School of Visual Arts

The Armory, one of the main buildings for Virginia Tech's School of Visual Arts, Jan. 26 2020

The Virginia Tech School of Visual Arts (SOVA) launched the visual arts and society minor in fall 2018 to provide the opportunity for more Virginia Tech students to take art courses and different disciplines to students. The minor is a part of the broader Pathways to General Education program at Virginia Tech.

About 60% of the students enrolled in visual arts and society are STEM students –– a statistic that may surprise many, but the minor was particularly designed for these students.

“I think it lets them exercise a different part of their brain,” said James Jewitt, who serves as the director of the visual arts and society minor in addition to teaching the minor’s gateway and capstone courses. “It’s not so quantitative, and it doesn’t require a lot of analytical thinking. It has a mental freedom … you need that refreshing break.”

Over three semesters, about 500 students have submitted seat requests for the minor, and hundreds continue to be on the waitlist according to Jewitt, which makes visual arts and society one of the most popular minors at Tech.

“We wanted an interdisciplinary arts minor that would meet this huge demand from across the university for students, particularly those in STEM fields, to get involved in the arts, because it is vital in creating a well-rounded student,” Jewitt said. “There is lots of academic research, particularly in medical journals, showing that taking these art courses and being trained in close observation with visual skills for looking and synthesizing information will make you a better doctor or criminologist or even a forensic accountant.”

Visual arts and society is one of two minors offered at SOVA, but it is the only minor that is a “Pathways minor” and interdisciplinary; the minor’s courses offer 42% of a student’s Pathways requirements, and 18 credits are required for a student to earn the minor.

All of the courses satisfy most of the general education requirements, making it easier for STEM students to include them into their class schedules.

“The students get more out of their tuition dollars because they get a minor while satisfying their gen-ed requirements, and these are gen-ed courses no matter what your major is,” Jewitt said.

The idea of creativity in the college classroom and the importance to employers for students to use different parts of their brains is what the SOVA staff believes is driving the popularity of the minor among STEM students.

Quoting a requirement for medical students at Yale University, Jewitt explained that medical students must study art, and Yale believes that its students have better observational skills for interpreting visual signs for disease and sickness.

“There’s room for creativity and imagination and critically considering subjects from multiple viewpoints: Usually one right answer exists in engineering, physics and calculus courses, but in art there is no single truth that exists,” Jewitt said. “Art can be analyzed from multiple viewpoints depending on your breakdown. Students tend to love this, and it helps them to think critically and think creatively.”

Jewitt also highlighted that CEOs and employers value creativity highly on an applicant’s resume, and art courses nurture the creativity skills that typically are not implemented in a STEM student’s curriculum.

Virginia Tech has implemented a system for its visual arts and society students that Yale has done with its medical students. A perk for art students is the opportunity to travel to Washington, D.C. to not only study art, but to create a student podcast about the art the students saw in museums. The podcasts are created by students in the capstone course “Interpretation of Visual Arts.” They are currently being produced and will eventually be published and available online.

“I think the students like (the podcasts) because it’s applicable to their lives –– a conversation about art, not something only your professor reads,” Jewitt said. “It’s much more grounded in the real world, not abstract and theoretical.”

The capstone course’s trip to Washington, D.C. is currently supported by the university’s Office of Undergraduate Research and the new student living space under construction behind the Graduate Life Center will feature studio spaces to accommodate the students’ demand for SOVA to teach courses in book art, painting, digital art, web design and sculpture, according to Jewitt.

Moreover, SOVA will host a program in neuro-art history, a study about what happens to the brain when someone looks at art, in the future as well.

“What I’m really excited about is the capstone project,” Jewitt said on the future of the minor at Virginia Tech. “Eventually, we’ll have a website that hosts the podcasts. (The podcasts are) what will keep the momentum going, (since other) students at the university can see what the capstone students have produced.

“The idea is that the students really are the engine of the minor,” Jewitt said. “They have enormous freedom to pursue whatever sort of art they want to make, study or produce their podcast.”

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