Interactivity and Communication in the Art History Classroom

This semester I taught two courses, one was a larger lecture course on Southern Baroque art and architecture, and the other was a seminar course on Latin American art. Both were primarily made up of junior and senior art or architecture majors.

Each class had two major interactive components. In the lecture course students chose a subject from the course calendar and were assigned to a group. They were tasked with putting together a presentation on that topic during one fifty-minute class session. They were asked to lecture and to ask the class questions in order to foster classroom involvement. The class met three times a week, so there was still plenty of time for me to fill in the gaps as needed. In fact, I would often treat the student presentation as an introduction to the topic, which I would then fill in in more depth during the next one or two class sessions. There was no paper component to this assignment, but I found that students had to do a fair amount of research, particularly for some of the lesser-published topics. Many of them were nervous about public speaking, but they rose to the occasion, and there were even some good classroom discussions generated from these presentations. Overall, I think it was successful in having students generate some of the content of the course and getting away from the authoritative talking head model of so many lecture style courses.

I recently took a three day course run by the Communication Across the Curriculum Program here at Louisiana State University. The course teaches how to increase interactivity and communication in our classrooms, and in the coming semester I will work towards certifying my upper level courses as “communication intensive.” Students who take enough “CI” courses are granted a certificate certifying them as “distinguished communicators.” The CXC course emphasized the importance of multiple points of feedback on larger assignments, thereby pushing students to continually improve their skills. Inspired by the CXC methods, in the future I will develop an editing process whereby students will film their presentation as a first trial run. I will create a rubric that is handed out to the class and the other students and myself will respond to the video, so that the process includes a peer review. The group will then give the class presentation that is edited to include the feedback they received. I will respond a second time and as a final project they will hand in a complete “clean video” that will be uploaded to Moodle (our version of Blackboard), which I use to generate their final grade on the assignment. The added benefit is that this video will also be available to the class as a study aid for the final exam.

The other interactive element of the course was a series of in class writing assignments. For example, students would be given short excerpts from a period work and asked questions about it in groups and then we would share and discuss their conclusions. Pearson’s MyArts Lab is a great resource for this type of assignment. Others were defining terms, writing comparison essays, or as review, I put up a series of images and ask them to brainstorm in groups about each work. This was usually a good wakeup call for students who needed a reminder to study for the upcoming exam! All in all, I had close to ten of these through the semester and found it a quick and easy way to get students talking and actively engaged in the material, and it was an easy way for them to boost their grade.

The interactive components in the seminar course were a bit more involved. One assignment that I used was called “sparking,” a term that I borrowed from my graduate school professor, Dr. Katherine Manthorne. Each week a team of two students were tasked with “sparking” a conversation about the readings. I asked that they first very briefly introduce the authors and the main argument of the paper, and to then ask a series of questions that would lead the class in a conversation about the works. I had students send their sparking questions to me beforehand along with an image or two, which I would then respond to, giving them suggestions of how to better phrase the questions or what should be added or removed. I found this revision process particularly fruitful because at first students would present questions that were factual and very easily answered. After the exchange, I would impress on them the importance of questions that test critical thinking, and they would come back with broader more discussion-oriented inquiries. The sparking assignment worked relatively well, though of course there were some students who participated frequently and others who rarely spoke. One thing the CXC course encouraged was to do a series of ice breaking activities at the beginning of the class for students to get to know each other and hopefully to form a bond and feeling of trust in the classroom, so that the more timid students would be more likely to participate.

The final component of the course was an exhibition assignment. This was by far my favorite assignment to date, and was largely inspired by an assignment written by my colleague Dr. Ananda Cohen Suarez. This project has students “curate” an exhibition including a title and proposed location. They choose two to three objects per group member and each person wrote a wall text that was researched and footnoted. Student groups made mock ups of the exhibition using their choice of media. One group created a three dimensional diorama, complete with museum vitrines, another group printed out high resolution images, which they hung on the wall and created a Facebook page for their exhibition. A third group created a virtual exhibit that could be accessed via a smartphone app. On the final day of class we had an “opening,” including refreshments and each group presented while the rest of the class acted as the museum going public. The students really got into this assignment and seemed to enjoy the process of “curating” a show and working in groups. Although I did have a couple of points in the semester where I had students meet in groups during class, when I try this again, I will aim for more interactive moments during the semester for groups to share their progress and for me to respond and provide feedback before the final due date and exhibition “opening.” I’ve found that the most successful interactive assignments require multiple points of critical feedback so that students are getting more out of the process, interacting with their classmates and professor, and ultimately ending up with sharper finished products.

One response to “Interactivity and Communication in the Art History Classroom”

  1. […] post on my favourite blog, Art History Teaching Resources, Elena FitzPatrick Sifford discusses Interactivity and Communication in the Art History Classroom. She explains that her recent survey  courses had interactive […]

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