Politics and Pottery Course Enhances Students' Understanding of Political Science, Art

Video by Tommy Kraft, '13. Watch more videos on Albion's YouTube channel.

Getting into the head of a 16th-century Japanese warlord is one unusual academic goal for one unusual academic course, Pottery and Politics, co-taught by Albion College art professor Lynne Chytilo and political science professor Dyron Dabney. The course combines social science classroom lecture with a fine arts practicum, each discipline intended to enhance students' understanding of the other.

"After Dyron's lectures I have gained a wider perspective, which has helped my appreciation for certain Japanese art forms and practices," said Cari Drolet, ’12, who took the class during the 2010 spring semester. "I've been familiar with the ceramic technique of raku, but through this course, I've learned about the Raku family, the values that led to the popularity of raku, political conflict that arose because of it, and the eventual death of an important tea master because of his defense of raku. The rich history of raku firing has given me a new respect for raku as a process in its evolution from feudal Japan to now."

Dabney and Chytilo formed the idea for the class through casual conversations about their shared interest in Japan. A specialist in Asian political systems, Dabney spends part of each summer in Japan, while Chytilo, a ceramicist, has extensive knowledge of Japan's diverse ceramics traditions and techniques.

Despite the fact that Asian politics and Asian ceramics are included in courses offered at the vast majority of U.S. four-year schools, "we don't know if any such course exists anywhere else," says Chytilo. At first glance, the two disciplines may seem incompatible for academic pursuit, but Dabney asserts that theirs was an idea ripe for use. "There's a definite tie between politics and art," he explained. "When you think historically of people being subversive, trying to show disdain for administrations, they have often done it through art."

Or – as in 16th-century Japan – art and politics were equal passions of the power elite. Those warlords, Dabney explained, "developed an appreciation of art for recreation and entertainment when they were not out battling for turf." Zen meditation, ikebana (flower arranging) and the tea ceremony developed as art forms during this period, along with the ceramics needed to support those activities.

Chytilo noted that she and Dabney have also found the course to be a learning experience. "I learned from Dyron that the warlords dictated the pottery items used during the tea ceremony, and that precipitated the development of regions where they were made, which led to techniques which we've used for years." For his part, "I didn't know anything about techniques and traditions associated with different types of ceramics," Dabney said. "Visiting these art places with Lynne, I understood better why they are culturally important."

"I have learned just how important the tea ceremony and ceramics are to the political atmosphere in Japan," said anthropology major Abby Schonfeld, ’10, who had never previously taken an art or political science course. "The class has been a great experience, and truly embodies what Albion has to offer – a liberal arts education and a comprehensive education that would be rare to find anywhere else."