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Professors of Practice cross disciplinary borders through BAI

BAI’s program brings artists Erin McKeown '00, Ali Momeni to mentor students

What is it like to be a working artist? What does it take? What is their creative process? These are some of the questions that the Brown Arts Initiative aims to answer for students through the professor of the practice program, an initiative that has brought professional artists to campus since 2016. Singer-songwriter Erin McKeown ’00 is BAI’s most recent appointment. She began teaching this semester and will be working alongside fellow PoP and digital artist  Ali Momeni.

McKeown, described as a “musician, writer and producer known internationally for her prolific disregard of stylistic boundaries” on her website, most recently produced, composed and co-wrote “Miss You Like Hell,” which details the road trip of a teenage Mexican girl and her undocumented immigrant mother. “I’m really interested in dramatic storytelling through song,” said McKeown, who is currently teaching a course on musical storytelling, TAPS 1251A: “Making the 21st Century Musical.”

Since graduating, McKeown “kept a regular relationship with Brown over the years.” Her time at the University “encouraged (her) creatively,” though she remarked that “a major part of  (her) education as an artist occurred off campus at AS220.”

The artist community in downtown Providence “remains near and dear to my heart. … I’m really excited to bring some of that to the BAI,” she said.

The BAI approached her about the position of PoP after a songwriting workshop she held on campus in 2018. “It’s always been important to me to have teaching be a part of my own artistic practice. … What I’m doing as a professor of the practice at Brown is a more formalized extension of the kind of teaching I’ve been doing for years,” she said.

McKeown hopes to teach students that “creativity is not a precious practice” and to create a class environment where students can “explore and practice and try things.”

Creativity “is something we will do, we have done and we do in the present moment,” she elaborated, “it’s not something to get hung up on.”

Momeni expressed similar sentiments to McKeown in regards to encouraging a strong interdisciplinary mindset within students. “I find that as a professor of the practice I’m able to bring a perspective to the classroom that’s quite different from someone who may be a career academic,” he said.

As the co-founder of IRL Labs, a startup that aims to integrate virtual reality and other storytelling tools into educational programming, Momeni’s appointment as a PoP occurred in conjunction with the Data Science Initiative, extending his time at the University from one to two years.

Having taught MUSC 1205: “Reality Remix - Experimental VR” last semester — a joint collaboration between the music and data science departments — Momeni will return to the Granoff Center for the Creative Arts this semester to install an interactive multimedia exhibition that is “a reflection of death and dying and the afterlife.”

The PoP position appealed to Momeni because of its opportunity “to stay connected to academia and to learning and to youth. … The commitments I have in (industry work) don’t allow me to really service as a full-time faculty person,” he added.

As someone whose “work is so much at the intersection of science and art,” Momeni was excited about the versatility and flexibility of the position, and its ability to “link” the BAI and the DSI.

“I hope that there are other opportunities for other professors of the practice to cross these departmental borders,” he added. “People that slip into disciplines and work cross-functionally tend to face a lot of challenges in academia. … The professor of the practice position really protects you.”

PoPs are appointed as a result of departmental nominations, interviews with the artists themselves and a decision from the BAI executive committee. The appointments engage artists as professors for two semesters: one for teaching students on campus, and another for research where “they continue their work in a connected way” to the University, said Program Manager Sophia LaCava-Bohanan MA’15.

BAI’s professor of the practice program intends to provide students with “greater exposure of what it looks like to be a practicing working artist,” LaCava-Bohanan said. “We had been hearing a lot from students about this desire to know what it is to be an artist in the world,” she added, emphasizing the position’s ability to facilitate the BAI’s interdisciplinary vision.

“I highly recommend that everyone shop a professor of the practice class at some point,” she continued. “They have incredible access in ways that are not possible otherwise.”


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