Rethinking the Curriculum by Rethinking the Art History Survey

by David Boffa

In my last years at Beloit College I was fortunate enough to participate in a curriculum redesign for the art history program, undertaken in the wake of our external departmental review.

The foundation of our original curriculum was a familiar one: a two-part survey (Prehistoric to Middle Ages, Renaissance to Modern) focused on the Western canon and rooted in the models established by traditional textbooks like Gardner’s, Janson, and Stokstad. This model is a core part of the art history experience at many small liberal arts colleges (and likely at many large universities). An analysis of 66 institutions by Melissa R. Kerin and Andrea Lepage (published in 2016) found that only 16% of schools did not explicitly prioritize Western surveys; the rest all required the Western survey in some capacity (as a standalone requirement or alongside at least one course on a region outside the West). [1]

In our revised curriculum, we replaced the standard survey classes with a topics-based intro course simply called “Introductory Topics in Art History.” This could be on any topic of the professor’s choosing. Students were required to take at least one intro-level class before moving on to intermediate (200-level) courses in art history (also on any topic). The catalog description for the general intro topics class was the following:

“This course provides an introduction to the primary methods and approaches in the study of images and objects. While individual topics will vary depending on the instructor, all classes will teach the skills of visual analysis and object-oriented research, and cultivate in students an understanding of the importance of objects’ historical and social contexts, both in the period of their production and across history. Intended to introduce students to the breadth of art history and prepare them for upper level coursework in this and related fields, the class considers a variety of media, including (but not limited to) painting, sculpture, architecture, and urban planning, film and photography, and design. May be repeated for credit if topic is different.”

In doing away with the traditional survey, we chose instead to agree on a set of learning outcomes that we wanted for all our students. These outcomes were:

* Conduct visual (stylistic, formal and iconographic) analysis of images and objects.

* Translate visual material into written and verbal forms of communication using discipline specific vocabulary.

* Demonstrate a broad understanding of materials and mediums.

* Demonstrate a broad understanding of the role of social/historical/physical contexts.

* Demonstrate strong research skills that include the ability to assemble and evaluate both primary and secondary sources.

To give an example of the possible range of introductory courses, here are two syllabuses from introductory courses that served to replace the traditional survey: “‘It’s dangerous to go alone!’: Taking a Closer Look at the Legend of Zelda” and “From Myron to Muscle Beach: Sports in and as Art.” Note that the latter course was taught during the transition from the old curriculum to the new one, and thus the course retains the old (200-level) numbering, despite being intended as an introductory-level survey class.

“It’s dangerous to go alone!”: Taking a Closer Look at the Legend of Zelda (here)

From Myron to Muscle Beach: Sports in and as Art (here)

In both classes I wanted to parlay student interest in a topic—video games and sports—into an understanding of and appreciation for the academic study of visual culture.[2]

What this allowed was a total rethinking of an art history survey—i.e., not tinkering with it or trying to fit non-Western objects into a Western framework, but an uprooting of what a survey can be. As a Renaissance art historian I am keenly aware of the passion that can be generated through “classic” works of art from the traditional Western survey, but it is long past the time that we stop prioritizing such a model. Doing so would not only be good for art history, but it might also offer the chance to lead by example for greater inclusivity and equity in higher education more broadly.


[1] Melissa R. Kerin and Andrea Lepage, “De-Centering “The” Survey: The Value of Multiple Introductory Surveys to Art History,” Art History Pedagogy & Practice 1, no. 1 (2016), 3, . The authors found that at 43% of the schools surveyed the Western survey remained the dominant model; a majority of the institutions also required an alternative to the Western survey, generally as an intermediate level class.

[2] I discuss this at greater length in an article specifically about the Zelda class, which I’m happy to share (contact me directly): “Take Away the Sword: Teaching for Creativity and Communication with the Legend of Zelda in Art History,” in Mythopoeic Narrative in The Legend of Zelda, ed. Anthony G. Cirilla and Vincent E. Rone (Routledge, 2020).

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