Skip to content

Today I read this column by James Lang in The Chronicle of Higher Education. The title of his piece is "What Will Students Remember From Your Class in 20 Years?" Lang recounts how he had this discussion with faculty from different disciplines. Almost no one said anything about specific course content, and yet many of us teach that content as if content is the end of the world. "Oh, I can't not cover "x" work of art in the survey course!"

What do you want your students to remember?

I have already thought about this and this is what I want them to know. I want them to know:

  • How art historians think what they think and know what they know;
  • Why art historians have different ideas about works of art and that works of art can have multiple interpretations;
  • How to talk and write about works of art;
  • How to visually analyze works of art so that propaganda and commercialized ads don't lead us to decisions we don't think about first;
  • How to read a critical piece of writing that has a thesis and to determine if that argument is proved

That is just the start. I also want them to remember that they did things in my class. That they were involved. I do not want to them to ever remember me telling them everything. I want them to remember the debate they had about whether or not the Elgin marbles should go back to Greece, or if the Second Crusade should be aimed at Edessa or Damascus, and what the future of art should be in Paris in 1889.

I believe that these goals are all incentivized by active learning. If I tell them all the things, then they are likely not to remember it next year, let alone in 20 years.  James Lang is a proponent of making small changes to teaching that allows for more student reflection and activity. That doesn't mean that I sometimes don't have to just tell them things, but it does mean that wherever possible, they are going to be actively engaged in observing an Egyptian work of art, or designing a new type of church for Justinian, or debating the role of artists in fighting fascism.

I probably won't know if I make the mark in 20 years. But I am pretty confident I am laying the foundation firmly for them to do so.

I have been teaching for over twenty years and higher education is under tremendous pressure and my college is experiencing this as well. I just started reading Jeffrey Selingo's book There is Life After College. I am doing this to try to understand the role of higher education in America now. It's very different than it was even a decade ago, and Selingo offers some context for that.

I have done a lot of reading because I want to provide the best education and experience for any student who comes across my doorway, either the doorway of my office or my classroom. Sometimes I find myself overwhelmed at the different issues I must focus on. When I have a student  in my office, or when they come to my class, I am thinking of any number of things, like:

  • "It is my responsibility to teach this student and to be sure my course helps her on her way to graduation."
  • "I need to make sure this student understands and can communicate the skills he has learned in my class in any interview situation so that he can get the job."
  • "I need to retain this student because her continued attendance at my institution is important."
  • "I want to be sure that I engage these students so that they continue to want to learn and finish their degree."
  • "I want to be sure that this student doesn't end up a statistic of the millions who have some college, but no degree and student debt."

At times all of these thoughts can overwhelm and paralyze. And nearly all of those sentences should have an exclamation point after them, because each one seems pressing and necessary and URGENT. Sometimes I think I should just teach and NOT think about all of this. But is that really the extent of my job? Just teaching art history? I don't think so. I do think that my role at a small, liberal arts college is not just to teach. It's to help guide.

And yet, the more I read about our changing economy the more stressed I become for our students. The stakes are high. More and more it seems that the value that we place on individuals is really all about money. We do not hear about movies over the weekend that were good in a creative sense, just which ones made the most money at the box office. Everything is a value exchange.

I teach art history. How do I translate that so that my students can benefit from the skills that my discipline offers, while still helping them be successful in their eventual careers? How do I do that when art history is usually the degree that is maligned, as in a 2014 speech by then-President Obama (which you can read here). Or when it's mentioned in a podcast as a major that even students police among themselves: "Why are you majoring in Art History?!" according to William Deresiewicz in a recent episode of the Unmistakable Creative podcast (you can read about/listen to it here).

My institution is wrestling with the big question of the role of our college in society, what we teach and our mission. We are a private, liberal arts college and I know we help students. I know we're important. Yet, so much is changing around us. I believe strongly in the core of the liberal arts and want my students to be successful. Ultimately that is why I am mentoring students that happen to be on the football team, because I see such potential in them, and yet also a reticence among some of them to be disciplined enough in academics to have it help them launch a career.

I'd love to hear from my former students about how their experiences launched them - or did not. What would you do differently? What do you wish your alma mater did differently?

