Taking the Art History Survey Glossary Online

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I recently taught an on-line art history survey course without assigning a textbook. Through Canvas courseware students had access to my lectures as video files, presented in daily “modules” together with primary and secondary source readings, videos, web resources, discussion prompts and quizzes. Scary? A little. Liberating? Yes, that too.

I anticipated that I would miss the textbook, but I found that in most ways I could compensate easily. I spent more time on historical, cultural and religious contexts in my lectures (I couldn’t rely on the textbook to provide baseline information about the French Revolution, say, or Buddhism or feudalism). And I spent more time with maps at the beginning of each unit.

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What did I miss most? The glossary. Yes, that terms-and-definitions appendix in squint-inducing print in the back of the text.

First-time art history students face an alien nebula of words: hundreds of technical terms, many of them inconveniently existing only in foreign languages (I’ll have the pentimento with impasto, the giornata di lavoro and a glass of grisaille…). In the past I have conditioned my students to use the back-of-the-textbook glossary to look up unfamiliar terms, reinforcing their learning with in-class review and terminology questions on quizzes and exams. So it became clear early on that I needed to provide a web-based substitute for the textbook glossary.

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I had used WordPress for course-related blogs in the past, and it proved to be a fine place to host a glossary. WordPress has a dandy Glossary Terms tool already built into its off-the-shelf blog interface. I built the glossary day by day, adding new terms as they came up. I wrote my own definitions, aiming for brevity and clarity. I did my best to include only necessary terms (my aim was not to create an exhaustive list–the ArtLex Art Dictionary does that already). I made a choice not to include the names of art movements (potentially an enormous list) and focused instead on technical and descriptive terms. Still, there were some hard calls. Cantilever? You bet! Niello? OK, sure. Ben-Day dots? Hmm, maybe not.

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As I developed the on-line tool, I came to appreciate that a web-based glossary is more useful than a textbook glossary in important ways:

  • Pictures and diagrams. These have great explanatory power, but because of the expense, textbook publishers seldom illustrate their glossaries, or do so only sparingly.
  • External resource links. A web glossary can link students from definitions to on-line resources, such as process videos (I like this one from the Getty Museum on lost-wax casting) or interactive learning tools (here’s a nice one from the Fitzwilliam Museum on ukiyo-e). Students can even hear audio files of hard-to-pronounce words spoken by native speakers at FORVO.
  • Searchability and cross-indexing. The glossary is fully searchable. Also a definition of a key term like “printmaking” can link to definitions of related terms (woodcut, engraving, drypoint, etching, lithography, silkscreen)
  • Serendipity. Once they are in the glossary, students can follow a non-linear path via cross-indexing. They can also click on a Random Glossary Term (another feature of the WordPress interface). Learning terminology becomes more appealing when it feels like web-surfing.

My glossary—now with more than 300 terms–is available free to all here. If you find it useful, spread the word. Suggestions are welcome. (And it’s still a work in progress–if anyone can tell me how to make T come between S and U in the WordPress template, you will earn my undying gratitude!)


One response to “Taking the Art History Survey Glossary Online”

  1. Renee McGarry says:

    This is fantastic! It’s a great way to show how something so “small” can make a huge difference for students and faculty alike.

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