Arts-Based Practices in Res Life: Residential Curriculum

This is part of a multi-part series on utilizing principles and techniques from arts-based research practices and applying them to the residents life setting. Explore more parts in the series:

Introduction and Strategies | Community Building | Residential Curriculum

The residential curriculum is on the rise. There’s a chance that such an initiative has yet to reach your institution. Perhaps your department’s respective curriculum is still in the works. For some, the very concept of incorporating a residential curriculum at all is still under discussion. Regardless of where your institution falls on the spectrum, the curricular approach not only to residence life, but to student affairs as a whole, is quickly becoming popularized. 

In the first two segments of this series, I focused on defining arts-based research practices and applying them in the residential context. For a quick recap, arts-based research makes use of practices that are customarily enforced in the fields of creative arts. Drawing, painting, theater and even the creation and recitation of poetry are all fair methods of practice when conducting arts-based research. Arts-based researchers explore the depth of human experience and widespread phenomena similarly to scholars who conduct traditional research. What differentiates arts-based research is the methods that scholars use to gather and depict the results of their work. While traditional researchers might employ an interview approach, an arts-based scholar may engage their participants in artistic exercises that reflect their thoughts and experiences in a more personal manner. This grasp on the depth of emotion and experience makes for excellent work in Human-Centered Design  and community building, two tools that are immensely useful in reslife. 

For this final portion, I’ll be covering how arts-based approaches may benefit the design of a residential curriculum, proving helpful in the eventual implementation of the model on a college campus.

Residential Curriculum 

The curriculum based approach pulls on the methods of classroom educators. The model moves to promote the development of intentionally constructed learning experiences for students on a college campus. Initially intended solely for residential learning, the concept has since expanded in applicability to various facets of student affairs work. Thus, the alternative title of curricular approach rather than residential curriculum. Although it is slowly becoming popularized, the model was first introduced by Kerr & Tweedy in a 2006 About Campus article, which chronicles its implementation at The University of Delaware. 

The use of a residential curriculum insists upon the intentional involvement of university constituents in the learning process. A few key components of implementing a curricular approach include: 

  1. Highlighting and aligning with institutional mission, vision and values: Jumpstarting the development of a residential curriculum first requires a calculated examination of the core of the university. Practitioners should actively reflect on the outcomes that the institution wants for its student body and work backwards to construct a curriculum that is reflective of said outcomes. 
  2. Well defined learning goals: In a manner that distinctly links to educational priorities which are intentionally developed based on your respective institutional mission, learning goals should be clearly defined; an efficient educational priority will present itself in a cascading format which represents the integral flow from priority to goals and finally to outcomes. 
  3. Expansion of strategies: While those in reslife are well accustomed to the ever-so-popular programming that goes on in the hall of their buildings, a curricular approach requires that both practitioners and paraprofessionals extend the opportunities for learning past programming. When accounting for the incorporation of developmental learning theories and cutting edge research, the strategic method of presenting our residents with these opportunities needs to grow along with our learning expectations. 

If following the approach as outlined by Kerr & Tweedy, there are ten “essential elements” to this model. Although I only review three that I find pertinent here, if you’re interested in learning more about the curricular approach, there are a number of resources that can help.

Arts-Based Research in the Curricular Approach

“Arts-based research methodologies are characteristically emergent, imagined, and derivative from an artist/researcher’s practice or arts praxis inquiry models; they are capable of yielding outcomes taking researchers in directions the sciences cannot go.” 

This quote was retrieved from an article titled A Paradigm Analysis of Arts-Based Research and Implications for Education (2010). Written by James Haywood Rolling Jr., the content of the work beautifully delineates how ABR practices can be utilized in order to reconceptualize the education professional’s current understanding of curriculum development. 

The proof of feasibility here is somewhat challenged by the verbiage we use. Curriculum design is defined by the TopHat glossary as “the planning period during which instructors organize the instructional units for their courses.” Curriculum design revolves around preparing the necessary elements for learning to take place in the classroom, or in this case on the campus. As it pertains to art, however, you will find that there is often debate and important distinction between what is considered art and what is considered design. Art has little agenda and lacks set goals outside of the invocation of thought and emotion in the consumer. In contrast, design is thoughtful and intentional. Design has goals; it has desired outcomes and specificity to its structure. 

Arts-based research is about shining light on intangible and exploring conceptualizations. Residential curriculum design is considered strong and efficient when well defined; it finds its merit in specificity and scaffolding. In this way, arts-based research and residential curriculum design seem very far apart. But I argue that there are many elements of the curricular approach that would most certainly benefit from the incorporation of arts-based methods. 

Connecting the Two

When I examine arts-based practices and residential curriculum side by side, I see four connections that tie the two together despite what at first glance appear to be competing ideals:

  1. Experiential Learning: An important feature of arts-based research is its ability to draw upon experiential learning. ABR purposefully infuses learning with engaging activities that cultivate dialogue. In a similar way, the residential curriculum hopes to begin expanding upon learning opportunities, some of which may be experiential. In this way, ABR may be useful in providing experiential learning opportunities to students that engross them in meaningful shared experiences that lead to desired outcomes and educational priorities. 
  2. Professional and Paraprofessional Staff Collaboration: The residential curriculum approach suggests relying less on the programming efforts of our undergraduate paraprofessional staff and more on the well-informed developments of professional staff members and practitioners. However, a good implementation will incorporate both the professional knowledge of practitioners and the creative ideas of our students. Design does not indicate an absence of creativity; it creates opportunities for our student staff to get creative within. With that said, many of the more ambiguous and artistic methods utilized in ABR may make for fantastic activities within the scope of a well designed residential curriculum.
  3. Collaboration Across Campus: Residential curriculum transformed into the curricular approach for a reason. The intentionality of the model should be implemented across the college campus, not simply within a singular facet. For many professionals, this will be a reflection of what we learn and understand in the Student Personnel Point of View, taking on a holistic view of the student and working to provide them with an excellent experience. To some, this signifies a necessary relationship between student affairs professionals and faculty members. Partnership will create more opportunities. Perhaps that exercise utilized in the introductory poetry course would be useful in helping residents connect and express differing worldviews and experiences. Maybe the use of instruments and musical pieces in a learning opportunity will make more sense to some students than a lecture. You never know unless you connect with those around you and give the most unlikely of collaborations a chance to come to light.
  4. Goal Narratives & Resident Narratives: The goals of a residential curriculum will have a narrative that describes the meaning and purpose of the goals. In the same way that the narratives of our educational priorities and goals, the narratives of students make sense of their experiences and learning. Narrative inquiry is a common method of ABR, and similar methods may be useful not only in programming and educational experiences, but also in the assessment process and collection of data to ensure the continuous improvement of the curriculum. 


Intentionally, I chose to close this series on a note that is quite current in all of our professional lives. As practitioners, we are often faced with the challenge of an ever-changing field whose value is under scrutiny. While the world around us changes along with our residents, many of their needs remain the same. It is up to us to strike the balance between the grounded preparation and structure that comes with design and the creativity and possibilities of art. Art and design are different. ABR and the curricular approach have their differences as well. Using our differing resources, expertise, and strengths within both, I believe that we can build a fantastic student experience. 

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