Memories of an Art History Class: Inspiration and Perspective

chinesepeony
Chinese Peony

One of my professors in college, I recall, an art history professor, would move into class by dimming the lights, leaning against the back wall behind us and clicking his little slide projector clicker to illuminate the first slide. Then, unlike most other professors, instead of lecturing us about what it was we were seeing and what it meant, etc. etc. in the larger context of our discipline, while we madly scribbled notes about the stuff we thought would be on the next exam, he would ask us to comment on what we saw and what we could glean from our observations based on the reading and looking we had done to prepare for class and what we had seen and discussed during previous class meetings. He’d challenge us to figure out when it was painted, maybe by whom, and why we should spend time looking at and discussing the work. He cautioned us to question our initial responses; he urged us to think as much with our guts as with our intellects. He’d ask questions, add context, push us to come up with more, to come up with better. His comments on our papers were much the same. And he told us the first day that he would grade the non-majors differently because they didn’t have the experience the rest of us had. We majors howled that it was unfair– no one else did that in any other department….

Bloomington Window

Nearly thirty years down the road, every time I see one of the paintings we studied, I am transported back to that classroom–I can still speak quite confidently about the content of that course while most other classrooms experiences have faded to mush.

IWU Theater Sculpture
(Illinois Wesleyan Theater entrance)

Sometimes he would slip in a slide of a fake. Sometimes a painting from a different country. Sometimes a lousy modern approximation. We never knew what was coming. And it was up to us to smoke it out. Once he came in and showed a pair of side-by-side slides which at first glance seemed identical. Only when we looked more closely than we had ever looked before could we begin to detect the differences. Our task that day was to figure out which was the original, which the copy. Our final exam was filled with such moments.

It was a course about discovery. About the joy of discovering something fundamental about painting, about the world at that time and place, about ourselves as art consumers, as critical thinkers, as contributors to the discussion. We didn’t need blogs or wikis or any of the Web 2.0 tools to have that profound experience. But sometimes I find myself thinking …

… it would have been even more interesting, the learning even deeper, the development of our skills even more pronounced if we had had opportunities to talk outside of class via asynchronous slow-blogging, linking out to articles we had found, and pushing each other and ourselves by posting images we had come across in our Web wnaderings, annotating them, publishing our papers–sharing our drafts with one another.

overthetop

But that’s ridiculous. Absurd. Preposterous. Web 2.0 was not for that time; it is for THIS time. My professor taught brilliantly for that time but not for this. (Much as my father had.) The world is different. The generation is different. The skills graduates need include those we were schooled in–but others, too. We cannot compare what we need to do with what our teachers did. It’s that different.

I remember that some of my professor’s colleagues didn’t approve of the way he taught. Or at least that was the buzz. I imagine he’d be really excited about the ways we can connect, link, share and tag. He’d understand that teachers who do not weigh all the tools they have available, all the practices possible are as guilty as doctors who fail their patients because they haven’t kept up with advances in treatment. (I heard Chris Dede use this analogy that in his 2007 ELI keynote) I like to keep that in mind when I face yet another audience, as I struggle to find ways to help faculty understand why they should not feel threatened by new ways of teaching and learning, but delighted, because in one sense we are not abandoning tradition–just remembering it–the best of it, that of Socrates, for instance, and clutches of great thinkers who hung out together through history, either in place or through letters and their responses to one another, artwork by artwork, letter by letter, essay by essay.

I’ve been on the road A LOT this semester, mostly to give talks and workshops to faculty teaching undergraduates. planeWhen I first started doing this a couple of years ago, I was pelted with questions about intellectual property (fear of plagiarism), assessment, and the time commitment taking to the Web would mean for someone thinking about giving blogs or wikis a go in their teaching. And those are still questions I get when I talk blogs, no matter how much I thread a talk with learning theory, progressive pedagogy, and the realities of a world simultaneously moving towards disconnection within local communities (which center on plurality) and greater connection through ME-oriented social networks); no matter how much I show the slide that puts the teacher as part of the learning circle after the slide with the scary desks in a row.

preppingfortalk

At Illinois Wesleyan University and then at University of New Hampshire, I recently gave versions of the kind of talk I’ve been focusing on lately in which I try to help faculty dare move into the 21st century. I try with each talk to convey more clearly the realities of the work world, of social networks moving beyond teens, of GenMe; I show them blogs and wikis, and some really interesting class projects such as ArtMobs and second language blogging such as Barbara Sawhill’sSpanish classes at Oberlin, and Jim Groom’s use of tagging with his UMW summer class.

