Curating a Virtual “Textbook” for Early 20th-Century Art History

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Students discuss an article from Oxford Art Journal

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

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.

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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.

17 responses to “Curating a Virtual “Textbook” for Early 20th-Century Art History”

  1. I am a huge proponent of using online sources and the ones mentioned are excellent. I would urge more faculty to make enhanced podcasts of their lectures, post them on YouTube and assign as homework rather than using class time for that. I have been doing this for the past year and find it is a much better pedagogical use of class time. Students watch the. Ideas as part of their homework, write responses to prompts I provide. I read the promos, comment and return comments electronically prior to the next. Lass and we use class time for discussions, activities, and presentations. This really does turn the class into an active learning space without sacrificing the lecture content.

  2. I heartily agree Parme! For those who have never made a podcast before – what would you suggest as a good step by step tech guide? Can you share a few links? Do they exist? It seems like a simple process (and a pedagogical idea that most would get behind) but I feel maybe the tech step might need explaining.What tolls and skills does one need to make a podcast? Would you want to write a step by step short post?

  3. Jenifer Knox says:

    Great post! I have also experimented with using a variety of vetted online resources in place of a text book with (mostly) success. I did recommend a textbook to the one or two students who asked and wanted a more tangible resource.

    I LOVE the idea of giving lecture portion of class as homework in a podcast. I’d much rather spend class time on discussion or activities, facilitating and gauging their comprehension. Parme, it would be great if you could share some of the tech involved or how you go about making your enhanced podcasts. Is there a specific program you use? I’m looking forward to trying this out myself.

  4. Parme Giuntini says:

    I’ve made about 15 of these and they are up on Youtube. Do a search with my name and you’ll easily fine them. Making an enhanced podcast is not hard but it is time consuming, although once you have them you can reuse them. The basic process is really straightforward.

    You need a script (the lecture issues). It’s critical to be organized; I can’t stress that enough. It’s the equivalent of writing a really cohesive paper and then turning it into a TED talk…I watched a lot of those to begin. I have found that it is better to break big topics up into individual podcasts; I started my modern art podcasts with one on what it meant to be modern and what that meant in the 19th century just in terms of living and thinking and deciding who was modern and who wasn’t…did all that before I even broached the idea of art.

    I’d suggest no more than 20 to 30 minutes. Just think of how your mind wanders at a professional conference… I have made longer ones, up to an hour though but I am leaning toward 30 minutes or less. I think it’s best to speak conversationally, include the comments and asides, even humorous remarks that you would make in class in the podcast. No one wants to listen to someone drone on so you have to engage the audience. I started with very well fleshed out lecture notes and I still ended up lots of revising. Just remember that people have to listen to you which is quite different from reading what you have written.

    You also need a powerpoint presentation to accompany the script. I incorporate lots of different material in the powerpoints, much more than I did in a FTF course…slides with images and captions, comparison, background images (sort of what film makers call “establishing shots”, slides with bullet point or key ideas, occasionally a quote but nothing very long. Because the students can pause the powerpoints, they offer an opportunity to include textual information that you might have put on the board or in a handout.

    I use garageband to record the final script so this does have to be done on a MAC and then I give the script (with all the powerpoint slide changes marked) and the sound file to our institutional video production manager and she meshes the two files, corrects for color quality and uploads it to Youtube. Some of the times I have been videoed at the beginning and ending of each podcast and that is helpful because they have a face to identify with and you can give them a brief overview of the material. That got to be time consuming from both the filming and the editing positions but I would do it again.

    I embed the videos in my syllabi; we use electronic portfolios so it is very easy. Students have watched as many as three of these a week along with reading. I would suggest that you have them log onto and listen to “How to watch a video critically” which I wrote the first week after my students looked at some Smarthistory videos the way they would watch a commercial. Beth and Steven posted it since it offers students some basic but needed guidelines to looking and listening critically.

    Hope this helps. I love making these podcasts, probably because it is the easiest way to give students good content but use the classroom much more effectively.

    • Jenifer Knox says:

      This is great! Thank you.

