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The first days back to campus are upon us all. I was on campus a few times this summer with different meetings and projects with which I am involved that required my presence. But of course, the students were not there.

When I look back on the summer related to work, the best days were when some of the students I was helping to appeal their financial aid suspensions were on campus. I met one mother, too. Those were the best days because I really do miss the students in the summer. I noticed on Twitter and Facebook in late July and early August that there were more posts from students about missing campus, wanting to get back into the groove, and the football players were itching for camp that started August 12.

I have a new crop of first year students who will be in my First Year Seminar this fall and we will be playing three Reacting to the Past role-playing games. First up is the Athens Game, about what to do in the aftermath of the Peloponnesian War. Then the students will play Bishops who are tasked with coming up with a creed that everyone can sign in the Council of Nicaea game. And our final one is The Second Crusade Game that is still in development.

I know these games will be great and I will be excited to meet these new students and help them start their college adventure.

My other class will be the introduction to Western Art part one, which I will be teaching in a blended manner. First contact with the material will be through art history videos that are housed at Kahn Academy.

After viewing the videos there are discussion boards in which students must participate and they must also reflect on their learning in private learning journals. The idea is that when we meet face to face as a class, we engage in activities that can’t be easily replicated online. Conveying information online is a good way to transmit knowledge. But in class is where I want them to engage with art, ideas and each other. On the days that we meet in person, students will be engaging in case studies, debates, and Reacting-style games.

My newest activity for this course will be student curation of a digital exhibit of works of in one module that will include one “real” work of art that groups will be assigned from our college's small collection. I am excited to try this assignment, that will be a new addition to my bag of tricks this semester.

What are you excited to be doing in your classes this fall?

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It seems that I only ever have time to post to this blog, that is supposed to be all about teaching, when I am finished with a semester. Once again, I am finished with a semester, and I find myself thinking over my immediate past experiences with my students.

What I am thinking about the most now, two days after graduating the Class of 2016 at McDaniel College, are all the students that I was most excited about seeing graduate. I won't post their names, but some of them (if they see this post) will know who they are. They are the students who did not get awards. They didn't write the best papers. They didn't have high GPAs; as a matter of fact in a few instances, I'm betting that they just squeaked by with a high enough GPA to graduate.

But these are the students that speak to me. They move me and inspire me. These are the students that I love to teach.

Right now I am pondering, why? Why is this the group that makes me want to be a better professor? Why is it not the top students? We have some stellar students who are very high-achieving. I had the privilege of teaching one of the students who won the top writing award at graduation and one of the students who won the award for the highest GPA is in my major, and we're very proud of her.

And yet. I kept thinking of my middle of the road students: my baseball players from my FYS.  The student in my class this semester whose friend died and who stepped up with her friends to make sure requirements were met so her departed friend would be awarded her degree, albeit posthumously.

I wonder if my focus on the middle is because the way we set up graduation and even education is so hierarchical. Of course I want to commend the very best students. But sometimes I worry that doing so gives the middle students a feeling of futility. I wonder if they feel that since they likely are never going to reach those lofty heights of a 4.0 GPA, they just disengage. Do our expectations of precision in citations (something that is probably anathema to admit but  drives me crazy as a scholar in the field), drive students to just give up? The top students master it, sure. But what about the vast majority of the others? Where are they?

All of this has led me to embrace active learning pedagogies in my classes. They debate, read, discuss, analyze, write, meet, present, and lead. I would love to hear from them through this post. Because I want to know:

Did this make you want to learn? Do you think you learned? More? The same? Did it "stick"?

What about my colleagues? What say you? Are the middle of the pack students worthy of some love? If so, in what form?

I know many people have heard of the "flipped" method of education. Essentially, it is the paradigm of old: students do homework and come to class prepared and then new material is covered. I've heard many faculty in higher education scoff at this method, saying that it's actually "what they have always done."

But how many students of your students actually do the reading? Can you tell?

And if students are going to come to class and hear you speak and lecture on the same material, why should they read it ahead of time? Most college students are busy with jobs, other classes, and yes, a social life. It is part of college. How many of us maybe skipped a reading or two (or more?!) in the course of our college lives if we're honest?

