Arts-Based Practices in Res Life: Introduction and Strategies

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 history of residential life on college campuses spans far back into the 1600’s. One of the first residence halls in our country was constructed back in 1650, although created with the problematic intention of segregating Native American students from the rest of Harvard’s student body at large. The jumpstart of housing and residence life is a topic which takes on a life of its own. However, like most historical systems that are still at play in higher education today, our department could certainly use the revamp that comes with the incorporation of fresh and modern perspectives. 

Thus, my idea for this three part series on Arts Based Research (ABR) practices in Res Life was born. 

In discovering ABR and exploring the plethora of scholarship on the topic, I found that there were striking parallels between the desired outcomes of residence education and the application of artistically based research practices. The two worlds may seem very far apart, but many of the core intentions intersect in a way that I believe could be beneficial to residential staff and departments throughout the country. 

As an introduction, part one of the series will focus on defining arts-based research and identifying the overlap it holds with residential life. 

What is Arts Based Research? 

That is a wonderful question. In fact, it’s a guiding question that I asked myself not too long ago.

I encountered ABR at the start of my current practicum experience in a qualitative research laboratory. Tasked with sorting through all of the expansive qualitative research produced by my advisor, you can probably guess that I came into contact with many theoretical frameworks and methods of qualitative inquiry and practice. In my work, I found an article titled “Introducing Poetic Immersion as Post‐Qualitative Analysis: A Focus On Culturally Responsive Research” (2022). This article was written by Dr. Penny Pasque, the Director of Qualitative Methods at The Ohio State University & Editor in Chief of The Review of Higher Education and her student, Chelsea Gilbert, a scholar and activist with research interests around poststructural approaches to trauma in higher education environments. Both women dedicate their scholarship and time in the field to promoting inclusion and equity in higher education settings. Their work inspired me to find out more about arts-based research. 

Arts-based research utilizes practices that are most typically linked to the creative arts. This can entail a large array of activities: drawing, painting, theater and the creation of poetry are all valid methods of practice here. Using these activities as a tool, arts-based researchers seek to examine experiences and phenomena in the same way that any other researcher might. The difference, of course, lies within the method used to obtain or represent the data of their project. Where other studies apply straight-forward interview scripts and strategies, an arts-based approach might employ the personal paintings or drawings of their research participants. Moving forward, arts-based research does not limit its involvement of the arts to its participants but expands it towards the researchers themselves and how they choose to present their results. 

These practices are not unheard of as it pertains to education. As a matter of fact, arts-based approaches are quite common in primary and secondary education. Seen as a helpful method for efficient communication between pupil and educator, the arts-based approach makes a lot more sense to most when it comes to younger students; the methods are useful for maintaining dialogue and engagement with those with less verbal communication styles. However, ABR is rare in higher education settings, where academia prioritizes its linguistic values and precision in data representation. 

While certainly uncommon, the practice is not obsolete. In an article titled “But we are academics!’ a reflection on using arts-based research activities with university colleagues” (2016) four scholars from the United Kingdom utilized two arts-based approaches called Cut Up and Collage for their participants (teaching assistants, adjuncts, and supporting staff) to reconstruct a policy document from their institution. The participants were provided with cut up words and phrases from their code of practice along with other art supplies and asked to put the words together in a way that best-made sense to them. Extra pieces, such as feathers or stars, were later used to emphasize important aspects of the construction of words the participants had created. 

To some, this may sound a bit silly. But for the researchers themselves, applying this technique was a very intentional decision in the exploration of their findings. I find that same intentionality to be shared in the goals of Res Life.

Overlap with Residence Life

Much like Res Life, a good portion of Arts-Based Research practice is characterized by the importance of experience. 

Let’s take a look at some of the important aspects of the role that ResLife plays in the higher education atmosphere. 

  • Improvement of cultural competency 
  • The establishment of community on campus
  • Actively being mindful of inclusion and sense of belonging
  • Support of learning external to the classroom
  • Empathy, understanding, and social skills 

These are likely familiar to you as values of Residence Education on various campuses. The desired outcome for our residents is that they walk away with the experience and knowledge that they did not have before their time in our buildings. They should ideally walk away as excellent communicators with a sense of compassion and self-efficacy that prepares them for the world both socially and professionally. Yet, many of these outcomes are somewhat intangible. 

For example, how does one explain a true sense of belonging? What verbiage describes that feeling of empathy? Both of these concepts are linked to behaviors, experiences, and feelings more than they are solidly constructed products of growth. 

Arts-Based Research is all about the intangible. In other words, art is often helpful in depicting the ways that we feel and express ourselves; art is expansive enough to depict the diversity of the experiences we create. What does a sense of belonging feel like to our residents? What does the demonstration of empathy look like in comparison to how it may have before these new connections that they’ve made? If researchers can utilize arts-based practices to have participants examine codes of practice and policy documents, why can’t Residence Education do the same in assessing the way that our residents and paraprofessionals live and learn through their experiences? 

I imagine that we can. 

The incorporation of arts-based research into our assessment practices, our staff meetings, and perhaps even the methods we use to run our buildings would be both interesting and beneficial. Many practices should remain clear and concise for the sake of safety, of course. But for a department with a heavy emphasis on experiential learning, arts-based approaches may depict data results that have previously been left unturned. The value of experience is backed by scholarship in experiential learning theory and even further by the idea of flexible curriculum and its relevance to students’ lives. 

From an even broader perspective, ABR is beneficial in decentering many of the problematic practices we work to dismantle in higher education at large. Doing away with the concepts of perfectionism, precision, and professionalism, ABR gives way to forms of expression and understanding that are more familiar to commonly underheard community voices. It opens the door for cross-cultural conversation and immersive dialogue, two very important factors in increasing cultural competence in students. 

Overall, there is a lot that arts-based practices can offer us in our goal toward the outcomes listed above. 


If you want to learn more about Arts-Based Research, I encourage you to read some of the literature that I have on my list to explore in working on my upcoming project. 

Stay tuned for parts two and three for the series where I’ll explore more application based elements of this topic. 

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