Gothic Tales of Integrated Education

As I did my internship with the Englert and FilmScene this summer, I was also in the middle of preparing for my comprehensive exams, becoming an ‘expert’ in 20th/21st century literature. That means reading a hundred literary texts that cover a one-hundred-year time period, among other requirements. The most recent book on my list was Shirley Jackson’s The Bird’s Nest. Jackson has had a sort of renaissance – Netflix’s 2018 miniseries The Haunting of Hill House was based on her novel of the same name and, two years later, Elizabeth Moss played her in the biographical drama Shirley are just two examples of the recent interest in Jackson’s gothic life and fiction. The Bird’s Nest had mixed reviews when it came out in 1954. Though, amidst her renaissance, the book has been praised for “its inventive storytelling structure gives a powerful look at a young woman trapped within her own body and mind.”[1]

Elizabeth Moss in Shirley (2020)

The Bird’s Nest begins with a museum. It’s foundation, we’re told, is sagging and our protagonist, Elizabeth, finds the wall of her office “had been taken away and the innermost skeleton of the building exposed” (5) so that she can gaze and contemplate hurling herself into a whole running through the entire building. Although the first several pages of the book are dedicated to this unstable, exposed monument of knowledge, the museum seldom reappears in the novel. After going on her psychological journey, Elizabeth returns to the museum, where she has been replaced, and she tells a new employee that “Once there was a big hole in that wall. It went right down through the building” (262). The Bird’s Nest frames a story about a young girl working through her multiple personality disorder with the image of this museum – first broken and now whole, to mirror her transformation. Wholeness, in the novel, is about uniting her personalities – they are cooperative, consolidated, brought together in a compounding way. Elizabeth is first represented as fractured, where each personality is relegated to separate compartmentalized areas – kind of like the traditional museum – but, by the end, she is whole. Wholeness, in the novel, is about uniting her personalities – they are cooperative, consolidated, brought together in a compounding way. Elizabeth’s journey is one of integration.

Of course, the Englert is a cultural and physical landmark. Built in 1912, the Englert is exactly the kind of place where a Shirley Jackson gothic would set. However, working with the Englert this summer, it was the focus on integration that made me connect the work I did this summer with Elizabeth’s journey of self-discovery. Both are narratives about integration framed by a monument. One of the desired goals of the Strengthen.Grow.Evolve campaign, which developed the Arts Access Initiative that I did research for this summer is to locate places where the Englert, FilmScene, and other arts organizations in Iowa City can help usher in arts integrated education. A big part of my job was defining what that meant and using interviews and survey information to create recommendations for presenting arts integrated initiatives through these organizations. But what is arts integration?

The original interior of Englert Theatre as shown in an advertisement in the 1918 Iowa City High School yearbook.

The integrated approach to learning was developed in the early 20th century as a process related to the “whole.” This process strives to ensure a holistic approach to student development. The word integrated means combining or coordinating separate elements so as to provide a harmonious, interrelated whole, organized or structured so that constituent units function cooperatively. Then, integrated education is a practice where whilst learning about one content issue, a pupil inadvertently will get an idea about the content of another school subject to be mastered. [2] For our Arts Access study, we used The Kennedy Center as a resource for designing our goals and structuring our methods for data-collection, we also borrowed some of their well thought out definitions to guide our goals and trajectory for this project. As part of their Changing Education Through the Arts (CETA) program, the Kennedy Center defined arts integration as “an approach to teaching which students construct and demonstrate understanding through an art form. Students engage in a creative process which connects an art form and another subject area and meets evolving objectives in both.”[3]

I think one of the most rewarding parts of my internship was the research that I did on arts integration. As a grad student, I spend a lot of time in the classroom in front of students, and one of the documents needed for the dreaded and impending academic job market is a philosophy of teaching. A lot of the research I did to compile our Arts Access report, and specifically defining the parameters of the study, gave me a new language to discuss my own pedagogy and, honestly, to challenge my pedagogy. I have always thought of myself as interdisciplinary. You’ve probably heard that word. When I interviewed Iowa City Community School District’s music curriculum coordinators, Jon Welch and Sarah Fairfield, we had a good laugh when I told them I study English because we’d just talked at length about how a lot of drama and theater education is facilitated through English instructors rather than licensed theater teachers. I imagine people like me, who spend a lot of their time interloping in the theater department. When I spoke to the former programming director at FilmScene, I learned about a growing initiative to bring FilmScene into local high schools to teach reading and writing skills that sounded like my own rhetoric classroom. This interdisciplinary approach to learning is a type of integrated teaching, where common practices across disciplines are emphasized such as literacy, critical thinking, and research skills. It emphasizes what is between the two disciplines. After researching integrated approaches, I want to challenge myself to move to a more transdisciplinary approach. The prefix ‘trans’ refers to crossing, moving beyond, or changing through transcending. In this approach, teachers organize curriculum around student questions and concerns, where relevant issues integrate the perspectives of multiple disciplines to connect new knowledge and create deeper understanding of real-life experiences.

Arts organizations, like FilmScene and The Englert, have access to artists who exist within these transdisciplinary conversations and have the infrastructure for providing integrated opportunities for students across the county. But one way they can really partner with school districts to usher in this kind of curricular change, is creating intentional programs for local teachers and instructors. This can be beneficial for instructors at the university level as well and has the potential to facilitate more potent alliances between teachers at various grade levels. I would love to see our community moving towards more integrated, project-based curriculum and I would love to see arts organizations such as FilmScene and the Englert at the center of that step. Like my supervisor, Katie Roche said, we need to think “how can we throw art at math?” How can we start engaging students in conversations that integrate social issues into arts, science, and history? Programs like this, such as Mark Springer’s Soundings[4], provide students with an opportunity for personal growth and a sense of wholeness that they can carry with them as they leave their schools or other institutions of learning. Just like Shirley Jackson’s protagonist – yes I’m bringing it back – they outgrow their need for the gothic learning institution as they come of age or prepare to enter the work force.


  1. from Rawat, Kshitij. “Shirley movie review: Elisabeth Moss delivers transfixing performance.” The Indian Express, 10 June 2020.
  2. from 1918 journalism class at City High, The Red and White annual of Iowa City High School, 1918.

Information on Transdisciplinary Education:

  1. Dennison, Bill. “Transdisciplinary literacy: Seven principles that help define transdisciplinary research.” UMCES integration and application network, 6 March 2017.
  2. Gibbs, Paul Transdisciplinary higher education: A theoretical basis revealed in practice. Springer, 2017.
  3. Levinson, Matt. “Transdisciplinarity: Thinking inside and outside the box.” Edutopia, 2016.

[1] Coates, Tyler. “Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Bird’s Nest’ Defined the Multiple-Personality Narrative.” Flavorwire, 24 March 2014.

[2] London, Peter. “Towards a Holistic Paradigm of Art Education Art Education: Mind, Body, Spirit.” Visual Arts Research, vol. 32, no. 1, 2006, pp. 8–15. JSTOR,

[3] “What is Arts Integration? Explore the Kennedy Center’s Comprehensive Definition.”

[4] Spinrger, Mark. Soundings: A Democratic Student-Centered Education. National Middle School Association, 2006. See “SOUNDINGS: And Integrated Learning Program for 8th Graders” explained briefly:

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