Peer-populated resources for art history teachers
Guest Author: Alexis Carrozza
We’re nearly at the end of the semester and I’m currently writing the latest iteration of my students’ final (non-test) assignment for the semester, the portfolio and self-evaluation. The instructions for the portfolio and self-evaluation assignment are fairly straightforward: to create their portfolio, students are asked to gather all of their work completed and then, based on provided questions or prompts, write 2-3 pages reflecting on their work for the semester. (You can collect the 2-3 page paper along with the portfolio though with online submissions becoming more common, a list of all the works in the portfolio works, too.)
The portfolio is a collection of pieces that are intended to showcase an artist’s best work, and therefore it can only exist once the processes of creation, editing, receiving outside critique, and revision have been completed. I was first introduced to the concept of using the portfolio as an assignment when I taught at a four-year private arts school where most students majored in studio, graphic, or design major. Accordingly, the curriculum and coursework was oriented towards building students’ portfolios. The concept of the portfolio was applied across disciplines and required, in form or another, as an assignment for all non-studio classes to reinforce to the students – the emerging artists – the value of feedback and trusting their instincts. Over the years, I’ve modified the details and particulars of the assignment but it largely exists in the form that I’ve described above, and the goal has always remained the same: to get students to objectively evaluate their work and to take stock of the progress that they’ve made.
The portfolio and self-evaluation assignment is an example of a “semi-structured task” in which students are given guidance as to what to say but still have the freedom to discover and develop ideas, and falls within the larger category of informal exploratory writing that is described by John C. Bean in the book Engaging Ideas. The questions included in the assignment are intended to guide students’ in two ways: to evaluate their work beyond the letter grade, and to develop solutions rather than dwelling on mistakes by identifying individual strengths and weaknesses. Generally, my questions look something like this:
While most assignments can be designed to include a reflection or evaluation component, the portfolio and self-evaluation is a really valuable end-of-semester assignment because it only requires students to slow down and take stock of what they’ve accomplished. Here are some excerpts from past students’ self-evaluations (sic throughout):
My personal experience with the portfolio and self-evaluation correspond with the benefits that Bean attributes to informal exploratory writing in Engaging Ideas,as helpful tools to develop my students’ critical thinking skills while also giving me another means to gauge students’ progress in the class. These responses are thoughtful, honest, and enjoyable to read. Moreover, each student’s self-evaluation reflects their engagement with art history at two levels, the course requirements of the specific art history class and, more generally, art history as a subject. (And if someone has experience using journaling as a component in their class, I’d love to hear it.) .
In my personal experience, in spite of the assignment’s description as a “self-evaluation,” I have benefited from this assignment by receiving incredibly constructive feedback from students about assignments and also the course as a whole. The feedback from students’ self-evaluations is also productive because the feedback is delivered as a narrative of each student’s own process, and it is then much easier to determine if the assignment itself didn’t work or if there was a particular step that needed to be reworded or scrapped altogether. For example, after students identified their museum paper as the one assignment that they’d redo, I added another assignment, a list of observations for a variety of objects at the museum, which allowed them to get feedback on their work while getting practice with the basics of formal analysis. Based on subsequent evaluations, while students still wished they could redo aspects of the paper, they were more likely to view the paper as an assignment that was enjoyable.
Additionally, though mediated by context of the classroom, the student evaluations grant me a bit of insight into my students’ lives that then functions as “data” to consider as I prepare for the next semester’s class. (For those who are teaching at a new institution, the portfolio and self-evaluation is one really effective method to get a better sense of the school’s student body!) Many of us teach at undergraduate institutions that differ from the ones that we attended, and we are also teaching the classes that we ostensibly enjoyed the most as undergraduates. Students’ self-evaluations offer realistic insight into the distance between the Platonic ideal of what we think they should do versus what students actually do or what their lives allow them to do.
At a very basic level, the portfolio and self-evaluation assignment is relevant within the context of an art history class, and the assignment can parallel the topics discussed in class such as changes to artistic training or a more in-depth view of an an artist’s work over a longer period of time. Additionally, because the art history survey is usually taken by students to fulfill a general education requirement to full certain curriculum requirements, the portfolio and self-evaluation assignment allows students to consider the “general” component of the course by reflecting on the skills they’ve used or allowing them to consider how it relates to their other classes or disciplines. Though the assignment overalls only counts as a small percentage of my students’ final grade, I also (hopefully) signal to students that the assignment – and therefore the skills required to complete it – are important by giving it a grade (pass/fail) equal to other writing assignments.
While the portfolio and self-evaluation can be adapted to any class or subject, the art history survey might be in a unique position to benefit from it precisely because it is often singled out as an example of a “useless” class. While I disagree with this perspective, I also think that the most sensible course of action is to give students the opportunity and means to decide that for themselves. I’m encouraged by a recent article at The Atlantic titled “Re-learning the Lost Art of Patience” that advocates for educators to “teach students that answers don’t always come easily and require time to emerge from the noise.” Quoted in the article is Professor Jennifer Roberts, an art historian at Harvard who requires students to spend three hours looking at a single work of art for an assignment. Roberts explains her rationale for such an assignment by pointing out that students increasingly aren’t allowed to build patience:, “I would argue that these are the kind of practices that now most need to be actively engineered by faculty, because they are simply no longer available ‘in nature,’ as it were. Every external pressure, social and technological, is pushing students in the other direction, toward immediacy, rapidity, and spontaneity—and against this other kind of opportunity. I want to give them the permission and the structures to slow down.” Significantly, Professor Roberts and the author of the article at The Atlantic both emphasize the role played by instructors who can “give permission to their students to slow down. I have found that, for a variety of reasons, students tend to focus on their grades as the sole indicator of their performance to the extent that the letter grade tends to overshadow the process of learning. As educators, the coursework that we assign is one factor that contributes to this mindset, and therefore we are also capable of balancing it with work that de-emphasizes “correct” answers.
I’d like to end with some practical suggestions as to how you might integrate or implement the portfolio and self-evaluation in your art history classroom:
Alexis Carrozza teaches introductory survey courses at as a Graduate Teaching Fellow at Baruch College, CUNY, and is currently a doctoral student studying Pop art and photography at the Graduate Center, CUNY. She once wrote a recommendation letter for a student and received a pack of Sugar-free Red Bull as a token of gratitude.