The semester is coming to a close, and I am thinking a lot (as usual) about teaching. This semester I taught a 2000-level course on Roman Art and Architecture. This course is, essentially, a general education course, with students from a variety of majors taking it for a requirement. I had a few majors in the course (I think two and I recruited one). Thus, the majority of my students were majoring in subjects other than art history. I like it that way. But it does bring about some problems, namely that since they are not already invested in the material as their choice of majors, I feel that I have the responsibility to make the course engaging.

And this is where I am finding that I differ from some of my colleagues. It has me thinking: what is my responsibility in terms of engaging students in this course? What is the individual student’s responsibility? Where do these responsibilities overlap, if they do at all?

I want an active classroom. From my reading and research, I have come to understand that students learn more by doing and not from passively listening to a lecture, no matter how captivating the lecturer might be (and I would like to think that I am pretty engaging). This is not a condemnation of the lecture model, however, it is a statement that some will take to be controversial. I am not sure why. Except this: in saying that lecturing is passive, some will feel that it’s enough, that they don’t have a responsibility to make the course interesting, and that they feel it is the responsibility of the student to be engaged.

I’m not sure I agree that it’s up to them because I am not sure that students know how to be engaged. I say this in part because I have some students who are “middle of the pack.” They are C/B students. They don’t have great skills at writing/reading. They have to do those things in my courses, but they are not among the top 10% of students. How do I engage them? Don’t they deserve the same chance at engagement as the student who can read and write well?

I had a couple of experiences in my Roman Art and Architecture class that showed me I am on the right path for student engagement. I had an activity planned for which students had to use material from assignments that were to be completed prior to class. Sometimes, to set up that activity, I lectured for a short period. After that lecture, I sorted them into different groups and asked them to figure a problem out. Examples from this class include certain scenarios that I pre-arrange, such as: you have limited funds and must rank and prioritize five infrastructure projects (roads, aqueducts, walls, etc.) to the Senate and be ready to justify your request for funding in the order you determine. Another day they were advisors to the new emperor Vespasian and had to help him determine the style of his official portraiture. There was a Reacting to the Past game that seemed to be the favorite activity because they played an actual Roman character alive at time the game is set.

The papers I graded this weekend, however, demonstrated to me the deep engagement that the student had this semester. It was my “Daily Life in Ancient Rome” assignment. For this assignment, students choose a socio-economic class that they come from by choosing a slip of paper out of a box. I pre-determine the percentages of how many patricians, plebeians, freedmen and slaves there are vis-à-vis our class enrollment. They choose an identity randomly from the box and must research that socio-economic class and write a paper that talks about where they would go, what they would see, and what they would do in a given day. They usually write in first-person for this assignment, and they can choose the time period in which their day is set. Having just graded those papers, I was amazed at the level of research this year, which demonstrated to me that they were engaged not only in this particular assignment, but the class as a whole. There were references to topics and monuments we had discussed earlier in the semester, as well as new research to bolster their “daily walk around Rome.”

Another assessment of the learning through active engagement this semester was during the class that I held prior to our trip to the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, MD. The Walters has excellent examples of Roman art in their collection. While it’s not an extensive collection, the pieces are excellent examples of the different periods of Roman art, ranging from the Republic to the later Empire. When I showed them a sampling of the art monuments that they would see, I asked what sub-period from which each work came. They were spot-on for each work of art I showed them: Republican head; portrait of Vespasian; portrait of Augustus. They named them all. Combined with the “Daily Life” papers, I am convinced that I had a class engaged in the material, but most important to me, I had a class that learned.

I don’t want engagement for the sake of engagement. And I often worry that even when I see them engaged, I don’t know if they are learning. I don’t give a mid-term exam that requires memorization, as I believe that method only tests lower-level learning. I’m not interested in that, because I don’t think that will “stick.” And what is the point if they will just forget that information after they graduate, if they even remember it that long? I do have a final exam, but it, too, is not based on memorization. It asks them to provide what they learned by asking them broad questions about themes from the course. For instance, we talk a lot in this course about the propaganda messages that the emperors were attempting to make with their art and architecture programs. On the final exam I ask them: what propaganda messages through art/architecture do you think was most effective and why, and then I ask them to think about the ones that were ineffective and why. This requires them to know the material, but to think about it in a way that doesn’t require massive memorization of images on a flashcard, which was the way I learned art history.

Am I teaching to the middle, those students who may never have another art history course? Maybe. But I am engaging them, too. My gut tells me that. But my assessments actually prove it.

Fellow college educators, what do you think about your role engaging students?

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