Seeing “Me” in Art History: Taking on the Canon at the Community College

Author: Olivia Chiang, Associate Professor, Art History, Manchester Community College, Manchester, CT

In February of this past year (2019), I had the honor and pleasure of sitting down in a roundtable-style discussion with thirteen colleagues from community colleges, four-year universities, publishing houses, and from the media and technology fields to discuss the topic of “Reflecting the Diversity of America’s Community College Students in Art Historical Surveys” at the College Art Association’s 107th Annual Conference.

I have taught as the only full-time art history faculty member at Manchester Community College in Manchester, Connecticut for the past seven years after completing my undergraduate and graduate work at private New England universities. Both of my alma maters had whole departments and buildings dedicated to art history, a full host of faculty, each specializing and teaching in a specific field. As an undergraduate, my survey art history courses were team-taught by the faculty so that an expert in that given field could present the lecture of the day or of the week. However, despite such depth and breadth of knowledge and resources, neither of these institutions represented the range of racial, cultural or socioeconomic diversity that makes up this country or our community colleges in their survey art history courses.

At the community college level, we do not have stand-alone art history departments; we are most often the sole humanities faculty members in fine arts departments. A decent number of our students do not know what art history is and are enrolled in our classes by advisors or counselors to check an “Arts” box on their transcripts. Most of my students have never setfoot inside of a fine arts museum. Therefore, for those of us who choose to teach at community colleges, we do so because we love to teach, to connect with our students, to share with them a passion for accessing the past lives of other human beings and societies.

How then, are we to transition from the rarified mindsets of graduate studies to the classrooms of community college in a meaningful way that helps us and or students to formulate more representative narratives of the past? I have been grappling with this question for several years now, and was heartened to learn that others are currently exploring the relationships between art history and accessibility in a variety of ways when I previously attended the 2017 CAA conference in New York. It was there that I first heard about Art History Teaching Resources (AHTR) and was thrilled that there already existed a community and a forum dedicated to thinking about and providing resources for the pedagogy of art history, which is central to the community college instructor.

When I heard the questions, conundrums and responses of the speakers and other participants in those sessions, I clearly heard and related with two universal concerns. The first was the need to re-shape our art historical curricula in a much more diverse way. The second was the sense among us of being overwhelmed by the enormity of this much-needed task. For me then, it was a relief to hear that I was not the only one searching for answers to questions like: how can we better engage with students about topics of representation, identity and expression in ways that are inclusive of the spectrum of experiences that our students bring? Are there models already available to guide us in our journeys to expand upon the traditional canon and/or to reorganize materials that challenge limited or outdated perspectives of the past? And lastly, how can we create a community that facilitates the exchange of our ideas and resources with these goals in mind? These questions then inspired the topics of conversation at the 2019 roundtable, and the ideas and discussions that were generated that winter day left me inspired, motivated and supported by the work already being done by so many who wrestle daily with how to adapt and present art historical material to their students in meaningful, representative and dynamic ways.

Many who join the teaching faculty at community colleges are asked to teach the “survey” of art history, a daunting and broad swath of history that incorporates not only chronology but also demands that the instructor present the economic, political, religious and social experiences of the societies that produced the art of their time. Many of us, coming out of graduate programs where specificity is king, turn to textbooks (often the ones we used as undergraduates) published by major names in the field as our initial guides to building ou courses and curricula. At least this is how I got started. A pre-established template of images, information, and order is certainly a comforting tool when approaching teaching the survey for the first time(s). However, as many of us at the roundtable shared, as our subsequent experiences in the classroom informed us, this template does not necessarily connect with us or with our students in the most effective ways. Let’s face it, many of us and many of our students cannot relate to or see themselves in most of the faces we find in the traditional canon. Students in today’s community colleges are overall younger, more diverse, and more technologically savvy than they have in past decades. Therefore the challenge now is to facilitate connections between our students’ lives and experiences and those of peoples of the past.

Some participants at the roundtable shared their approaches of totally scrapping the linear chronology presented in standard texts. One participant shared how she introduces modern and contemporary artists and works from non-European, non-Western locales first as a means of initially connecting with her students, many of whom are international, before delving backwards into the ancient history of their cultures. Other participants mentioned appreciating using “micro-chapters” that some texts offer, allowing them more flexibility and options in how to craft a lesson. Employing an ever-growing array of Open-Educational Resources (OERs) has also been beneficial to those of us who want to offer our student different perspectives and lessons than those offered by standard survey texts. Therefore, knowing one’s audience seemed to ring true to many of us present that February day as well. This approach often challenges us as instructors to step beyond our comfort zones of what we know and what we’ve been taught as the artificial assumptions of what artists, works, locations and lenses “should” be included in a survey course. Many participants at the roundtable stressed the need for instructors to know the demographics of their students in order to best craft their curricula with meaningful topics and/or themes that students can better relate to. Also, it was suggested that in terms of connecting with students, professors and instructors be open to using new modes of communication, such as using Instagram, in assignments, in addition to tradition modes of reading and writing.

Another aspect of “diversity” which was brought up at the roundtable was socioeconomic diversity. Feeling welcome or that one “belongs” in a fine arts space is often the result of one’s class identification. Many of my students who lack previous experience entering museum spaces seem initially uncomfortable about going to museums, perhaps out of apprehension of not knowing proper museum “etiquette” and museums not extending themselves to economically diverse audiences. Some roundtable participants made the excellent suggestion that we as community college faculty take the lead on this front and inform museum education staff what we as community college members want from museums and how they can serve our communities best.

Overall, the experience of hosting this roundtable discussion and hearing the experiences and adaptations of my colleagues who I had just met, only verified that though we may be isolated on our campuses, we are not alone in our quests to connect our students with historical material in meaningful and self-affirming ways. I am motivated more than ever to create forums for this community to be able to continue to connect and share its ideas, solutions, and resources with one another and with new faculty members who are and will be entering the field.

If you have any feedback, ideas or concepts about this topic or how to connect community college art history faculty, please feel free to email Olivia at:

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