Teaching Outside of Your Subject Area

Contributions by: Jenn Ball, Erika Nelson, Ana Perry, Lisa Tannenbaum, Trinity Martinez, and Abigail Lapin.
On two occasions, the Art History Department at the CUNY Graduate Center has offered a practicum on teaching art history with an emphasis on the survey course.  Professor Jenn Ball has taught this course for the past few years and the students have enthusiastically received the course.

This spring AHTR asked Professor Ball if we could facilitate a project with her students with the intent of posting the process on the AHTR site. At her suggestion, the discussion focused on teaching a unit in the survey outside of one’s area of expertise….something art history professors are faced with each semester. Karen, Michelle and Jenn worked with the students in the class to devise a lesson plan on one of the following areas: Arts of the Islamic World, Arts of South and Southeast Asia, and Arts of Africa. The students in the class–who ranged from having a fair amount of teaching experience to none at all–split into three groups and each group tackled one of the aforementioned areas. We used the following handouts to help organize the class investigation–feel free to use them if you’d like to conduct this experiment somewhere else, or you’d like to add to them/give feedback: Lesson plan template and Lesson Outline. 

There were several goals of the lesson–and like any lesson, some were achieved more effectively than others:

  • to give further practice on developing a lesson plan/lecture outline, as students had already built one on a topic related to their subject area
  • to give further practice in backward design, thinking first of goals and key themes before selecting objects and working on transitions
  • to challenge them to work outside of their comfort zone, which would simulate a real-life teaching experience as we mostly teach outside of our expertise in survey courses
  • to introduce them to online sources for information gathering
  • to work with a partner so that peer evaluation and editing could happen during the process of creating the lesson plan
  • to challenge them to work outside of their comfort zone, which would simulate a real-life teaching experience as we mostly teach outside of our expertise in survey courses
  • to introduce them to online sources for information gathering
  • to work with a partner so that peer evaluation and editing could happen during the process of creating the lesson plan

We began by asking what does a lesson plan look like?


 After a review of the concept of backward planning, which the students had addressed in a previous lecture, the class discussed the following points:

  • If we plan backward for a lecture in a survey class, what is the “key goal” we hope for with each lesson at survey level? Basic knowledge of a chronological/geographic nature? Visual literacy? Writing skills?
  • Are there “key goals” specific to classes where you are lecturing outside of your subject area? Mastering vocabulary or new geographic knowledge? New visual literacies?
  • How do you begin a lesson? What grabs students’ attention?  (One suggestion before the groups started was an combination of AHTR favorites–that they perhaps start their lecture outline with one compelling image that relates to the class theme; the first 10 min of class could be a response and discussion on this image—either through open-ended questioning, blind-drawing with a partner, etc.)

The students then gathered in groups of three to make a lesson plan using the template above. This collaborative effort was a success and the groups brainstormed themes, created an outline of the lecture, began to design visually compelling and effective PPTs, and drafted open-ended discussion questions. They utilized Smarthistory.org, Art History Teaching Resources, The Met’s Timeline of Art History, and their own personal experiences, interests, and previous knowledge.

There were two notable outcomes:

  • The process forced students to come up with a few key ideas first, refine them into one compelling theme or questions, and then get their images–the outcome was that their lessons were more likely to be focused and cohesive, or at least on ether way there. This went against the natural instinct to choose images first. And, most students find that being asked to work this way is really helpful.
  • Students discussed the problems of boiling down one, often very large, subject into a single lecture.  Because they were working outside of their area they were naturally concerned that they were oversimplifying it, reducing to stereotype or misrepresenting, and it was good to talk about this fear and discuss strategies. (The major strategy for overcoming this was to be absolutely upfront about it with students, to be constantly aware of the magnitude of history and our own specific social, economic, and political locations as students of history.)

The class concluded with a wrap up and presentation of their process and final product.

The following week Professor Ball processed the exercise with the students. A few things emerged from this discussion. Prof. Ball noted that:

  • everyone found the workshop really useful–you can tell that just realizing that the student-teachers should choose a goal to focus on for the class is novel to them, and a useful thing to think about
  • it seems the main anxiety over teaching outside of one’s area (or even in it for that matter) is feeling like you are being too reductive.  If you boil it down to a few big ideas, are you giving Islam short shrift?  Yes of course you are, but I would argue that it doesn’t matter because the survey is not as much about content as about teaching the field of art history and the skills to be an art historian as a whole.  Lots of other areas, though not Europe, are being treated the same way. It’s right to be very mindful of this, but to treat it as a question of method rather than need to include exhaustive content.
  • the workshop forced good habits, such as referring to things learned in other lectures to reinforce ideas, or seeing how the lecture fits into overall goals for the semester.  The students, as they go through the pedagogy course, should be thinking about these ideas for every lecture and the lesson plan forced them to do that.

