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Yesterday I was invited to run a workshop on active learning to a group of faculty, librarians, and technologists in Sarasota, Florida. It was a great experience and I enjoyed my time there immensely. During the workshop, I shared the following exercise as an example of how I would approach teaching this gorgeous painting by Jean-Auguste-Dominque Ingres (b. 1780- d. 1867) in my nineteenth-century art class. I have not yet used this assignment, but I explained how I break down a topic into an active learning experience for students.

First, it is important to identify your learning goals. WHY are you teaching whatever it is you are teaching? What, specifically, do you want students to know about it? Thinking about what I want them to get out of the presentation of whatever topic is "up" for the day changes my focus from delivering facts about the image (which I could do in a lecture) and helps me think about how I could possibly get them to the answer by doing something. For this painting, I want students to come away the following: How the senses of Sight, Hearing, Touch [and maybe even Scent? or Taste?] are expressed in the image. In addition, I want them to understand the importance of this painting and Ingres as a painter to later artists.

To meet the first objective, I would put students into groups or pairs (depending on the size of the class) and have them look, analyze and view the painting, thinking about how Ingres activates the five senses with specific visual cues in the painting. I would give them time to talk about them, and write them down. Then we would discuss as a class.

In terms of the senses, Sight is clearly being activated because, it is a painting. But so is the sense of Touch. The textures are exquisite, from the fabric of the drapery hanging on the left, to the softness apparently on the sheets, to the flesh of the Bather as she sits with her back to us. But there is also Hearing in this painting; there is a small fountain and bath between her leg and the curtain. If you look closely, you see that the fountain is trickling with water. You can nearly hear it. The rest of the painting is so quiet, you can imagine the sound of that trickle of water.  You could make a case for Scent in this painting as well, as the exotic almost wafts literally from the painting itself. The only sense that is not overtly evident is Taste, although one could make a case for taking a sip of the water, or, if the sensuality of this painting is not overt enough, kissing this bather.

I would then move to this comparison to talk about my other goal for this image, which is Ingres’ importance and influence in the art world. I would ask each student to write about this comparison (below): Man Ray’s photograph Le Violin d’Ingres from 1924 and Ingres' Bather. Man Ray's photograph is clearly an homage to the great painter. Each student would write individually at first on the comparison.

After five minutes or so of comparison writing, I would have them share their ideas with a partner or in a group. We would then discuss as a class, with every pair or group member adding to the conversation. Conversations are always richer after giving students a chance to think first, then share with a couple of other students, and then share with the class as a whole. I would also collect their writings as a chance to see how well they are improving as writers or just a check to see where they are as writers (this is not graded).

I would hope that students would see the obvious reference to the Ingres painting in the photograph. I don't want to give the titles of the painting or the photograph prior to the exercise, only because titles can nudge students into interpretive decisions, and I want those interpretations to always be based on visual analysis. But it's not only the title that alludes to Ingres directly, other elements do as well: the turban, the position of the woman with her back to the viewer, as well as, perhaps, the objectification of the woman into an actual violin “to be played” by the artist – or, perhaps, by the viewer - especially since the woman in the photograph, Kiki, Man Ray’s favorite model, is shown with no arms. It is also said that Ingres was a passionate violin player as well as painter, and the phrase "Violin d’Ingres” has become an idiom in French that means “hobby.” This last I would have to tell them. But after looking for the five senses, and then further looking and writing in the comparison, that idea is much more likely to stick with the students than if it was yet another element in a lecture on the topic.

This is how I would structure this class. I have found that shifting from "lecture topic" to "learning goals" helps free me from thinking that I must provide the answer and evidence and facts.

What questions might you ask of the next topic you are teaching and how might you reframe the activities in the class to get the students more involved in the learning?

2

"It's OK to be wrong." This is one of my favorite comments from a focus group I ran about a class I taught on Roman art in 2016. The students were remembering that I said this about a work of art that they were presenting to the class. The image was this one, of a poultry seller from Ostia:

In the focus group that was conducted a year after the class had been taught and concluded, two students remembered this image and my instructions about the day's activities. I had sorted students into groups and then let them choose the image that they would look at, analyze, and then present to the class. I wanted them to get the class involved in their discussions, so I encouraged them to come up with a hypothesis to suggest a possible meaning.

