Art Historical Apologist

I’m finally at a point to put down in writing a few of my convictions regarding the relevance – indeed, the necessity! – of an art historical education and, more broadly, an understanding of visual culture.  And so, I give to you:

Why Art History?

  • Visual analysis is a crucial contemporary skill, especially in context of increasing amounts of visual digital media. Taking a course in art history (for my purposes restricted to the Western canon) is not about studying a dusty past, but rather about recognizing the continued relevance of images in a cultural tradition that has a rich history of art production situated amidst active, dynamic, and complex historical contexts.
  • Learning to see images and works of art as avenues to historical, cultural, and theoretical inquiry (beyond simply as “illustrations”) is not only personally and intellectually rewarding, but also helps situate the student within a much larger, richer, and more complex legacy of art production, image generation, and self-fashioning.
  • The study of material culture, visual culture, and fine art – especially if object-based – reinforces a powerful physical legacy of creation in which our cultural roots are entangled. A study of art history is therefore a study of self and, more broadly, a study of society and culture.
  • The art historical classroom is an excellent venue for honing analytical skills, for slowing down the mind’s foregone conclusions by practicing intentional observation and, around these observations, constructing an informed argument or hypothesis. By learning to recognize personal bias and practicing observation and interpretation of artistic intentionality, appropriation, methodology, and patronage (to name a few), the student of art history enlarges their own worldview and, in so doing, is better prepared to enact change within the world.
  • The art historical classroom is a perfect environment for honing practical skills including, but not limited to: organized and focused writing, productive teamwork, ethical appropriation, the practical realities of image- and text-based research, constructing a research question, and efficiently mining and utilizing data via strategic search terms.
  • For whatever reason, students may come to class feeling ill-equipped to talk about art. Participation in the classroom should reveal to them that they already have the skills and experience necessary to execute close observation and careful visual analysis. The classroom should empower them to utilize these skills but also challenge them to suspend judgment – towards others, towards themselves, and towards “art” broadly – in favor of a well-supported, well-informed, and sensitive argument stemming from their image-based observations.

I have about ten more pages written regarding my thoughts on pedagogy and assessment, but will dole those out in increments along the path of this marvelous adventure.

Be well, everyone, and go look at some art.

JR

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Thoughts on the Survey Course, from the TA Perspective

During Spring Quarter 2015 I will serve as the lead TA for a small group of graduate students leading discussion sections for our Renaissance to Modern survey course.  It is important to focus on issues regarding the purpose, relevance, and mission of such courses, and to give the teaching teams supporting them an active voice in the discussion.

Mission of Survey Course: Clarity of Purpose.

  • What role does a survey course serve to students’ overall education, regardless of major?
  • What are specific student learning objectives?
  • What are the main assessment tools?
  • What kinds of practical skills will this class teach (beyond content)?
  • What is the lecturer’s teaching mission and preferred pedagogical method?

What is the relationship of the section to the lecture? Broadly and specifically, how should these two classroom environments function in order to accomplish the goals established by the mission of the survey course?

Thoughts on Transparency, Teamwork, and Expectations:

  • The mission of the survey course according to the lecturer – including pedagogical methods, the justification of assessment tools, and the relevance of the course to student education – should be patently clear to all team members.
  • The lectures and sections should function as seamlessly as possible from the student perspective. During Week 1, students should become familiar with the integrated mission of the lectures and sections and understand their responsibilities in each situation.
  • TAs should demonstrate a willingness to function as a team and to learn not only from the lead instructor but also from each other and from their students.
  • For most TAs, this is a part-time (20 hours/week) position. All components of this course should therefore maximize the time of all team members, including that of the lecturer. TAs are responsible for their own time management and should expect that weekly hours will fluctuate slightly based on prep time, student meetings, and grading. Productive and focused teamwork will help alleviate constraints on time.

The survey course is an excellent opportunity to teach students the relevance and – dare we say it – enjoyment of becoming familiar with the art historical canon.  However, survey courses have perhaps the worst reputation amongst students for being “boring.”  Teaching assistants may not have extensive teaching experience (I had none four years ago when I undertook my first TA role); further, the lead professor’s pedagogical goals and methods may not be clear to them.  A productive, transparent relationship between team members and course components, with a continuous eye on the crucial relevance of an art historical education, constitutes one integral component of a successful survey course.

