Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Patricia Leavy Wins National Honor for Arts Advocacy

Patricia Leavy, Ph.D. is an independent sociologist and best-selling author. She has published twenty-four books, earning critical and commercial success in both nonfiction and fiction, a rare feat by any author. Her work has been translated into numerous languages. She is also the creator and editor for seven book series with Oxford University Press and Brill-Sense, the co-founder and co-editor-in-chief of Art/Research International: A Transdisciplinary Journal, and a blogger for The Huffington Post and The Creativity Post.

Patricia has received career awards from New England Sociological Association, the American Creativity Association, the American Educational Research Association, and the International Congress of Qualitative Inquiry. In 2016 Mogul, a women’s empowerment network, named her an “Influencer.” It was recently announced that Patricia is the recipient of the National Art Education Association 2018 Distinguished Service Outside the Profession Award. Established in 1965, previous recipients include Nelson Rockefeller, Jacqueline Kennedy, and a who’s who of vice presidents, governors, senators, and CEOs. Patricia has made history as the first sociologist and first full-time author to receive the honor. Patricia received this award for her internationally recognized work advancing and popularizing arts-based research in both the academy and public. Letters of support called her “a visionary” and “pioneer” and credited her with inspiring countless careers. Patricia is a long-time supporter of Mental Fitness, Inc, and a blogger for We Are the Real Deal. We’ve spoken with her several times over the years and recently had a chance to chat about her monumental, and indeed history-making, award win.

Congratulations on the NAEA! It’s an impressive honor.

Thank you so much. I have a deep love and respect for art educators so to receive this nod from them is quite humbling.

What does this recognition mean to you?

I see this much more as recognition of arts-based research and less about my own work. It’s thrilling to see arts-based research, a paradigm that’s been formally established for less than three decades, receiving this kind of validation. I’m thrilled for the field and grateful to be a conduit for this milestone.

Your background is in sociology. How did you become an arts advocate?

I was frustrated with the limitations of traditional ways of doing and sharing sociological research. I turned to the arts first in my own work to develop new insights and make my work more accessible, including to public audiences. I was blown away by the power of these approaches, not only in my own work but also work I consumed by others. That set me on this path of advocating for the arts in spheres in which sometimes the arts are excluded or minimized, such as education, the social sciences, and natural sciences.

What is arts-based research?

Arts-based research exists at the nexus of art/the humanities and research/science. ABR involves researchers in any discipline adapting the tenets of the creative arts in order to address research questions. An arts practice may be used during project conceptualization, data collection, data analysis, and/or to represent research findings. These approaches to research are useful for producing new insights and learning; description, exploration, discovery, or problem solving; forging macro-micro connections; evocation and provocation; raising critical consciousness or awareness; cultivating empathy; unsettling stereotypes; applied research; and contributing to public scholarship.

You published a beautiful “love letter to the arts” detailing your lifelong love of the arts. What inspired you to write the love letter?

It was a confluence of extraordinary factors. On a personal level, I had a serious injury to my spine for which I needed surgery. I was in rough shape physically and emotionally. The word that would best define those months is pain. On a political level, the arts and artists were under attack. Funding was being slashed, art education was being undervalued, artists were being threatened and punished for speaking out, and so on. I was deeply saddened that at a time when art was needed more than ever, it was becoming more difficult for artists to create. So as I lay on my back, in a brace and in pain, mourning for my body and mourning for my country, I turned to art. It was the only thing that could lift me out of my grief. I watched concerts, films, interviews with artists at different moments in their careers, and it somehow started to give me strength. Art reminded me that no matter what, we can and must create. We are creative forces. That’s when I decided to write the love letter. In part, I wrote it as a thank you to the arts for pulling me out of some heavy duty grief.

You published the first edition of your bestselling book Method Meets Art nearly ten years ago. Have you seen arts-based research grow during that time?

Yes, enormously. Publishers had barely heard of ABR back when I was working on my book proposal. Guilford Press was visionary to take it on. When Method Meets Art first came out there was a groundbreaking book by Shaun McNiff, but very little else out. Within two years of the release several other books came out, and since then many others have been released. The same is true of journals, conferences, book series, and blogs. I think the growth can best be measured though by teaching practices, and certainly it’s the best predictor of future growth. There are many more undergraduate and graduate courses that teach ABR.

We spoke last May about the release of your book Research Design: Quantitative, Qualitative, Mixed Methods, Arts-Based, and Community-Based Participatory Research Approaches. In the letters of support for your NAEA award, nominators noted how significant this book is to the teaching of research methods and that you’re bringing the arts into research practice in a way no one else has. Can you talk a little about this book?

