Student Dialogues and Scholarly Discourse: Helping Undergraduates Join the Conversation

In the last week of February, students in my Art History Survey I course at the University of Colorado Denver presented a series of scripted conversations focused primarily on artworks from the Denver Art Museum. These presentations were the culmination of what I call the “Artwork Dialogue” assignment. While introducing students to local museum collections and encouraging them to study physical objects rather than digital reproductions are purposeful and critical benefits, the greater aim is to activate the study of art in two key ways: When students go to the museum together, select an artwork, and craft and deliver a conversation about it, it plants the seed that studying and expressing ideas about art are active undertakings. In the act of constructing a dialogue that develops from observations and questions, students also experience the discursive aspect of scholarship. The final dialogue thus provides a concrete, experiential demonstration that even an elementary study of an artwork requires the scholar to articulate his or her own thoughts and respond to ideas someone else has about the work in question.

The idea for this assignment, and its basic format, come from two distinct but equally influential sources. One point of origin is the Khan Academy art history portal (with which I have no affiliation). The recorded conversations about a work of art that the speakers examine in its museum setting or in situ provide the basic model for the assignment. The second source of inspiration is a sentiment that circulated within the Boston University Writing Program when I was a graduate student writing fellow. The basic idea was an approach to student writing that at every level emphasized that scholarship was essentially discursive. A paper was not a passive and solitary exercise, but one that placed the student in conversation with other authors who had taken on their topic. Students are scholars, and with their work they join an often long-running and ongoing conversation of which they are new, novice, but active voices.

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[Summer King and Kaley Nowicki delivering their dialogue on a Tlatilcan double-headed figurine. Photo credit: Jodie Lockard]

The Artwork Dialogue assignment instructions are simple and readily adaptable. The class is divided into pairs. In cases of an odd number of students, a group of three works fine. I typically randomize pairings. Pairs must select a single artwork on which to focus their dialogue. Parameters of artwork selection vary according to available resources. If possible, works are drawn from local museum collections. If there is enough availability, works are limited to periods covered in the first half of the semester. At times, I have had to open the range to any period we will cover at any point in the course. Ideally, dialogues are delivered in the museum galleries, and students use the surrounding display to enhance discussion of their selected work. However, getting a class into the museum might not be possible for many reasons. This semester, my survey class meets at 8 am, before the museum opens. Dialogues, which are 7-10 minutes long, were thus delivered in the classroom with the artworks projected in PowerPoint presentations. While we lost the ability to all see every artwork in person, and lacked the display context of each object, this classroom setup has some benefits over the museum. It is a controlled environment, so there were no interruptions in the form of talkative visitors or other groups angling to look at the same objects. PowerPoint also allowed students to easily incorporate images of comparative works, maps and other supplementary materials. When dialogues are delivered in museum galleries, in addition to using the surrounding display, I have also used a tablet to display supplemental images for students at their request.

There is a written component to the assignment as well. Each pair submits a script prior to delivering the dialogue. The script ensures that all conversations are planned, and that the works have been studied, researched and analyzed as one would do in an analysis paper. The assignment stipulates that students are free to read from the script, but they do not have to do so, and that the dialogue can deviate from the script, as a natural conversation would.


In the week or so after the dialogues are delivered, students meet with me individually to discuss the project, thereby perpetuating the practice of scholarship as conversational and active. Pairs must submit their selected artwork several weeks prior to the due date. Students are also instructed to compile a list of possible works when they visit the museum to make their selection so they have backups in case another group has already claimed a particular work. I approve artwork selection on a first come, first served basis, and I do not allow multiple groups to work on the same object for this assignment.

When students construct and participate in an open dialogue—rather than the silent monologue of an individual paper—they confront both the selected artwork and another person’s ideas about that work, to which they must respond. Students thus naturally engage in a basic scholarly discourse. They are also introduced to some of the benefits of collaboration, particularly with regard to posing questions, postulating answers, and formulating reasoned conclusions that they must test on one another.