Apparently, after giving those directions, I also said, “And it’s OK to be wrong.” This was what stuck with these two students – a year later.

They said that they were struck by it because they had no idea what was going on in this image. One of them said to the other, “Good because there is no way we are getting this one right.” They did not tell me this during the time of the class, but did so afterwards, when they were asked to participate in this focus group.

This led to a greater discussion about the need to have assignments and activities in classes that are low stakes. Students learn from getting things wrong, but very often those “wrongs” are on high-stakes exams and tests that then hurt their overall grades. I can also see that this leads to high levels of anxiety about tests. By letting students struggle when the stakes are low, they begin to see that not having the right answer is not always the chief and most important result.

In this case, I recall that during their presentation and discussion of the image with their peers, they did not get it right. They were not sure what they were looking at, since the image is more abstracted, with certain elements exaggerated from the perspective of naturalism.

But they remembered this image a year later. If it had been on a test and they had to memorize it, only to have it leave their memory banks, I doubt they would have remembered this image. But because they engaged with it, thought about it, and ultimately, stood up and talked about it, they did remember it.

And in that regard, they did get it right.

A few weeks ago, before the start of the fall semester, the head coach of the Green Terror Football team asked me to speak to the entire group. As the faculty mentor, I was happy to do it. I love my role, and after I spoke to the team, hopefully giving them some tips about how to focus on classes and developing a goal for after college, I stayed for their team meeting.

It was very eye-opening.

From attending that meeting, it is clear that they have to memorize a ton of stuff. I went to the defense meeting after the team split up. They were going over a bunch of packages and formations for the defense, with letters that represented the positions. They all had a notebook (though I did notice a box of pens, just in case, in the room) to write things down, and were doing so. They were in rapt attention, too.

This told me a lot. First, they can do a lot more than they think they can. They have to memorize a ton of stuff for all of these schemes and plays. This means that they can do more in their classes than they think they can.

Second, their coaches believe in them, so I think they think, “Yes, I can do football.” But it is clearly not easy. I wanted to ask a ton of questions about stuff I did not understand, but of course I did not. The defense coach was saying, “Do not go out there and just be a bull in a china shop: do your job!” They have to do that, to work as a team. But his belief in them as players – as students – was clear to me and I’m sure to them. How often do we show that we believe in all of our students, as students? I have a future post planned about caring - not coddling - students and how that helps them to learn.

Third, while some students were asking questions to ensure they understood everything, it was clear that some didn’t ask anything – even when they needed the answers for the upcoming game. I think they fear looking dumb. But who among us doesn't also feel that way?

This made me glad that I said what I said in the team meeting: Be curious about your classes. Find a way to stay engaged. They have a responsibility to themselves to try harder and to give their attention to all of their classes.

We, as faculty, can do things to help these players, too. Just like their coaches, we can show we genuinely care about their learning. We can change things up, get them involved, and not have them sit for an hour to 90 minutes mostly listening. They only had about 30 minutes of lecture/listening before the coaches changed things up.

And I am also learning other things. That meeting was nearly six weeks ago (the term is flying by!) and the team has had two hard losses since then. I wrote about one of them a few weeks ago, which you can read here. This week, it was another hard loss, this time by one point! In overtime! That was hard.

But they got back up. They are - right now - focused on the next opponent. I realized while talking to a few of them over this past weekend that I have held on to mistakes and tend to beat myself up about them for a long time. They don't do that. They can't do that.

They characterize resilience and grit.

I hope I am teaching them as much as they are teaching me.

How do you respond when you make a mistake?

I made a big mistake this summer. It was a rather embarrassing one, but I am sharing it in order to demonstrate to all, especially students, that we all mess up. What matters most is how we respond to our screw ups.

I wrote up an article for submission to a journal. I went out on a limb and wrote a piece that was to be in APA style, which I don’t ever use. Art historians use the Chicago Manual of Style for all submissions; I hadn’t ever used APA style. I had references, but didn’t add a reference list. For those of you who know APA style (better than me!), you know that is a big no-no. The editor of the journal sent my piece back to me, saying, “there is no list of references on this, please add one.”

