No really, THIS is the essay you should remember in twenty years!: Didactic Posters for Foundational Texts

[Editors note: Mary’s essay is the first in a short series of AHTR Weekly posts that address how to help students read and retain information from assigned texts.]

It is often hard to convince my students that one particular reading, artwork, or artist is of such foundational importance that it changed the discipline—and they should remember it in future semesters, even after the test! I regularly overhype too many things in my classes, so they don’t necessarily remember one discussion or text more than the others. Thus, when I have students several semesters after a particular class, I often find in discussions that they have not retained important information about key texts. In my Women and Art class I knew I needed to stress the significance of Nochlin’s “Why have there been no great women artists?” by doing more than our regular classroom discussion, so I created an activity where the class made posters to explain it to other students. By devoting a significant portion of class time, integrating higher level thinking within Bloom’s taxonomy, and having a different type of project that would stand out in their memories, I sought to reinforce that this was an essential essay for them to remember.

Before class, students read Nochlin’s article, wrote a one page reading response, and submitted it on Moodle (they do this for every reading). In class, in groups, they spent about forty-five minutes making posters explaining the reading for an Introduction to Art History class. Later that day, students in the Introductory class looked over the posters and wrote responses and questions. In their next class period, the Women and Art students got these responses. They wrote summaries of the feedback they received and addressed what they would add or do differently if they had to make the poster again.

When I gave them the task to make these posters, I used these directions: “This is one of the most important feminist art history essays—make an illustrated guide for the Introduction to Art History class. It can be a mind map, graphic novel, poster, collage, etc. Plan key issues, consider how to express them, include key facts, and make sure to persuade the students of Nochlin’s points. You have thirty minutes.” (In fact, they took forty-five.)

The idea for this assignment came from Hyperallergic’s “An Illustrated Guide to Linda Nochlin’s ‘Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?’”[1] This article provides effective summary, context, and analysis of Nochlin’s piece, while also including a variety of illustrations throughout. Especially since about half of my students are studio majors, I wanted them to create a more visual guide to explain the article to beginners. While I appreciate how this Hyperallergic’s illustrated guide integrates text and image, I wanted them to create something more visually oriented, so that the poster could stand alone for introductory level students who had not yet read the essay.

One key goal I had with this assignment was to give the students a clear audience. A variety of studies have shown the effectiveness of giving students specific, audience-centered prompts, since it requires them to consider a specific perspective, including the prior information and points of view of their readers.[2]

On the same day that my students made their posters, Ellen C. Caldwell and Natalie Madrigal’s “On Frida Kahlo, Salma Hayek, and Linda Nochlin: A Classroom Case Study of Art, Gender, and Pain in the Wake of #MeToo” appeared on AHTR Weekly! She includes a great activity on article annotation and suggestions on how to integrate discussions of #MeToo into the classroom. I definitely foresee integrating something similar to her activities on Frida Kahlo and Salma Hayek into future classes.

For my poster activity, the results were somewhat varied. One group made a mind map and two groups choose to focus on contrasts—in one case, between a Great male artist and a female artist and in the other, between an “Ideal Woman” and Rosa Bonheur.  The students generally did an effective job of highlighting the restrictions put on women in terms of education, art training, family life, subject matter, clothing, awards and competitions, social expectations, career opportunities, and expectations of genius and personality. They regularly brought in quotes and references to other concepts and artists we studied.

The next componenet of my assignment was showing the posters to the Introduction to Art History students, who then wrote summaries and feedback. Based on the posters, the Intro students (who not yet read the essay) often wrote fairly effective summaries of the essay. For example:

There were no women artists for a number of reasons. They had no formal academic education and it wasn’t a career for them because it was considered a hobby. Women weren’t allowed to study nudes and due to societal expectations, people didn’t believe they were “manly” enough. No women had the “genius” status and there was no competition or awards, meaning they had no incentive to paint.

There were no great women artists because to be considered a great artists, you must be able to have an education. Women were not allowed to have a formal education. If they could be taught to paint, they could often only use their skills as a hobby. They also hd to paint “women appropriate artworks,” which also meant they could not paint nudes since that was unsightly.

Women were restricted in a few ways men weren’t. Women were not given any formal education, were expeected to dress in full and formal fashion, and could only stay home. On the flip side, the most succesfful female artist was Rosa Bonheur. She did the opposite of what the “Ideal Woman” was expected to. She wore pants, never got married, and learned from her father.

Finally, the Women and Art students received the summaries and feedback. They then analyzed the feedback and wrote what they would change if they made the poster again. In their analysis of their student feedback, the Women in Art students mostly noted a need for additional detail and more explanation of key figures and concepts. Specifically, the students discovered that they had not adequately explained why pants gave a woman freedom, why the study of nudes was essential for art training, why not having a husband and children gave a female artist more time, and how the concept of genius has been developed and restricted in our society. Through this multi-step process, not only did the students have to write for an audience, but they also got feedback from the audience, found the gaps in their own explanations, and came up with solutions.

During this semester, the assignment was effective in getting students to recall and regularly refer back to the ideas from this essay in our discussions. Longer term, my goal is that in future classes (or even decades later!) these students will be able to recall the foundational importance of this text and to retain at least a basic working knowledge of the key principles—but for assessment of those goals we’ll have to wait a few years!

The students did very well on the relevant question on the final. Admittedly, I wrote this question to give them an easy point, using clearly incorrect answers that were actually given historically (all of which we studied). While the question does seem easy, it must be harder than it looks since society has been answering it incorrectly for centuries:

Why have there been no great women artists? Because:

  1. women’s brains have fewer wrinkles.
  2. artistic success relies on academic training.
  3. women’s brains weigh less.
  4. women’s bodies are too cool to form external genitalia.
  5. women do not have the capacity for creative thought.




[2]See, for example: Paullett Golden, “Contextualized Writing: Promoting Audience Centered Writing through Scenario Based Learning,” in International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning 12, no. 1 (Jan 2018), Article 6.


One response to “No really, THIS is the essay you should remember in twenty years!: Didactic Posters for Foundational Texts”

  1. Ellen C. Caldwell says:

    Very cool, Mary! I loved reading about and seeing your students’ work and your assignment. I could see tying this into my other assignments you mentioned too — annotations and graphics maybe?!

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