Research Design is a step-by-step guide to designing research using the five approaches to research: quantitative, qualitative, mixed methods, arts-based, and community-based participatory. Most research methods books focus on two or three approaches so it was a big undertaking. Honestly, the textbook is meant to serve a simple function, which is guiding students in research methods courses and offering a reference to researchers. For me the book wasn’t only about adding additional approaches, but also tackling the standard fare in my own way, with lots of social justice examples, ethical guideposts, and instructions for writing a proposal with each approach. For example, all the books include quantitative research but I wanted to offer something unique, with in-depth guidance on constructing surveys, attention to replication studies, and so forth. I wanted to write a user-friendly research design book. So that was the primary purpose. However, I also wanted to document and legitimize all five approaches to knowledge-building, without prioritizing or privileging any particular approach. Each approach is useful for different research questions and purposes. The two approaches in the book that aren’t considered standard fare are arts-based and community-based participatory research. So why include these? It’s vital to expand how we think about “standard research designs” because the newer approaches were developed during a time of more diversity and inclusion in the field. How knowledge is created, for what purposes, by whom, and with whom, matters. Our taken-for-granted ideas about what is valuable to know and how we best come to know are complicit in relations of power. These assumptions impact our research practices which ultimately impacts our funding structures and what research is funded. Why does this matter to the average person? It matters because it shapes the knowledge we create and put into practice in all areas of social and environmental life. How we create knowledge impacts what knowledge we have. There are real-world implications down to each and every person reading this, including the frameworks people in daily life use to evaluate information presented to them. I felt there were practical and ethical reasons to document the five approaches to research design.

Tell me about Art/Research International: A Transdisciplinary Journal, for which you’re co-editor-in-chief.

ARI is an online, open access, peer-reviewed journal that I co-founded with Dr. Diane Conrad. We publish work in all media at the intersection of art and science. There are some wonderful online journals that include ABR or focus on a particular genre of ABR, but we felt it was important for the arts-based community to have an online journal solely devoted to this work. We wanted to create a space for artist-researchers to publish their work. Being online is essential because it allows you to consider works in different artistic mediums. Getting a journal off the ground is a lot of work, more than we probably bargained for, and I’m grateful to Diane as she’s assumed the lion’s share of the day-to-day operations. We have an extraordinary volunteer staff and they labor hard to put out issues we’re all proud of. The reception for the journal has been amazing so we all feel like we’re helping to fill a void.

It’s rumored that you had paid offers from publishers to start a subscription journal about arts-based research. Is that true? If so, why volunteer instead?

Yes, that is true. Paid offers mean that either authors have to pay submissions fees or that consumers have to pay to access the journal, or both. I felt it was important that the journal is open access. It’s no secret that I’m not a big fan of the academic journal system as a whole, in part because so few people have access to it and there’s enormous educational bias built-in with people outside of the academy totally excluded. While I did carefully consider other opportunities, in the end I felt it was too important that the journal is open access. The only way it works is if people are willing to donate their time. In truth, there’s a limit to how much time I can devote to it, but as a part of a team, it’s doable.

You are both a scholar and an artist, with multiple bestselling novels and a recently coauthored collection of short stories on your resume. Do you think being both a scholar and artist has given you unique insight into the potential of the arts in research studies?

Most arts-based practitioners are both scholars and artists so within my community, it’s not unique. But yes, it’s been a benefit to me. Some arts-based researchers began with a fine arts practice. I started with a research methods background and that’s informed how I’ve tried to make sense of the field, which I’ve documented in Method Meets Art. In his work on ethnodrama, Johnny Saldaña has written about thinking like a researcher and thinking like an artist. I agree that placing both lenses onto the work makes a difference in how you see and think. Arts-based researchers simultaneously wear two hats. For me, the act of both writing and releasing my novels has affirmed what I already believed about the arts and their potential to illuminate, engage, and disrupt. I had been researching and teaching about women’s lives and popular culture for a decade. Yet I learned so much during the process of writing my first novel. I was able to weave insights together that even I hadn’t yet connected. Even in reading that novel now, years later, I continue to learn. So on a personal level, I gleaned many new insights. But audience response was the real eye-opener. Releasing that novel and subsequent works of fiction was totally unlike releasing nonfiction. Many readers developed strong, highly personal responses, some identified closely with characters or situations and used the work to prompt personal change, and for others there was deep learning about those with whom they may not share much in common. Impressions were lasting as some readers have contacted me years later, still thinking about particular characters or scenes. So there’s no question that my own creative work has taught me the arts hold enormous promise for knowledge-building across subject matters.

Let’s talk about your novels. They all center on women’s lives and relationships but really they seem to be about women’s relationships with themselves. What was your goal writing them?

