Teaching Tips for Art History and Other Image-based Classes

Pumped and scared? Sounds about right for the start of any semester. Inspired by a recent twitter thread started by Jennifer Dudley, an art history Ph.D. student in the UK, to solicit tips around teaching, we decided to crowdsource this week’s post by asking the AHTR community what advice they would give someone just starting out in the classroom.  

screenshot of twitter thread

We were overwhelmed by the responses we received, and invite you to check out the discussion that took place on AHTR’s Facebook Group. For this post, we’ve edited the comments to produce a “Top Ten” list, that highlights the key themes that emerged and includes a sampling of the community’s comments with a few annotations and additional resources. As with any teaching advice, use what makes best sense for you and your teaching context.

1. Less is More. Take a breath. Slow down.

  • My advice is “less is more.” I know when I first started teaching I tried to show too many objects from any time period and it is really overwhelming for the students.
  • If you find yourself thinking about “covering” material, stop and consider what that means. That’s about a checklist. Let students have time to breathe and process information–spend time with the works and concepts and don’t stress about not getting to everything you envisioned at the start of the semester.
  • Really get into a work, don’t just run through a bunch of slides. Model and make sure students know HOW do do a visual analysis, step-by-step. [Ed. note: we have some great models for this on the AHTR Library page]
  • Stop regularly throughout the semester and have the class do formal analysis on an image. They get better at it, and it is thrilling!
  • Give students details and odd bits of information that you find interesting about certain objects and artists. YOU think art history is cool! Show them why.
  • Don’t worry about covering everything. This may be the only class of this kind they ever take, and they’ll usually be most receptive to the things that you personally are most excited to teach.
  • Use pop culture as a teaching tool: demonstrate connections, encourage comparisons, raise broad issues about visual modes of communication.

See also Julia Sienkewicz’s 2016 article ”Against the ‘Coverage’ Mentality: Rethinking Learning Outcomes and the Core Curriculum” in Art History Pedagogy and Practice

2. Don’t over prepare. 

  • Don’t over prep. When I was starting, the best thing for me was to put time limits on myself because I was panicking. Fear of failure and not knowing everything (which is impossible) doesn’t help you be a better teacher.
  • I always give the caveat that they (the students) need to bring their lives and experiences to the classroom because I don’t know everything. It’s important to be confident in your knowledge, but human at the same time.
  • Remember that you know more than the students. Even if you don’t know everything (which you never will). Be confident and be enthusiastic. You don’t need to be the encyclopedia, you are an invitation to an amazing field of knowledge.
  • Admit your mistakes.
  • Model research for your students; don’t pretend to know it all. If they ask a question you really don’t know, find out and give them a source next class. If there are a lot of questions, have students look for the answer for your next meeting. In research classes, have a research day together in the library when they actually start their research.
  • Know that if you’re tasked with teaching something outside your training/area, it’s ok to only be one or two steps ahead of your student. 

3. Teach intentionally. 

  • Structure is a good thing for all students (and teachers!) Develop patterns that work for you and them. Everyone loves to hate repetition, but structuring class time and assignments so they are relatively predictable can help everyone plan. This is really important for intro classes where everything is new to your students.
  • Make sure every last detail of your class counts towards well-articulated learning goals. Don’t waste time policing behavior that is not directly relevant to those goals. Teach only what you really believe in, and don’t be afraid to be an iconoclast. :)
  • Be transparent in what you expect from the students in terms of the assignments. It should not be a mystery as to why they are asked to complete specific assignments. A follow up discussion of that assignment relating to the course is also a good idea. It reinforces learning throughout the semester and not just on exams.
  • Deadlines are not set in stone on either side of the lectern. Tell your students what they have done, what they are doing, and what they will do, and explain how that fits into the larger scheme of things at least once during every class.
  • Build “catch up days” into your course schedule so you don’t get flustered and feel like you’re behind.Leave open days where you can adapt content to better serve students’ interest, or have students help shape the day’s topics and activities.
  • Realize art history serves as an interdisciplinary subject in many institutions, fulfilling several aspects of the curriculum. Be prepared for the students to need support and introduction to basic background information, such as specialized terminology and technical concepts.
  • Rubrics, rubrics, rubrics. Learn how to build good ones as it will save you a lot of grading time and frustration. See AAC&U’s Value Rubrics  for adaptable models to download.

4. Build lessons around images.

  • Arrange your lectures visually–work out what images you need to show and the order; then work out what you need to say. Don’t feel you must write it word for word. The images act as prompts.
  • How you sequence images when you’re prepping is really crucial, since they’re much more important prompts than written notes when you’re in the classroom.
  • Realize the students need hooks to the material and information. Give them key images upon which to focus.
  • Present information with genuine candor by avoiding written notes as much as possible when lecturing. Use real objects and excursions as much as possible. Build discussions with a few examples to start, then focus on the student’s analyses–solo or as small teams–using things they may not have seen before.
  • Consider keeping slides in “sorter mode.” It reduces the tendency to present content as a linear narrative, and allows you to pull up slides as they become relevant and/or to focus class discussion around a specific topic.

Slides were a hot topic in a number of forums this week, so here are some related ideas we want to share: 

There was this great twitter thread, started by Jason Hill, asking about the different formats art historians use in their slide-based presentations. Of special note: stay away from bright white backgrounds, which may be difficult for students with dyslexia to process, and use larger font sizes for greater accessibility.  There was also this Smarthistory blog post, recommending an alternative to standard presentation software for images used in class.

