Learning Matters in Art Matters

Bloom's Taxonomy aligned to visual art analysis

A few weeks ago,  I experimented with introducing my students to some basic research about the way people learn.  I was inspired by ideas presented in June at the Lilly Conference, and over the summer, I read recent books by plenary speakers Todd Zakrajsek and Saundra Yancy McGuire geared toward helping students improve their learning and study skills.  In the past, I’ve always explained the reasons and learning principles behind the activities I assign students, but never had I devoted a full lesson to the theories informing my pedagogical approach, especially on the first day of class!

Required for all first year art students, the course, Art Matters, introduces various art historical methodologies, and it helps build research and writing skills necessary in upper level art history courses. I’ve now taught the class six times, and experience has shown that most students arrive apprehensive about the writing assignments, and often have negative perceptions about taking art history and other non-studio classes.  My goals for the first day are typically to build a sense of class community and to explain key themes and learning objectives for the semester.

As I began developing my “Learning Matters” presentation, I decided to focus on three main topics: 1) Carol Dweck’s research on mindset, which seemed especially relevant for first year art students worried about academic classes; 2) Bloom’s taxonomy of learning to prepare them to study art history, a discipline notoriously misunderstood to emphasize rote memorization of facts; and 3) the importance of metacognition to learning.  I hoped by stressing this last point the students might begin to feel more accountable for their own role in the learning process.

I integrated this material into my broader plan for the three-hour class by tying it closely to the course objectives and an overview of the types of active learning practices that I frequently use. Other activities during this time included a “think-pair-share” exercise that had the students redesign the classroom and then vote/realize the plan best suited for class collaboration and student-led learning, and after talking about Bloom’s, a group brainstorming session to develop their own additional learning objectives for the class.

I’ll have to wait to see any long-term impact on the class, but the initial response seems positive.  As part of the course requirements, students must write regular reflections (which they now understand is related to metacognitive practice).  After the first class, they were asked to respond to the prompt “Based on today’s discussion about learning and the different levels of learning, how might these ideas affect your study of art history?” Although a number of the students summarized key points of our first day’s class discussion (a teachable moment to reinforce Bloom’s the following week!), a few offered thoughtful comments that showed new insight into how they might make the most of their student experience.  

An example is one student who saw a connection between her creative skills as an artist to the highest level of cognitive processing, as well as discovering that remembering “things I don’t care about” might provide foundational knowledge to build upon in the future.  Most exciting was the student who felt empowered by the realization that she had the capacity to critique the ideas of well-known scholars and artists. Learning is a collaborative process that requires the commitment and engaged participation of educators, institutions, AND students.  Giving students greater insight into the pedagogical research about how people learn makes sense as a way to increase their involvement and support their own efforts to excel in our classes.    

Collaboration in the classroom

Last fall, I had the opportunity to sit down with Pam Stefanuca, Director of Academic Technology and Instruction at the Maryland Institute College of Art, and talk about how I encourage collaboration in class. She’s just published the interview on her website, and listening to it after all these months led me to reflect on some collaborative strategies I used this semester in Art Matters, a first year foundation course at MICA that emphasizes art historical methodologies and writing skills. I felt the two that I outline below were productive in-class assignments that engaged the students in active processing of the material, in addition to fostering collaboration.

The first was a writing workshop where my goals were to prepare students for their first formal writing assignment and to familiarize them with the rubric I’d use to evaluate their work. I set up a shared class folder on Google Drive, which we used throughout the semester for similar activities. During our workshop, the students worked in groups of 4 to write descriptions of a video game called Journey** (actually, they focused on describing the promotional trailer since not everyone was familiar with the game). Each group presented their descriptions to the entire class, and then evaluated the other groups’ work based on my rubric. We ended the class sharing the “grades” they had assigned one another and reviewing how they had evaluated each criteria on the rubric. After class, I added detailed comments and suggestions on each of the descriptions in our shared folder, and had the students use these as a resource when they started work on their upcoming assignment.

The second collaboration grew from the fact that many of my students are drawing and illustration majors. The goal of this session was to familiarize students with formalist methodologies in art history.  I had assigned the introduction to Wölfflin’s Principles of Art History as one of the required readings, and students were to bring to class a list of key points, which we discussed before breaking into groups of 4 students. Each group was then assigned the task of rewriting Wölfflin’s introduction as a graphic novel, and I was amazed by the results.  Aside from the quality of the images (everyone should be so lucky as to teach art students), they were talking with each other about the main ideas of the text and how to synthesize them into a visual format. Because of time constraints, the students chose to upload images of their work to share via our class folder on Google Drive, and I assigned a reflection assignment for them to review and critique each others’ versions of the text. This final step was important because it provided students the opportunity to recognize and correct conceptual misunderstandings in some of their peers’ work.