Below are some of the students’ reflections on Lesson Plan exercise:

Ana Perry: Having a format such as the one included on the lesson plan handout does make the processes easier especially in the early stages. In my earlier exercise in lecture planning, I think I made the task significantly harder on myself, partially in my ambition for what I wanted them to get and partly not having any clear organization. In thinking about Pre-Columbian art I was overwhelmed with the possibilities of topics. There was no way to cover it all and how was I to give my students a sense of what was important? I encountered a similar challenge when planning a lecture outside of my area except it was even more difficult since I had no background in art of the Islamic world. It became an exercise in quickly scanning the information and pulling out the theme I wanted to cover. The guide helped by forcing me to focus early on as well as simplify each step. Rather than put all the transitions in the beginning, just focusing on the images and a couple key points allowed the lesson to grow organically. Essentially what is helpful in having a template, guide or anything of the sort is to not have to start from scratch. When many of these lectures are planned in addition to outside work whether other teaching projects, coursework, or life, it is helpful to have something to make the process easier or quicker. In addition, being limited to online resources allows me to think more creatively and incorporate information that many of my students would most likely have access too. The videos on Smarthistory as well as the timeline and images at the metmuseum help me to get a basic introduction while placing myself in a similar situation to my students. My questions and what I find interesting could very well be similar questions my students would have.

Erika Nelson: Something that I struggled with when first teaching outside of my area was what to talk about how to convey the importance of the images in the textbook when I didn’t really know what their importance is. The idea of having a key learning goal and theme is incredibly helpful because it made me find the important ideas that art from any corner of the world conveys, such as trade, power, religion, etc. It also made me focus on the key tenants of art history that students should leave any 100-level art history course with, such as close looking, iconographic analysis, etc. These goals and themes can be applied to any time period and culture, and then it simply becomes a matter of choosing the images that will most clearly articulate these ideas.

 The idea of having one learning goal and one theme that will carry the learning goal was extremely helpful to facilitate the concise articulation of what exactly I wanted my students to learn. I often get over-ambitious and want to include several learning goals and themes, but I think this ultimately prevents me from articulating the key themes with as much focus as possible. Having one learning goal and theme also helps narrow the image options, helping to hone in on what visually conveys the key goal and theme. I think this concept is helpful for both planning lessons outside of one’s area and within one’s area.

Lisa Tannenbaum: It is important to consider slide transitions and have an overall theme that you keep making reference to throughout the lecture. It is important to consider these themes and transitions in constructing the lecture even more so than the images that you choose to show, it is most important that a theme is expressed rather than teaching a lot of images. It would have been helpful to have written assignment prompts as well as in-class exercises and group discussion topics to help structure the class time.

I found the process of following the lesson plan challenging at first but then easier once I got used to it. The problems that arose in thinking outside my area are what images to show that will convey a theme and I will be able to talk about competently.

Trinity Martinez: I thought that the lesson plan handout was a great guideline for new instructors. I found it very helpful once I began to really piece together my lecture. When focusing on non-Western art, which is outside of my area, what I found most challenging was gathering the extended bibliography and knowing which works would best exemplify the people and customs of that region. Some questions I had for our Pedagogy class discussion: How do I approach the works in a way that will give them the consideration they deserve?  How do I arrange the lesson properly to include the most important or canonical works when I’m not certain which works are canonical in this area? My lecture focused on African Art and I chose to concentrate on functional objects used in spiritual and funerary rituals. I find myself questioning whether or not I should have narrowed it down to such a specific topic, which leaves out other important objects. How do we know how broad or narrow the lecture should be when confronted with a survey that focuses on a different region or period every week? I would have also liked to address classroom activities and homework assignments that would appeal to students and peak their interest. Perhaps a type of assignment that would help to give students a better understanding of the objects when taken out of the museum and placed back into their original surroundings.

Abigail Lapin: The lesson plan handout was well organized and easy to follow.  Since this area (Southeastern Art History) is foreign to me, it is difficult to gage how much to emphasize in each image and how long to spend on each work.  It would have been helpful to think about homework assignments for students in preparation for this class, which weren’t included in the questions.  It was interesting in our discussion to relate this lecture to the overall syllabus of a survey course and find the same art historical issues in these works than in more familiar ones.  This seems key in creating a survey class and teaching art history.  In addition to the very useful online resources, I think it is vital to return to basic texts about this area and be more familiar with it before teaching, in order to be ready to answer questions from students.



One response to “Teaching Outside of Your Subject Area”

  1. […] This spring Art History Teaching Resources (AHTR) asked Jenn Ball if it could facilitate a project with her students with the intent of posting the process on the AHTR site. At her suggestion, the discussion focused on teaching a unit in the survey outside of one’s area of expertise, something art history professors are faced with each semester. (Read more from Art History Teaching Resources.) […]

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