Tag Archives: Profession

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.

Unabashed Admiration for the BWWC

Last week I attended the 19th annual British Women Writer’s Conference in Columbus Ohio, and I’m still on a kind of academic natural high. In the interest of full disclosure I must tell you that I went partly to present a paper and partly because I’m co-chairing the conference in Boulder next year, and thus needed to observe its workings.  It was quite a large conference: 250 people, as many as 6 concurrent panels, and fantastic keynote speakers.  I was impressed by the smooth operation of it all, but more than that I found myself impressed by the conference’s ethos.  It was genuinely inspiring.  I’m going to struggle not to gush in this post, but seriously—what a wonderful experience.

One of the most important things I realized over the three days I spent there was just how indebted I am to the scholars who have gone before me, a fact made all the more clear since many of them were in attendance!  I had not realized how recently the canon of 18th and 19th century British Literature has opened to include many of the women writers now considered some of its pillars—but only 19 years ago did a group of graduate students recognize the dearth and decide to do something about it by organizing the BWWA.  One speaker pointed out the importance of the tenure system, since many of those who have published books on what were obscure women writers, did not venture to do so until after they had tenure; this seemed incredible to me, but in later conversations several people I spoke to confirmed the statement.  Somehow I had imagined that the women’s movements of the 1970s had accomplished all this work; realizing that it has happened in my young-adult lifetime, and that many of the scholars who brought it about are still in the midst of their careers, really humbled and inspired me. The very people I was mingling and chatting with were some of those who had made it possible for me to work on the things I’m working on.  Even more incredible is that so many of them were graduate students when they began to make a difference!

This brings me to the second reason my respect for the BWWA has increased: they really, truly believe in the power of graduate students and this belief is built into both the structure and spirit of the organization and conference. Though many of the students who began the BWWA are now full professors who serve on the executive board, they entrust the planning and running of each year’s conference to grad students at the host university.  Responsibilities include all the logistical things (location, lodging, food), but also the academic things like choosing and inviting keynote speakers, choosing a theme and writing the call for papers, and reading submissions and organizing panels.  I was so impressed with the group who ran this year’s conference, and likewise impressed by the many expressions of trust, confidence, and appreciation the BWWA board and many of the higher-ranking conference attendees expressed to them.  (And it really was a beautifully-run event; completely well-organized, and in a gorgeous location).  The BWWA also strives to sponsor a few travel grants especially for graduate students, and this year they added a grant for “contingent faculty,” to reach out and include those in the tough space between graduating and finding a tenure-track position.  In short, the whole feeling of the conference seemed to be one of graciousness, inclusion, and enthusiasm for everyone’s work—a real collegiality that reached across rank and age and letterhead.  I chaired a panel that featured two imposing professors (one the editor of an academic journal and the other from Yale), and I was a little nervous…but then I found myself taking notes as much on their manners as on their papers, because they were so impressively gracious!  Each time she was asked a question, the Yale professor would share her thoughts and then say, “Thank you so much for bringing that up!  What do you think about it?”  Great conversations and intellectual exchanges took place in that panel.

