English for Art Purposes (2008)

Interview with Kate Griffeath, an academic intrapreneur who has led the growth of programming of specialized English for art students, now numbering 2000 at Academy of Art University in San Francisco, USA.

R.J. Preece (EFL)
English for Art & Design | 22 July 2011
Co-partnered withSculpture online, Nov 2008 issue. Click to see the English for Art and Design overview page.

English for Art Purposes: Interview with Kate Griffeath

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This article focuses on a little-recognized area that makes an important contribution to the quality of international art communication. Sometimes it’s called Language of Art and Design (English); at the Academy of Art University, it’s called English for Art Purposes. Like Business English, this training enables art/design students and professionals from English as a Second/Foreign Language backgrounds to communicate more effectively in an increasingly English-oriented art world.[1]

I came from a similar teaching/materials development background before focusing exclusively on art, design, and writing. Back in 1996 while I was based in Hong Kong, I had the chance to meet Kate Griffeath, former director of the English for Art Program and now Executive Vice President of Educational Support at the Academy of Art University (AAU) in San Francisco. I recall comparing notes about our work at a time when English for Art Purposes was a fragile field, with an uncertain future.

Since then, Kate and her team have developed their programming in ways that could never have been imagined. There are now over 300 on-site and on-line language classes at AAU. This year, the university supports more than 2,000 international students and employs more than 35 full-time and 40 part-time teaching professionals. This must be by far the largest art-oriented English programming in the world, and if art education administrators across the globe don’t know about it already, now is the time to take note.

R.J. Preece: When you started, did you ever imagine that the programming would grow to its current level?

Kate Griffeath: Not at all. We started out with two teachers, and now we have more than 70 devoted to English for Art Purposes (EAP).

R.J. Preece: What challenges have you faced over the years with regard to EAP development?

Kate Griffeath: The first day I arrived in 1990, there was a petition on my desk signed by everyone teaching in one of the departments. They were against the pilot program that I was about to start. That was my welcome letter. [Laughs.]

R.J. Preece: Why was there such resistance?

Kate Griffeath: Because they were afraid of having low-English-proficiency, international students in their art classes. They thought it would be disruptive. But I felt very strongly that it could work out. I learned the value of English for Specific Purposes during my studies at Columbia University, so I believed it could be done with art and design. Even then, there was a history of specialized language teaching in areas like business and technology.

However, once the teachers realized how talented the students were and how much they were bringing to the environment, they began to get excited about it. It seemed that the whole energy changed; there was an appreciation of the dynamic, international mix, of working together. And there was the strong visual and kinesthetic element, which also communicates— sometimes more than the words you are trying to attach to it.

R.J. Preece: What do you consider to be your biggest successes in EAP development?[2]

Kate Griffeath: Just seeing where the students are working all around the world and their successes. And seeing their contributions to the world of art and design. Also, our practical research showed us that you could even bring English for Art Purposes training into the beginner level with success. There’s still some controversy about this, but we work with it every day. It’s not easy, but it works.

R.J. Preece: What can an artist/designer achieve in levels 1–6, with regard to art/design language tasks?

Kate Griffeath: Levels 1–6 are mapped out like standard language-learning classes, so roughly two levels for introductory, intermediate, and advanced. Throughout, we spend a lot of time on foundation concepts, language and questioning regarding line, shape, color, principles of design, the range of critique questions, giving opinions, and different social, political, and environmental contexts. Also, we go through instructions like you might hear in a studio class.[3]

R.J. Preece: What about art history? [It’s more challenging in terms of language, isn’t it?]

Kate Griffeath: Yes, we’ve found this too. We do support for this directly in those classes, and we have numerous study groups outside the classes as well.

R.J. Preece: I understand that your program received a commendation from WASC (Western Association of Schools and Colleges) in 2007.

Kate Griffeath: Yes, in our accreditation review visit, they referred to our education support programming and faculty development program— which aims to better equip the faculty to support our diverse student population— as models for best practices. Peter Master, whom you know from your time at the English for Specific Purposes journal, was here for our National Association of Schools of Art and Design (NASAD) accreditation visit. He and the NASAD representatives expressed a lot of enthusiasm for what we were doing.

R.J. Preece: In my art/design circles, I find that a large percentage of people are unaware of specialized English training. Have you found this too?

Kate Griffeath: Yes, I have. I still do, with people working at other schools. Through the WASC process, we aim to share more information about what we are doing. I’ve been asked to participate in evaluation teams for WASC, to provide input regarding the support function at other colleges and universities.

R.J. Preece: How important was strong leadership to this programming?

Kate Griffeath: It’s crucial. Put simply, we wouldn’t have been able to achieve what we have without the full support of the Academy of Art presidents. To do it well requires a total commitment from top-level administrators.

R.J. Preece: When we first met, you explained how AAU is privately owned and run more like a business. Do you think that the school’s working practices have facilitated what you’ve been able to achieve in terms of English for Art Purposes?

Kate Griffeath: Absolutely. One accreditor said that we have a luxury in our lack of bureaucracy. It’s so true.

I can go to our president, Elisa Stephens, and say to her, “This is what we need.” And she can say, “OK, go ahead and do it—now.” Art and design change so quickly, and faculty and students need the latest equipment and skills to keep up with industry developments. We’re able to adjust our curriculum quickly based on market trends and employment needs as well.

R.J. Preece: Your program is the biggest and most developed that we know of in the world. [What do you think about that?]

Kate Griffeath: I’ve never thought about it. It’s really exciting. And I’m looking forward to expanding it on-line.

There’s so much potential. You could be studying fashion design and get critiqued by someone in Paris or Milan. You could be in a remote village anywhere in the world and studying English for Art Purposes and chatting with others across the globe.

If there are interested art professionals/ students out there who would like to begin their studies on-line, they can check out our Web site at <www.academyart.edu>; and contact the director of our on-line EAP department, Chantelle Ferguson.

R.J. Preece: You have invested a great deal in developing English for Specific Purposes. Do you have a future goal for it as a field? Do you have a dream about its future?

Kate Griffeath: One of my dreams is that English for Art Purposes expands to a new level in the world. There’s definitely a need, and there’s so much potential.

[1] To learn more about this field, the ERIC documents database is a good starting point.

[2] While “EAP” here refers to “English for Art Purposes,” EAP is more widely known as the more general “English for Academic Purposes.”

[3] For an excellent schematic deconstruction of art language, see Charles Jansen’s Studying Art History (1986) in relation to, for example, Rita Gilbert’s Living with Art (1997, or later). For a more detailed look, see Charles Jansen’s unpublished PhD dissertation, Scenarios of Art Appreciation: An Analysis of Texts, University of Georgia (1991).