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Encounters with Life, Death and Hope in a Picture Gallery: Nursing professor introduces students to some of life’s big questions

Posted: Jan. 25, 2016

Of the many eye-opening and life-changing educational opportunities that help students at The University of Texas at Austin develop creative and critical thinking, few go wider and deeper than Signature Courses, which introduce first-year students to the university’s academic community and a range of compelling challenges.

Kristin Holder, print room specialist, discusses one of the prints with
Siobhan McCusker, Dr. Eileen Kintner, and students Laura Walter and Ryan Richard

The Signature Courses offered at UT Austin are designed to connect students from a variety of majors with distinguished faculty members in unique learning environments that encourage them to encounter the “big questions” of our day. This rigorous intellectual experience helps students develop college-level skills in research, writing, speaking and discussion through an approach that is interdisciplinary, collaborative, experiential and contemporary.

That’s what Eileen Kintner, PhD, RN, FAAN, associate professor in the UT Austin School of Nursing, hopes to accomplish when teaching “Growth and Development of Adolescents with Chronic Conditions” for undergraduate students. One of her goals is to increase her students’ understanding of the many challenges that adolescents living with chronic conditions and physical disabilities contend with daily. By exposing them to a range of experiences in different settings across campus, including the Ransom Center, the LBJ Presidential Library and the Blanton Museum, students begin to understand these challenges and come to appreciate the immense resources the university offers.

Kintner’s approach to teaching is student-centered, interactive and participatory and one in which she strives to create exciting and dynamic learning experiences. “These excursions to venues across campus are more than just field trips,” she said. “They are both structured learning activities and powerfully moving experiences for students.”

She explained that preparation for the outings begins on the first day with students exploring and engaging in anticipatory learning so that they are better able to maximize their encounters. Evaluation is based on their ability to ask and answer questions, participate in discussions and demonstrate a high level of understanding, which is demonstrated by their writing several reflective briefs during the semester.

Siobhan McCusker, museum educator at the Blanton Museum,
explains the significance of The Last T Cell

Kintner’s courses over the past six years have been so successful that the Blanton Museum included it in a recent brochure, describing how the Blanton staff selected nearly a dozen works on paper and mixed media related to the course theme and focusing on artistic expressions of the experience of individuals diagnosed with HIV/AIDS. After the viewing, the students discussed and then wrote about the various images of loneliness, anxiety, suffering, loss and grief, as well as support, hope, empathy and resilience.

As the museum educator for university audiences, Siobhan McCusker custom designs gallery experiences that have curricular connections with classes across campus.

“For Dr. Kintner’s class, we curated a temporary exhibition of works of art that explored the AIDS crisis in the early 1990s,” McCusker said. “Students were guided to look carefully, encouraged to come up with ideas about what the artist was trying to communicate, and relate the ideas and images to their own lived experience. As facilitators, we shared the artist’s story to expand their understanding of the time period. Empathy and personal narrative were emblematic of the experience.”

These works included Untitled by David Wojnarowicz, Me adapto a mi enfermedad (I adapt to my illness) and Cordero Sacrificado (Sacrificed Lamb) by Feliciano Centurion, among others that tell the story of the patient experience. For many students, The Last T Cell, a print by Eric Avery, vividly portrayed the link between the emotional and physical realities of AIDS patients who the artist treated as a psychiatrist. For these patients, who are losing the cells that actively participate in the body’s immune response, the depiction of just one remaining T cell is an expression of hope in the midst of dying, a refusal to surrender.

After the seminar, which included a poetic reading, academic discussion, and personal sharing around issues of chronic illness and sexuality, students wrote about what they had discovered.

The Last T Cell, a relief photo-engraving
and linocut over monotype with bleeded
handwork by Eric Avery

Rahmatu Mansaray, a student in the School of Nursing’s alternate entry master of science in nursing program, explained how viewing The Last T Cell underscored her experience in a lab as a T cell researcher. “T cells are regarded as good, helper cells, and so the depiction of at least one that was in fairly good shape was better than none. It meant hope,” she said.

Laura Walter, another nursing student and course peer mentor, said the moving and poignant gallery viewing provided “a tangible way to see and understand chronic conditions.”

But for even those students whose degree programs are unrelated to science or health care, the experience can be just as thought provoking. Ryan Richard, a history and government major, praised the Blanton staff, especially McCusker’s skill at encouraging discussion and evaluation of the pieces viewed.

“Her knowledge of the art work and the biographical information was impressive,” he said. “Everyone in the class was moved in some way and had something to say about the pieces, particularly about the hatred and discrimination that the artists went through. It was touching to see how those tribulations invoked sympathy and compassion from the students.”

For Kintner, reading the students’ expressions of how they were touched and changed makes all the planning, preparation and travel logistics more than worthwhile.

“I hope this experience encourages them to continue to venture into unfamiliar settings in order to expand their viewpoints,” she said. “But even if they don’t, I’m confident that this class stretched their understanding of the world and the people they share it with.”

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