[Emerald Smith at the Denver Art Museum studying the Harappan elephant toy cart (bottom row, center) she and her partner selected for their dialogue. Photo credit: Olivia Fink]

For most of my students, the survey course is their first experience with art history (and sometimes with art of any kind), and this assignment is their first foray into being an art historian. The vocabulary and methodologies of art and art history can seem daunting. An initially unintended but now consciously fostered by-product of the dialogue assignment is the safety-net it creates. Students are not completely on their own trying to grapple with an artwork’s form, function, materials and meaning. Working with a partner, students not only actively engage with another person, they also gain the benefit of stumbling into the woods with a buddy. Additionally, the process of constructing a scripted conversation compels students to incorporate question-and-answer patterns into their thinking about art, and to develop linguistic strategies for expressing and following up on observations. Attention to such language structures helps produce activated written work that engages both art objects and ideas about them.

Although the Artwork Dialogue is in almost all cases a positive and informative experience for students, it of course faces potential problems and limitations. As a partner assignment, the dialogue can raise the typical objections and wariness students tend to feel toward group projects. Limiting the “groups” to three people at most helps mitigate scheduling issues. Students also have of the option to submit a self- and partner-assessment after the dialogue so as to inform me of problems. (More often, I see assessments that commend partners who exceeded expectations.) The assignment also stipulates that grades are individual, and partners might not receive the same grade, although that has been a rare occurrence.

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[Bei Li and Liz Snyder dialoguing on an Athenian black-figure vase from the Denver Art Museum. Photo credit: Janie Eslinger]]

The Artwork Dialogue has both oral and written components, bringing a range of language skills into play. As university student bodies become increasingly international, it is more and more common to have a range of English-language proficiency in a class. I have never had a random pairing of students result in a pair in which both students significantly struggle with language or expression. I have also never encountered an issue or complaint from students regarding a partner’s language or speech abilities. To the contrary, I have seen truly kind interactions between partners, such as a native English-speaker gently coaching a partner through words or phrases that proved difficult to deliver. Curating rather than randomizing pairings could easily address this potential issue.

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[Scott Richmond addresses the materials used in an Egyptian sarcophagus for a sacred ibis, responding to a question his dialogue partner (not pictured) posed.]

The greatest challenge with the assignment I’ve encountered is translating the idea of dialogue and active conversation in the study of an artwork to the classroom in general, and to the individual and aurally silent exercise of writing a paper. Returning to the dialogue pairings during the semester in the course of classroom discussion is one strategy I’ve used to keep the structures of conversation alive and in practice. Before opening a class-wide discussion about an artwork, I give the dialogue pairs five minutes together to discuss their initial observations and formulate a question. Those questions become the basis for the class conversation. With regard to bringing the dialogues into individual work, I have found that more challenging. Many undergraduates have never constructed a dialogue before, but most have been instructed in writing a paper. They have preexisting ideas and habits that often do not account for the discursive ideals the Artwork Dialogue aims to promote. This semester I am introducing an active reflection exercise with the next assignment, which is an individual paper. Students will revisit the conversations they had with their partner when constructing the dialogue, focusing on the ways they expressed observations, directed responses and asked questions about a work of art when talking with another person. Reminding students that their previous engagement with an artwork began with and was rooted in conversation will, I hope, foster connections between the oral discourse of the dialogue assignment and other, often written work they will produce during their undergraduate careers.

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[Jodie Lockard and Connor Wolterstorff discuss the context of a bronze finial from Luristan (not pictured). Photo credit: Janie Eslinger]



One response to “Student Dialogues and Scholarly Discourse: Helping Undergraduates Join the Conversation”

  1. Laura Wilson says:

    Thank you for sharing. If you have time and are happy to share I would be interested to see an example of the outcome/ ie a student script as well as your marking rubric.
    Kind Regards,
    a native Coloradan now living and teaching art history in Australia.

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