Writing about Art Forming Relationships with Colleagues on Campus and Reinforcing the Basic Skills
[Editor note: This post is part of our 2016 series on Writing about Art. This installment comes from Craig Houser, who teaches full time in the Art Department and is the co-director of Art History at the City College of New York.]
CCNY requires its undergraduate students to take two writing-intensive courses: a Freshman Inquiry Writing Seminar (FIQWS) during their first year, and a second, 200-level course shortly thereafter. While many students choose an English composition course for this requirement, several departments within the college have chosen to create their own second-level writing courses designed specifically for their disciplines, and following this logic, the Art Department developed a class called Writing about Art. This course is geared toward Art and Art History majors and helps them not only master the craft of college-level writing, but introduces them to important methodologies in the study of art.
Dr. Marjorie Munsterberg invented the original scaffolding for this course, and also authored a book and website titled Writing About Art. Craig Houser worked with the existing model and consulted with the college’s support staff extensively to make some changes. He outlines his experience below and offers a few of his tips on teaching writing. Others involved in shaping the course have included Naraelle Hohensee, Gillian Sneed, and Andrew Cappetta.
When I first started teaching at the City College of New York, I was asked to teach a course called Writing about Art. Before registering, students must have already completed a freshman-level writing course and a survey of the history of art. I was excited to teach Writing about Art because most of my students would be art majors, and I thought I would be able to build upon the two pre-requisites and focus my attention on teaching the various methods for interpreting art, from formalism and iconography to feminism and postcolonialism. But I learned early in my first semester that my students varied radically in their writing abilities, and a number of them still needed considerable help with the basics. One reason for the disparity was that many of the students had recently transferred from other colleges, and I realized that I had little common ground upon which to develop my syllabus.
While I still introduced my students to the various means used in analyzing art, I chose to concentrate the course on developing and strengthening their writing skills specifically. Representing the final course in the college’s core curriculum for writing, Writing about Art would be the last time that students might be schooled in the fundamentals of writing and research before taking upper-level classes in art history and other disciplines. I wanted to make sure that my students clearly understood the basics and were able to recognize their own specific strengths and weaknesses, so that they would continue to grow as writers. I found it necessary not only to (re)introduce my students to the nuts and bolts of college writing, but also to employ tactics to reinforce these skills.
Before I made any significant changes to the writing course, I asked myself what aspects of the existing course were essential to keep. One feature that proved to be most useful was that my students were encouraged and even required to rewrite their papers to raise their grades. The policy was crucial because too often students (and even professors like me) fall victim to procrastination, meaning we often wait until the last minute to write papers. But dashing off a paper the night before it’s due doesn’t allow us to learn much about communicating effectively. Sometimes one might be lucky and sometimes not. The rewrite policy enabled me to emphasize the importance of editing and revising a paper. I could teach and reteach the elements of writing and research as needed. With this policy in mind, I reached out to various staff members on campus for help in changing the course.
First, I partnered with a writing fellow to revise my assignments and create handouts. We focused primarily on thesis statements and paper structure, which we felt that many students needed to develop better. The assignments and the handouts all related to one another, such that a series of short papers would require students to develop increasingly more sophisticated writing skills as the semester unfolded and lead to the production of a longer research paper in the end. But I knew that reworking the handouts and assignments was only one step in the process of trying to help my students improve as writers.
So here’s how I have incorporated the handouts and reinforced their importance in terms of my students’ own writing: At the beginning of the course we examine the handouts for crafting stronger theses and supporting topic sentences. Before each paper is due, we review an old sample student paper and edit it in class by examining the text in relation to the assignment and handouts. On the days that each paper is due, I give my students time to proofread their texts in class and ask them to fix any typos or grammar problems. In the process, I also instruct them to underline their thesis statement and review it based on a list of questions that relate to the handouts. Students are encouraged to edit their thesis, if necessary, and then give it a grade. We then do the same for their topic sentences, by asking whether or not they advance the complexity of their thesis statement and address the general subject and logic of the supporting paragraph. Such an exercise encourages students to think about the importance of their argument and its structure. Later, when I examine the paper, I respond to the student’s grade for the thesis and explain why I agree or disagree with the mark. I also do the same for the topic sentences. Afterward, students can rewrite their papers and raise their grades. Following this process each time a paper is due has helped ensure that most of my students spend extra time finessing their theses and topic sentences.
