Christine Metzger: This Ain't CSI

Critical Studies faculty member Christine Metzger is a crafty scientist. She’s “crafty” in the CCA sense of the word, but she’s also “canny” and “astute,” having spearheaded, along with faculty member Stuart Kendall, former faculty member Rachel Schreiber, and former staff member Kathy Butler, a very long but very happily concluded campaign for a National Science Foundation grant.

The grant of $200,000 was not only more than they’d requested, but also one of the largest NSF awards ever made to an art college.

Exploring Science in the Studio

Over three years, it will support Exploring Science in the Studio, an innovative project dedicated to the idea that science at CCA should be more than just a general education requirement. The aspiration is to integrate science into the arts, enabling art and design students to develop an understanding of their native fields from a science-based perspective.

“This NSF grant is highly unusual, and a very big deal,” says Metzger. “It’s very exciting that they saw promise in our program. It establishes our legitimacy with them and other science granting organizations. We’ve put together a big equipment budget: instruments, materials, microscopes, binoculars. Wonderful science stuff.

"But I am looking at this as seed money -- the start of ongoing, permanent science programs at CCA. I’d love to have money to buy full collections of major fossil groups, for instance. And to hire additional science faculty members.”

CCA will run a sponsored studio in the spring, out of the Graduate Program in Design. The students will create, among other things, carts that can be used to take some of the new equipment into classrooms and out into the field. There will be a weather station for each campus, and water quality testing kits.

“Ideally, my long-term dream vision is to have a dedicated classroom-laboratory-exploration space, something very similar to the existing Hybrid Lab and the shops, where students will have the materials and the space to create, explore, and investigate.

"A lot of the magic that happens in the classroom is when a student says, ‘I was thinking about X,’ and I can say, ‘Hey, we have a sample of X right here.’”

Artists Make the Keenest Science Students

Metzger is CCA’s first tenure-track assistant professor of earth and environmental science.

“CCA students are the keenest science students I’ve ever had,” she reports. “They are passionate about what they do and want to incorporate what they learn in science class into their art practices.

"Unlike students at a typical big university, they are 100 percent engaged. No one is forcing them to come to CCA, and, in fact, they (or their financial aid) are paying a dear sum to be here. So they understand that they should squeeze maximum value out of the experience.

“They’ll say things like, ‘Hey, in my textiles class we were talking about dyeing fabric, and now we’re talking about water contamination. Could we discuss tanning leather in India, or manufacturing cotton in Egypt?’ That clearly demonstrates that we’re giving them the tools to make those connections.”

CCA places high value on an interdisciplinary curriculum, and Metzger is actively helping to formulate new ways to implement this at the institutional level.

Spring 2014 was the first instance of a new model in which five distinct courses offered by five different programs will happen in a “cluster,” meeting in adjacent spaces in the same time slot, so that they can share resources such as guest speakers.

Metzger’s science class will be looking at climate data and records of past climate change. The other instructors are Donald Fortescue from Furniture, Kim Anno from Painting/Drawing, Lynda Grose from Fashion Design, and Nathan Lynch from Ceramics.

Bad Science at the Movies

Metzger’s Bad Science at the Movies course has become a perennial favorite. “We’ll watch Jurassic Park, for instance, and then talk about different types of fossilization and whether they’re accurately represented.

"I bring in amber, because amber plays into how they get the DNA in the movie. Then, since they’re artists and designers, we talk about amber being used in jewelry. I show them a very simple test for determining whether amber is fake or not. It’s the sort of demonstration that makes science seem real, and exciting.

“I also bring in dinosaur bones. No matter how jaded a 19-year-old you are, there is nothing better than handling a real dinosaur bone!”

Metzger’s PhD is in geology -- ancient climate change, to be specific -- but her research is interdisciplinary. “When I was in graduate school, I saw the writing on the wall that the traditional, siloed academic jobs weren’t going to be available much longer. Nor was I going to be happy in that kind of job. I wanted a job that was super dynamic, and where I could work with a lot of different, interesting people.”

CSI Isn’t Real

“I’d never even taken an art history course before I came here four years ago. So, in my second year here, I decided to take an intro-level studio course, just to see firsthand what the students were going through.” She picked Fashion Design, since she was already a “mad knitter.” “We met for six hours every Monday for 15 weeks, and it kicked my butt, let me tell you.

“TV shows like CSI make you think that to solve a science problem, all you need to do is press buttons and throw money at it. But science doesn’t work that way; it takes time, and you can’t skip steps. Just like art takes time, and you can’t skip steps.

"The difference between science and art is that artists work in a very intensely physical way, and it’s exhausting. I came out of that Textiles course with so much more respect for the CCA students and what they do.”

Metzger’s former thesis supervisor is a full professor at the University of Oregon and the best-known person in his field. “He has very narrow views about what scientists should do, and be, in academia. We had breakfast together recently, and he said, ‘You know, Christine, a lot of what you did in graduate school made no sense to me. All that crafting. But now it seems you’re in the perfect job. I can’t believe that job exists for you.’

"It was amazing to hear that from him. You could have knocked me over with a feather.”