And today, I'll decide how best to teach tomorrow, and I'll also be planning mentoring meetings this week with students. That work must carry on.

At my institution, we moved the second semester writing class, which is usually about literature, out of the English department. Thus, each major decides what writing in their discipline looks like and what students need to know. The idea from research in the field is that students learn more about writing when they care about or are interested in the subjects about which they are writing.

In my department, Art and Art History, our disciplinary writing course introduces students to different forms of art writing: catalog entries for art history, exhibitions review from galleries for both studio and art history majors, and visual analysis pieces. We also have them spend some time on writing their resumes and cover letters, and if they are visual artists, an artist statement. Since part of the expectation of this course is the completion of a catalog of works that the students choose, I decided to add a piece on digital writing and included some pieces of the assignment that were web-based. While students were required to keep a digital portfolio for their work, they were also asked to take part in a Wikipedia editing session on the work of art that they were working on for our class catalog. [I also created an online exhibition of the works of art that they wrote about, but that is another post you can read here.]

The Wikipedia edit session was co-taught with the director of our Writing Center. He spent some time taking them through an exercise about what they knew and thought about Wikipedia going into the exercise. After that discussion, students were asked to start to edit their entry. To facilitate this session that was held in one of our computer labs, students were required to come with an account already established. The people at WikiEdu are great about support and help, and they helped all my students get registered for this edit session. https://wikiedu.org/teach-with-wikipedia/

Once the session began, one student began to fret. She realized she was writing for the public and that “people will be reading this!” This made me think about how we teach writing, and how the students are trained to think about how they are writing only for the instructor. Suddenly in this exercise they realized that they were writing for people that they did not know!

This was a great teaching moment. Not only did this student step up her game, but it initiated a conversation about audience, and how writing for people who would actually read the work made the students take it more seriously. They started thinking more about word choices, comma placement. It was eye-opening for me, as a professor, to see the shift that was taking place. It made me think that papers read only by me and written by them was a waste of time for teaching about audience.

A friend of mine was talking to me the other day about one of the things he loves about my classes is that I have them “doing things.” I totally agree. This was one of those watershed moments that made me realize that active learning in the classroom is very important.

But it can’t just be an engaging technique for the sake of engagement. There needs to be a reason for that engaging activity. In this case, the reason was teaching about audience and having the students realize that people outside of the institution would be reading their work.

In one case, a student had a very creative and evocative description of her work of art which is a panel painting of the Virgin and Child by the late medieval Italian artist Berlinghieri. The student felt her depiction of the painting was too flowery, and we spent time talking about ekphrasis, the art of description that is traced back to Greek aesthetics. She felt that her description was based too much in ekphrastic writing, and not based in more fact-centered prose of Wikipedia. As a lark, we have checked back, now over a year since she wrote her entry, and her eloquent description of one of his painting remains: “Her soulful eyes are large and intensely focused, lending her visage a particular elegance.”

When I teach this course again, which is coming up this fall, I will use this Wikipedia editing project again. I may even use it in a future art history class because the difference in audience – and for students to think about creating content for the web – is so important as they leave and enter the work force.

Writing on the web make students better writers and connects them with the outside world, providing them with an opportunity to impact the world, one Wikipedia entry at a time.

4

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?

 

I just got back from my eleventh Reacting to the Past conference. I had a great time as usual. I saw wonderful teachers learning a pedagogy that can transform their teaching, and even their life, as it has mine. I made new friends and met up with ones I have made over the years. And ran my now -published game Modernism vs. Traditionalism: Art in Paris, 1888-89, which was published by North Carolina University Press. After that, I played the artist Paolo Uccello in my friend Paula Lazrus' game about the building of the Duomo in Florence when a competition was announced on how the work would be completed in 1418. Here I am in the game, leading a procession with a palio that represents my guild of painters and sculptors: And later, Uccello gives a lesson on the newly discovered linear perspective, which I did in the game:

And yet even though I come back from this conference more convinced than ever that Reacting is a powerful teaching tool and I hope I encouraged many to use it, I had the odd feeling the entire weekend that this "run" had come to an end. I will always use Reacting and have posted here many times about how it has worked in my classroom. I served on the Reacting Consortium board for six years, I chaired the board for about a year. I co-authored a game. I use a game in nearly every class.

