Teaching Art History and Writing I: SECAC 2018 Conference Panel Review

For the 2018 SECAC conference in Birmingham, I set out to organize a panel that would bring together faculty who utilize innovative approaches to teaching writing alongside art historical content. Recognizing that many instructors, departments, and curricula expect art history students to develop skills of critical thinking, source analysis, grammar, syntax, and style alongside visual and contextual analysis of works of art, my goals for the panel were two-fold. Firstly, I wanted to create a panel featuring instructors who have experimented with creative writing assignments and new pedagogical approaches, as I have found in my own teaching career that our colleagues remain one of the most valuable sources about new ideas in teaching. Secondly, my dream panel would initiate a dialogue among attendees regarding creative solutions to the challenges of teaching students how to write as we simultaneously teach art historical practices and critical thinking.

Spoiler alert: my dreams came true! The CFP received so many submissions that I was able to create not one but two panels devoted to teaching art history and writing (Sarah Parrish’s blog post reviewing the second panel will post later in the semester). To my great delight, the panels not only introduced novel approaches to integrating writing and art history but produced animated conversation, with attendees asking questions not only of the panelists but of one another. This experience reinforced the value of open discussion; many attendees began their questions by expressing their own challenge with student engagement and learning, and other instructors who had faced similar difficulties were all too willing to share their solutions. While this blog post summarizes the four approaches taken by our panelists, I encourage readers to not only experiment with these strategies but to discuss the challenges of teaching art history and writing with their own colleagues.

Lara Kuykendall: “Know Your Audience: Making Writing Real for Students and Teachers”
When students are learning to write, fostering confidence and professionalism is critical. My writing assignments ask students to write for specific audiences, not just to me. Students in the survey pretend to be an understudied member of a movement in art history who is about to be added to the textbook. They write themselves into the canon by describing their training, influences, and masterpiece in a letter to the textbook editor. In History of Photography, students write letters to critics like Charles Baudelaire, who lamented in an 1859 essay that photography was “art’s most mortal enemy.” He gets an earful from photography majors about the creative potentials of the camera. Students in upper-level classes write scripts for a radio program called The Owsley Moment. These short texts analyze works of art in our university’s museum, the David Owsley Museum of Art, and they are recorded for the local public radio station as advertisements for the museum and for the value of looking closely at art. Asking students to write for these purposes encourages them to be creative and shows them the importance of advocating for a position, organizing material in a logical and persuasive manner, and editing for clarity.

The Owsley Moment
The David Owsley Museum of Art

Jenna Altomonte: “Interactive Approaches to Teaching (and Performing) Art History”
This paper proposed various actions, strategies, and methods used to develop a practice-centric approach to art history courses. Using two of my upper-level art history courses, History of Performance Art and Critical Issues in Global Visual Culture, I outlined the successes, failures, and complications of using art and performance-centric practices in research/writing-based courses. My approach combines lectures and discussions, film screenings, and a practice module that urges students to engage course content via innovative integration. Students are required to develop a performance, visual art/screenic-based project, or a creative writing document that applies critical knowledge learned from class. Rather than focus solely on the research paper component, students use their practice as a means of creating projects that reflect critical competency and personal experimentation. The students parlay their practice into their writing projects, serving in conversation with artists and performers learned from class, films, and/or assigned readings. I discussed how this approach may succeed or produce complications for students, focusing on populations enrolled in mid to upper division art history and criticism courses.

Beth Pugliano: “Not Another Analysis Paper: A Postmortem on an Alternative Term Assignment for Art History Survey”
This paper analyzed and critiqued the “Exhibition Proposal Project” (EPP), an assignment for Art History Survey II co-developed with my colleague, Professor Yang Wang, as an alternative to the mainstay of art history instruction: the analysis paper. The EPP is a semester-long engagement with a topic of each student’s choosing that culminates in the submission of a proposal for a museum exhibition. The assignment brings students step-by-step through short, focused writing requirements including a topic proposal, an annotated bibliography, and exhibition description. Our aim in developing this assignment was to foster writing and research skills, including critical engagement with sources, organization of complex topics, and clear communication of ideas, that would academically and professionally serve a student body comprised largely of practicing artists who often struggle with or otherwise resist academic writing. By breaking down work into numerous short written components, and especially in giving students agency in topic selection, the EPP nurtured both transferable strategies for organization and presentation of a perspective, and a curious and critical understanding of historical trends and gaps in art and exhibition history. In what student performance and comments suggest was an overall successful trial, the EPP shows promise as another writing tool for introductory art history courses.


Vanessa Troiano: “Art History and Collaborative Writing Pedagogy”
Collaborative writing is the process by which a group of people produces a jointly written text, which is a common practice among STEM academicians, whose publications often have multiple authors. Art History, however, like many other disciplines in the humanities, does not traditionally encourage collaborative writing, despite decades of evidence that there is a host of benefits to be derived from the practice, including the generation of a variety of ideas, as well as stronger and more complex texts. While it may seem counterintuitive in a field that champions the genius of the individual author and scholar, teachers of art history may find that collaborative writing assignments could enhance the overall learning experience for their students, and better prepare them for careers in which teamwork is expected. Personally, I have found the implementation of collaborative writing assignments into my undergraduate survey lectures at CUNY to be effective on multiple levels. In addition to learning the material better, students seem to enjoy the task more, perhaps because the pressure of producing responses individually is lifted. They also become better acquainted with their classmates, which is important to commuter students, who would not typically have contact with their peers outside of the classroom. Furthermore, many of the in-class groups form out-of-class study groups, ultimately enhancing their preparation for the exams. These assignments are also a significant help to me as an instructor, as I have fewer submissions to grade.

Tips for Creating Collaborative Writing Assignments

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