Getting Beyond the Anecdote: Research and Art History Pedagogy

Editors’ note: The authors will address issues in SoTL research in a 2017 CAA session sponsored by the Art Historians Interested in Pedagogy and Technology.

As the inauguration of
Art History Pedagogy and Practice demonstrates, pedagogical innovations abound in art history classrooms. National and regional conferences increasingly feature panels of inspirational examples and case studies. These sessions are well attended by instructors eager for new, proven ideas to improve their teaching. The speakers assure this audience of improved student engagement and efficacy at achieving learning outcomes with this or that innovation.

But, how do they know? Can they prove it? Can they publish it in a peer-reviewed research journal like Art History Pedagogy and Practice? Until objective, rigorously designed, and replicable research is done, these great ideas remain anecdotes. With the exception of a small bibliography of published reflections of faculty perceptions and experiences, art history has been slow to embrace research addressing its teaching and its effectiveness.  Yet, as AHPP illustrates, the time is right.

That said, art historians interested in conducting research to contribute to the scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL) face several hurdles. Principal among these are a lack of familiarity with how to conduct this type of research and the fear that this work will not be recognized by hiring or tenure and promotion committees. Let us consider these issues briefly.

Research Design

SoTL studies teaching practices and their effect on student learning. Designs for this type of research vary widely, most relying on methods more familiar to social scientists than art and humanities faculty. Interviews, quantitative or qualitative pre- and post-tests, observation, focus groups, experiments, and content analyses represent just some of the ways to perform systematic examinations on our teaching. Several of these methods can be applied without major disruption to regular classroom practices, requiring only advanced planning and care in data collection. They also provide an opportunity to collaborate with colleagues in education and the social sciences during the design, data collection, and/or analysis phases.  

Human Subjects

As a study of learning, SoTL requires compliance with federal and institutional protocols for conducting research on human subjects (that is, students). The process varies by institution and specific research projects, but generally includes completing training on the ethics and practices of human subject research and submission of the research design to an institutional review board (IRB). Fortunately, the types of research art history faculty conduct fall into the categories that allow briefer, expedited IRB approval. Nevertheless, even the expedited process requires explanation of data collection methods, how students can opt out of the study, and how the participants’ safety and privacy will be protected.        

Hiring, Tenure, and Promotion

Finally, the uncertainty surrounding SoTL’s acceptance by hiring and tenure and promotion committees is, frankly, well-founded. Job-seekers in particular should assess cautiously whether engaging in this type of research puts them in a position to be attractive to hiring committees. Probationary faculty interested in identifying SoTL as their principal research focus should gain prior approval—ideally in writing—from the department and its tenure and promotion committees. Some institutions will embrace it, but some will not. In our experience, art history faculty who successfully used pedagogy scholarship in bids for tenure did so as a secondary or co-research track. They furthermore demonstrated how the work integrated with their teaching and treated SoTL just as they did their historical research efforts: seeking grants, presenting research at conferences, becoming active in the scholarly community, and publishing in peer-reviewed venues.     

For art historians interested in their teaching, SoTL is a rewarding field of inquiry. The issues raised here will be addressed in greater detail during a 2017 College Art Association Annual Meeting session sponsored by the Art Historians Interested in Pedagogy and Technology affiliated society. We look forward to seeing you there.

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