Curating a Virtual “Textbook” for Early 20th-Century Art History
Guest Author: Marie Gasper-Hulvat, Assistant Professor of Art History at Kent State University at Stark
Back in March, Michelle Millar Fisher told us about how she has ditched the art history survey textbook in her courses, replacing the traditional paper-based book with free online resources. While I had done a similar thing in the past with an online survey course that I had taught, I have since returned to a textbook (for reasons which perhaps merit an entire future post!) for my survey courses. But I had never used a set of completely online resources for an in-person, brick-and-mortar course, nor for an upper-division seminar.
This semester for my Early 20th-Century Art seminar, I decided that I would take that plunge again. Rather than asking my students to purchase a textbook, all of the resources we are using are available online, either free or through our campus library’s digital subscriptions.
The Course Materials in lieu of a textbook are divided into ten discrete units. Each Unit (the equivalent of a traditional chapter) consists of four primary elements:
1) An introductory lecture to frame the material
I give this lecture in the last 10 – 15 minutes of class before the next Unit begins. It includes:
- broad themes to pay attention to,
- chronological place markers,
- a geographical overview, and
- a basic list of the major artistic players that they will encounter.
This takes the place of the “Introduction” section of a traditional textbook chapter, and gives my students a few anchors to guide them into the materials that they will encounter in their upcoming homework.
In the future, I would eventually like to record these lectures and make them available online, so that we can spend more class time on interactive activities and discussions, rather than on something that the students could do on their own outside of class, and so that students could access and review this material as many times as they wished.
2) A list of online resources, including texts, videos, and audio files
These resources are dominated by videos from Smarthistory, because the site is such an invaluable and accessible resource for the study of Western art history. Its coverage of the early twentieth century, for the most part, is adequate as a substitute for a textbook. However, there are a few important omissions in early 20th-century art, in my opinion, as well as other resources available online that should not be missed. In these cases, a variety of other reliable sources come into play, including articles on the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, educator resources and interactive explorations published on museum websites, interviews with scholars and curators, and even articles from popular magazines such as Slate.com.
I believe that having this variety is critical for making this course my own. It shows my students that, as an expert in my field, I have vetted and critically examined what it is that I want them to study. José Antonio Bowen states in his renowned book, Teaching Naked, that with the increasing prevalence of outstanding resources for online learning, teachers need to become curators, rather than deliverers, of information. I will continue to refine my curated list of resources each time I teach this course, as new and more effective means of conveying the information I want my students to learn becomes available.
This set of resources is not as in-depth as a traditional textbook would be. It gives the students what I would consider a “lite” version of what would otherwise be made available to them in a traditional textbook. But the tradeoff comes in engagement. If a student can deeply learn the most important material (because they can access it on their phones during a slow moment at work, or because they can simultaneously listen to the information and read it through the video captions) with less overwhelming exposure to the vastness of material typically offered in a traditional textbook, then that is, as far as I am concerned, a pedagogical success. Moreover, what I sacrifice in depth and scope of coverage using these resources is more than made up for, in my opinion, by the third element of the course materials.
3) Scholarly Articles available through JSTOR
For each unit, I have selected a chronologically- and thematically-appropriate article available through our campus subscription to JSTOR. These articles give the students a highly-focused glimpse into the scholarship of the art historical era we are presently studying. With the online videos, when we study, for example, the unit on Impressionism, we can spend time in class discussing the broad overview of what the Impressionists did that was so incredibly innovative in their time. This lays the foundation for an understanding of the era. But with the scholarly articles, in the next class we achieve intense focus by exploring how Renoir’s depictions of women helped to reify conventional conceptions of gender, using Tamar Garb’s “Renoir and the Natural Woman” as a foundation to spur in-depth discussions on much more specific, theoretical questions.
It is hardly atypical for a senior-level course to engage with scholarly articles intended for a professional audience. However, with a traditional lecture-based course that used a standard textbook designed to cover an entire semester’s worth of material, I would never choose to assign my students ten such articles in a semester. Many of my students would find such a reading load excessively burdensome, and I would likely lose their willingness to engage meaningfully with the material. However, with (what I hope is perceived as) the lower intensity of the online resources that provide the coverage of course content, the increased challenge of the multiple scholarly articles becomes, hopefully, just that – a challenge, rather than a burden.
4) Image groups in ARTstor
One important function of an art history textbook is that it serves as a collection of images. Students can easily identify what specific works need to be learned, in order to have a solid grasp of the “vocabulary” of images that constitutes basic knowledge of the material. Without a textbook to collect these images all in one place, there is a real danger that the students, particularly students who have taken many art history courses in which image recall serves as the primary mode of assessment, may feel a crippling lack of control and grounding as to what they need to learn.
To prevent this from occurring, I set up an ARTstor image group for each unit of materials. These image groups range from fifteen to twenty-four images per unit, and encompass all the important works that are discussed in the course materials. However, by using ARTstor for this purpose, I accomplish more than just student feelings of stability and security. I also force them to acquire an important digital literacy skill, navigating a potentially new online database system. And I provide a quick and easy way to explore the works of art in-depth in class. With this just being the fourth week of class, we have already used the functionality of ARTstor to zoom in on details more times than I can count, and we spent a good fifteen minutes discussing two iterations of a Degas work because we could quickly and easily bring them up side-by-side, when a student brought up a question about the differences between them.
Because I have instructor privileges in ARTstor at my institution, I can set up the image groups as Institutional Folders that anyone at Kent State can access. There were a few images that I wished to use that are not presently in the ARTstor collection. But with instructor privileges, I can upload personal images and add them to my groups, so that my students have all the images in a single place. Students can then review the works online, quizzing themselves when they have a moment. Or they can download powerpoints with all the information available in the “notes” section of each slide, and even print flashcards directly from those powerpoints.
Conclusions and Feedback
In preparation for publishing this blog post, I decided to ask my students what they thought about not having a textbook for this course. Their feedback was mixed. On the one hand, learning from the videos can be more difficult than learning from a textbook; one student wrote, regarding the lack of a textbook, “I use it as a reference, I underline.” On the other hand, another student commented, “It is easier to learn from online course materials because the material is outlined and an instant find. … This class is really allowing me to learn better than other classes that used a textbook.” As a teacher, these different modes of learning will be something I need to put further work into in order to balance.
All the students have demonstrated significant engagement with the scholarly article readings. Although there will always be tweaking to be done, to refine and improve how students encounter and immerse themselves in the material, I am relatively satisfied with the balance of coverage and depth that has been achieved through this alternative to a traditional textbook. It provides a solid structure to alleviate potential student insecurity in the face of the vastness of material that is available to them on the internet. Like a textbook, this structure focuses their inquiry and provides a foundation from which to acquire knowledge and think critically. But unlike a textbook, we can focus much more intently on scholarly research that is pertinent to our topics. And these materials are available at no additional cost to the students. Most importantly, this alternative to the classic textbook is infinitely adaptable to student and professor interests, as well as to new online materials, the instant they manifest themselves or become available.