• Occupational Therapy students & staff discussing an artwork 

    Occupational Therapy students & staff discussing an artwork 

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Occupational Therapy and ESCALA

Posted: 6 July 2017 by Sebastian Bustamante-Brauning

How can artworks develop understanding of lifespan and extend conceptual thinking for those studying Occupational Therapy?

The barely legible words inscribed on León Ferrari’s Untitled (1997) calligraphy are taken from a poem by the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges. Ferrari includes sections of In Praise of Darkness(1969), a poem in which Borges reflects on his loss of sight and his mind’s retreat into memories of the many things he saw in his lifetime: the street corners of his native Buenos Aires; the faces of his friends which are now fading; and the many books he read which have now been deemed illegible by his failing eyesight. What can Borges’ poem and León Ferrari’s calligraphy tell us about lifespan, end of life and death? This is one of five works used in recent Object-based Learning (OBL) sessions with occupational therapy students from the School of Health & Human Sciences at the University of Essex. In his writing, Borges often referred to the theme of time and In Praise of Darkness is a touching poem on the effects of visual impairment on the writer and avid reader. What is more, Borges’ old-age forced him to confront his own mortality in the poem. The content of Ferrari’s artwork and his reference to this literary giant of Argentine literature are an excellent trigger for discussions of end of life, death and the theme of lifespan.

Thanks to the opportunity to work alongside Anita Steinberg, Lecturer in Occupational Therapy, we now run OBL sessions in all three faculties here at Essex. After meeting at a recent ‘Good Practice in Teaching’ conference, Anita and I we were able to identify potential synergies between Anita’s curriculum and our OBL approach. After careful planning we chose five artworks in ESCALA for two of Anita’s sessions that relate to the content of her module. We split the class into groups of three or four students and each group focused on a different artwork, spending ten minutes discussing it, before moving onto another artwork. We used Yolanda M. López’s Our Lady of Guadalupe (2007) tryptic and Ana Maria Maiolino’s Por um fio (1976) in the first session where students reflected on transitions to adulthood, as well as cultural and generational difference and working life. León Ferrari’s Untitled architectural blue print activated thoughtful analysis on working and living spaces in contemporary society. Students reflected on what an ideal working or living environment might look like and what happens when a space controls our freedoms. In the second session, Marcelo Brodsky’s class photograph from Buena Memoria (1997) generated a space where students reflected on youth, occupation and different stages of life and death. We also used the aforementioned Ferrari calligraphy in this second session.

Our strapline Connecting through Collecting underpins much of the work we do at ESCALA from acquiring artworks through to their use in teaching and research across the University and these sessions were no exception. Anita’s occupational therapists in training immediately drew on their own experience and made connections between artworks and their curriculum content. At first we asked the students to respond to the artworks with little to no previous knowledge of their content and then we asked them to contribute ideas and share them with the group. They each brought new insights to the artworks they discussed. In the second session groups worked with texts including the full J.L. Borges poem In Praise of Darkness and Marcelo Brodsky’s photobook Buena memoria (first published 1997). The former enriched their understanding Ferrari’s calligraphy and the latter gave the students more understanding of the specific case of Argentina and those affected by the dictatorship (1976-1983).

Anita had the following reflections on the two sessions:

“From an occupational therapy programme perspective, the overall aim of the Object-Based Learning sessions was to provide first year students with an opportunity to develop and extend conceptual thinking. Preparatory reading was carefully selected to provide students with an introduction to concepts that could be relatable to the artwork, occupational science and occupational therapy but without placing limitations on exploration of ideas. A class tutorial was scheduled after each OBL session for students to discuss, relate and apply the OBL discussions to occupational therapy. The ensuing discussions explored the concepts of what is meaningful to people, how that relates to the way they engage in their occupations and the factors that may influence occupational engagement and performance across the lifespan.

Informal feedback from students highlighted that they enjoyed the opportunities that the new Object-based Learning approach offered their development, in particular in challenging their thinking. As a lecturer and programme lead, I was particularly impressed by the students’ enthusiasm and engagement in the sessions, with all students contributing to the discussions. It was interesting to hear the observations that the students made about the artworks, their interpretations of what they saw, and how they linked their thoughts from the OBL sessions to content from previous teaching, reading and practice placement experiences.

Drawing upon the structure of the two OBL sessions, the module ended with a session offering students the opportunity to select a creative item that, for them was meaningful and demonstrated a period of the lifespan or related concept that had been identified within their learning. All students presented their ‘art forms’ and facilitated in depth discussions about the relevance of their item to the module content and their own learning. It was apparent from the range of media presented, and students’ rationales for selecting the items, that thought and attention had been devoted when selecting items.”

In these sessions students had the opportunity to strengthen their group work, observational and communication skills by discussing these artworks with their peers. There was a palpable buzz in our Teaching and Research Space as each group discussed an artwork. The sessions informed further discussions Anita had with her students in later sessions and conversations started in the ESCALA space continued after the students left. We look forward to welcoming Anita and her students back next year for more OBL sessions and building on this success. If you would like to discuss the possibility of using ESCALA artworks in your teaching or would like to organise a research visit please email escala[at]essex.ac.uk.

Sebastian Bustamante-Brauning & Anita Steinberg

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