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I have been thinking this summer about my introductory art course. It is meant to be a “survey” of the art of the west (I recognize there are problems with that approach, and we have a World Art course I'd like to teach as well). But for now, I am stuck with the survey of western art course.

And I say stuck because I am not sure that it teaches about art history because it’s really a survey as the title of the course implies of art and culture. It's the "greatest hits." I think there is value to that, but it just doesn’t feel like an introduction to the discipline. In my upper level courses, I do try to have students interpret art, visually dissect a painting and pose a possible thesis of its meaning, which is more inline with the discipline itself.

But in the survey class it is a bit harder to do that. Even having limited the number of works that I talk about, it is still challenging to find a way to have them engage in the art historical inquiry that is the backbone of our discipline.

However, I am teaching the course in a hybrid manner this coming fall, as I have the past two years. The students were overall positive about the experience. I’m going to do it again, putting in some suggestions that they made to hopefully make the course better. This will give me more time to try some new things that might have them engage in the art a bit more, and perhaps help them engage in the works as an art historian might, albeit on a very general level.

For instance, I am thinking of have them all work as advisors to a pharaoh or leader from the Near East. Each group is tasked with creating a museum for their leader/pharaoh that has art from all the periods we cover in that module (of ancient Near East and Egyptian art) but work cannot be ones we have covered. They must search for other examples. And I plan to also “surprise” each group with an image that they then research. They must explain their choices and why the work is one from the culture that it represents.

What do you think? Does this engage students for a purpose that connects to the discipline of art history?

 

This post is a follow up to the one I published last week about planning an in-class assessment of what students had learned so far this semester. We are about at the half-way mark, so it seemed to be a good time to do it.

I had six total topics, and six groups of four students. They had to come up with a question based on one of the topics the course has covered so far.

Hiccup #1. Some of their questions were really mundane or way too specific. So, I had to help them develop more nuanced questions about the material to allow answers to dig more deeply into examples.

Then I gave two of the six questions, randomly, to each group. Of course some of them said, "Can we answer our own question?" Um. No. They had to come up with a presentation for their question, and two groups answered/presented per question.

Hiccup #2. Some made Powerpoint presentations and we had email and a Blackboard meltdown last week so I was scrambling a bit to project the PPTs in the class. But we managed. But it was a lot to manage.

Each group that had developed the question had to assess which group answered better and why. I think this was the best part, and one that I came up with on the fly. If they are going to be responsible for their own learning, then they have to be responsible for assessing who answers better. I'd like to try something else on this in the future. Those who answered the best will get an extra point (or something) in the Reacting to the Past game we play later in the semester. By and large, I agreed with their assessment of which groups answered better. I was keeping notes.

Then, each student had to answer individually the remaining three questions and turn them in the next class. I just reviewed them and there were some great answers, and some not great answers. Some confusion, and some real understanding.

I had hoped that they would all answer everything correctly and it would show me that my commitment to active learning was giving even better results than traditional lecture-only based instruction. I can't go that far. However, I do think they are learning at least as much when I used to teach this course more traditionally. And I gave this assessment as a surprise. In the future I may try to find ways to circle back to what they are learning more often - not just with the last five minutes "What did you learn today?" reflections, but something to connect concepts more holistically. Because some of them were not doing that.

What are other ways that you can assess the learning in an active classroom without relying on traditional memorization exams? How can you "get at" the overall learning that is taking place over the course of the semester, and not just class-by-class assessment? And how can we see if and how they are managing to make sense of the course as a whole?

This story from September 5th in Inside Higher Ed bummed me out. It's about a professor who "flipped, but then "unflipped" his class. But in my opinion, he did it all wrong.

First of all, taping long lectures isn't ideal. It is way worse to watch a thirty minute video alone in your room than being there. And I can't tell from this short piece if the instructor had them come to class to apply the information. But it's clear that he thought watching a long video lecture was the same as being in class listening to one. It's not.

Flipped classes can work if you have students watch some lecture segments, short, broken up, to get specific pieces of information. But it is then imperative that they then come to class and do something with it. That way, you can see if the students have understood the concepts by asking them to apply it to new contexts and situations. But just giving them the content and stepping away (which it is not clear this professor did, but it sounds like he did)? That is not an effective way to flip a class.

I have flipped my western art survey part one and now teach it in a hybrid manner, meaning that students watch videos online on works of art about which in the past I would have lectured. The ideas in the Standard of Ur are just as clear from Smarthistory/Khan academy videos as what I would say. I really don't have anything innovative to say about that work for an introductory level class.

But what makes the class work, and what I bring to it, is to come up with assignments in which students apply the information to a new context. This is what I, as the instructor, bring to the table that is innovative and can't be replicated as easily online. So, this year, my student will learn about the art of the ancient Near East and Egypt, and then design a digital exhibition. During the unit on Greek and Roman art, when we are in class together, they will take part in a structured debate that will take two full class periods and time outside of class to decide if the Elgin/Parthenon marbles should be returned to Greece.

What we do in the face to face class should be something that can't be easily replicated in an online environment. The hybrid format of classes allows more flexibility for students to learn factual information on their own time. Then we do meet as a class, I can lead them in something that is more active and engaging, and allows me to see how well they understood the content.

How might you shift your teaching so that your in-class time is devoted to making sure students understand the material rather than lecturing to them?

In the first part of the introduction to western art, we talk about the move to farming from hunting/gathering. To have students really understand how difficult it was to move to farming, I use a case study/role-playing scenario that I have adapted from Paula Lazrus’ Reacting to the Past game, Hunter Gatherers in Transition. Because this is a content-heavy introductory course, it is difficult to use an entire Reacting game. [I have written about Reacting to the Past games in the past and more on the Reacting to the Past as a pedagogy can be read here.]

For this case-study, students are placed in groups and each group is given their specific scenario that describes their current circumstances and situation. The scenario is different for each group, though they are divided into three types: those who are still hunter-gatherers, those who are in transition to farming, and those who have adopted farming practices wholly.

After they read their scenarios, they choose cards from a deck that have “events” listed on them. In this deck of cards are events such as floods, that destroy all the seed inventory, or illnesses that wipe out a large portion of the population. Or other events happen like lessening access to animals for those that are still hunting. The choosing of the cards is random and they read the card event to the entire class. They then have time to figure out what they will do to respond, if they are even able to respond. To help them figure out their response, each group is also given at the start of this class a set of “tools,” printed on cards. They can use those tools (which can range from animals to stone tools or other objects) to solve their current predicament. They have about 10 minutes to come up with a solution, and then choose another event card and repeat the process.

One goal of this entire exercise is to have students understand the difficulties in the transition from hunting and gathering to farming. In the past I had always taught rather casually that this transition went smoothly and have even – wrongly – suggested in past classes that it was somehow inevitable. Reading and using Lazrus’ game has taught me differently. And students who participate in this role-play/case-study have a chance to really experience the difficulties of the transition as they make their way through the deck of cards.

The context of the movement of people versus the stationary establishment of farming communities becomes clearer through this exercise than a lecture from me about the differences.

How might you adapt such a case-study/role-play model to a class in your discipline?

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