But I am called to put energies elsewhere now, and it seemed somehow important to note this as a sort of ending, so that I could take in, enjoy, and appreciate every minute of the conference experience. And I did.

Now I feel a real urge to do more with the student athletes, specifically those on the Green Terror Football team, for whom I act as a faculty mentor. The creativity embedded in Reacting I will take with me to this new endeavor. I am clearing the decks mentally, physically, and even emotionally to make room for this new work and this new "calling." I am excited to meet new student athletes and help them to become their best selves both as players on the field and students in the classroom. While sometimes I am not sure how it will all work out, I didn't know how to write a Reacting game, either, and I figured that out.

With the help of the Green Terror football team (and the great coaches!) I'm betting I figure out how to mentor a team to the best of my ability, too.

I try to employ active learning in every one of my classes. This past spring semester in my Medieval Art history class that I've blogged about before, we played both a short Reacting game on the use of icons in the church and a longer game on the Second Crusade, I used several case studies in which they had to solve an art historical problem, conducted several in-class writing assignments in addition to out-of-class papers, and students wrote a weekly blog post.

However, at one point in the semester, when we were reviewing material that I thought they had learned, they could not remember details. It was so disheartening. I worry nearly all the time about what they are learning. Many of my colleagues would probably say I obsess over it. One weekend during the past semester, during a Twitter exchange, I noted that I worry they are having a "grand time," but that I wonder if they are learning anything.

Cathy N. Davidson was talking about assessment, and how our assessment right now is giving us information on the twentieth-century products we are producing through our educational system. I agree so much with her and want to tell everyone to read her book, The New Education. It is inspiring and so important. During the twitter exchange she noted to me:

"As long as I go to the meta level and then they can (I use Think-Pair-Share a lot for this) I feel sure they are learning. Focusing on what you want think they need to learn on a meta level is great."

She also sent me a link to her blog post from June 18, 2015, entitled "Why Start with Pedagogy? 4 Good Reasons, 4 Good Solutions."

This has me pondering. Yes, I can "Think-Pair-Share" my way through each class, but how do I know any of that is sticking after the class? The students may have learned the material during the 90-minute class period, but what about a few weeks later? Do they still remember it?

I'm considering more "in-class assessment instruments" for the fall semester (but would like to call it something else...not quiz...not exam). I do not want it to be high-stakes and stressful, but I also feel an obligation to them to ensure that their education is leading them to know new things and remember them. This past spring when I was feeling this way I put them in groups and had them prepare questions that then two groups answered, and the group who created the question decided who answered better. So, some competition in there, as well as ownership. That worked fairly well, though I was making up a lot of it as I went. I might try to do something like that again, but with a bit more pre-planning.

Readers: if you employ active learning, how do you ensure learning is taking place? How can you tell? By what means do you check to see if learning manifests?

Students: how would you like to prove that you have learned? I hear all the time how you hate tests - so what are some alternatives so we can know if you're learning?

[I am trying really hard not to use the words assessment, metrics, rubrics...or any of the buzzwords for teaching and learning right now - and it's hard!!]

2

It began with five students from the McDaniel College Green Terror Football Team in Roman Art and Architecture in the fall semester of 2015. I went to the home game on Saturday, September 12, 2015 - even invited as a guest to the suite (box) at Kenneth R. Gill stadium:

During the game, I grabbed a program and circled all the student players' names I had in that class. I watched their enthusiasm, passion, and dedication on the field. I made the decision that day that I would include active learning in every single class meeting period. To assess how well I had managed to achieve actual learning through that decision, I collaborated with my colleague in Communication, Dr. Robert Trader. He ran a focus group a year later and I was *amazed* at the amount of material they remembered. This led to a conference presentation and THEN a chapter published in Active Learning Strategies in Higher Education: Teaching for Leadership, Innovation, and Creativity from Emerald Publishers, 2018. I titled my chapter "Engaging the Non-Art History Student: A Tale of Five Football Players (and Others) in Roman Art." Because they influenced my teaching so much, I asked them to take a picture with me after one of their games in the fall of 2016. So, here we are:

This led to many opportunities that I would never have imagined could happen from five football players taking an elective: becoming the faculty mentor to the football team (that story was written about in this NCAA Champion magazine feature), publishing in the book noted above, and developing a speaking series on supporting student athletes. I gave my first keynote presentation at Texas Lutheran University last week at their annual engaging pedagogy conference.

