Rita Irwin: An A/r/tographic Inquiry a Curriculum Scholar Review by Rachel Poff for EDU 6102 Seminar in Curriculum Studies Research

Rita Irwin: An A/r/tographic Inquiry a Curriculum Scholar Review by Rachel Poff for EDU 6102 Seminar in Curriculum Studies Research

When I began researching for this assignment I knew I wanted to find a scholar I was interested in, not just a scholar for the sake of completing the paper. I was initially drawn to William Pinar and then to Lisa Farley. For a variety of reasons, neither of these worked out so I changed my tactics and decided to find a scholar or area I knew nothing about and expand my horizons. Enter Rita Irwin. Rita Irwin is a professor of Art Education at the University of British Columbia. She is a widely published researcher whose areas of interest include curriculum practices, art education and a/r/tography.  Her work is often funded through grants by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada. She is currently working on a research project entitled Becoming Pedagogical through A/r/tography in Teacher Education, with other notable scholars such as Carl Leggo and Stephanie Springgay (www.ritairwin.com/resume.html, n.d.).

As I began reading her articles, both her independent and collaborative works; I realized she was the perfect scholar not only for this paper, but also for this academic year. So much of the focus this year has been on place, personal narratives and holistic approaches to education, all of which I found represented in the work of Rita Irwin. For this assignment I will be looking at five articles and research projects she has been involved in, on her own or in collaboration with others. I have organized the articles based on my reading of them and how I moved from one to another to gain a better understanding of the work of Irwin and the concept of a/r/tography as a whole. It was definitely not a linear process as I struggled with some of them and needed to go back to others to solidify my understanding.

A/r/tography as Living Inquiry through Art and Text

Without is a space of active participation where one discovers that previous methodologies are not sufficient while simultaneously resisting the formation of specific criteria to replace them. (Springgay, Irwin & Kind, 2005, p. 899)

My initial text, A/r/tography as Living Inquiry through Art and Text, by Stephanie Springgay, Rita Irwin and Sylvia Wilson Kind is an interesting and complicated look at arts based research through the lens of active inquiry. The authors argue that in order to engage in meaningful and rigorous arts based research, a new space for learning needs to be created. “Our arguments stem from a belief that if forms of arts-based research are to be taken seriously as emerging fields within educational research, then perhaps they need to be understood as methodologies in their own right, not as extensions of qualitative research” (Springgay, Irwin & Kind, 2005, p. 898). The authors have developed six areas of this research, referred to as “renderings” (Springgay, et al., 2005), which are contiguity, living inquiry, openings, metaphor/metonymy, reverberations, and excess. They assert that inquiry within and between these renderings is living inquiry known as a/r/tography (Springgay et al., 2005). As Irwin so eloquently states……. ”a/r/tography embraces a metissage existence that integrates knowing, doing, and making,… that desires an aesthetic experience found in an elegance of flow between intellect, feeling, and practice” (as cited in Irwin, de Cosson, 2004, p. 29). Looking at the six areas or renderings they can be examined more closely for greater understanding. Contiguity is the coming together of art and image and word. It is a living, active inquiry between the two disciplines of art and qualitative research. Living inquiry is engaging in experiences in order to further learning. Unlike traditional research, a/r/tography moves beyond spaces created and moves into them. Metaphor and metonymy are used as relationships between ideas. Unlike traditional research where the researcher is dealing with words only, here the research is dealing with words, images, performances etc. Openings, to my understanding, mean looking beyond the surface. It involves going deeper and looking for the meaning behind the meaning. Reverberations are the moments or opportunities created when new meanings or ideas emerge. These ideas emerge from the movements or “reverberations” of old ideas. Finally there is excess. Excess is the questioning of meaning making (Springgay, et al, 2004).

While I admire the work done by the authors, I feel as though this is not necessarily a new idea. It feels repackaged and renamed in the name of research. As an educator, the ideas or “renderings” presented by the authors are not necessarily new. They seem to be the framework that makes up any solid inquiry based learning curriculum. Is this not what we want of all our students; to look beyond the surface, dig deeper and take a holistic approach to learning? Is this not what we want from ourselves as educators? It embraces multimodal literacies and a variety of learning styles like all teachers should strive for. While I liked the article and appreciated the concepts, I found the terminology somewhat off putting. It made the information in the article inaccessible and for me, difficult to follow. I find this confusing.  Why make your work inaccessible? I have to assume this work was meant for other a/r/tographers that were already familiar with the language and the concepts.