As I say in the MICA interview, collaboration requires a mindshift away from academic notions of proprietary contribution and individual achievement.  I’ve found in-class activities to be a good way to foster collaboration because they evolve from group discussion toward a clear collective effort to accomplish the learning goals for that day. Building collaboration skills through such low-stakes assignments can be a first step toward integrating collaborative learning throughout a course.

**The class had “chosen” this video game among other student submissions as an art object that most challenged traditional ideas about what art is (one of the first assignments in the class). We returned to the game several time as the focus of collaborative work that paralleled course assignments that students were required to do individually during the semester.

A visit with old friends

Peter Paul Rubens, Portrait of Isabella Brant, c. 1620-5, oil on canvas, 20 13/16 x 18 1/16 inches, Cleveland Museum of Art.

I was recently in Cleveland at a symposium in honor of my advisor Ellen Landau’s retirement and contributions as a scholar and teacher. It was an honor to be among her former students invited to speak at the event, and it gave me a chance to reconnect with people from my past and hear about their current projects.

The Cleveland Museum of Art
The Cleveland Museum of Art

It was also the first opportunity I’d had to visit the Cleveland Museum of Art in over a decade. This homecoming of sorts prompted me to reflect on my time at the CMA and its formative influence on my training as an art historian.

As a graduate student in Case Western Reserve University’s joint program with the CMA, I had extensive access to the museum.  Classes were taught on site.  I had my own study carrel in their impressive research library. I worked in the education and curatorial departments in the 1990s, first as a student intern and later in my first real job at a museum.  It was an immersive experience that allowed me to teach and learn art history—a subject that relies heavily on reproductions in a classroom or textbook—through the study of objects in the collection.

I was speaking at the symposium on the role of the material art object in technology-enhanced classes, so I’d been thinking a lot about how academic art historians incorporate museum visits and object-based assignments into our teaching. While the primary goal of these requirements has been (and still is) to distinguish real works from the mediated formats shown in class, they also highlight limitations of the discipline to rely on formal characteristic of canonical examples to create a history of period and artistic styles.  A visit to most any museum can quickly blow apart tidy categories like “Neoclassicism” and “Surrealism.”  The range of objects found in the galleries reveal the stylistic diversity, overlap, and subtle transitions that make up art’s actual history.

Walking through the CMA’s galleries, which have changed significantly as part of an expansion project completed in 2013, I was reminded of the theory that says as we become accustomed to looking at works of art, we return to those we’ve seen before and find something new, as well as the familiar.  It was as though I’d been reunited with old friends, a sensation made even more enjoyable by the reinstallation.  Guided by muscle memory, I rediscovered old passages among the new in my search for favorite objects, and I stumbled onto other works, long forgotten, but which had once served as my go-to examples of certain movements, concepts, and techniques.

Lately, there’s been a wave of discussion about how people should view art in museums.  I side with those who say there is no singular way.  Visitors should aim for a variety of experiences.  Go alone for private moments like I had in Cleveland.  It was an opportunity to let my mind wander and to reflect on the art and its importance in my own life.  Go with friends to talk, hear their responses, and realize just how differently we see things from others.  Their background and knowledge may complement your own, or provide insight that gives you a whole new understanding of something you’d seen many times before.

Let children guide your tour and be amazed by the things they notice that you’d never seen.  (A young patron once showed me a circus decal on the underside of an abstract sculpture, entirely visible from his height of 3 feet, but which I’d never seen from above.)  Attend a lecture or other event to learn something new or to think about a broader context for the work of art.  Interact with art through technologies that offer innovative ways to see, experience, or share your perspective with others.

Our motivations and conditions around visiting museums vary, and every experience can be of value.  Take advantage of what museums do offer–objects collected and displayed for us to see, enjoy, discuss, and think about–different from the way we might view them on-line.  Not better or worse, but like other things in our increasingly digital culture, encounters with material objects encourage us to reflect on distinctions between the virtual and the real, and consider how each might contribute to our understanding and enjoyment of art.