The image above comes directly from the focus group, when they talked about how my class allowed them to try out interpretations, to risk, to be creative, and, to be wrong. In this exercise they had time to work on their own in pairs, and then lead discussion about an abstract Roman image like the one I am showing in the slide in the image above.

This past Saturday (May 18, 2018), four of the Original Football Romans graduated. Here they are:

Just like I grabbed the football program that September day in 2015, I grabbed the Commencement program this past Saturday.

But this time I did not have to circle their names.

Because they have helped me become a better professor. Because they have made me a mentor to an entire team. Because they have made me a better person, and I have learned so much from their teammates, as well as from them.

Congratulations, Original Football Romans!

 

 

2

My grades are in (though they are not due until tomorrow). We will graduate a new crop of McDaniel College students on Saturday. I always look forward to that day, but it is always bittersweet for me. This time of year is always bittersweet for me.

I work hard to create community with my classes. Connecting with each of my students is also a goal of mine, and one I most often reach. The most challenging class for me in that regard with the thirty-person Medieval Art course. But I managed to find a way to build a bridge to each student, and to make each of them feel important. If I had not, I’m not at all sure that they would have been so eager to have this picture of the class as a whole (thanks to Dr. Lyndsey Smith, who acted as a T.A. for this semester, for taking the picture):

The departure of students from The Hill, our nickname for our college campus, depresses me slightly every year. I don’t know how many other faculty feel this. It seems counter-intuitive to the trends I see on Twitter and elsewhere about “grades are in!” and “Let the summer begin!” Of course, I have projects and writing that I wish to do, but I seem to make progress on those as I am teaching my students, not in spite of them. I had a book published this spring semester by the University of North Carolina Press: Modernism vs. Traditionalism: Art in Paris, 1888-89, a Reacting to the Past game that was co-authored by Michael Marlais and Nicolas Proctor. That book was not written in the summer(s).  I also had a chapter published in the following book on active learning: Active Learning Strategies in Higher Education: Teaching for Leadership, Innovation and Creativity, Anastasia Misseyanni, Militiades D. Lytras, Paraskevi Papadopoulou, eds. Emerald Publishing Limited, 2018. My chapter was on my experience with the football players in the Fall of 2015: “Engaging the non-Art History Student: A Tale of Five Football Players (and others) in Roman Art” (187-209). Both of these projects were peer reviewed (the Reacting game extensively), and most of the final work was done in the fall semester. Thus, summers are not always the time that we have laid at our feet to do our work as scholars. Somehow, I always manage, even when I am in the midst of classes to teach, papers to grade, and students to mentor.

I am not advocating for not having a free summer. I am not saying that at all. I know I need some mental time to reestablish other routines, and just to have a rest from the relentless (self-imposed) pressure to create an engaging classroom experience every class period. But right now I feel sad.

So, really what I am seeking is advice. For those who find the departure of students to be alarming, distressing, or even depressing: what do you do? How do you transition to summer?

 

We are entering "exam week," which means the day to day teaching of the semester is over. It's always a bittersweet time of the year for me. Sure, I am happy to have some time to myself again, but I will miss the give and take and interaction with my students. Today I find myself reflecting on the semester.

My Medieval art course, which I called lovingly my "Medieval Mongol Horde" (MMH), stretched me in new ways as a professor. I had never had a class of 30 students before, and even the arrangement of the room was a challenge. I know many professors teach classes much larger than this, but for me, this was new. Even just five more people from our course cap of 25 seemed like a lot of people. Even figuring out the furniture for the different class activities  was a challenge!

Some of the students from the MMH have also sent me reflections on their experience in the course, as I am readying for a keynote presentation at the Engaging Pedagogy Conference at Texas Lutheran University next week. I was asking them for an experience in the course that stood out to them.

