Carnegie Mellon University

Discovery by Design: A Writing Course for Visual Artists

Author: Sarah Dennis Eldridge
Degree: Ph.D. in Rhetoric, Carnegie Mellon University, 1990

In Suzanne Langer's investigation into the perfection of artistic form, she is always reminding us that the logic of symbolic expression is an old story that has never been completed. This dissertation reviews the literature of symbolic expression in the visual-verbal tradition, develops a rationale for making linkages between visual and verbal instruction, and presents a writing course that aims to stimulate fine arts students to explore the "old story" in both visual and verbal languages.

It is a commonplace at Carnegie Mellon that most fine arts students do not think of themselves as effective writers because their major area of study demands immersion in visual or perceptual thinking. "Writing by Design" is a course structured to help these students discover the similar critical principles and techniques that visual artists and writers employ in the process of perfecting form. A major assumption drives the course design: if students can understand that in the studio they are controlling processes similar to those in the composing of written discourse, they can gain the confidence they need to see themselves as artists who can write. The fifteen-week course focuses on observation, abstraction, and transformation thinking skills and reiterative evaluation in order to develop competence in writing. Selected readings, written by visual artists, generate the common concerns of visual and verbal composing. The studio-art method of continual inquiry is employed in producing nine essays. This method emphasizes perception and description: the attempt to see what the composed work is in itself and to grasp its several possibilities for further development.

Analysis of six evaluation instruments (pre and post surveys, a student questionnaire, an observer's report, and student document review, journal and conference self- report, and the university course evaluation) indicated that a positive attitude shift had occurred. The course helped fine arts students to see writing as a critical and creative process of inquiry. Their perception that writing is an art was most important to their developing a commitment to writing. Most significant, the students' sense of their effectiveness as writers developed as they discovered the linkages between visual and verbal composing.