The Art History Generalist: Challenges, Strategies and the Future of Teaching Art History

This week’s post is a summary of a CAA 2020 session panel of the same name.

Introduction [Sarah Diebel is an Associate Professor at the University of Wisconsin – Stout). She served as the Session Chair.] 

I’m an art history generalist in the School of Art & Design at the University of Wisconsin-Stout with my colleague, Cynthia Bland, and along with two Design historians, I teach in a program that serves one thousand Studio Art & Design majors. We have no art history major, but we have a built-in audience: all the art and design majors must take at least 4 art history courses, and five years ago we introduced an art history minor, and we’ve had as many as 52 minors at a given time. So by many measures we’re lucky. 

However, we teach a 4/4 load and have large class sizes- we each typically have about 160 students per semester- and when it comes to grading essay exams and papers there are no TAs to help. In addition, Cynthia and I each have a heavy generalist course rotation. For instance, this is part of my position description at Stout: “Teach the survey of art and upper level courses ranging from antiquity to the 18th century.” This position description is by no means atypical today, but it was devised by designers and studio artists who never actually had to do this job. And when I was going up for tenure and had to convince the design and studio art faculty of my worthiness in having faced this challenge, I used the analogy of the Labors of Hercules (Fig.1):  Hercules had only 12 labors–I had 15 in my regular course rotation. 

This is a difficult task. It was daunting when I started at Stout 14 years ago- and it’s still hard. I realized that if I really commit to doing it well I’ll wind up being a very different kind of scholar than you thought I’d be. This is not to say there isn’t pleasure in the challenge and in the journey, and satisfying rewards in the process, and our session contributors touch on not only the challenges, but the advantages of embracing a Generalist position. But the essential problem is here: while teaching positions have been changing in substantial ways over the last several decades, the expectations for research output that are required for advancement and for general respect in the field, has not changed. And now, in the so-called “Gig Academy,” and with the increasing disappearance of specialist positions in our field, it’s time for a culture-shift in academia that will support the work of Generalists, and celebrate their value to field, since we are often on the “front line,” introducing a broad population of students to the subject and fostering a life-long appreciation for the arts.

Our contributors give a good picture of the diversity in specialization, background and experience that characterizes art history today, and they offer a range of perspectives and practical approaches to dealing with the challenges of a generalist position.

“Leveraging the Generalist Course Load for Research Productivity” [Author: Elizabeth Pugliano is an Instructor at the University of Colorado-Denver. Her research is balanced between medieval art and pedagogy, and encompasses topics of violence, conflict and combat in medieval art; sensory experience of and in medieval images; identity construction and alterity; empathy; assignment and curriculum development; and writing and communication. She has published two previously on the AHTR Weekly: Teaching Art History and Writing I: SECAC 2018 Conference Panel Review and Student Dialogues and Scholarly Discourse: Helping Undergraduates Join the Conversation]

Generalist scholars face notable challenges when it comes to managing the breadth of content demanded of one’s teaching duties while maintaining a productive research agenda. The latter can be especially challenging, as most generalist positions require teaching well outside of one’s area of specialization. Additionally, immersion in one’s research area, and the opportunity to test and develop research in the classroom enjoyed by colleagues in specialist positions, are rarities for the generalist scholar. Divided into four parts, this paper responded to the obstacles these circumstances create by offering specific, easy to implement strategies to help leverage teaching duties for research, and vice versa.

In Part 1, I discussed an approach to course development I have taken in upper-level art history courses that draws current pedagogical best practices strategies of experiential learning environments and flipped classrooms to organize student-led class sessions. Helping students take the lead in presentation and discussion of course material, rather than acting as the sole leader and content producer throughout the semester, can help shift the sometimes tenuous balance between class prep and time for personal research and writing.

Part 2 and Part 3 suggested different ways to integrate research-related content and activities into non-research-related course assignments in order to maximize the time devoted to the broad and often heavy teaching loads generalists face. Part 2 focused on integrating research-relevant content into classes, specifically by utilizing themes and methodologies drawn from research as grounding examples to introduce new course topics or initiate discussions. Part 3 addressed a similar strategy from the angle of professional development and conferencing. Utilizing conference attendance as a way to simultaneously share research and garner material for classes helps promote integration of teaching and research. This simple reframing of how we focus our attention can help make teaching a generalist course load and engaging in area-specific research feel less at odds with one another.

