The University of Alabama

A Matter of Expression

By Lisa Frederick

No matter how peaceful the UA campus may appear at any given moment, there’s creative activity bubbling beneath the surface, with thousands of ideas and pursuits percolating in every classroom and corner. Theatre and dance students rehearse performances while marching-band members practice for game day. Interior and apparel design majors are busy sketching and styling, and budding entrepreneurs talk over business plans. Advertising and public relations majors put the finishing touches on campaign materials; the whir of motors and the clang of metal echoes through engineering labs as students test their newest creations.

“In terms of opportunities, UA is superb,” says Dr. Hank Lazer, associate provost for academic affairs. “There are many different ways students can find traction.”

Lazer is the executive director of Creative Campus, an organization dedicated to advocating for the arts at UA and to helping students create and pursue innovative opportunities under the umbrella of creative expression. Although every UA school and college fosters its own brand of creative activity, Creative Campus’ mission is to incubate new ideas, then connect the students with partners who can help them bring those ideas to life.

“Creative Campus from the beginning has had a basis in research and theoretical conversations on creativity,” Lazer says. “We try to increase the appetite for experimental arts that aren’t necessarily happening elsewhere on campus. Students describe it as a set of experiences that build confidence.”

Prominent author Thomas Friedman praised Creative Campus in a recent book co-authored with Michael Mandelbaum titled “That Used to Be Us.” The book notes the organization’s mission “to nurture creativity among students by getting them to think about how to promote the arts in their community, on and off campus.”

Efforts in both regards have been varied and successful. Tuscaloosa’s annual Druid City Arts Festival (DCAF) is one of Creative Campus’ signature, large-scale events. Another recent project is The Nest, developed by Naomi Thompson and Emma Fick: a large-scale nest created from tornado debris, painted by local elementary school students and now installed at a public housing area heavily damaged by the storm. The project earned Fick a prestigious UA Premier Award. In January 2012, Creative Campus also hosted Buddhist priest and poet Norman Fischer and coordinated events including meditation sessions, an interactive poetry reading and an interfaith conversation between students from St. Francis of Assisi University Parish and UA’s Hillel Foundation.

From year to year, students at UA — both in and outside of Creative Campus — continually redefine the parameters of what creativity entails. Fine arts, from music to photography to sculpture, certainly flourish. Yet beyond the more conventional definitions lies a wealth of programs and projects that encourage self-expression in other ways: engineering computer software, finding new methods to combat poverty and hunger, developing and implementing new teaching strategies.

Nontraditional academic programs foster creative pursuits as well. For example, New College gives students the flexibility to design individualized courses of study that can satisfy both interests and career goals. The University’s Living-Learning Communities, undergraduate residential programs that are themed around a common area of study and interest, also offer tailored possibilities and provide students with a forum to connect with peers who share their passion.

Then, of course, there are the rich resources for extracurricular pursuits. UA is home to more than 300 clubs and organizations, such as the Inklings creative writing group, the Crimson Ceramics Society, and the hip-hop Rip Tide Dancers troupe.

Although participation in artistic and creative activities is around 70 percent among high school students, Lazer says, it drops to less than 20 percent in college. And he feels that ultimately, this attrition can hamper an undergraduate student’s campus experience.

“The arts play a very practical role,” he says. “It’s more than co-curricular — it’s a part of life they don’t need to let go.”

He can think of dozens, if not hundreds, of undergraduates who have found ways to tap into creative passions outside the framework of their major. He mentions a psychology student who realized her love for art and, eventually, changed her course of study to suit it. Another student, who is pre-med, looks to Creative Campus as her outlet for personal expression.

“We offer opportunities for people to explore the arts without having to go too deep, but we can take them deeper,” Lazer says. “Creativity exists in the process, and that’s what we have to teach. It’s an environment that empowers students.”