Q&A With... MK Guth

April 15, 2021

Can you describe in a sentence or two what you do at PNCA? 

I’m the Director of the Hallie Ford School of Graduate Studies, so I oversee the college’s eight graduate programs and two Low Res programs. I’m also the Interim Chair of Collaborative Design MFA and Design Systems MA. 

What does PNCA mean to you? What makes PNCA unique? 

What PNCA means to me is critical thinking, creative energy and creative output, community, high-touch education, caring educators and a dedication to advancing equity and inclusion. 

I think what sets us apart as an institution is the dedication placed on focusing on a student’s unique pathway. At the graduate level, we do that through our mentor-based programs. So, as well as having an entire curriculum, critiques, seminars, access to our facilities and all the wonderful things the college offers, students get matched with a mentor who connects directly with their practice - that might be a faculty member, an artist, an entrepreneur, a designer, people from all over the world - who can focus directly on their needs. This level of intimacy and high-touch education means that we are incredibly responsive to the unique trajectories, unique questions, and unique needs of our students.  

When I was developing the graduate programs back in 2007, I really focused on the question of “what do students need?”. During my time at graduate school, I organized a student conference involving students from all over the east coast about graduate education. Regardless of which school the MFA student was attending, the biggest issue was not enough one-on-one interaction. When building the first graduate program we choose to use a mentor model to alleviate this problem and to afford more personal support to our students.

Another key thing is that PNCA recognizes that education doesn't just exist within the classroom - all aspects of a student’s time at PNCA are a form of experiential learning; we bring in incredible speakers, we amplify our campus through exhibitions, performances, interactivities, through Make+Think+Code, through Office of Career Design. All this means that education isn't just existing in the classroom setting, but in every walk of a student’s life at PNCA. I feel this approach to education is more holistic than you typically find. 

And finally, PNCA really celebrates freedom of thought and risk-taking. We celebrate the process of trying things on and experimentation - how are we going to solve problems without experimenting? In many ways, PNCA is a giant laboratory where cross pollination, collaboration, and research combine with making. 

What’s your favorite thing/the most rewarding thing about your job at PNCA? 

Students. Always students! They’re the reason we are here. And watching students become graduates, watching their successes, is a beautiful inspiration. You see that a graduate education in the arts opens up all kinds of possibilities - it doesn’t necessarily even mean you go into the arts. But what it does mean is that you are going to have a solid education, that you’ll be a problem solver, a critical thinker, someone who is equipped with the skills needed to run their own business. The testament to PNCA is our alumni. It is incredible who these folks are and what they have accomplished.  

What are three adjectives you’d use to describe PNCA students?

I’m going to cheat a bit! Creative problem solvers, critical thinkers, social-justice minded. 

To elaborate a little, PNCA students are creative people, they are people who are going to solve problems through the process of critique and interrogation. And even if you come to PNCA and you aren't really aware of social concerns, of equity concerns - you become that way at PNCA, because we approach the world through a lens of ethics and equity. We prioritize it and we work to get better at it.  

Why are student scholarships so important? How have you witnessed them making a difference?

They are so important! The way I’ve seen the difference scholarships make manifesting on campus is that they help to diversify the student population, broadening the vast knowledge-transfer that happens on a daily basis among students, faculty, staff, and all members of our community. A greater diversity of experience means a more global perspective on the issues that dominate our consciousness. It expands our conversation and critique in the classroom, and it helps expand our awareness on campus. 

You've given to PNCA in the past, including to Equity & Leadership Scholarships. Why did you give to that program in particular? 

If I’m going to choose one thing that makes a difference to the college overall, it is these scholarships. There are a lot of amazing folks out there who do not have access to PNCA for financial reasons, and yet when they do have access, they enrich the conversation and they make us better - we are better because we have a more diverse student population. They give as much back as the scholarship affords them - because when your classroom has many different voices from many different backgrounds, the problems we address in art or in design, or the questions we endeavor to respond to, can be addressed from a much broader, vast perspective. 

When you exchange knowledge of experience, you enrich someone's understanding of the world and you create a better path towards empathy - and I think that makes an educator a better educator, and it gives students a greater lens to the world at large. 

What recent successes would you like to tell us about?   

In terms of our graduate program, we have consistently high retention rates - even in this time of COVID, which is amazing! I think this goes back to the high-touch approach, the mentorship model - making sure our students always have someone to connect with. I think the way that we prioritize and support students’ individual pathways is also part of why we are able to retain students when others aren't. 

An interesting trend that has emerged during COVID is the uptake in our dual pathway option, whereby instead of attending for two years for a Visual Studies MFA, for example, a student can attend for an extra year and achieve an MFA in Visual Studies as well as an MA in Critical Studies. Finding a way to accommodate two different forms of educational experience - one more literary, one more anchored in making - has been an appealing alternative for many of our grad students, and being able to experience both forms allows each program to be as best as it can be in its own field without diluting anything. This is not something offered widely outside of PNCA. As someone with an undergraduate degree in sociology who then went on to earn an MFA, I think I would have taken that route if it was an option for me at the time. 

How has COVID changed your way of working? How do you stay connected with students and potential students in the current environment? 

COVID is certainly a challenge. We have had to rethink everything about how we deliver education, how it is received, how we maintain connection. I make sure I give the option to do things like go on walks up at Mount Tabor, so we can see each other. 

For the graduate school, most courses now have some form of hybridity, with students alternating between remote and in-person learning. Often this means we are running a Zoom class and an in-person class simultaneously. That can get complicated sometimes, but it’s working and it’s allowing us to social-distance and still have a level of in-person experience. There are definitely good things that have come out if it - remote education really supports folks who can’t always come to class, whether that’s because of a disability, or another access reason such as lack of transportation. I’ve gotten a lot better at creating different levels of communication, layers of ways to engage - and that has been a good learning experience. Going forward, we have to take those positives and combine them with the aspects we value from the time before - like being able to talk and argue in person. 

What about the planned merger with WU is most exciting to you? 

What’s most exciting to me really resides within collaboration, and the expansion of programs. Having access to so many different types of programs within liberal arts - psychology, anthropology, sociology - is really going to open up a lot of opportunities for not only new programs, but for our students who want to take making and critical thinking together as a pathway to address the ills of the world. 

I’m really excited about graduate programs in business, data science and law too - I think there are incredible opportunities for us to amplify the graduate programs we already have and expand beyond them. This is a really great opportunity to bring coding into the creative process, to support our students’ professional practice through the lens of law and copyright. Their business school is especially exciting, because you couple that knowledge with design or fine arts and you have just created a much more robust route for a student in terms of their career. There are so many opportunities embedded in the combinations of our programming - it’s really a great match. And the museum! Having access to a certified museum (Willamette’s Hallie Ford Museum of Art) will give our students the opportunity to learn more about collections, what a registrar does - it will create so many ways to support the learning process of our students.   

Thank you, MK!  

Performative Aspect of "Fireworks, Astronaut, Deep, Pool Venus" at the Cincinnati Art Center, MK Guth. Photo: Joe Hedges

"What Needs To Be Said", MK Guth. Photo: Dan Kvitka