That’s a good observation. I’m a big believer that the most important relationship we have is the one we have with ourselves, which ultimately shapes all other relationships. So yes, that message underscores my novels, albeit in different ways, as each novel has its own theme.

Low-Fat Love became a cult classic and one of the books you’re most closely associated with. In the anniversary edition your publisher said, “It is rare to have the privilege of publishing a book that changes the field, blurs academic and trade publishing, and ultimately becomes a landmark text.” What does that book mean to you now?

What it means to me keeps changing. When you have success with your first novel you’re aware how lucky you are. But it’s challenging too when you become closely associated with something and you’ve moved on to work that you think is better, but it doesn’t necessarily have as large an audience. I’ve spoken privately with some well-known artists about this, the double-edged sword. On the one hand, the success allows you to keep creating, but on the other, people are always interested in the older work. So my relationship with Low-Fat Love has been tricky. But I also continue to receive emails and notes from readers as well as comments whispered in my ear at book events and conferences, that all touch me deeply. I’m truly honored the book has meant something to so many readers and grateful when they share their stories with me. I even continue to get occasional emails from readers that say the book literally saved them from suicide. I mean, that’s humbling. So I’ve landed in a place of gratitude for the book, both what it’s afforded me as an author and what it’s meant to others. I hear people use the term “low-fat love” now and it makes me smile. I also recently re-read it for the first time since putting out the anniversary edition. I was dealing with a health challenge and feeling depressed. The characters really held my hand. They lifted me up. I’m grateful for that. It made me appreciate the book much more.

True to form, you didn’t publish your novels in a traditional way but rather created the Social Fictions series. Creating spaces for others has been a hallmark of your career. The American Creativity Association lauded the Social Fictions series as a “landmark achievement and watershed moment in the academy and publishing” which was just echoed in your NAEA award nomination letters. Clearly the awards committee agreed. Can you describe this series and why you began it?

The Social Fictions series exclusively publishes the products of arts-based research. We publish novels, short story collections, plays, and poetry collections that are informed by research and teaching practices, but written entirely in literary forms. Each book includes a brief academic introduction. I created the series out of necessity. I had written Low-Fat Love and had no idea how I was going to publish it. Typically with a novel you get a literary agent and pitch to trade publishers. But I wanted to publish the novel for both academic and popular audiences. I wanted it to count as research. I had relationships in the academic publishing world but not trade, so I got creative and came up with the idea for the series. After some convincing, the second publisher I approached took it on. It turns out they were the ideal publisher for the series and it’s been a wonderful partnership ever since. I think maybe there’s a useful message here about applying our creativity not just to our art, but also to problem-solving and creating opportunities when it seem none exist.

What does the Social Fictions series mean to you today?

It’s something I remain very proud of. I think we did something special and that even many years later, we’re still doing something special and unique. But today social fictions means more to me than just the series. The series launched this concept of “social fiction” which now pops up all over the academic landscape. I wrote a book and several book chapters about fiction as a research practice, but it shows up well beyond my own work which is really wonderful. The term is used in academic articles, books, dissertations, social media, and so forth. Ashleigh Watson recently launched SoFi which is a zine devoted to social fiction. I regularly receive emails from students and researchers wanting to do “social fiction” and seeking to share their work with me or ask for advice. I have no words to express how gratifying it is to see what this idea and series has inspired.

Which do you find more challenging, fiction or nonfiction? And do you have a favorite?

They’re challenging in different ways. Fiction demands the most precision, even though that might seem counterintuitive. Fiction requires rigorous attention to language and it can often take a long time to get a small bit that truly works. You revise endlessly. Of course the rewards are enormous. There’s such a high when you write something that truly captures what you were after, something that sings. It’s quite magical. You start to chase that magic, hunt for it. Sometimes a character says something beautiful that touches you deeply, and you had no idea it was coming. It’s an intoxicating process and in the end you’re left with these stories and characters that can hold your hand for years to come. Sometimes I think I could write novels forever, but then after a while I miss the process of writing nonfiction which uses a different skill set. My favorite part of writing nonfiction is developing the structure for a book. It can take ages but when you nail it, writing the book is like placing puzzle pieces. Nonfiction is systematic and I guess you could say it’s clean, and I enjoy that kind of process. I imagine I’ll always work in both genres to some extent, but you never know. I think it’s important for authors to experiment and branch out, if only to strengthen their work in their primary genre. I started in nonfiction but feel strongly that writing fiction has made me a better nonfiction writer.

Your work is consistently leading the field, in fact many fields. You literally wrote the book on arts-based research methods, on transdisciplinary research, on fiction as a research method, and so on. How have you managed such a varied and cutting-edge career?

