Memories of an Art History Class: Inspiration and Perspective

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.


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.


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.


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–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.


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.


6 Responses

  1. Two mundane questions. Your opening story of the art history professor reminded me of something I’m working on, and a fear I have. The process you describe in his class is wonderful, but only if the students actually participate. What, if anything, is there to prevent students from free riding, just waiting until the end of the discussion to write down the conclusions? To the extent that they do that, they won’t learn as much since it’s the process rather than the conclusions that are most important.

    I ask this in part because I’m asked this question often from other faculty and I don’t have a great answer for it.

    Second question, in your discussion of rss and tagging: You didn’t actually answer the question about insuring quality control, did you? Again, this is a question that I get asked. It does provide great learning moments, but only if you build the opportunity for them into the course. Have you any specific suggestions about how to do that.

    Sorry I don’t have any deep questions for today. 😦

  2. “[I]n one sense we are not abandoning tradition–just remembering it–the best of it….”


    For the first time in human history, we have the opportunity to scale Socrates–and we’d better, because only that kind of under-your-skin, life-transforming education can envision and empower the change we desperately need.

    Great post, Barbara.

  3. Steve,

    Those are excellent and not mundane questions, indeed, precisely because people want to know about outcomes, and you’re right that I didn’t answer them in the post–I should have.

    So here goes: I would answer your first question by turning to the workshop I did at UMW on the critical first weeks of a course. That’s how I extend a genuine invitation to the group to participate–through a complex of in-class exercises, on-the-blog work and small-group talk. We talk, we write, we chat, we work with image and sound and ideas and feelings–the whole gambit during those first couple of weeks. Everyone does contribute.

    I know that in my art history class there were probably a couple of kids who hung back–but the questions my professor asked were approachable–for ALL of us no matter our persepctive, our expereicne, our interest-level. He really seemed to want to know what we thought of those paintings, and he had a way, if I remember correctly, of ferreting out responses even from the quiet, the shy among us. He was a master teacher indeeed.

    And quality control? I WANT my students to bring in their lousy feeds and poorly evaluated sources and wacko tags. We can take a look at what makes an effective, reliable source for our class that way–by looking at both mistakes and successes; we can compare our tagging to that of the experts. We are constructing rubrics of what excellence looks like at our level of study, and we can hold up those results and see how we did. We talk about how messy learning is, and how if they are really doing a good job in the class, then they are making some mistakes. We can and should spend time looking at everyone’s feeds together in class, sort of like a f2f wiki edit, I suppose.– So, quality control is not about checking every feed, every tag at all–it’s about a bigger process, a shared process. And pretty soon, they’ll be commenting on one another’s tags and feeds–at least that’s what I hope happens this fall in my new course. We’ll see.

    And thanks for the head’s up about the poor coding–it’s fixed and now you can see the link to Jim’s post about his class.


    Thanks for the comment–I know you’ve had and have written about those extraordinary classroom moments from your own school days. Your own caravan talk will forever serve as one of the great models of teaching, learning, and presenting about this journey.


  4. Barbara:

    Thanks for mentioning my students’ work. They thank you too!


    If I may: Indeed, nothing is preventing those students from hanging back. Nothing (and no one) is forcing them to participate. But my experience has been that students quickly realize that their peers are getting a whole lot more out of the course, out of the conversation, out of the experience when they have something to contribute and something to add. And I mean it when I say that THEY realize it…no nudging needed from the prof.

    Students, I feel, are very wise consumers of education. They hate wasting their time. They hate it when we waste their time.

    When they realize their peers are coming to class energized and excited and they are not, well, they realize something is missing.

    As one of my students once noted “the more I invest of myself in this class, the more meaningful the classroom experience becomes. It’s up to me”

    The mantra of good teaching, be it with technology or without: Make it relevant, give students a chance to explore and dig deeper, model best practices, and then watch what happens.

  5. Beautifully put, Other Barbara–

    I agree wholeheartedly with your comment, but I do think it takes a bit of courage and well, willfulness, on our part the first couple of times to create such an environment where this kind of outcome is possible. After all, many students have not experienced a classroom environment quite like yours before, and it takes some getting used to. They can be quite hesitant initially.

    Some teachers, fainter of heart than you, and less willing to let go of exclusive control of the reins of the class, might find this process positively harrowing. And risky indeed.
    The more we can show effective ways of setting up our classrooms to foster this kind of community-centered learning, the better. It’s all about the careful planning up front and then the willingness to let the actual learning moments unfold according to their own emergent processes, yes?


  6. So, I guess slow-blogging has its merits. Approaching the time laden spaces of then and now through the lenses of a tradition and revolution simultaneously is quite powerful. We may tend to get caught up with how revolutionary the things we are doing are, that we forget that many were equally revolutionary with just a book or a slide projector or a piece of chalk. That is so important to hold onto as we move forward, and as Gardner picks up on from your post so keenly –we know have to tools to scale these experiences in fascinating and exciting ways. I think that the relationship between experimenting with one’s teaching as well as with one’s scholarship, has everything to do with being surrounding by a community that both welcomes and pushes you in this direction. That is the unbelievable value of these tools in my mind -how quickly you can become part of a community that helps you focus and think about the ways you may approach a wide spectrum of things. These tools, practiced within a particular community that is thoughtful and excited about them, allows you to connect things as ostensibly unrelated (though only on the shallowest surface) as re-visualizing class content which quickly becomes a means for re-visualizing your scholarship that in turn provides you a dynamic and distributed group of peers and friends. The historical epoch of discovery may have come and gone but with post like this one I always fell like we have only just begun to imagine its contours.

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