Lingering in Luminal Spaces:A/r/tography as Living Inquiry in a Language Arts Class

With a heartfelt commitment to integrating the arts, Kathy opened students to the power of learning artistically as a community of practice by actively embodying living inquiry. (Leggo, Sinner, Irwin, Pantaleo, Gouzouasis & Grauer, 2011, p. 243).

Having read the theoretical, I was interested in looking at the practical. I am a far better practitioner than I am theorist, or at least I am more comfortable in my role as a practitioner. Therefore, Lingering in Luminal Spaces: A/r/tography as Living Inquiry in a Language Arts Class was an excellent read because it was a practical hands on look at theory in practice. It removed all of the negatives I felt about the first article, the academic elitism, and made it engaging. It was interesting to see the researchers struggle with their roles and their understanding of their roles and the place of traditional qualitative research. In the article the researchers engaged in a yearlong observation of a 6/7 split classroom. The idea of the project was to explore……”how the teacher used the arts as an integrative tool for holistic learning and knowledge creation within her specific school content” (Leggo, Sinner, Irwin, Pantaleo, Gouzouasis & Grauer, 2011, p. 240). During the process of the research, the authors realized that the traditional ethnographic approach was constraining. They realized that they needed to use the a/r/tographical approach in order to have the most authentic experience between themselves and the students, themselves and the teacher and themselves and the material.  As they noted, the classroom they were working in was already participating in active inquiry by a talented and creative teacher. As a result, the original methodology was no longer adequate. As Irwin previously said, “A/r/tography is predicated on the embodied experiences of the researchers and the students engaging in living inquiry” (as cited in Irwin 2004). The researchers themselves became part of the research and turned to other forms of data collection such as poetry, as a method to record their findings. I thought this article was fascinating for a number of reasons. It was interesting to walk through the project with the authors and read about problem solving as the project changed into something new and unexpected. It made the idea and/or concept of a/r/tography come to life. Having read the Springgay, Irwin and Kind article first, this article made the renderings they spoke of clear. I could see them working through the openings and living their own inquiry. The one negative aspect to the article was that I would have liked to have seen some of the work or a reflection produced by the students. I wonder if they had as powerful an experience as the authors.

Medicine Wheel Imag(in)ings: Exploring Holistic Curriculum Perspectives

He connected knowledge about the past to present experiences and understandings and made connections with the children between his culture and knowledge, history, and their lives and experiences. (Kind, Irwin, Grauer & de Cosson, 2005, p.34).

This project undertaken by Rita L. Irwin, Kit Grauer, and Alex de Cosson was another interesting exploration of a/r/tography as a way of learning and knowing. The authors looked at a project called Learning through the Arts in which Gabriel, a Coast Salish artist, attending three hour and a half class at a grade 3/4 split class, introduced students to a new way of learning. With the help of the classroom teacher Alan, who became a student himself, the students embarked on a new learning experience. They engaged in storytelling, dancing, drumming and learning about the medicine wheel, taking a holistic approach to education. Students and teachers past experiences were honoured and respected and a community of learners developed. A safe space was created, where sharing feelings and experiences was valued. The mind, body, emotion and spirit of the medicine wheel came to life within the classroom and diversity, culture and communication were celebrated. “Gabriel painted a beautiful holistic picture of what curriculum and arts education could be-a rich and full experience embracing mind, body, emotion, and spirit within circles of respect and honoring multiple traditions and perspectives”(Kind, et al., 2005 p.37). This reading immediately reminded me of Project of Heart by Sylvia Smith and the rubric used that was visually represented by a medicine wheel. It also took a very holistic approach to learning and assessment based on First Nations principles. If these types of projects seem to have positive outcomes for all involved, why are they the exception instead of the rule? Why is this not the standard of education?

The City of Richgate:A/r/tographic Cartography as Public Pedagogy

Working through this understanding of a ‘silent dialogue’, the artworks created for the Richgate project examine the relationships between people and place, and thereby the spaces of community. (Irwin, Bickel, Triggs, Springgay, Beer, Grauer, Xiong & Sameshima, 2009, p.64).

The City of Richgate:A/r/tographic Cartography as Public Pedagogy by Rita L. Irwin, Barbara Bickel, Valerie Triggs, Stephanie Springgay, Ruth Beer, Kit Grauer, Gu Xiong and Pauline Sameshima provided many connections to class. In this article the research examined an area in British Columbia known as Richmond. The project was designed to look at the concepts of place and identity as they related to immigrant families in Richmond and have these ideas displayed in public spaces through various visual representations. The researchers framed their work through an a/r/tographic lens and challenged ideas of what home is. Again, this article solidified the concepts of the foundations of a/r/tography as a form of research and curriculum. This project forced people to look into the “openings” created by the artwork and think about their own connections to community, family and place through a series of eight different art instillations around the city (Irwin et al., 2009). I loved the way the project confronted people with the notion of place and how it is so different from person to person; once place can have many different images or stories depending on the memory of the artist. It reminds me of the work of Benedict Anderson and the imagined community (Anderson, 2006). How did the socially constructed community of Richmond compare to the community created through art? What would the art work of Ottawa look like? What is our imagined community? Would people actually see it? I would have liked to have seen some comments or reflections of the participants in the city. Not the artists themselves, but those people who walked through the public spaces.

