Surveying the Survey at SECAC

Every pedagogy session I attend at SECAC  is incredibly well-attended and produces endless questions and wonderful discussions. This year, when the call for session proposals came out, I was rethinking my own survey class, planning on going text-book-free and poring over every page on AHTR. I decided to do my part in creating the type of session that I personally love attending and submit a session proposal focused on pedagogy. When I submitted my proposal, I assumed that I would be inundated with proposals reflecting all the many issues I was currently tackling…and I was not. I received some proposals, but they didn’t address whole range of issues I know we’re constantly tackling in the art history survey. So, I emailed several people who had previously posted on AHTR or were recommended by other professors in order to broaden the range of topics. I ended up with a ton of wonderful, exciting presentations for Surveying the Survey: Assignments, Pedagogy, and Practices (page 31 in the PDF) that gave me a ton of new ideas and perspectives.

I suspect that although we all want to hear about pedagogy, we aren’t sure if our own assignments, ideas, and syllabi are innovative enough to propose. Even when we develop an exciting new idea, we decide to test-drive it and tweak it a few times before sharing it, hoping we can get it perfect before we submit a proposal. Personally, I keep planning on submitting a post to AHTR on a specific assignment, but I keep postponing since I am constantly tweaking every assignment!

Here is a run-down of the presentations at SECAC 2015, which was held in Pittsburgh this year, focusing on the issues that I found most exciting:

Gretchen McKay’s Engaging Undergraduate Students in Art History with Digital Tools focused on flipping the classroom, including how she splits the assignments into modules. She included some very convincing statistics and a student quote showing how effective this technique has been. In addition to discussing her survey course, she also discussed an upper-level class where she is involving the students in her research analyzing Italo-Byzantine icons and sharing the information on a digital platform. I was most excited about some of the specific things she does with class time instead of lecturing (she noted that when you flip the classroom, you absolutely CANNOT cover the same material as the readings!), such as “Reacting to the Past” role-playing games and a game in which the students had to describe the attributes of a “mystery culture” (Minoan culture) at a press conference based on the artworks, geography, etc.

David Boffa presented on ditching the textbook, noting problems with the survey as a whole, including his own inability to completely move away from it. In his session, Beyond the Textbook: Alternative Approaches to the Art History Survey, he pointed out that, while the Khan Academy provides a wonderful alternative, it is still formatted like a traditional survey and is based on the western canon. He noted a great website called the Internet History Sourcebooks Project that could serve as supplemental material outside of a traditional survey textbook. I was struck by his opposition to the idea of the “unskippable” work. If the Pantheon in unskippable, but we can skip entire African tribes or all of Polynesia, what is this saying about Western culture? Does the Pantheon tell us something about the universal human condition that a Hindu, Buddhist, etc. work can’t? (Although he sold me on the Pantheon, I’m personally glad he didn’t bring up Olympia or Desmoiselles d’Avignon!) Additionally, he noted the unsustainable impact of tourism on many major artistic tourist destinations, noting that if we all avoided teaching the same canon of “unmissable” tourist destinations, these destinations would be better preserved. [David previously addressed grad school in the Humanities in a Weekly post and his ideas also served as a source of inspiration for Kris Belden-Adams’s process of going text-book free.]

Jenny Ramirez turned her Art Appreciation classes into hybrid courses: From Giotto to Vimeo: Strategies for Creating a Hybrid Art Appreciation Course. Blackboard discussions replacing one of the three weekly meetings. For her, these online discussions have proven more relevant and effective than small group discussions—and I was personally very impressed with the examples of student work she showed! Jenny showed examples of several posts and discussed her grading standards—students must post 10 substantive sentences and then they have three days to post a response to another student that consists of 5 substantive sentences. She also discussed another project in which students created soap sculptures and wrote one page artist statements. For me, the specific questions she asked of the students in their discussion posts were especially interesting—for example in their introduction posts, they had to pick an artwork that represented them, in a post focusing on blurring the boundaries between high and low art, they had to find their own example online, and in a post focused on art and propaganda, they had to pick and analyze an image of a leader from the 20th or 21st centuries.

 In Curricular Bridges to the Past: Contemporary Art and Student Agency in the Art History Survey, Jonathan Wallis discussed changes made to the entire Art History department at Moore College of Art and Design. They sought to move from the traditional timeline structure of the survey to more of a mind map version (although it was necessary that the two semester survey remain generally chronological). Intro to Art 1 and 2 have become “Convention, Canon, and Sign,” and “Becoming Modern.” The faculty remain in constant dialogue, sharing assignments and ideas. They focus on deeper issues like the role of signs and culture when asking what allows contemporary viewers to interpret an advertisement and a painting by Giotto, or how meaning is conveyed differently in Washington Crossing the Delaware and an abstract painting. He discussed scavenger hunts on campus and at the National Gallery. I was especially interested in the idea of creating “contemporary conversations,” in which in class, in groups, and as assignments, the students relate older artworks to contemporary ones—such as Stonehenge to Nancy Holt’s Sun Tunnels, King Tut to the President’s seal, and religious to secular pilgrimage—like Disneyworld.

Karen Shelby and Michelle Millar Fisher wrote a presentation on behalf of AHTR, pointing to a variety of important posts, topics, and issues addressed on the site. At least one person in the question session said it was new to her and an amazing new resource! In Augmenting Janson: Ditching the required text and embracing a free multimedia textbook for the art history survey, they discussed various posts regarding textbook free surveys, and some of the issues raised, resolved, and discussed on them (such as concerns with hyperlinks, which Google docs handles well). Karen and Michelle pointed to the various lessons on AHTR, including an interesting discussion of how a site like the Temple Mount can allow you to break from chronology or focusing on one culture, since you can address how five different cultures have used and interpreted the same site over time. While I thought I had already reviewed everything I could ever need on AHTR, they referenced a new tool I haven’t used—Wölff catalog —a crowd-sourced digital image library that sounds great, since going text-book free has thus far pushed me to Pinterest.

I went textbook-free for my survey course for the first time this semester—although my Art Appreciation classes still use the thematic Exploring Art textbook. Next semester, I’m going to make the second half of my survey course textbook-free, add learning communities (Jonathan mentioned “micro-communities”) for group work, include at least 1 or 2 “contemporary conversations” each week, bring in more primary sources (David mentioned Fordham has good primary sources), add in at least 2 games, check out Wolff catalog, tweak my discussion post questions based on Jenny’s examples, and then, hopefully, I’ll have developed the perfect pedagogical model and can finally feel ready to submit an assignment to AHTR!

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