Two of the key responses have something in common: sharing ideas and being heard. When I asked them what they remembered, or what stood out from the semester, one mentioned their weekly blog posts. This was surprising, as I figured that weekly writing on a prompt from me would be boring. But I responded to every single prompt (which was difficult, but important), and it got them writing every week in addition to papers and other more high-stakes writing that was for a grade. When I asked this student what he liked about the blog, he noted "You got to see what everyone else thinks and kind of compare."

Another of the MMH noted his favorite activity was a really hard chapter that I had them read and then a three-page critical analysis paper that they had write at the start of the semester. I was truly surprised by this answer. But the key here was what he said about the way the assignment was handled: "we discussed it as a class and what each of us thought." This was their first foray into art historical scholarship and the chapter I assigned is difficult. But we spent time in class talking about it, and students were able, after writing their papers, to argue about the thesis of the chapter.
The commonality in these two comments highlight to me the importance of listening as a professor. As professors we do so much of the talking. We need to do that because we are masters of the information of our disciplines and we have to impart that. It's our job. But our students are longing to be heard and to say what it is they are thinking. We need to build platforms for that, though. Just asking questions, as any professor knows, doesn't always lead to an amazing discussion where all the students engage.
Thank you for a great Semester to the Medieval Mongol Horde, pictured here:

I am currently using a game set in 1148 at the War Council of Acre, at which knights, kings, and the church hierarchy gathered to decide if there should be a Second Crusade and if so, where it should be aimed. I have thirty students in this class, and twenty of them are on the football team at McDaniel College. Their engagement has been profound and at times frankly astounding. One such moment of their utter engagement is captured here in this photograph I took during the class debate about where the Crusade should be targeted:

In this picture, the student is an offensive lineman for the Green Terror. In the game, however, he is playing Patriarch Fulcher, the individual who found the True Cross in the first crusade, and is credited with having won back Jerusalem for the Latin Crusaders. In this image he is standing in front of a projected image of the different cities in the region. For two days, as he says here, they talked about how their war was just because the city of Edessa being taken by Zengi in 1144. But moments before I took this picture, King Louis suggested they attack Damascus instead. The Patriarch was confused, baffled and even outraged.

This was a moment when the class ceased to be at McDaniel in 2018 and was clearly in the city of Acre in 1148. They had left the building. They were experiencing flow. They were so in the moment that, as I talked to some of them afterwards, they forgot about practice. They forgot about their other classes. I am attempting to get a certain general education tag for my Reacting courses and asked them for some help answering questions. Some of their quotations can say better than I can how much they experience in a Reacting game:

"It's immersive. Because you have to put your all into your role. You have to dive in and see how you are going to argue these points of view for this person, how to back it up with research. You have to research in a way you may not typically do so, focus on your role vs personal feelings on the role."

"You can't just BS your way through it. You have to find enough material for your role in the game and be able to rebut anything anyone else throws at you. You need to understand their roles too and how they might come at you."

"When you get stuck into this game, you are here and you are your character. You call each other by your character role names, you are that person and their beliefs (not you and your own personal beliefs)."

"When you are arguing it is super easy to get caught up, and you forget 'oh i have to go to practice today'. Taking on the persona makes you argue better and focus on the game."

"When you go up to the podium, you have to convince yourself/faction and rest of room of what you are arguing. You have to embody the role and its unlike any other class activity. It gives you more skills as a student rather than just looking at a PowerPoint and taking notes. It helps you experience the class differently and take on roles you normally wouldn't."

Reacting is great for every student, but I would argue that for student athletes, these immersive role-playing games make them enjoy the class more than at other times in their education. They see research as a means to a win. They see a role as a chance to argue and help their team (or faction). But they also note that it is work. It takes time. They all laughed when I asked them if a Reacting game would count for the 15 hours required for this tag. They said that they had all put that much time in already and the game was not over.

Faculty: try Reacting to the Past. It is often said that athletes care more about their sport than their classes. But if they have a chance to win in a classroom as well as the playing field, you will see a different student performance entirely. The Annual Institute for Reacting to the Past games will be held this year at Barnard College from June 14-17 and I urge faculty to check it out.

css.php