What I learned at THATCampCAA

New Adventures in Art History

THATCamp stands for The Humanities and Technology Camp, and this year’s THATCampCAA was the second to be held in conjunction with the annual conference of College Art Association.  Art history lags far behind other areas of the digital humanities that have embraced the use of technology. THATCampCAA is part of an effort to increase interest in digital art history, and to encourage more art historians to incorporate its methods into their research and pedagogical practices.

I admit to being a little intimidated by the notion of a digital art history, but I’m also excited about the potential–particularly to explode traditional disciplinary boundaries.  As I’ve learned more, I realize that, like technology-enhanced learning, digital art history offers additional ways for scholars to conduct art historical research that might lead to new discoveries and understanding.  A great introduction can be found in the projects presented last fall at the American Art History and Digital Scholarship conference organized by the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art.

Modeled on an unconference, THATCampCAA was refreshing in its emphasis on dialog and the active exchange of ideas.  Session topics ranged from workshops on technological tools, discussions of digital research projects and resources, and the need to develop (and validate) new models for publication. THATCamp Coordinator Amanda French explained that sessions, which are determined collectively by participants, develop around questions.  By admitting what we don’t know, we can work together to explore possible solutions.  Take away:  confession is good for art history, as is collaboration.

New Adventures in Teaching

What I wanted to know was how will the emergence of digital art history impact teaching in the field.  What new skills and information will students need to know in the future?  And, how can these dovetail with traditional art historical methods that we already teach?  Here are a few thoughts that I left with.

We need to introduce students to a variety of digital tools and technologies. This means both providing hands-on experience with these methods and including digital research findings as part of our course content. Some scholars in DAH feel students should learn about computer programming and computational analysis.  Having such skills would allow art historians to create specialized tools to meet distinctive needs of the discipline, and make us less reliant on technology specialists or tools created for digital research in other disciplines.  

The practice of digital art history reflects broader shifts in contemporary culture and higher education.  These demand we rethink established values of humanities research and publication.  Students should learn how to work collaboratively without feeling proprietary about their contributions, or threatened that collectively developed projects will undercut their final grade. As teachers, we need to design better assessment strategies that can distinguish individual student learning from the active processing and shared understanding that occurs in a productive collaboration.   

We might also do well to expand students’ knowledge of archival resources and collections management practices used by institutions.  As more materials are digitized, students (and scholars) will have greater access to explore them in depth, but they need to understand how that information is organized if they’re to find materials relevant to their questions.  Students should learn how metadata is essential to their research and important to organizing their own findings (data). Visual resource librarians and archivists are important allies in this effort.  We should take advantage of their experience with digital technologies as we develop assignments, and encourage our students to seek them out as well.  

What’s Old is New Again

While asking art history students to learn computer skills might seem radical to the field, technological literacy is a necessity in the 21st century, and it is appropriate to include in our curriculum.  Our goal should be to demonstrate how students might employ digital tools, in addition to other art historical practices, to further their intellectual inquiry.

Digital art history still requires students perform the visual analysis and critical thinking that distinguishes art historical study.  In a culture where technology changes at lightning speed and new digital tools appear almost every day, it seems all the more important for students to master traditional research skills, which have not always been emphasized in recent years.  They must learn to develop clear research questions and define appropriate methodological approaches if they are to choose the tools that will yield fruitful results.  

Several years ago I heard someone at CAA say that the Internet was made for art history.  Both are non-linear, densely layered, highly interconnected, and mostly visual.  Art history is a messy discipline that resists efforts to classify, simplify, and understand it through tidy explanations. I learned at THATCamp that digital approaches to art history can help organize such complex information in ways that we may look at it more clearly.   Not toward the goal of singular meaning or universal theories, but as visual objects that invite the type of analysis that art historians are trained to do.  Students can only benefit from learning more about digital art history, the tools it employs, its relationship to established practices, and its potential for future research.

Developing a Montessori Art Program

Pablo Picasso's Child with a Dove, 1901

“All children are artists. The problem is how to remain one after he grows up.”

-Pablo Picasso

This year I’ve been working with Rebecca Tobin, one of the teachers at Evergreen Montessori School, to develop an art curriculum for their primary and elementary classes. (My kids are currently finishing the primary class there.) Admittedly, developing a program for this age group has pushed me out of my comfort zone, and I’ve relied heavily on Rebecca’s extensive experience teaching in a Montessori classroom to determine the appropriateness of particular concepts and activities.

