full third of their coursework in the Liberal Arts, the goal is to create a meaningful experience rather than “kill their joy” with requirements. “One way we do that is by bringing another angle into the conversation,” says Cavicchi. “The History of Art + Visual Culture department, for example, is currently looking for a historian of photography—someone with a longstanding interest in visual culture and training as an art historian.”

“Design is not just about making a product, but finding a way to create meaning in the world,” says Cavicchi. “Liberal artists have a lot to offer in terms of critical thinking, empathy and understanding the world around us.”

Cavicchi’s own scholarly pursuits focus on understanding fandom in the context of American history as well as the connections between music and politics. His books include Listening and Longing: Music Lovers in the Age of Barnum (2011) and Tramps Like Us: Music and Meaning Among Springsteen Fans (1998). He says his next book, still taking shape, will explore visual representations of audiences between 1864 and 1940.

“My field is about building theoretical understanding of reception rather than production,” Cavicchi says. “And RISD is the perfect place to teach that. I’m blessed to have found this fit.”

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