The last part of the paper turned from practicable strategies to a question for the present and future about the possible benefits of generalist positions for both faculty and the field. The demands of generalist positions create limitations. On a personal level, I recognize that teaching across the art history curriculum has meant that I am not as productive in my area of specialization as some of my colleagues. But, what I have been able to do is introduce hundreds of students, so far, to different moments in the history of art that connect to their lives in meaningful and sustained ways. Leaning into generalism, truly, would require relief from the pressures of a concurrent and competing system that prizes and promotes hyperspecialization. Yet, in an art history in which generalists are not set up to be perpetually behind, this is the promise of generalism that might be embraced: The art history generalist as the great connector, not just from one area of art history to another, but from the depths of art history to the wide world beyond its confines.

“Developing a Specialized Identity as an Art History Generalist in a Teaching College” [Gregory Gilbert is an Associate Professor and the Director of the Art History Program at Knox College in Illinois. He specializes in modern and contemporary American art, specifically contextual and theoretical issues associated with the Abstract Expressionist, Neo-Dada and Pop Art movements with a particular interest in studying the intersection of these artistic tendencies with forms of mass visual culture.]

As Art History shrinks as an academic discipline, there will most likely be an increasing demand for younger art historians to fill generalist positions. Generalist art historians not only face the rigorous demands of teaching a broad range of courses outside their area of specialization, but must also contend with the challenge of maintaining an active scholarly agenda in order to achieve tenure and secure their jobs. However, the strong interdisciplinary basis of liberal arts teaching and the increasing emphasis on ambitious undergraduate research actually provides a pedagogical framework for specialized instruction that can drive and sustain faculty scholarship. During my career at Knox College, I have developed teaching strategies and curricular initiatives to align the generalist requirements of the Art History program with my own research interests in twentieth century American art, as well as my professional background in museum curating.

One of my major initiatives has been to design period courses and topical upper-level seminars that have been generated out of my own scholarly areas of interest. Students have been responsive towards these formats, which immerses them in theoretically challenging discourses and allows the class to engage with course material at a more specialized level. These course topics include “Collage: Critical Perspectives,” “American Art and American Philosophy” and a seminar on Abstract Expressionism that focuses on the social and political context of the movement, in particular the cultural milieu of World War II. A prime benefit of these courses is that they have served as curricular vehicles to promote advanced, original forms of undergraduate research that intersects with my own research agenda. Following what Teresa Gilliams refers to as the “facilitative model” of pedagogy, I essentially do collaborative research with students on their senior thesis and honors projects, training them in methodology, as well as rigorous forms of analytical thinking and writing. This not only allows students to produce their own independent scholarship, but it has also greatly enriched my own knowledge and critical thinking on topics in my fields of study, resulting in numerous projects that I have published or presented at conferences.

A more recent initiative has been to implement art museum studies courses, another area of generalist teaching that relates to my own professional identity and background in curatorial work. My decision to develop a museum studies track is a response to both the shrinking of the academic Art History job market and significant changes within undergraduate education. In many respects, museums and nonprofit art centers are the growth area in the art history field. Moreover, a growing demographic of first-generation college students are increasingly concerned with pursuing degrees in applied areas that will guarantee more solid job prospects and stable career tracks. In 2018, we received a substantial alumni donation to establish our first formal art gallery on campus, which now serves as a learning laboratory for all facets of museological training including curatorial research, interpretation, collections management and exhibit design and installation. With this program, it has been gratifying to reengage with the museum field and advance my own curatorial career in a modest way while serving the larger programming needs of my Art History area, my department and the college.

 “Teacher-scholar-curator-administrator-artist:  Survival Tips from a Long-distance Generalist” [Lindsay Twa is an Associate Professor, Art and the Director of the Eide/Dalrymple Gallery at Augustana University in South Dakota. Her research focuses on the black diaspora and exchanges between African American artists and the Caribbean, particularly Haiti. Her recent publications include the book Visualizing Haiti in U.S. Culture, 1910-1950.]

I have been a professional generalist for my entire career. For that entire time, I have also been a passionate, though highly amateur long-distance athlete. Many of my writing survival tips derive from the realm of long-distance running.

Teaching demands a lot and it will greedily take as much time as you allow it. So, how to survive as a scholar while being also a teaching generalist? First, know the race. Working towards a 10km race is different than marathons. Similarly, identify the specific scholarly outcomes. Then, break these expectations apart into a set of smaller, concrete goals. 

