What does it mean to experience the aesthetic? How is that experience accumulated? How does it feel? And how does knowledge of what came before help us to understand a particular aesthetic? These are some of the questions driving the second-year Liberal Arts unit ‘Experiencing the Aesthetic’, which introduces students to concepts like beauty and ugliness, semiotics, and phenomenological modes of analysis through topics like immersive theatre, early modernism and the senses, and the architecture of the far right. Some Liberal Arts students on the unit in 2022 and 2023 had the chance to consider these questions outside the classroom, in a nation celebrated for its aesthetic heritage.
Led by Dr Amy King, Lecturer in Modern European History (and an Italianist!), Dr Karen Skinazi, Associate Professor in Literature and Culture, and Lucy Millington, Head of Outbound Mobility, ‘Touring the Aesthetic: Liberal Arts in Italy’ ran in June 2022 and 2023, with three nights in Rome and three more in Naples.
Thanks to Santander funding, all students (20 in 2022, 16 in ‘23) were given bursaries of £250 (with £450 available for all Widening Participation students). The funding also covered accommodation, travel between Rome and Naples, and all activities, which included:
- Visit to the Colosseum
- Tour of the Vatican Museum and Sistine Chapel
- Walking tour of Fascist architecture led by Dr King
- A student-led “festival of research” at the Museum of the School and Education, Roma Tre University (held at the British School at Rome in 2022)
- Tour of Cinecittà film studios (last year, students enjoyed a trip to the Borghese Gallery)
- Guided tour of Pompeii
- Pasta-making class in Naples
- Literary salon to discuss Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend (in 2022, students took a walking tour of Ferrante’s Naples)
Students enjoyed a guided tour of Pompeii.
A feedback form inviting students to reflect on the trip was circulated after our return to Bristol and underlined the value of this wonderful opportunity for students’ personal and academic development. The value of the trip can be broken down into three main categories:
- New friendships and social bonds. The interdisciplinary Liberal Arts degree allows students to take units from across the faculty, alongside core units and units in their pathway. While this offers exceptional opportunities for intellectual autonomy, it presents fewer chances for students to meet one another. One participant, whose first year had been seriously impacted by Covid, said: “I made a lot of new friends on the programme, having met nobody before.”
Indeed, cohort-building was a primary motivation for the trip, and at the heart of the application put to Santander. It was heartening to see students reflect on the social value of this experience:
“I thought it was a great opportunity to learn beyond the books and spend time with people who share similar interests academically and personally.”
“It was wonderful to have casual academically related discussions and I believe this will have contributed to the breadth of my general Arts knowledge.”
- Inspiring future study. Students drew on knowledge gained from ‘Experiencing the Aesthetic’ to deliver a 5- to 10-minute talk on any element of the Italian aesthetic, which they presented at a ‘festival of research’. Topics included the Neapolitan street artist Jorit, women’s hair in classical statues, architecture and social status in Pompeii, and violence in films about Italian terrorism.
The feedback form asked students whether the trip was likely to impact their future study choices. For some students, the trip motivated them to learn Italian – “I have decided to study beginner’s Italian on my Year Abroad next year” -, while three others felt inspired to consider postgraduate study after visiting an international research institute: “Being in academia outside of Bristol has opened my horizon to new ideas and sources of interest.” But the most striking impact was felt in the subject of dissertations, a capstone Liberal Arts unit that requires students to produce a 10,000-word piece of original interdisciplinary research. In 2022, 50% of second-year students said the trip was likely to impact the subject of their dissertation. One student wrote her whole dissertation on the Palazzo della Civiltà, which we visited on the trip (designed and built under Mussolini, it is now the HQ of global fashion house Fendi!).
- Intellectual and social confidence. While study abroad is an intrinsic part of the master’s level Liberal Arts programme, several students in this cohort had seen opportunities to go abroad curtailed by Covid. The experience of international travel, cultural exchange, and insight into Rome’s academic environments saw them grow in intellectual and social confidence:
“This trip to Italy has been the highlight of my studies at Bristol University. It has been amazing to meet lecturers and students from across the years and I feel much more confident going into my final years at Bristol.”
Beyond the more formal moments of knowledge exchange, several students also commented on the value of academic conversations with staff in a casual environment or rich interdisciplinary discussions between peers:
“[The main benefit of the trip was] feeling confident and included enough to have academic conversations in a social setting, learning from others about their academic interests and musings.”
“It has made me more confident as a student. I had no understanding of whether I was coping well/poorly with university but after meeting so many new people on the course, I realise that we have all been dealing with similar issues outside of studies. This has been really comforting and has made me feel more positive about my overall university experience. Most importantly, I have finally met people who I believe I’ll stay in contact with for a very long time!”
This unit asks ‘what does it mean to experience the aesehtetic?’ Our fieldtrip has made the value of that experience clear. The knowledge students accumulated during the trip has informed future study choices and direction, enriched interdisciplinary connections, and inspired intellectual confidence. Although the Santander funding has now come to an end, its value will have a long afterlife.
Karen, Amy and Lucy would like to thank Santander for their generous funding, and the Liberal Arts students who made this such a wonderful trip!
Further resources: Experiencing the Aesthetic: An Introduction to the Module with Peter Peasey https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I-a5Z3FX9kE