JR

Someday, a Masterpiece.

I have been thinking about performance lately, specifically the performance of delivering a lecture while simultaneously seeking student engagement. In the words of my homegrown colloquialisms: it ain’t easy, folks.

I’ve played piano since I was five years old, although, granted, I haven’t played much at all in the past ten years. (It’s hard to schlep a piano around.) Still, from age five to eighteen I practiced fairly regularly, but I never was very good at memorizing music. If the sheet music was in front of me, I was ok. In many ways, I relied too heavily on this visual crutch. I never quite figured out how to let go of the leash, even if I knew a particular song was well-committed to muscle memory. (Sit me down in front of the music for Malaguena even now and I can whip it right out.) I didn’t have the confidence: I panicked without the reassuring whisper of pages turning.

Now, when I enter the classroom, I often go in with relevant papers or books that I set on the podium… and rarely use. I still have my visual crutch, but now I want to turn it into a tool. Once the powerpoint is up and the slides are rollin,’ I rarely stop to look at my notes or the readings. So many times this quarter I have done a mental face-palm after remembering the key points I meant to reinforce that I didn’t clarify, didn’t repeat, or forgot altogether. Doh. I still struggle to build content into questions, largely, I suspect, because I feel uncomfortable stopping, waiting, and collecting my thoughts.

I worry about losing student attention. The blank faces… they are just so awful! But, as much as I would like it to be, class is not always a conversation, and students have not always done the reading (or perhaps not fully understood it). How, then, can they participate without the knowledge necessary to make observations? I’m pretty good at this “edutainment” stuff – I enjoy being in the classroom, I love what I teach, I modulate my voice, I joke around, I am high-energy. I wonder, however, how many students could summarize a day’s topic. I think I’m losing structured content in favor of engaged conversation; perhaps it’s more appropriate to say I am sacrificing some structure which could potentially be very helpful for students inculcated in note-taking lecture-driven classrooms in favor of nurturing a more informal student-contribution-led discussion. I don’t mean to set this up as a win-lose situation, since I firmly believe that structured content and student-driven discussion coexist, but now, reflecting back on what I could do better, I think I need to give up a little of my desire to, ya know, make sure students are having “fun,” and focus more on structured delivery.

This could consist of consulting my notes more often. I take copious notes that then become burdensome to sort through, so I need to work out a color-coded or bullet-point system. In terms of class flow, I like starting with a video: something to focus student attention that segues into the day’s topic. It seems appropriate to then move into a twenty- to thirty-minute lecture – maybe even read from a paper, conference-style, in future – with a few slides to reinforce key points and images from the reading that might end with questions to consider. We could then move into group work or analysis of specific images and applied concepts.

It is surprising, as a bit of a control-freak-over-planner type, to reflect back and realize that maybe my classrooms are just a titch too free-for-all. It’s actually quite refreshing, as someone used to thinking of myself as chained to metaphorical sheet music, to realize that my personal teaching style is spontaneous, situationally responsive, dynamic, and even a bit improvised. In future, I’d like to bring sheet music at least for the overture… and then, with students, craft the main opera.

JR

Mid-Quarter Reflection (Tap Tap – Is This Thing On?).

Last week I met with each of my 40 students individually for 15 minutes at a time. After 10 hours of meetings throughout the week, I came away feeling like I knew my students better, that every one of them was on track to succeed in their final projects (at least, if they keep up the momentum), and that the class was going well. (Huzzah!)

I think it’s time to debrief a bit on what’s going well and which changes I’ve implemented based on student feedback.

As per my January 7th post, this is a nontraditional pedagogical model for teaching art history, but my ideas are certainly not original and build upon established scholarship such as Dr. Weimer’s Learner Centered Teaching (2002) and advice offered at websites such as Art History Teaching Resources (arthistoryteachingresources.org). The assessment breakdown is quite simple – 50% final project and 50% participation – but there are multiple components within those two categories.

The final project may encompass any format or medium the student finds appropriate ranging from research papers to creative projects (painting, videography, photography, and others). The project is scaffolded, and over the course of the 10-week quarter students have regular deadlines along the way at which point in time we host in-class brainstorming sessions and peer reviews.

