At some point on the first day of classes I am going to ask my students to answer some questions anonymously. In all honesty, why did you enroll in this course? What final grade you would be happy with? What about this class are you most concerned or anxious about?
Exploring students’ responses over the years has led me to identify two prevailing suspicions: that art history courses are based on rote memorization of names and dates, and that class time will consist of a battery of artworks crammed into a swiftly delivered lecture. Neither of those assumptions is unsubstantiated. In fact, they accurately characterize many of my own undergraduate encounters with a pedagogical model that is ingrained within the discipline.
Years ago, during my first year as a TA, I attempted to appease complaints during recitation. I know the slide list is long, but when I was an undergraduate we were expected to memorize over a hundred artworks per course. I also pointed to the level of memorization commonly expected in other disciplines, recalling my own experience of Geology 101: that semester was crammed with nomenclature and data… characteristics of minerals and… types of rock formations and… There was a moment of silence as I reconnoitered in vain my memories from just over a year earlier. Only tidbits of information remained despite an initial interest in the subject.
When introducing my art history surveys, I often mention that Geology 101 course to make the point that we’ll be doing things differently—we’re going to be concerned with depth rather than breadth. The goals are to move away from memorization towards understanding and to develop practices of engagement with complexity. As a result, my lectures move slowly.
The way this approach plays out is straightforward. It is partly a dialectical method, hardly groundbreaking in itself, though a commitment to dialogue requires an unhurried attitude. I put an image up and ask the class (be it 15 or 150 students) the most general of questions, tell me something about this artwork, anything. At first they tend to be wary, assuming an expectation of affected lyric language or precise technical knowledge. But quickly, students realize that anything truly means anything. I acknowledge each observation, and usually follow up by requesting other remarks, what else? It is a slow but effective process, navigating the students’ (usually quite relevant) first impressions. One can easily use preexisting intuitions to approach established theoretical and methodological lenses within art history. In turn, this validates the students’ immediate experiences while also engaging with historiographic questions. Exposing the class to internal debates allows us to investigate how art history is a rigorous discipline that has changed over time, broadening available frameworks and types of questions. Students respond positively to the introduction of more recent scholarship, which dispels the idea of art history as a stifling, dusty discipline.
Teaching slowly means sacrificing range, to not study the many artworks that we art historians see as vital to the curriculum. The payoff is a focus on deep learning: examining the social and historical context of an artwork as well as incorporating scholarly debates and theoretical approaches. Visitors to museums spend very few seconds on an artwork, lingering a minute or two if the artist’s name piques their interest. Many visitors nowadays take a picture and just move on. And really, why wouldn’t they? What are they suppose to be looking at for longer than that? Well, let’s learn why you can spend half an hour exploring one artwork and just scratch the surface.
For me, a course has four or five main themes (e.g. a Renaissance survey focuses on religious tensions, the status of the artist, political issues, and the human body). Each work shown in class directly relates to one or more of those motifs. Adhering to this system, a lecture is usually composed of a five to ten minute historical and cultural introduction followed by a careful exploration of two or three artworks, mentioning another two or three as subsidiary examples. In my Baroque survey, the entire class on Velázquez and the Siglo de Oro focuses on two artworks, The Surrender of Breda and Las Meninas. Among other topics, the former creates a great platform to introduce the power of images and political display in a specific location (the Salón de Reinos), while the latter painting remains a paradigmatic model of art historical inquiry. In my undergraduate seminar on historiography, each class is dedicated to one article that studies one work of art. This means, for example, two full hours dedicated to Leo Steinberg’s The Philosophical Brothel as a framework for Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. Consequently, my courses stress textual and visual literacy rather than memorization of data, introducing tools that benefit students regardless of their major or career paths. Looking back, I hold in the highest esteem those professors who taught me how to think, see, and read, all of which require attentive scrutiny of materials and hypotheses.
Distinctive outcomes speak of the students’ response to my approach. One is an increasing level of sophistication in the classroom dialogue as well as the growing number of participating students. Another is found in the course evaluations. The introduction of scholarly debates and diverse avenues of thought are often mentioned, demonstrating that students value complexity over simplified truths and “white lies.” Students also state frequently that while they had no initial interest in art, they ultimately “learned a lot.” The results in the tests, which are cumulative, corroborate this.
It is not a system without difficulties, especially at a survey level. When we are studying a single image for thirty minutes, the most common problem is communicating what material the students will be responsible for. My solution is certainly not the most sophisticated, but it works: If I say something twice, you have to know it. I also underline important points in unequivocal terms, there’s a 100% chance this will appear on the test. It is not a matter of teaching for the exam, but of knowing which elements of a given lecture they would be expected to know, which ones are there to encourage critical thought, and which points introduce advanced topics.
There has been much debate about flipping classes and online learning, but in my experience a collective exchange that fleshes out the significance of an artwork is an invaluable approach to critical learning and social awareness. Speaking with colleagues across disciplines, it is clear that there is an interest in changing the delivery of information. We have probably encountered at some point the idea of “unburdening the curriculum,” of simplifying what we teach and packaging it in a way that will ensure the students’ absorption. While I agree with some of those tenants, my goal is not to unburden the curriculum so much as to shift the weight. I do not teach less material. I teach more focused material, building more sophisticated and advanced questions upon a basic and intuitive level of understanding. For me, teaching slowly is not a question of reducing complexity but rather of fomenting complexity by reducing quantity and rote memorization.