On the first day of class each semester, I hand out index cards to each of my students. I ask them to write down their names, home town, field of study, year in school, why they are taking Art History, and if they have any private concerns that I can/should know about to help them be successful. Afterwards, I respond to anyone who expresses a concern with a personal email to let them know I will be an advocate for their success in my class. One student conveyed anxiety over transferring to OSU from a small liberal arts institution because she was worried about getting lost in a course with a high student enrollment. After I reached out to her letting her know that I was here to help facilitate her experience in the course, she responded with appreciation and relief that I would still be aware of her as an individual. When teaching or assisting in smaller survey courses, student notecards allow me to learn everyone’s names within the first weeks of the semester. Although I can’t memorize the names of all my students in larger surveys, I still use this information to quickly gauge the experience (have they taken an Art History course before?), diversity (do I have veterans, international, or first-generation students?) and needs of those attending my class. Having these notecards has also enabled me to get to know my students better by selecting a card at random and using the time before the start to class to talk with that student. While I may not be able to have an individual conversation with each student by the end of the semester, this exercise helps me feel more connected to my students as individuals. The university classroom is a great training ground to learn how to develop empathy for those whose opinions and experiences differ from yours, as well as to practice building a community with those around you. Above all else, I hope that I am exercising empathy for my students, and that through teaching the arts of various cultures, I can help my students to develop these attitudes as well.
One of the most rewarding experiences in seeking to exercise care for my students came when teaching a smaller thirty-five student survey course. Because the course was over the summer, the semester was shorter and our class met four times a week. This allowed me to foster a strong relationship with my students and be attuned to their individual needs. After their first midterm, I sent personal emails to students who received low grades and invited them to my office hours so that we could review their results together and discuss their note taking and studying strategies. One of the students I reached out to was ultimately too busy to meet with me, so I was unaware of the impact my gesture had until the end of the semester when she completed her student evaluation. She stated, “After taking the midterm my grade was very low, [Trent] offered to sit and discuss what some of the issues were with my grade, and although my schedule conflicted with having a meeting he was still able to give feedback in a timely manner. Most instructors have you come to them if you have a problem, but clearly he did not. I wish more instructors were like this. Ultimately it was a matter of me taking more time to study, but if it were not for him taking that stand then my grade would have suffered more because it put me in a position where I felt like I had to know the information because I did not want to let him down for all the hard work he had done to prepare the information for me.” This encounter taught me the importance of being aware of my students, their needs, and their progress. By taking the time to do something as small as sending an email, I found that I can show care for my students, which can in turn encourage them to do their best and even impact their overall performance.
My teaching and assisting experience has consisted of general survey courses with a student enrollment between thirty-five and one hundred, many of whom take my class to fulfill a university requirement. My aim, therefore, has been to help them see the value in studying Art History. Whether my students will continue taking Art History courses or will never formally study art again, I strive to make my class a meaningful experience that will benefit each student’s overall education. The first of two markers I use to gauge this is their visual literacy: how well do my students learn to access and analyze works of art? I announce in the first class that I will have succeeded as a teacher if after the semester is over they feel confident in their ability to visit museums or galleries to continue experiencing art. Secondly, do my students construct links between past and present in order to see how issues reflected in art created hundreds of years ago still hold relevance in their lives today?
In the first few days of class, I expose my students to a variety of art, sculpture and architecture to demonstrate how these works are comprised of a series of formal elements. Students are able to see the influence of color on a painting’s mood by comparing the vibrant palette and paint application of Turner as opposed to the subdued earthy tones of David. As we progress through the semester we consider each artistic period with an appeal to its general formal characteristics. We then examine how period style influences the style of specific artists. As we move through each artist’s oeuvre, I project comparisons on the screen and ask my students to work through the formal qualities of each image. Earlier this semester, for example, after teaching Bernini’s David, I asked them to compare it against Michelangelo’s version of the same figure in order to better understand the properties of Renaissance versus Baroque art. I could see the effect that frequent discussion of formal characteristics is making as more and more of my students that I haven’t heard from so far this semester have started feeling more comfortable raising their hands and sharing their observations. My hopes that students will take this information and continue experiencing art after the semester ends have been increasingly confirmed as I’ve had students email me asking which sites or museums to visit in certain cities, while another student even tagged me in a social media post over the summer discussing the various museums he visited while on a European tour.
In conjunction with teaching the historical background of various works and periods of Western civilization, I ask students to step back to examine bigger picture issues that link societies of the past with our modern day. These topics can include issues such as gender, race, class, religious belief, private and public devotion, or social ideologies. Students achieve this in a variety of ways, such as in class-discussions or primary source readings accompanied by writing responses that compel the students to determine their own positionality vis à vis the issues raised. Last fall while teaching a large survey course, we discussed the French Revolution and how it was impacted by ideas of the Enlightenment. As a correlating assignment, I asked students to read the Declaration of Independence and write a response to the political ideas proposed by Thomas Jefferson. In crafting this assignment, I was aware that I had many international students, including several from China. When we met together in class I was careful not to privilege any viewpoint or government structure, but rather asked students to articulate their opinions regarding human rights and the role of government. My students were eager to participate in the discussion, thoughtfully and considerately responding to each other’s ideas. Not only did this assignment allow students to think about their own political persuasions, but it enabled them to gain insights from peers who came from other regions of the globe. This is a small but indicative example of the of bridges I try to help my students build to connect what they learn in the classroom to their lives.
We live in a visual society where the average student encounters more images (either online or through social media) than at any point in history. As such, my students develop visual literacy in order to be active viewers rather than passive recipients of messages conveyed through the imagery they are inundated with. Additionally, by the end of our course, not only have they gained a greater understanding of Western history, but they also had opportunity to wrestle with topics such as race, belief, gender etc. in past and contemporary contexts. I hope these insights gained from the study of Art History will help them be more cognizant of current events and more considerate of the people around them. After frequently learning about the various sides of a historical issue, considering its implications for our current day, articulating their beliefs, and then having discussions with their fellow students, I hope this practice can transcend the classroom and enable my students to develop a balance of empathy and critical reflection.