Participation is composed of in-class discussion and contributions, weekly posts to our class blog, weekly low-stakes reflective responses to prompts I assign, and weekly reading. Each week I implement some group work because I find it productive and because it provides a more comfortable venue for shy students to contribute. I have given students fairly free reign for blog posts, with the requirement that they must somehow relate to the week’s topic or contribute to their final project research. The reflective responses provide a venue in which to practice writing while encouraging students to tie course topics to their lives. I assign only one reading a week, but I expect students to pay careful attention to it.

My thoughts when drafting this structure took into consideration that most of my students (at least 90% in this case) are not art history majors: this means there will be a bit more of a learning curve for them regarding the expectations of the discipline, but it  also means that I have the opportunity to engage in a very diverse classroom. When it comes to looking at and analyzing images, I think the more diversity of background and experience, the better.

My conviction is that no one should feel uncomfortable talking about art, yet many do. In this digital-media-saturated age, I believe that the ability to analyze, understand, and situate images within a particular historical and cultural moment or lineage of production is of utmost importance. Further, I think talking about art and images should be far from boring.

So, imagine my great satisfaction and relief when the majority of my students told me that not only do they enjoy coming to class, but they are also learning something along the way! A hefty number expressed surprise at how much fun it is to talk about art and how they had prepared themselves for a boring class, only to find themselves enjoying the process of visual analysis, listening to their peer feedback and difference of opinion, and raising questions.

Of course, I’d love to take credit for all this, but cannot: my students are excellent visual analysts. They see details and read images in ways that are insightful and complex and thoughtful. I say this because I think (and I don’t have evidence to back this up, just engagement in random conversations from time to time with other educators) there is an assumption that our students are lazy, that the ways in which they (and we) scroll through images online somehow numbs us from the ability to pause, see, and question. Maybe my students are the exception, but they are far from lazy lookers. It may be true that digital media is changing students’ attention spans – perhaps more apparent in reading and writing skills, or the ways in which they often struggle with such – but I personally haven’t found that it is impinging their ability to look closely.

I’m going to wrap this up for the moment as it’s getting quite long, but I’ll soon write a follow up blog to discuss student feedback to the questions I asked about the course, namely:

Is this class working? Do you think you are learning? Do the class components work well together? How well are you able to understand the readings, and do they supplement your learning? Is the blog working as a supplement to class? What can be improved or changed?

I’ll also eventually write about what I’m learning regarding my own teaching mission and the areas I’ve identified as both my strongest and my weakest, though, admittedly, that blog post might need to be divided up (it’s gonna be a long one, folks…). I am so grateful to my university and department for this opportunity: I am challenged every day, am thinking about content in completely different ways, and am more and more turned on by pedagogy and art history. (A good sign, I do believe!)

JR

A Shout-Out.

Teaching is hard. That, I realize, is both an overgeneralized and over-obvious statement, but sometimes it hits me more forcefully than others: this job is hard. And highly situational based on a particular day’s class dynamics and topics and attendance and so many other things over which I have very little control. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed.

For the moment, however, I’d like to focus on something that’s awesome about this quarter: I’d like to give a shout-out to my students.

They are incredible. They are attending (for the most part), making valiant efforts with difficult readings, taking time to look closely, asking insightful questions and very politely giving the floor to their peers. Seriously, there is so much polite hand-raising, so much generous space given in “I had a slightly different reading…,” so little quick judgment.

We have a class blog, and the things they post are inspiring. And thoughtful. And thought-provoking. Thursday evenings, when posts are due, are my favorite evenings.

As a first-time instructor (at least in this context), I feel like I hit the jackpot with these students. Teaching requires that I face so many of my own insecurities every day; but it also expands my world – in large part thanks to my students – to a crazy, inspiring, dazzling degree.

I am learning many things – some of them from making mistakes, assuredly – and I’d like to write more about those things soon. But for the moment, I just wanted to celebrate the people I get to spend 1.5 hours with MWF, because they are made of awesome.

Stand Up, Sit Down, Fight Fight Fight.

Curtained windows. Darkened room. Stuffy, unmoving air. The nearly subliminal hum of a building’s electrical wires. Faces looking forward. Bodies slumping ever lower into chairs. The lecturer’s face, lightly illuminated by a reading light, floating above the podium, the rest of her body disappearing into obscurity beside an increasingly hazy projected image…

The needs of an art history classroom – namely, relative darkness and quiet – have made them notorious napping places. Indeed, the lecture format, regardless of discipline, is one that requires prolonged focused attention without much social or sensory engagement.

