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Ma­na­ging the Arts. An interview with Nis­hant Shah

07/12/2016 Nishant Shah, Ph.D. is the academic director of "Managing the Arts", this year's open online course at the Leuphana Digital School.

Mr. Shah, the course topic this year is "Managing the Arts: Cultural Organizations in Transition". When speaking of transition, which are the two worlds that cultural institutions like museums and theaters move between?

I think it would be unfair to think of transitions as happening only between two worlds. We do have precedents in the division of disciplines and formation of modern thought that urge us to think in terms of dualisms. However, I would suggest that we take a different approach to transitions – transitions not as just traveling between two distinct points, or bringing together of two separated entities. For me, and especially for the course, when we think of transitions, we are particularly interested in looking at transition as a space to question the static nature of location, temporality, practice, perspectives and futures. The transitory or the transient is an in-between hybrid space from which the different mapped points and plotted routes can be questioned and negotiated with.

How can an online course of this format help to address modern development and challenges?

This entire course has been designed not to offer prescriptive measures and fixed grids through which to evaluate cultural processes. We are more focused on how to empower Arts and Cultural Organisations (ACOs) into critically evaluating questions of administration, sustainability, networking, financial resilience and cultural capital building that makes sense to them. The push is to help the learners understand what are the ways by which they can articulate their transition, to map it, to cope with it, and to build informed strategies to achieve their visions. And so it might be worthwhile to let go of these universalisms around modernity and measure, and instead build better indicators which are sensitive to the needs and the desires of the institution that we might be working with. 

When the course started, the participants were split into small teams, create and publish their own submissions and are then evaluated by mentors and the course community. This is an impressively large group of about 1,000 people worldwide who don't even know each other. Will the evaluation of the submissions be scientific nevertheless?

I think this question touches the heart of the pedagogic structures of this course. Our idea was that when we think of digital learning, it cannot be merely an extension or a conversion of our traditional classroom practices. The challenge has been to reconfigure the role of the learner, the role of the teacher, the nature of learning, and indeed, the process of evaluation. There is a false fetishisation in academic policies about scientific evaluations – but these are informed by some very old structures where the ‘teacher’ was considered to be an authority who validates the right and the wrong, as if there can only be one correct response or thought. I think the course is interesting because it refuses such an objective criteria for evaluation. The evaluation in this course is not about whether the learning is right or wrong – because there can never be a definitive answer like that in arts and cultural education. Instead, the evaluation is based on looking at whether learning has happened. Through the course, the learners work with each other to learn methods, processes, structures, tools, and each one of them leads to fascinating exchanges and outputs. We judge not the truth value of the analysis, but the routes that the learners deploy in order to produce their analysis. And hence, the evaluation remains scientific because we accept that content cannot have one meaning, or one truth value, but the processes can be standardized while still opening them to creative modes of thinking and reflection. Evaluation is not reduced to just grades and numbers, but to a mentored response that helps the students to learn and continue to improve on their own learning processes.

The teachers will give impulses for the submissions in short video-keynotes. Where do the teachers come from, what is their background and what do they want the students to take from the course?

The teachers who were invited after a careful curation of the wide community of cultural scholars, practitioners, and producers that we had access to, were selected through a series of reflections. We did not have a drop-down check-list of the criteria by which teachers were invited to share their knowledge. However, there was a structure here: Each phase has a series of impulse keynotes, which have to serve a particular purpose. Some keynotes are designed to give a historical overview, and to introduce the state of the debate in the field. These are teachers who have academic and research credentials, who can help understand the larger discussions and debates that have happened so far, and help giving a sense of location and groundedness to the learners. Some other keynotes were designed so that they would be able to offer a critical take on the challenges for the phase. These are teachers who are on the ground, who have built new frameworks and processes to deal with the real-life challenges, and have innovative experiences and valuable life lessons to share. There are some keynotes that are speculative, and help the learners to think about beyond the present. They offer new modes of thinking, alternative frameworks to explore, and help them build towards the future. These are teachers who are not just administrators but also visionaries who can offer multiple perspectives and alternatives from their learning and experience. We wanted to make sure that the teachers are not like each other – diversity, in gender, race, location, experience, field, disciplines, stakeholder positions, institutional affiliations were also considered in inviting people who we thought were inspired and inspiring, and were committed to sharing their work as pedagogues for the continued growth of the sector. The one thing the students will take away from this course from our teachers, is the realization that we need to work together, and that we need to build infrastructure of risk taking and innovation to build sustainable futures for our arts and cultural organisations. 

The first iteration, "Managing the Arts: Marketing for Cultural Organizations" won the European Comenius EduMedia Award in the category "Digital Multimedia Product". Congratulations! Where there unexpected events or insights that can be used for the second course?

Thank you. We were very excited about the prestigious award, and we owe it to different principles that the MOOC embodies. We have firmly believed from the beginning that the learners in this course are not pupils but co-creators of knowledge. In our first iteration, the learners helped us create multiple instances of co-learning and processes of learning. They showed us different ways of organizing, collaborating and co-working which cannot be coded into a platform but can be created only through interactions and conversations within the community. In the new iteration, we tried to emulate some of these best practices, and we continued to give ownership of the learning process to the community. We realized that learners benefit a lot from interacting with the teaching faculty and learning sources. To increase this, we initiated a new format called Ask Me Anything that invited the entire community to ask real-time questions and get into a concentrated discussion with the academic directors and the MOOC facilitator. We also started live webinars where we could provide reflections on the learning process and have a live conversation using video chat with the students about their own experiences within the MOOC. 

Thank you for the interview!

Interview by Dörte Krahn.

More information on Managing the Arts and the Leuphana Digital School.

Edited by Krahn/Gierczak, University Communication. News can be send to