Reflections on the First Weeks of Teaching Art History

At the midpoint of the spring quarter, my first term as a graduate teaching fellow (the ‘classy’ University of Oregon term for a TA), I thought it’d be wise to use my third piece as a way to reflect on my first weeks teaching Art History, detail an icebreaker that I will most likely be using in the future (having found it pretty effective), and to speak a bit to how I’ve experienced teaching primarily from images. I’m happy to report that from the beginning, while teaching has certainly been as—if not more—challenging than I thought it’d be going in, the experience has proved even more gratifying than I could have imagined. Playing the role of initiating many of my students into the humanities has been incredibly fulfilling.

Generally, I’ve attempted to proceed from what I’ve realized is a similarly student-centered course organization and teaching strategy to that which I think Teresa expressed so well in her most recent piece, albeit on a bit smaller scale since my first-year teaching is limited to discussion sections in support of the main History of Western Art: Baroque to Contemporary survey lectures.  Walking into the classroom for the first time committed from the beginning to a occupying a sort of headspace where I’d be completely open to the direction my students wish to take the discussion in relation to the materials explored in lecture really helped to alleviate the nerves I felt before teaching for the very first time.

Given the broad transnational and transhistorical nature of the course, its pace is totally relentless. As a result, I recognized pretty early the necessity of setting up my discussion sections as contraries to the lectures, meaning to promote my students’ progression in ways that connect the material to their own personal interests—given that only a handful are actually Art History majors, with the majority coming from History, English, Philosophy, Environmental Studies, and Graphic Design. It was important to me, as I’m sure it is for most teachers, that I craft a classroom experience in which information could be engaged and connected to in ways students would find pragmatically applicable to their other passions and meaningfully relevant, generally.

To establish this from the start, I decided on an ice breaker exercise that would encourage students to both personally identify with the art they’d been lectured on and with one another. Knowing that I’d have to be creative in devising a good icebreaker—since in my own experience they’ve tended to be haphazardly thought out and ineffective—two days before our first discussion section (after about two weeks worth of lecture meetings) I sent my students an email asking them to select and print their favorite image encountered in lecture to date and to bring it to class. To begin the first class discussion, after being pleasantly surprised that the vast majority of my students actually completed the assignment, I asked them to take a moment to reflect on their individual selections and think about how it might exhibit one aspect of their personalities and/or interests in order to introduce themselves and share with the class. To my excitement, the students seemed generally thrilled by the prospect of connecting to the lecture’s material they had been all too rapidly moving through in a more personal way. Thereafter, my classes rarely have had extended moments of silence, and students usually arrive eager to actively engage with the art and each other in discussion. I’d like to think taking the time to craft an unusual icebreaker might have helped, in this regard.

All in all, teaching’s been an enjoyable experience and I have to say, while I hope to be in a better position to bring literary texts into dialogue with visual art in future classes I’ll design and execute on my own as I continue to progress through the trajectory of my graduate studies and—optimistically—beyond, I’ve really enjoyed the immediacy that seems to accompany teaching primarily from images. While in my own scholarship I’m still navigating what constitutes substantive differences between verbal and visual artistic media, I’ve become taken by the way I can throw an image into one of my powerpoints that the students have yet to see previously, and have them become quickly able to engage with and describe its formalistic qualities in comparison to other paintings, sculptures, or architectural examples. I’m wondering if this can occur as easily/spontaneously when working with texts. To cite one example, when we were looking at Baroque art, one of my students brought up a contemporary American artist who she’s particularly interested in, which I was able to locate on a Google image search projected in front of the class in real time, and catalyze a fabulous discussion where we used her artist as a means to draw out some of the germane characteristics of Italian art from the 1600s. Perhaps I’m essentializing my own experience as an art historian, but I’m wondering if this is one area where classroom experience in an Art History/Visual Culture program might differ from that of an English one. As a result, I’m interested in knowing whether or not you all think there is more of a sense of immediacy in play when teaching visual art as opposed to literature (since I know that some of you do use images in your classes, as well)?

At any rate, I’ve definitely enjoyed reading everyone’s posts over these last few months and am looking forward to meeting many of you in Park City in August. The NASSR conference schedule looks really fantastic.

One thought on “Reflections on the First Weeks of Teaching Art History”

  1. I love this icebreaker idea, Jacob! I’ve be en teaching a Humanities course for several years now, and it always amazes me that connecting our own human experiences to studying the Humanities does not always come naturally. Indeed, finding this connection, and helping students find it, is one of the most rewarding and enriching things we can do as teachers. I often tell students that if they can just find this connection, they will never be bored again. The textbook I use has organized all of the materials around topics, rather than chronology or culture – and we talk about how every piece of art, or literature, or music, engages with some of the central questions of human existence: love, death, war, nature, religion and spirituality, freedom and responsibility, identity and power… these are things that everyone has thoughts about, even if they don’t realize it–and that’s what makes it so awesome!
    Thanks for offering some of your insights as you’re helping your students explore these questions and connect them to the art you’re studying. I hope the semester continues to go well!

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