Having been one of those bobble-headed students in my 8am undergraduate art history courses, I empathize with the plight of my students when it comes to actively listening for an hour or more. I thus change up my lectures with targeted questions drawn from assigned reading, with formal analysis exercises, with articulated words, expressive gestures, and borderline ridiculous facial expressions. I turn the light up; I turn it back down. I write on the board. I make eye contact. I do not have to pretend to be super into the topic at hand: I love this stuff. Truly. Which is maybe why, when scanning faces and coming across closed eyes or a falling head, I catch my breath as a fist of anxiety forms under my sternum: am I not presenting this information well enough? Do they not care? Are they uninterested?

My piano teacher always told me that during a performance, it is most important to keep moving, keep up the rhythm, don’t loose the overall sense of the piece. Just keep moving. No one will notice but you.

So I keep going, I keep presenting. Even if a student shows up physically but not mentally, they are still there. Something will sink in. And, life happens; life gets in the way. So, cue benefit of the doubt, and move on.

But I wonder: how long is too long to keep a student in their seat without some kind of exchange? Without a slight change in heart rate? Would it be totally unnecessary or elementary to, after noting a few eyes glazed over, ask students to stand up, stretch, take a deep breath?

What about keeping a song clip close at hand that would signal: everyone, up. Stretch. Groove for 30 seconds. Yawn. Smile. Chat. Take a deep belly breath. Would this rejuvenate students for the lecture’s home stretch, or would it just distract them? It’s not a yoga class, after all. But it’s also not a napping class (though I do think I’m qualified to teach that).

Pretty sure that the mid-lecture stretch break is not practiced in my department. Maybe time for an experiment… If only to have an excuse to get “Everything is Awesome” stuck in everyone’s noggin.

JR

A New Year, a New Quarter, a New Course!

I am two days into Winter Quarter 2015 and the proud lead instructor of a 300-level art history course entitled “Manufacturing Fame: Exploring 19th Century Roots of Modern Celebrity in Portraiture and Visual Culture.” I spent the entire day prepping for class and absolutely loving it; after six months away on research (admittedly a heavenly experience), I am thrilled to be back in the classroom with some familiar faces and many new ones.

Last spring I proposed this course and honestly didn’t expect it to receive much favor: completely doing away with exams, I instead suggested an alternative assessment model based on low-stakes reflective writing, digital curation of associated course contents by students, and a final project that could be creative or written. (You’ll find the roots of these ideas in past blog posts.) Happily, the faculty liked it! Thus, I have embarked on a bit of an experiment rooted in my own dissertation research, feedback from former students, and multiple existential crises regarding my thoughts about effective (and affective) pedagogy and the future of art history.

On the first day of class, I presented my vision for the class and handed around the syllabus. I then asked students to read the assessment portion closely and note what they thought sounded feasible or questionable. They had excellent questions about the parameters of the reflective writing and digital curation: at the same time that I believe art history presents opportunities to reach outward, beyond the walls of canonical labels, and very much into the present day, their excellent questions made me realize that more structure and definition was required. So, we discussed the ways in which a class blog could help students connect course content with their own lives and enable them to direct and support their own research. I so much appreciate their attention to detail, their desire to understand my vision and be willing to contribute their own: further, their social media expertise was greatly appreciated, as I am very much a tumblr novice. I can already tell that I am going to learn a lot from these 40+ human beings.

So here’s to starting a new year with a new adventure surrounded by willing, able, and altogether fascinating companions! May your 2015 be equally interesting and rewarding, and thanks for joining me on this journey.

JR

An End-of-Quarter Meditation.

Today was the last day of section. The psychology of the quarter is always interesting: I start off on a high note, energized, and ready to change the world in each section. This energy inevitably dwindles as responsibilities and reality encroach: my existential teaching crises tend to happen around weeks 5 or 6 of the 10-week quarter. And then, as we round the home stretch and I realize that, although I may not have changed the world, my students have learned something and often had fun along the way, I grow excited to try the whole thing over again but sad at the same time to say goodbye to such wonderful people.