While it is true that faculty have always assigned textbook and other homework, one of the new elements that changes this paradigm is technology. There are now newer - and often free - ways to get across content information ahead of class that can lead to more engagement inside the classroom.

I've talked before about whose responsibility it is to engage students on my own blog. I believe that it is partly my job to find ways to have students want to engage in the material. In my upper level art history classes, I have found all kinds of ways to increase student engagement. But the art history survey was proving a very hard nut to crack. That changed in the Fall of 2014, when, coming off of a sabbatical, I realized I could harness the power of online education for the student work ahead of coming to class and then do something to really engage students with the works of art that so energize me as an art historian, and as a human being, in the classroom. In essence, I realized, I could flip the survey.

I used the Khan Academy Art History videos that were first created by Drs. Beth Harris and Steve Zucker, but have been added to by many other fine scholars and teachers over the years. For the flipped art history survey, students watched these videos and then came to class to engage in the ideas of the period in question. I usually assigned about six to seven videos or texts from Khan Academy ahead of time. I make all links available in our class' Blackboard shell. A quiz was given at the start of class in the form of an annotated image that students sometimes filled out individually or in pairs.  This is one example of the quiz on the Woman of Willendorf. After the quizzes, we engaged in deeper discussion of the period in question. For instance, during the prehistoric unit, I included a case study in which hunter-gatherers faced specific threats and difficulties as they decided whether or not to transition to farming, a scenario based on a Reacting to the Past game by my colleague Paula K. Lazrus.

I attended a great presentation by Lynn and Bob Gillette on the flipped pedagogy at a Lilly Conference in Bethesda, MD in 2014 before I embarked on this experiment. One of their suggestions was more like a warning: “if you lecture on material you assign, you die!” This warning resonated deeply with me. At times I thought, “Well, what will I do if I don’t lecture on this material?”

This is the key to teaching in this manner: use the technology but make sure class time is devoted to deep immersion in the ideas and themes of the works of art and cultures themselves. And, truthfully, at times this was a daunting task.

In fact, the most difficult part of the flipped pedagogy is not lecturing on the material. If you do, you lose the integrity of why you assigned the videos and readings in the first place. To illustrate, one of my favorite experiments in this course focused on the art of the Minoans. Upon coming to class, I split them into teams of “archaeologists.” I created a website entitled “Mystery Culture,” being sure not to refer to them as the Minoans per se.

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I included information on this “mystery culture’s” paintings and other objects, and gave them some geographic information with a map. They were not able to do any research on the computers, but had to use only these objects on this website and visual analysis to construct the basic tenets of the civilization. Then, each group had to present their findings at a press conference. Afterwards, I revealed “The Truth.”

I heard from several students that this was one of their favorite activities from the semester. Rather than my lecturing about the Minoan culture, they had to engage with the material in a deep way, analyzing it visually and thinking about context. One student said the following about this class, and the Minoan experience specifically:

“Letting students take the lectures out of class (and on their own terms) makes time for personal development. In class, we were more often than not paired with new students and given an unpredictable assignment. These assignments helped us think about art in different ways and gain a real understanding of the material. One class in particular stood out to me. After being placed in a randomly assigned group [she] tasked [each group] with the challenge of predicting the history of a "mysterious" civilization whose name was withheld. My group spent the entire class invested in the material and we deeply debated our different thoughts on this civilization. For the first time I discovered I had a deep love of a subject that I had never given any thought about.”

Based on this student feedback, and other similar comments from student evaluations, I will always teach art history with this flipped model. Students were much more engaged with the material even from the very beginning of the semester, asking many more questions than in the past. One assessment of this experiment was week three, when I realized that I knew all twenty of my students not just superficially, but individually. This is because they had all spoken, asked questions, or otherwise made their individuality known. In my experience, this rarely happens in a lecture class, where I consistently engage with maybe five or six of the overall twenty to twenty-five students in the course. In addition to this personal assessment, these students did just as well on exams as students in the more traditional lecture-based classes.

The keys are these: keep them accountable with some kind of quiz on at least one of the several images assigned; keep them engaged in class with an activity, case study, debate or Reacting to the Past game that focuses on the issues related to the art of the period; and never, ever lecture on the assigned material unless your assessments demonstrate that they missed something significant or have misunderstandings.

This post was written for the Art History Teaching Resources site.

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