I don’t think anyone consciously thinks about those things. For me, it’s really that I want to do work that engages me. I don’t want to repeat myself because that’s not interesting to me. There’s a lot of pressure in academia and publishing in general that promotes the idea “repetition is reputation.” And it’s true to some extent that people are often rewarded for being considered “the person” who does X. I understand why many people make that choice. But it’s not for me. I like challenges and I love learning new things. So there was never a conscious decision to do many different kinds of things but rather the research for one project would inevitably teach me about something else and inspire me to do the next thing. I keep chasing that muse.

What is the role of art in society?

Art has many roles in society: education, documentation, pleasure, hope, narrative, challenging stereotypes, moving the needle forward. And of course in these times we’re reminded how critical art is for resistance.

What are your hopes for arts-based research and research methods?

With ABR I’d like to see growth: more voices, approaches, funding, publishing spaces, social justice work, and work that crosses over into the public domain. It’s also important that more global connections are made. There’s often a major western bent in the literature, in part, because we don’t all know how to find each other and share what we’re doing.

Overall, with research methods, I’d like to see the five approaches to research taught and practices widely, without any privileged over the others. Each approach is useful for different things and each has potential to contribute to knowledge-building.

You have so much publishing experience, I’m curious what you’ve learned. To start, what’s the most important thing you’ve learned about the publishing industry?

Who you work with matters. Try to work with good teams, good people. You need people who are talented at their jobs, supportive of your vision, and who you enjoy working with. I’ve had negative experiences with publishers, but for many years now I’ve been working exclusively with three publishers and it’s been terrific. There’s mutual respect.

What’s one thing you’d never agree to in a book contract?

Right of first refusal. Each project needs the right home and I don’t want to be stuck in limbo or in a disadvantaged position during contract negotiations.

What’s one thing you must have in your book contracts?

I’ve found it’s less about the contract and more who you’re working with. There’s a lot of trust. Contracts aren’t always honored, but honorable people won’t let you down.

You’ve collaborated with numerous scholars, authors, and artists throughout your career. What have you learned about collaboration?

When it works, it’s great, and the sum is greater than the parts. When it doesn’t work, it’s brutal and it’s best to walk away. I learned that the hard way, by staying too long.

Any advice for aspiring artist-scholars?

Develop your own relationship with your work that’s linked to a purpose, meaning a way of using your voice in the world. This is really difficult in practice, and we all struggle with it, but it’s vital. If you’re wedded to how other people perceive your work, you’re always at their mercy. If you’re work isn’t accepted, you may give up or start believing the negative assessments. Innovative work isn’t always embraced at first but that doesn’t mean it’s not valid. If you’re work is praised, you may start making decisions based on chasing “success” in the industry, and there’s always plenty of pressure to repeat yourself when something is successful. I don’t think those roads lead to our best work or our best lives. I’ve been on all sides of this. I’ve had my work rejected, criticized, and flat out ignored. I’ve also had my work embraced by large audiences, praised, and recognized with various honors. So trust me, developing your own relationship with your work, staying true to your vision, and doing what engages you, is key to a long career. I protect my projects and process fiercely, so that I can be creative. I’ve said this before but it bears repeating, professional kudos are truly lovely, but they do not measure our worth, value, or success. They do not warm us from the inside, occupy our days, or help us sleep at night. Doing work that engages us and serves a purpose is what really matters. The rest is out of our control.

What are you working on now?

I spent the last couple of years working on a few big nonfiction projects so after that I really wanted to crawl into a creative writing hole. Given all of the social upheaval this past year, it also felt like a time when artists were being called to action. I have a few fiction projects in the pipeline. I’m nearly done with the first draft of a new novel. It’s completely different than anything I’ve written before, sort of an adventure. I’m excited to share I signed a contract with Guilford Press to publish it. It’s their first novel. Once I’m done with this I have another novel planned which will be a part of the Social Fictions series with Brill-Sense. It’s a sequel to my novel Blue although it can also be read as a stand-alone. I also have a special collection contracted for the Social Fictions series but it’s too soon to talk about.

To celebrate her award and share more about her body of work, we’re excited to announce that Patricia has agreed to a series of three in-depth conversations which will each focus on different aspects of her body of work. We will be sharing these over the next few months. Each piece will include excerpts she has hand-picked from her books as well as books in the series she edits. And attention authors/researchers, the final two pieces will include open calls for book proposals!

Learn More about Patricia Leavy:

Links to Selected Books:

Research Design at Guilford (automatic 15% off & free shipping in US/Canada):

Method Meets Art at Guilford (automatic 15% off & free shipping in US/Canada):

Handbook of Arts-Based Research at Guilford (automatic 15% off & free shipping in US/Canada)

Low-Fat Love


American Circumstance

Fiction as Research Practice

Essentials of Transdisciplinary Research

The Oxford Handbook of Qualitative Research

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