 

Because they are: my students are wonderful. Not perfect. Not flawless. Not finessed writers. Wonderful, witty, honest, and mostly hard-working human beings. I don’t know if my academic culture is reflective of academia more broadly, but I hear regular laments about our students’ inabilities, their laziness, their carelessness, their lack of drive. As per normal, I suppose, the problems of some become representative of an entire generation. Admittedly, it seems valid that a few “bad apples” might sour the entire teaching experience, and certainly our students face challenges when it comes to doing honest research and producing nuanced writing. But, at the same time, I take great issue with a perceived tendency to type students according to what they can’t do rather than what they can.

 

This quarter my students taught me so much. Their research papers focused on artists and artworks to which I had previously given little thought. My students’ lack of academic bias allowed me to see certain works of art from an entirely refreshing perspective. They asked insightful questions about the interplay of formal elements, historical context, and the purpose of a footnote. Their questions also exposed assumptions we as instructors often hold: that students have already spent time thinking about proper citations and word choice, that they were taught grammar and expression (and that they took these lessons to heart), that they have enough life experience to avoid over-generalized phrases. Truth is, they often haven’t and don’t. And so we teach, and we readjust, and we try to remember what it was like to be a college freshman.

 

Some of my students shared fascinating websites and art projects that I am now excited to incorporate into future classes. Take, for example, the 2011 Adobe Remake project, chronicled by Jeff at booooooom.com:

 

http://www.booooooom.com/2011/10/04/remake-submissions/

 

Another shared Bradley Hart’s bubble wrap reinterpretations of old master works:

 

http://www.mymodernmet.com/profiles/blogs/bradley-hart-injections-impressions

 

The same student also pointed out that the Dutch civilization in Civilization 5 directly references Vermeer:

 

http://civilization.wikia.com/wiki/William_(Civ5)?file=Civilization_V_Gods_and_Kings_Netherlands_Introduction

 

This quarter I experimented with using Google Art Project in the classroom: often it was a bit unwieldy, mostly due to an inconsistent internet connection, but a number of my students utilized this resource in their presentations and research projects. It remains, in my opinion, the closest digital experience of the “real thing” currently available.

 

Integrating social media into the classroom need not be a time-consuming or daunting endeavor: what about something as simple as starting a class blog, possibly through tumblr, and asking students to share a weekly “finding” or “artifact” from the internet, with appropriate hashtags and context? What if part of sharing online “findings” also included short pieces of reflective writing: low-stakes exercises meant to encourage students’ observational skills and critical thinking? What if these “findings” and reflective writing were then  converted, via scaffolded assignments, into thoughtful research papers with personal and academic relevance to the students? This is not an impossible nor an unimaginable leap to take.

 

Fact of the matter is, our students are plugged into a digital language and culture that presents rich opportunities for exploring the continued relevance of art history and art production. It is exciting to contemplate the ways in which the discipline may cross over into digital technology and social media: I for one see no reason to shrink from these possibilities simply because they are foreign to how art history has been traditionally taught. (Honestly, and this may be art historical blasphemy, I would gladly replace exam slide IDs with “findings” and reflective writing.)

 

Bottom line, I am sad to say goodbye to my students. I want to know where they go, what kinds of interesting things they do, how this course may have influenced them, if at all. They are interesting, intelligent, capable, compassionate people. Maybe, eventually, social media and digital technology will provide some of the narrative that has yet to be written. It has been an honor to learn from and teach them.

Scaffolding Assignments Relevant to Timed Essays: Part Deux.

            Writing the previous post helped me work through my thoughts regarding the execution of that particular exercise, and I built my subsequent lesson plans upon its foundation.

 

I began by showing the same paintings of Judith and Holofernes, one by Carravagio and one by Gentileschi, and then presented this prompt:

 

Focusing on the work you were first assigned last section, describe how the artist has used formal elements (including color, light, space, perspective, texture, line, interior geometry, and compositional axes) to express a particular moment in the story of Judith and Holofernes. What characteristics make this work Baroque? How does knowing about the artist’s biography modify or change your interpretation of the work?

 

I gave them seven minutes to hand-write a response to this prompt. They then exchanged their response with their neighbor, and I asked them to read the response and focus on the most successful parts of that response. I gave them time to read the responses, consider, and then speak with their neighbor about what they thought. We then reconvened as a class, and I asked each student to read the most successful sentence or phrase from each response. It became apparent that students who used good descriptive vocabulary and demonstrated knowledge of art historical terms and styles were the most successful.

