Teaching Writing About Art

Teaching the art of writing requires a different set of skills (and more time) than teaching survey art history, but your art history students need strong writing skills to succeed with the written assignments you set them.

What can you do to support strong student writing?

  • At the start of the semester, make all your writing handouts available to students. Here are some sample handouts on how to write a thesis, a short style guide for written assignments, and a grading rubrics. An “observation prompts” handout that will guide note-taking at the museum is available on the here.   We also suggest you check out posts in the AHTR Weekly categories “Assignments” and “Writing About Art”
  • Make use of the writing center or other student support services at your institution. Early in the semester, invite Writing Center staff to present their services briefly during a lecture, and direct students of all ability levels to take drafts of their work to the WC. Helpful writing resources are also accessible online for students and faculty
  • Set low-stakes writing assignments regularly in class. Perhaps the first 5 minutes of each class could be set aside for a brief written formal analysis of one of the objects you’ll discuss together that lesson. Instead of lengthy grading, when students hand in these assignments, use a simple check/check plus/check minus system for feedback, and ask those who seem to struggle to meet with you in-person during your office hour or attend the writing center.
  • Create time in the syllabus (often difficult in a fast-paced survey) to go over some of the basics of writing and language arts. You may find this Power Point useful as a template for your lesson in class.
  • Encourage students to form peer partnerships or peer writing groups outside of class time where they can swap their final drafts with each other for feedback on content and structure. Peer review can be tricky (students are not often equipped to give precise feedback on issues of grammar or accurate historical information), but asking them to read examples of other work gives them a context for their own, and fosters collegiality.
  • Actively offer students time during your office hour to go over drafts of their writing, or brainstorming thesis or content ideas for their assignment.
  • Please share your own great writing about art resources in the comments below! 

8 responses to “Teaching Writing About Art”

  1. Mary Prevo says:

    Check out Marjorie Munsterberg’s site. http://writingaboutart.org/index.html
    I have found it very useful.

  2. Are you familiar with Kathy Walsh-Piper’s “Image to Wrod: Art and Creative Writing”? I reviewed the book when it came out and didn’t try applying any ideas until this summer when I used ekphrastic writing as an exercise for my art history workshop in MICA’s precollege program. (I was inspired by the fantastic Blanton Poetry Project at UT-Austin which I saw in Jan 2015.) Results were really exceptional–and I discovered that for these novice writers, creative form (NOT being restricted to an academic structure like critical analysis) encouraged them to look more carefully, think more deeply and revise more intensively. happy to share if anyone wants to know more.

  3. Alexa Sand says:

    Although more focused towards studio art students, the book “Inspiring Writing in Art and Design: taking a line for a write” by Pat Francis is a nice, somewhat alternative guide to writing in the visual arts. If you have the luxury of teaching a real “writing about art” course, it proposes a really beautifully scaffolded progression of exercises.

  4. Erin Devine says:

    Thanks, Mary Prevo! That site is helpful! I also use Sylvan Barnett’s Writing About Art. I like Barnett’s approach to a variety of different kinds of art writing.

  5. Jennifer Freeman says:

    Ellen, I would love to know more about your ekphrasis assignment!

  6. laura maccarthy says:

    i would also love to know more about your ekphrasis assignment!!! i am teaching ART 100 at a community college for the first time and this might be the perfect writing assignment for these novices!

  7. Mary Prevo says:

    This is helpful if you are assigning “label” writing projects — Kris Wetterlund’s If You Can’t See It, Don’t Say It, which was written for museum interpretation. It works well for undergraduates.

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