I do wonder what some of the male attendees thought of their BWWC experience, because the conference population is overwhelmingly female. I’m not sure whether this happens because women scholars tend to be more interested in women writers, or because the conference itself mirrors its project of creating space for the women of history to speak by creating space for today’s women scholars to speak, but it’s certainly noticeable, and in a really cool way. I find myself often thinking about how I navigate my professional life as a woman—the personae I adopt when I teach, when I write, when I present.  A recent study found that when letters of recommendation portrayed a candidate (regardless of that candidate’s gender) as “nurturing” or “warm,” they were less likely to be hired than a candidate recommended as “assertive” or “independent.”  The point is, gender stereotypes still materially affect our professional lives, and I know many women scholars feel a bit more conscious of playing the professional part than men do.  There were more men at this year’s conference than in some years, I’m told; the BWWA board is not exclusively female, and men make valuable contributions to the organization and conference—but still, one of the really wonderful things about the BWWC was a sort of communal letting down of the hair.  It didn’t necessarily feel any less professional, just a little more…down to earth, maybe?  It’s difficult to describe.  Conversations might as likely turn to the challenges of breastfeeding in a suit or helping a 12-year-old with his homework, as they would to Mary Wollstonecraft or Elizabeth Gaskell (and I can just imagine Wollstonecraft and Gaskell discussing the same types of things!).  On a bus trip a big group of us got laughing about what “type” of academics we were—the scarf academic, the chunky-jewelry Chico’s academic, the Birkenstocks academic, the e-bay Anthropologie academic, or (in my case) the Target sale-rack academic (they have great cardigans!).  Nobody felt self-conscious about ordering a chocolate martini, or savoring a crème brulée, or complimenting someone on their shoes, or gushing about one of the Regency Reenactment dancers’ crocheted gloves (yes, we enjoyed a performance of Regency dancers).  It was sort of like a super-smarty-pants girls’ weekend out.  One professor who has attended the conference for years called it her “Old Girls’ Club.”  While I generally feel pretty good about the respect shown to women in academia, there is still something to be said for female friendship, and I would say I really did make friends at the BWWC.

In all, I came back from Ohio with newfound respect for what the BWWA does and how they do it, as well as perspective on how the work we do as graduate students can palpably, materially affect the profession for good. Building the Association has clearly been a labor of love for those who have participated in it, and I’m excited for the opportunity to make my own contribution throughout this next year.  Our committee here in Boulder will be pouring our hearts into planning the 2012 conference, to make it just as great of an experience for future attendees as I had last weekend—and even when our turn is over, I look forward to participating with the BWWA for many years to come.

The Critic as Genius?

In a recent edition of English Studies in Canada, Margery Fee writes that “we often talk about the importance of good writing without explaining what it is or how we know what it is… our knowledge of what makes good writing is tacit.”

I’ve found this rings true for me on both sides of the classroom. As an undergraduate, I mucked my way though my university’s English department, aping the conventions of scholarly writing well enough to get into grad school; as a grad student, I’ve TA’d classes in which the professor’s advice to me—after I asked what my students needed to do to achieve a good mark on a final essay exam—was a shrug and the words, “Be smart.” I was annoyed, but only because it rang uncomfortably true. All the rubrics in the world can’t do justice to “smartness,” that je ne sais quoi. It’s the ineffable quality in writing, both our students’ and our own, that can tip good into excellent or nudge mediocre to good—and whose only recognizable hallmark is that we’ll know it when we see it.

I study Romantic theories of genius, and the critical consensus seems to be that while genius was a key concept for an age obsessed with artistic originality, we academics no longer “really” believe in it. I’m not so certain. Continue reading The Critic as Genius?

Advice: How to Ace the Job Search

Advice on the Job Market from Experts at RMMLA

So, I promised in my past post that I’d deliver something practical—and here it is!  At the Rocky Mountain MLA conference in Albuquerque last month, I attended an incredibly useful panel on advice for students entering the job market.  It proceeded in Q&A format, but I’ve rearranged and edited the information to consolidate major themes.  No matter what level you’re at, this is really good stuff!  If after you’ve read it you’re hungry for more, check out the recommendations on the MLA website!  Lots of good, detailed advice there too.

But back to the RMMLA.  Our panel of experts included four distinguished folks:

Ingrid Ranum – Gonzaga University

Catherine Perry – Notre Dame

Anthony Cardenas-Rotunno.– University of New Mexico

David Laurence – director of research and ADE for MLA

I’m sorry I haven’t kept track of exactly who gave what advice…but their messages were fairly unified.  I just hope they won’t object to being mooshed all together!  Anyway, without further ado, on to the good stuff!   Continue reading Advice: How to Ace the Job Search