Faculty seem to like what they see- learning by reflection (through hyperlinked slow-blogging techniques), learning by doing and making (multimedia projects, service learning mentoring through blog connections), and learning by connecting and conversing (asynchronous blog discussions and linking between blogs, referencing one another’s work and scholarship beyond the classroom). They love the idea of bringing experts in the field into the classroom through blogging invitationals, and the students to the world by publishing their work on their blogs, the class blog, wikis, ‘zines. All’s well so far.

Even Twitter has been making sense to people, how it might work to teach the art of concision, to get students to hone an idea, or to share urls, etc. Annotating slides and creating course photo sets on Flickr–you get the drift–it makes sense–to anyone once they see how it works.

cloudmetaphor

At UNH, especially successful was kicking off the talk by asking them to come up with a metaphor for how it feels to be a teacher who trained in the 20th century but is teaching in the 21st.

But then I get to RSS and del.icio.us–both of which I am planning to place at the heart of all my courses in the future–and things get a little unsettled. The questions get interesting; in other words they approach what’s really the heart of the matter: what happens when students are given much of the responsibility for their learning, what happens when risk and failure are seen as good things–fumbling together in the dark as we learn to think and read and write critically and creatively; what it means when even the syllabus can be changed at a moment’s notice as the group discovers a new direction. How Web 2.0 teaching and learning and living practices are butting up against age-old sacred cows: i.e. the dominant value of the expert, the teacher as trained authority, and a sense of order in the classroom.

Why do RSS and tagging, in particular, provide an opening for this kind of essential discussion? Well, I talk about having students not just create feeds to one another’s blogs–that can be done on the Motherblog or with multiuser blogs and is a given when you are using blogs within a community. Yes, it’s essential to have students see and learn from one another’s struggles for meaning. Yes, it’s essential to weave the stories of their blogs together in a larger community tapestry. Yes. But having students–and NOT the teacher or the librarian–go out and find resources in the field and bring them back via feeds for the group–well what an excellent opportunity to gain skill in evaluating sources, for one. I get concerned questions from the audience about quality control–who is responsible for making sure the sources linked to are “appropriate” or “valid”? Ah…that’s the beauty of gathering RSS feeds as a learning and not a teaching practice. What a learning moment to discover a deep bias within a blog in the field (or a journal, for that matter) or factual errors!

And so, we’re making progress, Laura, I agree. It’s slow, yes, and often frustrating. But it’s happening… At UNH a couple of days ago, some forty faculty members showed that they get it. They want to move their teaching. They just need a little help understanding what that means–and how they can do it well, navigating through the sea of options. It will take the kind of inspired and innovative and fearless IT people of the likes of the magnificent crew at University of Mary Washington or Laura Blankenship at Bryn Mawr, Todd Bryant at Dickinson, Barbara Sawhill at Oberlin, the staffs at UNH and VSC and IWU. It will take classroom teachers making their pedagogy transparent on blogs for themelves, their students and their colleagues. It will take leadership from in our institutions, of the kind Lanny Arvan at the University of Illinois repeatedly demonstrates. And the tireless work of the Bryan Alexanders and Alan Levines of this world–showing us, encouraging us. But finally, I think we’re actually making strides in the right direction.

Yeah.

My college professor would be happy, I think, to see me taking risks, pushing my teaching forward into this century as I strive to be for my students the kind of teacher he was for me. And to see that I’m not alone in this. Not by any means.

Here are the slides and notes from the two recent talks over on Flickr. I’ll pull them over here as well in a few days.

UNH Talk Slide1

For the Flickr version (slides and notes) of the University of New Hampshire FITSI talk, click here.

IWU Slide1

For the Flickr version of the Illinois Wesleyan University the Teaching and Technology Workshop keynote, click here.

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