Transforming an Upper Level Art History Course to Writing Intensive

[Author: Andrea K. Lee, Ph.D. Assistant Professor of Art. Chair, Department of Art and Design at Park University.]

I teach art and art history at Park University, a small, liberal arts university in Parkville, Missouri. In addition to our flagship campus in the Midwest, Park University has forty-one campus centers in various states throughout the nation.   We serve traditional, non-traditional and a large number of military students throughout our network.   Recently our institution adapted a Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) for all disciplines aimed at improving writing skills for students.  Each program selected at least one course from their core curriculum for development as a writing intensive class.  In the Fine Art program, an upper level art history course, Modern Art, was selected for adaptation into a writing intensive course.   This class is taught in both face-to-face and online modalities.  I teach face-to-face courses at our main campus, and I worked with my colleague, Dr. Glenn Ricci, who developed the course for online instruction.  

In order to qualify for WAC writing intensive status, the course needed a minimum number of 20 required written pages and/or a minimum of 50 percent of the final grade assigned for writing projects.  For the initial conversion I chose the page number requirement, as I had already established an assignment of a longer research paper.  As I worked towards this goal, I also kept the 50% rule in the back of my mind in hopes that the conversion process would fulfill both requirements, thus ensuring a successful approval when the course was submitted for final approval as a writing intensive course. 

The Modern Art course already had a required core assessment paper of 5-10 pages.  This is a standard research paper with visual analysis of an artwork along with research about the artist, movement and style. A bibliography is required, along with citations.  Although I have always encouraged students to turn in a rough draft, in previous semesters it was not required.  To better fulfill the WAC requirements, I decided to require students to turn in a rough draft of their longer paper. One of the goals of WAC is to provide students meaningful feedback about their writing.  So, requiring the rough draft would give students opportunities for direct feedback before the final project.  In future semesters I will also increase the minimum page requirement so that the paper will have 7-10 pages.  Along with six shorter essays and exam essays this brought the minimum total page numbers to 20-23 pages, thus meeting requirements for WAC.

There are four exams throughout the semester, each with traditional slide identifications, and short and long essay questions.   In each exam I removed some long essay questions and gave more points to the remaining essay questions.  My thinking was that students would have more time to focus on in-depth answers and would receive more points for such answers.    Some of the previous test questions were converted to one-page, short essay assignments to be completed outside of class.   I also created new short essays based on the specific course content and larger topics in art.  There were six short essays in total, each one page in length, due throughout the semester.  I wanted the earlier essays to be “low stakes” in order to ease students into the writing process and to increase their comfort in writing about art.  So earlier short essay assignments were graded as complete/incomplete versus later essays which had the regular grading scale of A through F.   Since this was my first semester in converting a course to writing intensive, I was just trying to get a handle on the basics.  As such, I made the assignments for students to complete outside of class time, because I was initially concerned about losing content during class periods.   In future semesters I will try to incorporate some shorter in-class written assignments, as I see value in strengthening other skills by thinking and writing without the advantage of advance preparation.  

Because our online classes serve our campus centers and military students, adapting the online version of this course to writing intensive was especially important so that students can have flexibility in fulfilling the writing intensive requirement for their degrees.   Once the WAC curriculum is implemented, students will be required to take at least one writing intensive course within their discipline along with one outside of their discipline.   My online colleague, Dr. Ricci, was able to use the written discussion threads to fulfill the requirements of WAC, along with the longer research paper.  The online, asynchronous format was structured so that it made sense to utilize the already existing discussion threads that occurred throughout the week.  In this case a minimum word requirement was outlined for students.  In addition to initially posting substantial written discussion posts, students were required to respond to others’ postings. 

I had both challenges and successes in this process.  Like my colleagues throughout the country, my class was greatly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and national health crisis.   Our university switched from face-to-face teaching modalities on campus to virtual teaching in the time frame of a week.  With the upheaval this caused, converting the Modern Art class to writing intensive became less of a priority as I sought to convert the class to a remote, synchronous teaching format mid-semester.  Once this task was completed, I was able to return to the writing intensive component.  The new virtual format and the general stress of students caused me to rethink the assignments, so that I made some remaining short essays optional for extra credit rather than required.  Also, I adjusted the requirement for turning in a rough draft for the final paper and made this component optional.  In future semesters the short essay assignments and rough draft will be required, but flexibility was definitely needed in this situation.  

Overall, the process of converting an upper level art history into a writing intensive course was not as difficult as I initially expected, though it was still a considerable amount of work.  Admittedly one of the advantages I had this semester was having an outstanding group of students, most of whom already had strong skills in writing.  It will be interesting to implement the writing intensive curriculum in future semesters, especially with students who may need more feedback and support for their writing.   For my colleagues in other institutions who may consider adapting art history courses for writing intensive, I offer the following tips, which I hope may be useful.

Tips for converting a class to writing intensive:

·         Build on existing foundations.   If you select a course for writing intensive, choose one that already has writing projects such as a lengthy research paper.   It is easier to expand rather than start from scratch.

·         Even if your institution does not have a formal Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) program, consider adding more writing components to existing courses, as there is value in strengthening skills in writing.  Especially for art students, who tend to be visual thinkers, it can help to articulate ideas in a non-visual medium.

·         For online, asynchronous courses, utilize the discussion threads within the course along with outside written assignments.

·         For face-to-face and virtual (synchronous) courses, consider shorter writing assignments, both inside and outside of class, along with longer, more in-depth papers.  

·         If possible, keep class sizes smaller for writing intensive courses, as there is more work for faculty in giving meaningful feedback and grading more assignments.  Our institution limits the class size to 18 students for writing intensive classes instead of the usual 25 cap for lecture courses.  

Suggestions for writing assignments:

·         Vary assignments and topics.  

·         Give students options.  For the first few short essays, I only had one topic for the assignment.  In subsequent short essay assignments, students could choose between topics.  As I develop the assignments for future classes, I hope to add more options for the earlier assignments.

·         Consider both low-stakes and higher stakes writing assignments.  Students can practice and strengthen writing skills with lower stakes projects while working towards the weightier, higher stakes papers.  This can help students build on their successes. 

·         Create writing assignments that are meaningful and that encourage student’s creativity. Where possible, try to connect assignments to something relatable for students, i.e. real-world topics. Assignments directly related to the subject matter can also deepen learning. 

·         Establish grading rubrics.  These should be clear, functional, and understandable for uniform approaches to student assessment.   Rubrics can help students understand expectations, and also help faculty in grading assignments. 

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