    • Melissa Hall says:

      I tried recorded videos too, but was disappointed with the results. I used Camtasia Studio, which was set up by my college, and was very easy to use. I was able to store the videos on a site created by my institution. My powerpoints looked pretty professional, but my voice-overs were awful! In part, this was the result of poor audio equipment, but it was also because I lack professional acting skills: I just didn’t sound as natural as I do in a real live lecture! It sounds like you put more effort into preparing the scripts, which may be the key. Also, mine were too long: your tip on keeping the lectures to 30 minutes makes a lot of sense.

      I have also used ScreenFlow to record narrated videos, and find it pretty user-friendly. I think I just need a professional actor to do my narrations!

    • Victoria Delaney says:

      SmartHistory is produced by Kahn a useful but Conservative source.

  5. Many, many thanks for posting this Parme!

  6. I have also heard of soundslides ( which I am going to test out as we don’t have an on-site tech manager to help where I teach – I am wondering whether I could use this as a way to make audio PPTs/podcasts. I think Renee McGarry would be a good person to pitch in too in terms of this conversation…..

  7. virginiaspivey says:

    I also use this approach for a modern survey course using many of the same resources. This is the third semester I’ve taught it this way. It’s taken some time getting used to it (for me and the students), but the assessments I’ve been doing suggest it is having an impact on the student learning, especially their understanding of more conceptual issues that are often skimmed over in survey classes. Moreover, it’s just been really fun watching the students become so engaged and vocal about the material.

    Parme–I think it’s unanimous that we need your how to’s! I tried recording my intros and encountered two key problems. 1. I found it amazingly difficult to “lecture” without an audience, so the process ended up being pretty stressful for me. Does it get easier with practice, or do you prepare your lectures differently than for an in-class talk? 2. the software I was using through the university has proved troublesome for students to access since I don’t rely on Blackboard and the program doesn’t allow me to post directly to YouTube. I’m actually workshopping tomorrow to learn a new technology for this, but what software do people recommend? Regardless of these issues, student surveys have still showed that they really like the on-line intros (as long as they were no longer than 15-20 minutes) because they could pause/take notes, replay, and review throughout the semester.

  8. virginiaspivey says:

    Parme–sorry–I went to dinner, and lo and behold, thanks!

    • Dana Howard says:

      Ha! I had the same experience, Parme! Thanks!
      I wonder if any of you have tried VoiceThread? You can do podcast-style lectures, but students can also engage in dialog, mark parts of the image they are discussing, (as can you) and ask questions. Questions and comments that come up in the VoiceThread can often spill into the classroom.

  9. Dana Howard says:

    I also think this is a great post. My experience in curating online resources for high school AP level students is that they are highly engaged in the information and feel comfortable with the variety of ‘voices’ expressed from museum curators to scholars. The single, edited voice of the textbook author can be problematic for learners who are intent on finding their own.

    I have been working on a project for ARTstor making a break from a textbook-centered curriculum. The project is in its infancy, but it is composed of sets of image groups with brief descriptive texts and links to other online resources. They are organized around key works of art in the global art history curriculum but thematically reach out from that one work to engage thinking beyond the exemplar.

    You, and your students, can find them in the ARTstor Digital Library. On the top menu bar, go to ORGANIZE > OPEN IMAGE GROUPS > GLOBAL FOLDERS > SELECTED MONUMENTS. Open folders and explore the various sets of image groups (keep hitting the plus sign to open them all). You can either assign the group you want to students or choose ORGANIZE, then SAVE IMAGE GROUP AS and copy the group to your own institutional folder and edit the group to meet your specific needs.

  10. Thanks for this Dana! I’ll tweet your comment just now too. Janice Robertson did a great AHTR post on Voicethread a few weeks ago:

  11. […] note: Following last week's discussion – see the post and comments section – on podcasting and creating online content, we'd be interested in hearing (via comments below, […]

  12. Marie Gasper-Hulvat says:

    What great comments — thank you everyone! I really appreciate all the ideas here — and I’m very excited to explore more on the podcast and artstor fronts. So many great possibilities, so little time… :)

    Parme, what a wonderful resource of lectures you’ve put out on Youtube, thank you! I was completely unaware of them but they’re now going to be on my must-watch list.

  13. […] some lecture content, crowdsourced syllabi, blogged on everything from using varied digital technologies in the classroom to making museum experiences meaningful, and looked in-depth at key issues in our […]

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