Now, this might not seem like a big deal to some of you, but I can assure you, aside from being really dumb, it was also very embarrassing. It demonstrated that I really didn’t know what I was doing (which I didn’t!). And I hate looking like I don't know what I am doing.

I thought about just not sending it back or fixing it. Because I was embarrassed. But then I thought, well, I have the piece written, and it's good. And I do have references, I just need to add that list in the right way. So, I sat down and I did it. And this week I was told it will be published.

What matters is how I reacted to the knowledge that I messed up.

This is true for you students, too. How you react when something doesn’t go well, or when the football team you play for loses a game, or you don’t get the grade you had hoped on a test or a paper, matters. As I posted last week, there is a lot of buzz right now around resilience and grit. I have developed resilience from years of critical reviews from my peers. I have learned to suck it up, make changes that seem appropriate, and send it back in.

I am seeing that with the football players that I mentor, too. They get back up after getting knocked down. And this week, after a tough loss last week, they won. They got back up. Learned from their mistakes. That is resilience. And grit.

So students: do not give up. Try again. Talk to your professors. Admit when you are confused. Because your reaction matters.

13

For those who do not know, I have the distinct privilege of being the faculty mentor to McDaniel College's Green Terror Football Team. In addition to that role, I am also privileged to teach these young men, many of whom sign up for my classes. This past Saturday I watched them fight a dogged battle against a conference foe. And come up a wee bit short. Like three points short. But short is short. I get that.

So this post is for them.

I have watched football all my life. I understand (most of) the rules and the plays. But I have never really understood football until now. And I am only starting to understand it: what it takes to get up play after play after you have been banged around. Or what it takes to play with your whole heart and come up short, and yet get on the bus, go back to campus, and get ready for the next opponent the next week. And I freely admit that I still have a lot to learn.

As I watched the team yesterday, I was thinking about how there is a theme running through higher education circles currently about instilling more grit and resilience in college students. Some feel that this generation's students are too weak and anxious; they need to toughen up!

Well, there are 125 or so young men on a college football team in Westminster, Maryland who are pretty danged tough. They show grit and resilience every Saturday afternoon. They showed it in abundance this past Saturday, in a tough, hard loss. But they never gave up until the very last second. Every single one of them was attuned to what was happening. They were a group of gritty and resilient souls.

I am the luckiest professor in the conference to be this close to these champions, these student athletes who show so much grit and resilience on the field and in their lives. Because as the mentor, I get to hear about the struggles they have in their lives, too. In their classrooms. At home. With finances. And how they overcome them. I am privileged and blessed (yes, I'm using that word) to get to help them.

For those administrators and faculty out there in higher education who want to cultivate more grit and resilience among their student body: look to your student athletes.

Because if they are anything like the Green Terror Football team, they've got grit and resilience in spades.

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?

This past week I was confounded by a number of student athletes lamenting to me personally and/or on social media about how much they "hated school." It made me so sad.

But it also got me thinking.

It got me thinking about an address I heard José Antonio Bowen, President of Goucher College, give a few years ago about how weird it is that we, as professors, love school. Not much of the regular population does. That was confirmed for me by the echoes of "I hate school" I kept hearing our first week back. And I *do* like school. I have been here my whole life!

And it also got me thinking about a book I read last summer: Susan Blum's book I Love Learning; I Hate School, published by Cornell University Press. In her book, she outlines that the myriad of services, financial and Registrar, are bewildering to students. I can't do much about that. But she also notes that students are bored in class.

I know we could (and some do!) say, "Well TOUGH. It's their job to be in school and they better find a way to get interested." Or, we could yammer on about "this generation..." as if really there were better students before. Mark Carnes, in his book Minds on Fire, published by Harvard University Press, notes several passages from the eighteenth and nineteenth century in which professors lament the same things I hear from my colleagues today about students not probing more deeply, not reading enough, not thinking enough. On and on.

I can't do anything about the systems that are in place that are bewildering, esoteric, and not user-friendly to our population of college students. But I can make my classes more interesting and more engaging.

This blog is devoted to helping faculty think about ways to create more active and engaging classrooms and ones that still ask students to learn content. But in the activities I have developed, they also work with different people, solve problems, communicate ideas - all skills that employers say that they want newly hired employees to be able to do - without sacrificing content of the discipline of art history.

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