 

The goals of this exercise were to give students a chance to experience timed writing, to challenge them to convert their spoken thoughts into written full sentences, and to implement informal peer review with the intention of learning from each other. As a low-stakes exercise, I wanted to focus on the positive, underscoring what worked well, though we did have some time at the end of section to talk about the challenges presented. I think most students came away with a better understanding of major class topics (such as the Baroque) as well as an appreciation for the kinds of content they will need to call upon in order to write a successful response.

 

To continue prepping students for the midterm essays, I asked a student from a previous quarter to speak with my students about her approach to timed exam essays. I had two example prompts prepared that she and I had discussed in advance. For the first, she explained the way she would process her thoughts, spending a good minute or so focusing on what information, exactly, the prompt requested, choosing pertinent examples (students must draw on artworks from class, which they have hopefully stored away in their mind palaces after cramming for the exam), and considering the organization of her response. She then explained some of the main points she would make in the body of her essay and how she might structure those points while writing. In a 20-minute essay, she stated that she dedicates the final five to seven minutes to proofreading and rewriting if necessary. She then asked the class to consider a second essay prompt, and together they went through the process of understanding the prompt (“Be the prompt!”), choosing salient examples, and reviewing points of relevance.

 

My students took their midterms last week, though I have yet to wade through grading them. The lead professor decided to release eight possible essay prompts to them earlier in the week, four of which were on the exam. They chose only one and spent twenty minutes responding. Students therefore did not go into the essay portion of the exam completely in the dark and had questions to utilize while reviewing course material. In the past, this has resulted (not surprisingly) in better essays, and I personally feel it is beneficial to direct their studying in this way. It challenges their knowledge while helping them wade through the morass of our survey course content. They are not allowed, of course, to utilize any sources or notes while responding during the exam, so they are still challenged to produce a thoughtful, organized essay in the confines of twenty minutes. Fingers crossed that my students spent adequate time preparing, both because I want to see them succeed and also because, let’s face it, grading the essays will be much, much easier.

 

I have heard many lamentations from faculty and colleagues regarding the state of student writing, a lament to which I have added my fair share of keening. Funding has been cut for writing TA-ships in our department, and some believe that on campus writing centers cannot adequately address the needs of our student body. (That being said, many students who need help with their writing simply do not take advantage of these resources.) I understand and acknowledge complaints about student writing but, quite frankly, I’m sick of having the same finger-pointing conversation. Identifying a weakness is one thing: now let’s do something about it. I know that expectations of educators are broad and often unrealistic, but I do not think it is a far-fetched idea to imagine an art history class in which low-stakes writing and scaffolded assignments result in improved writing and an acquisition of knowledge. These are not mutually exclusive.

Scaffolding Assignments Relevant to Timed Art History Essays.

 

 

This quarter, my schedule happily accommodates courses at the University of Washington’s Center for Teaching and Learning (an incredible resource full of knowledgeable people that I sheepishly admit to never having heard of prior to this year). I am involved in a weekly workshop entitled Designing and Assessing Creative Assignments and a weekly Learning Community entitled Designing and Grading Assignments for International Students, English Language Learners, and Everyone Else. My copious notes and regular “aha” moments are guaranteed to carry over into this blog for some time to come.

 

Last week our Learning Community leader introduced the concept of scaffolding tasks, especially via the implementation of low stakes writing. By “low stakes,” I refer to writing that is informal, exploratory, less comprehensively graded (if at all) than a research paper (for example), and iterative. By “scaffolding,” I mean the breaking down of larger tasks (such as writing a research paper) into smaller individual tasks through which specific skills are introduced and practiced (such as formulating research questions or a thesis statement, knowing how to summarize an assigned reading, or simply knowing how to identify the basic argument of an assigned reading in the first place).

 

I was not previously familiar with the term “scaffolding” used in this context, but quickly realized that I have been ruminating upon how to scaffold tasks in my section that will prepare students to execute timed written essays pertinent to art history exams. These essays often require students to contextualize specific works of art by condensing weeks’ worth of information from lecture, readings, and discussion sections into a 20-minute hand-written response. I am a big believer in this type of assessment since it requires students to actively utilize course content (in contrast to the rote memorization required by slide IDs). However, the experience of completing one of these essays for students new to the discipline often constitutes a rather rude shock, which, admittedly, can be effective for better study habits the next time around but can be also very demoralizing, especially for students who are not confident in their writing skills.

