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Fall 2009 83 Mapping Aesthetic Development and Epistemological Understanding Jeanne Klein “We see things not as they are but as we are.”1 –Anaïs Nin How do we know?What personal theories of mind do we hold about knowledge and knowing in general and theatre in particular? When critiquing performances, what sources of artistic knowledge, evidence, and criteria do we rely upon to articulate our aesthetic experiences and justify our judgments? If one goal of theatre education is to acquire and extend knowledge about human experiences, knowing how students and we ourselves think about that knowledge may assist us when teaching performance criticism. Since the late 1960s, cognitive psychologists have examined how we acquire, understand, and construct knowledge as subjective knowers in relation to the objectively known world of phenomenal reality. Over time, we construct tacit theories about our minds as individual ways of knowing, known as a “personal epistemology,” along four main dimensions. These dimensions include our perspectives regarding 1) the un/certainty of knowledge, 2) the simplicity and complexity of knowledge, 3) our sources of knowledge and evidence, and, 4) our assertions, claims, or justifications based on the criteria we employ to test the validity of our evidence. Convergent frameworks of personal epistemology are characterized by how often we position ourselves in four basic stances as 1) imitative realists, 2) dualistic absolutists, 3) relativistic multiplists, and 4) critical evaluatists. These domain-general perspectives or “stages” of epistemological understanding may operate in a spiraling progression of recursion in that we may repeat some traits from a previous stage in varying degrees depending on domain-specific tasks in situated contexts.2 In the specific domain of visual art, Michael Parsons has proposed a developmental framework of aesthetic epistemology that describes how we move Jeanne Klein is anAssociate Professor of Theatre at the University of Kansas where she teaches courses in theatre for young audiences, children and media, and drama with children. Her reception studies with child audiences and other articles have been published in the Youth Theatre Journal, Journal of Aesthetic Education, Canadian Children’s Literature, and Theatre Research in Canada. An earlier version of this essay was presented for the Cognitive Studies working group at the 2008 ASTR conference, Boston. 84 Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism through stages or “sets of ideas” when discussing artworks’subject matter, artists’ expressions, the forms and styles of visual media, and our judgments about each of these concepts. Like epistemologists, he marks the boundary of each stage by cognitive shifts in: 1) our primary mode of inquiry (i.e., perception, interpretation, and evaluation), 2) our expectations about the purposes of art, 3) our primary sources of artistic knowledge, and, 4) our primary criteria for making evaluative claims. Numerous studies in the visual arts have supported his framework with various populations, yet to date no one has offered an analogous epistemological framework for the domain of theatre.3 In this paper, I map Parsons’s stages of aesthetic development onto Deanna Kuhn’s “steps toward mature epistemological understanding” in order to propose a model of theatre epistemology regarding the contexts of performance criticism. This model offers a means or “coding” method of analyzing spectators’ critical responses to performances to explain how and why they perceive, interpret, and evaluate theatrical events. While substantial evidence supports the existence of both personal theories of epistemological knowledge and aesthetic ways of knowing and judging visual artworks, we have no reception studies with novice and expert spectators that document how these four epistemological frameworks might function in combination when critiquing theatrical events. Therefore, it remains for future reception studies to provide reliable and credible evidence that supports or disproves the operative functions of these four stances in whole or in part.4 For example, Introduction to Theatre courses could provide productive sites for creating a body of reception studies with novice spectators. Within these contexts, instructors could pose specific questions to students regarding their epistemological stances when asking them to attend performances and write critical essays. They might begin by asking students: What are the purposes of theatre? How do you know? What criterial evidence do you use or rely upon to judge the artistic effectiveness of...


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