Second, I contacted the staff member in charge of the school’s writing fellows and writing curriculum. He explained how my class fit within the larger infrastructure of the college, and I learned that Writing about Art had counterparts in several other departments. I discovered that the Writing for Engineers course required students to complete a grammar program, and I knew quite well that my students varied radically in their grammatical skills. Sometimes I have seen numerous run-on sentences and dangling modifiers on every single page of a student’s paper. So I adopted the program in the course, which was very effective. Later, however, the school decided to use the program in the prerequisite freshman-level writing course, which made sense, but even today I have continued to devote class time to addressing grammar, especially run-on sentences and dangling modifiers, which seem to plague my students the most. I have used class discussion and created exercises for small groups and individuals to improve my students’ proficiencies in their grammar. I have tried to make the grammar days as fun as possible by finding grammatically incorrect sentences that sound completely absurd, so that we can laugh and enjoy the process of fixing the sentences. If none of the exercises encourage my students to be more careful with their grammar, then I have resorted to scare tactics by informing my students that businesses often scrutinize cover letters and résumés for grammar mistakes. The students have perked up when I have recounted stories of mistakes that my friends have made in the past. Living in New York City, my students are painfully aware that jobs and money matter, and they learn that something as simple as basic grammar can make a difference in being hired.
Third, I worked with the art librarian to develop a training session in the library to aid students in learning about the library in general and the specific resources available for art. We have made sure that students learn about the resources not only on the library’s website, but within the library itself. These days many students avoid walking inside the library, and at times all the various existing electronic sources have confused some of my students when they need to differentiate among journals, magazines, and books. The librarian and I have required students to pull bound volumes and books from the shelves and complete worksheets to assist them in comprehending how printed sources work. In the process we also study the format of the Chicago Manual of Style. Later, I can mark up my students’ notes and bibliographies and require them to use a variety of sources for their final projects, not only electronic, but printed sources as well.
Last, and perhaps most importantly, I developed a close relationship with the director of the school’s writing center. I knew some of my students were afraid to go to the writing center, so the director and I created a field trip for my students. The tutors explain all the resources that are available to my students, and afterward we engage in a peer-review exercise, where students swap papers, answer questions on a worksheet directly related to the assignment, and discuss how to improve their texts. At the end of the peer review, students have two options: (1) they can hand in their papers with any revisions, along with the worksheet, or (2) they can choose to revise their paper at home and submit both the old and revised papers to me at the next class. Most students choose to revise their papers at home before I see it. I grade the paper based on how well the students have followed the assignment and how well they have addressed the advice of their peer reviewer. After I grade the paper, they can still rewrite their papers to raise their grade. The visit to the writing center has helped students feel more comfortable about using the writing center and learn about the importance of peer review.
All the people on staff at the college, as well as my fellow art history faculty members, were ingeniously supportive in the development of Writing about Art. I couldn’t have done it alone. As I stated, my goals in the class have been to reinforce the basics of college-level writing and to help my students understand their own strengths and weaknesses, so that they will continue to improve as writers. While I was fortunate to have compassionate colleagues, I realize that not everyone reading this article is able to create such partnerships on their campus. I also know that most art history professors simply can’t devote entire classes to visiting a school’s writing center and library or dedicate significant time to finessing grammar skills. In my other courses, when I’m usually covering certain aspects of modern and contemporary art, I have very little time to address such matters. But I make my handouts available to all my students, and I have employed a few strategies from my writing course in all my classes, even those at the graduate level. The most important procedures have been to allow time in class for my students to proofread their papers, especially the first one, and to underline and grade their thesis and topic sentences, as well as for me to review their preliminary bibliographies. When students know they will have to address these specific issues (in addition to others that I have not been able to address in this article), they take more time to polish their texts and bibliographies. The extra, concentrated effort matters. I promise.