Art has a natural place in childhood education. Aside from just being fun, art helps develop students’ problem solving and fine motor skills. Looking at and talking about art further builds language skills, advances critical thinking, and can improve visualization processes that are fundamental to reading comprehension. In contrast to art’s once marginal status, more educators now posit the study of art to be important in teaching 21st century skills.

Why? We live in a culture dominated by visual modes of communication. These require us to analyze images and be critical about the graphic presentation of complex data. More and more, we are also asked to create visual and other media-based interfaces to distribute information in clear and efficient ways. Anyone who’s ever designed, or even tried to navigate, a blog or company website will recognize the role of color, font size, imagery, and visual layout to direct viewers to what they need to know. These elements, however, are just as essential to producing a report, developing a presentation, or organizing photographs of your summer vacation in a way that is both engaging and effective.

In the past, art education has focused variously on teaching students technical skills to produce “good” art, relying on art as an expressive outlet where students might convey psychological and emotional experience, and as an integrated approach to enhance student learning in other academic disciplines. Current practice, reflected in the National Core Arts Standards, places greater emphasis on the creative process and critical thinking necessary to making art, and not on production of finished works of art.

This approach appeals to the natural tendency of children to create and problem solve through self-directed experiential learning, a cornerstone of Montessori education. Moreover, it builds on children’s relentless curiosity, sense of wonder, and play that is often squashed as we grow up and learn social codes of behavior. Think back to sculpting mashed potato mountains on your dinner plate, or constructing an indoor tent of sheets, chairs, and pillows big enough to hide in. Now flash forward to telling your kids to stop playing with their food, or to clean up that mess in the living room.

Exploring the processes and materials involved in art making can easily be integrated with learning in other disciplines. This connection is particularly relevant to study in science and math. Whether looking at the optical properties of color and light, the relationship of proportion and scale in rendering spatial perspective, or the physics involved in building a three-dimensional structure, art and science build on similar needs for observation and experimental methods, and both demand creativity in finding solutions to a given problem.

The program we’re developing at Evergreen introduces fundamental concepts of art history (cultural context), art criticism (basic looking skills that involve description, analysis, and interpretation), and creative production (experiential investigation and problem solving with different materials). Units are organized around themes such as Color and Light, 3-d Structures, and Storytelling.

Introduced to works by artists such as Claude Monet, Joseph Albers, and Louise Nevelson, students experiment and make discoveries by looking at light through a prism, mixing colors and learning about tonal gradation, constructing found object assemblages, and building bird houses for the school’s rain garden. Typical of a Montessori approach, Rebecca sets up the art classroom to include a variety of materials and resources, including posters of artworks and relevant books about art and artists so students might explore a topic on their own.

In the spring, we plan to integrate more discussion about specific objects, relying on a Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) educational approach. Although I have reservations about VTS when used in a museum or upper level academic context, I find it useful for classroom teachers who lack training in art history, or who don’t feel confident in their ability to lead discussions about art. For students at the primary level, VTS is effective because it cultivates both analytical and communication skills without imposing a lot of additional information. The goal is simply to have students look closely, find language to describe their observations, and support their reasoning through further description and explanation.

Crowdsourcing Contemporary Art (Part 2): Structure and Scaffolding

wall-floor-piece-1-1976.jpg!BlogAlthough the course content in my Contemporary Art course is student directed, I’ve developed a highly structured framework  to guide the crowdsourcing process in an effective and productive way.

The course lacks a traditional schedule, birthed fully formed from my fingertips on the first day. Instead, it is designed to evolve over the semester, initially based on scaffolding activities that will support the students’ subsequent work.  

These include 1) assigned readings on theoretical issues in the study of contemporary art, which the students discussed extensively in class; 2) a hands-on workshop with a research librarian to discuss appropriate research techniques and resources;  3) assigned “starter texts” that provide a general overview of the many themes, practices, and concepts that are foundational to contemporary art; and 4) working sessions in class to develop a concept map that will serve as a road map for our semester study and as a visual document that reveals the multiple threads that connect the diverse field of contemporary art.  The map has become even more central than I initially imagined, and it will be the focus of my next post in this series.

Student Commitment

The class’s non-traditional structure clearly scared a number of students away the first week, but those who have stayed seem committed (albeit a tad wary).  It has been imperative that students recognize and accept their responsibility to shape the direction of the class.  If they don’t contribute, they impact not only their own experience, but the ability of others to achieve their learning objectives for the course.