 

So. Here is my current action plan for scaffolding assignments relevant to timed exam essays.

 

I have asked students to bring anonymous discussion questions to class every Thursday. To date, these have been used in section to generate conversation about course content and out of section for me to monitor, in a rough way, which topics students identify as important or in need of clarification. Now, however, I have refined this requirement and asked them to write questions that could be potential essay prompts. We discussed what kind of information might be required in such a prompt: specific examples; historical, political, and religious contextualization; situation within an art movement; a specific time frame or century. My hope is that students will both: 1. More deeply consider how to write a rich yet specific discussion question, and 2. Reflect on how they might be challenged to integrate information from various sources. These questions will be used to guide scaffolded exercises in the future.

 

Today I presented the class with a comparison of Caravaggio’s Judith Beheading Holofernes, c. 1598,[i] and Artemisia Gentileschi’s painting of the same title from c. 1614-1620.[ii] I split the class in half. Those on Caravaggio’s side were asked to write down brief bullet-point notes about the formal elements of the work; those on Gentileschi’s were asked to do the same for hers. I clarified that this was an exercise in identifying formal elements (light, line, texture, internal geometry, perspective, etc etc), mining adjectival vocabulary, and warming up writing hands.

 

After about three minutes of diligent writing, the students were paired together, one Carravagisti with one Gentileschi. I asked them to take turns expressing, out loud and in their own words, the formal elements they deemed most pertinent and/or obvious in the work. This very naturally led to an exercise in compare/contrast. I moved from group to group, listening and checking in. I wrote relevant vocabulary words on the board as I heard them: tenebrism, chiaroscuro, foreshortening. I heard the word “dark” thrown around a lot: dark colors, dark light, dark painting. After I had visited all the groups and given adequate time for discussion – probably seven minutes or so – I called their attention to images and reviewed the vocabulary words. I asked them to consider which formal elements, exactly, were “dark”, and to explain what they meant by that: we discussed the use of tenebrism (extreme contrast through brilliant, spot-lit lighting), the richness of the colors (rather than their “darkness”), the relatively simple color palette of each artist (red, black, white, yellow), and the dramatic use of compositional axes via the arms and bodies of the figures. Although I led the inquiry at this point, students felt free to chime in with their visual discoveries, to contribute words or, if struggling, to canvas their peers for words. After all, a successful formal analysis relies on a concise, vibrant, effective use of words: it is a kind of writing that does not come naturally to an audience trained to see subject.

 

Finally, I asked each student to consider how the formal elements changed or influenced their reaction to the work. I asked them to consider the artists’ choices. I asked them to consider the gender of each artist and the biographical and stylistic information we had about them from lecture (to briefly, and perhaps unfairly, summarize: Caravaggio the Genius Artist and notorious Bad Boy, Gentileschi the sexually assaulted yet ultimately internationally triumphant female artist). I then asked them to coalesce their thoughts about these works – including the formal elements and a reflection on interpretation – in a hand-written paragraph. I emphasized that they needn’t encompass everything in this short exercise, but rather attempt to synthesize, in written word, their visual observations and thoughts about the works.

 

Ultimately, I wanted to exchange these paragraphs in class and discuss the challenges of such an exercise as well as the triumphs. We didn’t have enough time to do so, however, so I have asked them to return on Thursday with their writing.

 

A few students commented before leaving on how hard it was to write their thoughts in full, formal sentences. Others were unclear about what they were meant to write, and their confusion was well-founded: in future, I would have an explicit prompt prepared to which they could respond with a few sentences. It was too vague to simply say: now turn your brilliant observations into an interpretive paragraph! Fair enough. Lesson learned and note taken.

 

I am curious to see what Thursday brings. I am curious to hear their feedback. My students have amazingly positive attitudes, vibrant personalities, and very keen eyes: but are they learning? I am enjoying their attendance, their insightful thoughts, their humor so much: but when the exam comes, will they be prepared? Ultimately, I plan to continue implementing hand-written tasks in section, possibly with informal and supportive peer review, and balance this with a healthy dose of small group and all-class discussion.

More about scaffolding assignments to come, I can assure you…

 

[i] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Judith_Beheading_Holofernes_(Caravaggio)

 

[ii] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Judith_Slaying_Holofernes_(Artemisia_Gentileschi)

 

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