Towards an Aesthetic of Unfolding In/Sights through Curriculum.

Lingering in the in-between space, the and or /, is an active space for knowledge creation, and particularly, an active space for unfolding aesthetic sensibilities. (Irwin, 2004, p.64)

I found this article the most challenging of all of Irwin’s pieces. The more abstract concepts were difficult to grasp in relation to curriculum studies. I put it down a number of times and thought about it and then returned to the article determined to garner some meaning. Irwin talked of under paintings in art. The process of painting over a work of art and letting go of the previous form in order to create something new. I tried to connect this with my life, but I struggled. Then I thought of my own teaching practice and it made sense. Each day we are faced with an under painting if we are indeed reflective of our own practice.  If a lesson went really well, why did it? If a lesson failed horribly, why? These are the paintings we are faced with every day. We have to let them go in order to make them better. We can use the foundations, but we have to create something new. I think this is a creative way to look at becoming more reflective in your everyday life by looking carefully at things and learning to let them go. I think this is what Irwin was talking about in this article. I may be wrong, but that is what it said to me.

Rita Irwin is currently involved in the reshaping of the teacher education program at University of British Columbia. I look forward to seeing how she weaves a/r/tography into the new framework. How much freedom will she and her colleagues have to paint over the old curriculum and create a new one? I hope she is allowed as much freedom as is needed. The research she has led, or participated in, speaks to the kind of education I want to be involved in. Inquiry driven on all levels, not just the student, but the teacher and school administrators as well. Holistic, in that it deals with the whole student/teacher/administrator, not just the test taker, and addresses multi modal literacies as the a/r/tographic lens does. It would make projects such as Learning through the Arts and Project of Heart the norm in schools across Canada rather than exceptions.

It seems like all of the readings I have read, the many guest speakers I have listened to, and the papers I have written this year are through the lens of holistic approaches to education. Rita Irwin does this using the a/r/tographic approach to teaching and learning. It allows us to reflect on our work, our research, our practice and our relationships with an all encompassing eye and realize we have more than one role in life at a time. Throughout all of the readings there was a common thread of questioning. Questioning ones work, questions ones reality, questioning place, home, community and our relationships with one another. We can be teachers and learners, artists and writers and use each of them to create new, more complex, interesting and engaging ways to interact with our environment and those around us. Irwin’s  a/r/tographic approach to learning and knowing lends itself to collaboration by its very nature. It creates a space for writers, poets and artists to work together to create a new aesthetic that celebrates the process as much as it does the product.


Anderson, B. (2006). Imagined Communites: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London; New York: Verso.

Irwin, Rita, L. (2004). A/r/tography: A metonymic metisagge. In A/r/tography: Rendering self  through arts-based living inquiry, ed. R.L. Irwin and A. de Cosson, 27-38. Vancouver,  BC: Pacific Educational Press

Irwin, Rita, L, (n.d.). Rita L. Irwin Resume. Retrieved February 24, 2012, from http://ritairwin.com/index.html

Irwin, Rita, L., (2004). Unfolding aesthetic in/sights between curriculum and pedagogy. Journal of Curriculum and Pedagogy 1(2), 43-48

Irwin, R. L., Bickel, B., Triggs, V., Springgay, S., Beer, R., Gruaer, K., et al. (2009). The City of Richgate:A/r/tographic Cartography as Public Pedagogy. International Journal of Art and Design Education, 28(1), 61-70

Kind, S., Irwin,R., Grauer, K., de Cosson, A. (2005). Medicine Wheel Imag(in)ings: Exploring Holistic Curriculum Perspectives. Art Education Vol.58, No.5 Sept , 33-38.

Leggo, C., Sinner, A. E., Irwin, R. L., Pantaleo, K., Gouzouasis, P., & Grauer, K. (2011). Lingering in liminal spaces: a/r/tography as living inquiry in a language arts class. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education Vol.24, No.2 , 239-256.

Springgay, S., Irwin, R., Kind, S., A/r/tography as living inquiry through art and text. (2005). Qualitative Inquiry, 11(6), 897-912