On the first day, I asked students to conduct interviews with one another and then introduce their partner to the entire class.  In addition to general “get to know you questions,” students were instructed to ask the following questions to underscore the participatory nature of the course: 

1. What do you want to learn in this class?

2. What skills and/or knowledge can you contribute to this class?

Communications and Resources

A course website serves as a primary hub where class information, discussion prompts, and post-class activities are posted and shared.  It offers a portal to a library resource guide tailored toward academic research of contemporary art.   Another portal on the course website directs students to a Google Spreadsheet Reading LIst, which students populate with various resources throughout the semester.   Students must contribute bibliographic posts each week.  Each must include:

  • 3-5 images/videos (links to jpgs or stable url addresses)
  • 1 primary source
  • 1 secondary source
  • 1 primary/secondary/or popular source

Bibliographic posts are organized according to topics that students have identified on the class concept map.  As the Reading List is populated, students will determine topics to be discussed in class and each student will be responsible for reviewing and posting key points about 2 to 3 of the listed resources prior to class discussion.


Aside from a short exhibition review and a final writing project that asks student to synthesize their learning (more later), the primary assessment tool in this class will be individually produced annotated bibliographies.  Shared with me through Google Drive,  these documents track all of the student’s independent research to find materials for their bibliographic posts, and in their review of resources posted on the Reading List in preparation for class discussion.   Their annotated bibliographies will be reviewed 3 times during the semester to ensure the students are performing the appropriate research, and maintaining a useful catalog of their sources.  Additionally, I’ve had them create and share Journals, which serve as a more private space to reflect on ideas discussed in class, discovered through their research, or connections they find to course content in their experiences outside of class.

Evaluation and Bumps in the Road

I’m pretty excited about the potential of the class to be a great opportunity for active learning and collaborative study; but admittedly, I have a gnawing concern that my plan will fail brilliantly and we’ll all find ourselves confused and frustrated in a few weeks.  Just in case, I’ve planned for a midterm course evaluation in October, which will be conducted by staff from the university’s teacher resource center.  I figured the students would be more open if I stepped out of this process, although I will work closely with the evaluators to determine what issues I’d like to be addressed.   At that point we’ll look at the existing class structure and redirect as seems warranted.

Since day one, I’ve been transparent about my process and the fact that this course is somewhat experimental, and that I sincerely welcome student feedback and suggestions about the class.   Georgetown students tend to be extremely deferential to professorial authority (more so than at any institution I’ve previously taught), so it’s taken a while for them to warm to this idea. Only this past week (week 3 in the semester) am I beginning to see just a few realize their newly empowered position.  Next week, we begin to populate the reading list and start scheduling discussion topics, which should prove insightful as to how they are adapting to the class structure.

Crowdsourcing Contemporary Art (Part 1): A class in progress


This semester, I was slated to teach a 200-level course on “Contemporary Art,” a topic I’ve taught in numerous iterations over the past 10 years.  Most recently I’d taught the class in Spring 2012 as “Art Since 1960.”  Although the students enjoyed it and it achieved the stated learning objectives, I was frustrated in my struggle to convey the complexity of the subject through a traditional lecture based structure.  That experience motivated me to completely redesign the course and my teaching strategies. 

I have now adopted a crowdsourcing model of collaborative research, content development, and study for the class.  I wanted to approach the topic in a way that would be more inclusive of students’ interests and existing areas of knowledge. Crowdsourcing attempts to reduce the inherent subjectivity of any survey class where the professor determines content based on academic knowledge, areas of interests, and scholarly expertise.  Moreover, I hoped it would capitalize on the varied backgrounds of the students usually drawn to the class, especially those with different aesthetic tastes, in disciplines outside art history, and from other cultures.   

Crowdsourcing also allows students to engage meaningfully with a wide range of art historical research techniques and resources. Instead of listening to lectures on slides or reading texts that I’ve chosen, students will collaborate in their effort to find, evaluate, and share useful information on our common topic of study. The pedagogical goal of this approach is for students to develop their own ideas and understanding about contemporary art, based on the connections, observations, and insights they discover through our active research and shared dialogue.