Next, value research-writing time enough to schedule it into teaching days and have it carefully planned as a part of a work week. I recommend adapting a marathon training plan for a writing schedule.[i]  In order to run a marathon, runners can’t save training for one day on the weekend. Similarly, writing is a process that requires consistent practice. I like the model of marathon training plans because they are geared towards busy people who incorporate their marathon goals into the daily routine of their work and family life. Moreover, these plans are usually similar lengths of time as our academic semesters. A “marathon” research-writing plan can be overlaid on top of an academic semester in a strategic way. 

A marathon plan establishes a race-day goal: a semester “race” could be drafting a new book chapter or article, or even just sections of one. The goal should be specific and achievable. The plan begins 16 to 20 weeks prior to that, building up in intensity in three- to four-week increments. Writers can overlay the lighter training phases onto a busier teaching periods, and stagger the marathon training’s expectations of more intensive and longer workouts so that they occur during typical academic breaks (foremost the summer). By doing this, I ensure that my ability to commit more time aligns with my trained ability to write more. 

The final reason that I like using a marathon-training plan is that it requires that the scheduling of three or four regular weekday runs of 30 to 60 minutes, with a longer session one-day per week. For a typical runner, the long run usually falls on the weekend; as a writer, it might fall on a weekday if blessed with a schedule that allows a day with a lighter teaching load. Scheduling these daily, regular writing-workouts keeps me engaged, slowly building to my goals, and, importantly, doesn’t allow my research ideas to go cold between sessions.  This primes me to be more productive in my scheduled longer sessions. Following this writing-marathon plan affirms that major projects and long-term goals can be achieved in a series of incremental, daily steps.

Facing reality, teaching will demand an incredibly high percentage of time, especially during the early years, or at a new institution. But don’t wait for a time for teaching demands to lessen, because they won’t. I implore any early-career scholars to implement these, or any other strategies that are helpful, from the very beginning. 

“Why It Might Be Better to Be a Generalist” [Kirstin Ringelberg is an Full Professor of Art History at Elon University. They also contribute to the Women’s and Gender Studies, American Studies, and Asian Studies programs. Kirstin specializes in modern and contemporary art and visual culture and recently published Redefining Gender in American Impressionist Studio Painting: Work Place/Domestic Space.]  

Contrary to expectation, it is the generalist aspects of the positions I’ve held that have led to the most meaningful aspects of my career. Strategically, we generalists learn how to do a lot with few resources, which makes us hard to stop when we have a vision. For example, a team of three or fewer faculty can construct or reconstruct a curriculum and mission statement quickly and easily. A smaller program might require more university-wide service, but this also opens up opportunities in shared governance and access to a diversity of collaborators. Being outward-facing might even be crucial to our institutional survival as conditions change.

Because student evaluations drive most generalists’ promotion and changing student demographics rightfully won’t allow stagnation, nimble, effective teaching is a central concern. We teach a large number and variety of students at a variety of levels, so we are always rethinking assignments and the principles that subtend them to improve student learning. And while I have published more scholarship than my contract requires, I’ve interacted with more undergraduates than readers of my work. This is an opportunity, not a curse. We have the responsibility to make sure that their encounter with art history is progressive, challenging, and developmental, while also having the responsibility to learn more from them about what might make it so. Knowing more different kinds of humans well, in the way we get to know them through engaged learning pedagogies, makes us more humane, too.

But we shouldn’t be too humble in terms of our value to the discipline. We generalists are practiced at talking across specialties and pointing out the lacunae they produce. It was teaching the “whole” history of art that caused me and my colleague Evan Gatti to realize we needed to jettison the canon and survey more than ten years ago. It has certainly lent a historiographic cast to my scholarship as well as a writing voice for the broader public. Recent discussions about racist monuments have made clear that art historians should be public intellectuals. Who, really, is our audience if not…everyone? Indeed, it’s my belief that the generalist can change both the discipline and academia in meaningful, even revolutionary ways. If we take our teaching as potentially transformative of a student body in dire need of self-awareness and compassion as well as an increasingly decolonized curriculum; if we apply what we know from teaching the “whole” history of art to the discipline—its shape, its content, its grounding principles—and work to transform those; and if we organize through thoughtfully radical institutional service and labor (including unionization) to actually improve the conditions of academia as a whole, it is generalists even more than specialists who have the ability to radically alter art history, academia, and even the broader world. In this way, many of the presumptively negative aspects of the generalist position can turn out to be the things we most cherish in our careers and that make our careers not just meaningful but potentially revolutionary.

[i] Just search “marathon training plans.” Here is one example:

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