5.  Don’t reinvent the wheel. Ask for help and look for models. 

  • Don’t feel like you have to reinvent the wheel in terms of content. Seek out existing materials, from lecture notes to assignments to grading rubrics and beyond. First time teaching involves more than lectures and grading, so cut yourself a little slack. You can always revise lectures and assignments you start with. Finding great models helps you to eventually augment and create new content. There’s no shame in it, and it can help make your teaching much better. That’s what AHTR is for!
  • Watch others teach!  Seek mentors, attend teaching conferences (or see if your institution has a Center for Teaching and Learning), observe museum educators, and adapt useful techniques to your style and needs. 
  • Avoid the studio vs. art history rift. Talk to your studio colleagues about pedagogy and what types of art history would enhance the whole curriculum.  Consider sitting in on a critique; observe a studio class and invite studio faculty to observe you; explore opportunities to team-teach and collaborate in other inventive ways.
  • Art History may function as a course(s) where students learn research and writing skills. Prepare to teach them and teach them well. Connect to the support services available on campus (reference librarians, writing center, peer tutoring).
  • Be prepared to teach writing skills! I felt broadsided by the lack of writing skills when I started my TT job. Slowly, I added writing workshops, handouts on what a thesis is/isn’t, handouts on “rhetorical signpost” words, etc.

6. Don’t talk so much. 

  • You don’t have to–and you shouldn’t–talk constantly. Give students time to process, respond, or simply write about how class ideas relate to their own experience and knowledge. You’ll learn the unexpected ways that course material connects to things they’re into, and it helps students practice metacognition, which bolsters learning.
  • Rather than tell students . . . ask students. Encourage them to speculate, reason, infer, and explain possible answers before presenting information. (ie: Why do you think it’s called the Renaissance?)
  • Don’t just present information in a lecture; have students discuss a topic first in small groups then you can follow up with a mini lecture. Or, vice versa.
  • Refrain from standing behind the lectern dumping a lot of content. Engage students in active learning – think-pair-share exercises, art history speed dating, art history editions of Jeopardy and Family Feud, reenactments, or debates.
  • Incorporate in-class writing assignments such as those in James Lang’s Small Teaching

See Marie Gaspar-Hulvat’s ”Active Learning in Art History: A Review of Formal Literature,” in Art History Pedagogy and Practice.


7. Expose students to art (IRL).

  • Get students to visit museums!!! Nothing replaces seeing real works of art in person.
  • If you cannot personally take classes to museums, be sure to assign a museum paper or assignment. Ideally, let the student choose the object to work with as a way to increase their investment and interest in the project.  

 AHTR’s Visiting the Museum Learning Resource includes a variety of ideas for museum-based assignments and activities. 


8. Don’t look away.  Engage in discussions of difficult topics.  

  • Prepare yourself and allow space for difficult conversations about gender and race in art history.
  • Help students understand the cyclical nature of history (have them discuss controversies such as status of antiquities in present day museums) and the unifying features of cultures (how do different cultures handle the relationship between heritage and modernity) and big issues (like theocracy).
  • If you’re practicing in the U.S. or Canada, both acknowledge the native land you are on and engage students throughout in what that means for the learning you’re doing, regardless of the period or topic in art history. Be willing to admit that you’re likely learning with them. Download the #HonorNativeLand guide, and find more resources at https://usdac.us/nativeland

Many resources are available that can support faculty in facilitating productive conversations and exploring ways to create a more inclusive learning environment. Explore workshops and materials available at your institution, or find them online.  We also recommend Amber Hickey and Ana Tuazon’s post in AHTR Weekly on ways to decolonize the art history classroom.

9. Teaching is a practice. It (and you) will change, evolve, and continue to get better over time.  

  • A class is never finished. You should always look to make even small adjustments as you build your repertoire. We push our students to improve so we should be willing to do so too.
  • Have someone else read your student evaluations and summarize them back to you. Where you succeed, you can celebrate with someone else. And don’t obsess over that one comment–talk it out. 

10. Be human.

  • Let your sense of humor show through. 
  • Adopt a pedagogy of kindness as Catherine Denial recently shared in Hybrid Pedagogy.
  • Recognize students face real life challenges and support them as best you can. Adopt OERs such as smarthistory.org, advocate for zero-cost courses, and include a  basic needs statement on your syllabus.  

If you’ve read this post to the very end, you care about your teaching, and that’s the critical part. We see you. Brava. Keep going. And please continue to share your ideas and advice in the comments below.

3 responses to “Teaching Tips for Art History and Other Image-based Classes”

  1. Mary Prevo says:

    This is golden and absolutely true. If you take time and care with one object (15 minutes at least including personal looking, sharing with a neighbor, and class together) then you CAN show a bunch of material and they will see things that tie the works together and apply the ideas discussed about the one object to the new ones that you show at a faster pace. This week it was the Palette of Narmer.

  2. Kelly Wacker says:

    Thank you for pulling these ideas together. I do many of the things discussed and it feels good to be reminded that they are of value. Some things I don’t do or have considered doing, but just haven’t yet implemented. Now I’m feeling encouraged to give them a try.

  3. Jessica says:

    Love this! This list reminds me so much of the art history & archaeology professors I loved in college, and I think this is exactly why I was so engrossed in their classes. They are the ones I try to emulate now in my teaching.

    Less is more!

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