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Amy Mooney
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Amy Mooney

"Personal response from instructor to student is really key"

By Jennifer Tatum, Nonfiction MFA 2013Amy Mooney
Photo by Shawn Michelle Smith

Amy Mooney, Associate Professorof Art History in the Art + Design Program, first encountered the ideas of community engagement as a high school student at Metro High School in St.Louis. An experimental school at the time, the curriculum focused on civic engagement, taking what is learned in the classroom and applying it by engaging with communities outside of the classroom. Continuing the conversation and keeping an open dialogue between classroom and community is a key aspect in Mooney's personal and professional endeavors and it is the impetus behind a new course that she is teaching alongside Whitney Huber and Onur Ozturk, also members of the Art + Design faculty.

Last semester marked the start of a new course in the Art + Design Program—Intro to Visual Culture. The class asks students to use critical thinking skills across a wide range of disciplines (fashion, photography, graphic design and others) to examine objects, images and spaces in order to articulate both verbally and in writing the function and formal choices with regards to each piece and the ways in which viewers make meaning. Most recently her class had a discussion about Lady Gaga's perfume, "Fame," and someone said that it looked like it smelled expensive. Mooney asks, "What does expensive smell like? How do you articulate that?" This class asks students to do just that, to examine the visual elements that they are seeing and to communicate the reasons that they believe what they believe. Throughout the course, students work on a Collections Project through which they experiment with different modes of interpretation (formal,contextual, theoretical). These lenses are applied to a series of images(two-dimensional objects, three dimensional spaces, portraits, etc.) that express the student's own interests and help to model the kind of research that could influence their future creative work. Shared with their peers, these collections help to build community and connect students to each other as well as to the resources that are part of Columbia and the larger Chicago environment. The project and the course align very closely with Mooney's personal interest in civic engagement and its correlation to art history.

Mooney came to Columbia in 2003, after having taught at Washington State University for three years. About Columbia, she says she "believes strongly in the social mission that we[Columbia] have, this civic engagement and that everybody has the right to education and the right to express themselves, and to have that acceptance." She says, "I feel so proud of our college for the efforts that we put forth in bringing that kind of affirmation and acceptance into the classroom, into our policies."

Mooney says that it is important to "flip the classroom," to act as a facilitator rather than a lecturer, which allows for discussion and for critical thinking. She says that there are benefits to both styles, but that she prefers the more interactive style, which calls for more improvisation, preparation, energy, enthusiasm and a genuine interest in the subject. "It's kind of like a call and response," says Mooney, meaning that you put a call out to your students, saying here look at this," and then you have to be prepared "to go there with them [the students]." The response isn't always what you had intended it to be, because students are always bringing something new to the classroom, so you have to be quick on your feet, to "sacrifice how many works of art [you] look at in any given session,"in order to really spend quality time on a specific piece that sparks student interest. This requires a deep knowledge of the subject matter and recognizing your own goals as an instructor. "Personal response from instructor to student is really key."

Mooney's teaching practices connect and intertwine with her professional involvement outside of the classroom, as she is always interested in a dialogical social exchange. As the 2011-2012 Critical Encounters Faculty Fellow, Mooney worked with the International collaborative motiroti, a "social relational art" potluck and exchange. Current and former students, along with other community activists believe in the idea that food can bring people together and help them to be more comfortable with one another in order to support social justice. Mooney is currently working with Potluck:Chicago,to expand internationally in London and other cities worldwide, promoting and encouraging social exchange through the exchange of hospitality. She is also doing research for a book on portraiture and for an exhibition catalog on Archibald J. Motley's work that will travel across the United States in 2014-15. Motley's work focuses on race, class, and gender through a series of portraits that Mooney believes acts as "a site of empathy." The idea behind the project is that portraits "actually help us foster relationships with one another, to assimilate and become more comfortable with one another."

Though she is very active in the Columbia community and in her professional development, Mooney enjoys her time away from Columbia by spending with her husband Geof Bradfield, a jazz-musician, and roller skating with her ten-year old daughter Esme. She also enjoys reading a good book of fiction.