Instead of waiting to see what happens, and then detailing an analysis of any successes–and/or failures, I’ve decided to post some reflections as the course plays out this semester.  This parallels the students’ requirement to maintain a journal recording their own ideas, thoughts, and frustrations about both our topic and method of study.  Over the next few weeks, the students will be choosing topics for study and developing a reading list for the class.  Although the class content will be student-driven, my next post will explain the theoretical and logistical frameworks I’ve established to provide necessary scaffolding to get them started.

Good Teachers Copy, Great Teachers Steal

I thought about defending my title, but appropriating Picasso seemed justification enough–at least to make my point. Picasso’s words inspired me. They gave me a point of departure to develop my own ideas about their meaning and their relevance to my own interests. Indeed, for teachers, as for artists, entrepreneurs, scientists, and anyone who thinks creatively, this process is essential. We take what’s been done, then make it our own by synthesizing it with our thoughts and expanding it toward a new purpose. So, why do we still try to do it all ourselves?

Learning From Others

I’ve walked a line between museum education and academic art history throughout my career. Recently a museum educator commented, “Wow. That must be hard.” Her question surprised me because I’ve always valued this dual perspective as an asset to my work in both fields. My academic background is useful in my work with curators and scholars; my experience in museum ed. helps me to make complex topics accessible to people with varied levels of knowledge.

In March, I attended the conference of the National Art Education Association, where I was reminded of the importance of breaking out of our professional silos. I went to a number of sessions devoted to museum education. These were great because mostly everyone was interested in questions similar to my own. It is wonderful for those of us at small institutions, or working independently as I do now, to feel part of a larger community that provides support and resources specific to our interests.

But, the idea that really inspired me, and that I plan to use in my modern art class next semester was a session about using art to help 1st and 2nd graders with reading comprehension. Taken from a recent book by Elizabeth Stewart and Jennifer Klein, the session demonstrated a visualization activity where students work in pairs. One describes the object; the other creates a sketch based solely on their peer’s verbal description.

This exercise suggested to me a way to deepen upper level students’ awareness of the relationship of art and language. The speaker gets to practice their skills by describing works using appropriate terminology, and by analyzing how different elements work together in the composition. The sketcher realizes how words dramatically shape (and limit) her visual understanding, and how they can be used more, or less, effectively to communicate information to others.

I’ve sometimes had students sketch objects in museums as part of a class writing assignment. It forces them to look more closely and pushes them out of their comfort zones to think about the process of making art. The visualization activity takes students to the next level by introducing language as a mediating factor, which must also be considered. Moreover, working collaboratively, the students get immediate feedback to help them refine their use of language, which further validates their ability to help each other with the assignment.

Creativity, Collaboration, and Reinventing the Wheel

To return to my earlier point, why do we try to do it all ourselves? Sharing resources and teaching strategies makes sense. We should learn from the failures of others and build on their successes. The increasing interest in technology-enhanced learning has reminded art history faculty of the importance of instructional designers and visual resource librarians. As we continue to explore new strategies to encourage more active learning among undergraduates, art historians might do well to look also to the practices of educators in museums and K-12, as well as those specializing in studio art for inspiration.

Generally, the move toward Open Access Education and Creative Commons Licensing is helping to facilitate the practice of exchange. On-line communities and websites encourage educators to post materials, and others to take and tailor them to meet their specific needs. The result is a growing databank of useful assignments, tested and refined in the field, that save us time and increase our effectiveness.

Such communities are great. They offer support, ideas, and comfort in that sense of being a part of something bigger than ourselves. But, it’s through difference that we might grow, expand, innovate, and create. As we continue to invest time in developing resources for educators, we must include a diverse range of experiences, ideas, and disciplinary perspectives. In a world where our social and professional networks are becoming more tailored to common interests, we need to be sure and seek out those who think differently from ourselves.


My First Flip


In Fall 2012, I decided to try flipping as one of several technology-based changes in my Modern Art class.  The course is an introductory survey covering 1840 (Realism) to the present (!), so needless to say, there are challenges.  Aside from the sheer volume of material, it is a popular class, which draws students with a wide range of  skill levels and knowledge of art history.

I base my lectures on prepared powerpoints that suggest a kind of narrative addressing cultural context, artistic precedents, formal innovations, and a range of ideas about meaning and art historical significance.  I also like discussion, so I encourage students to interrupt when they want to ask questions or contribute comments.  The net effect is I never cover all the material.

Flipping seemed a possible solution.  I pre-recorded portions of my longer lectures for students to watch before class.  I also eliminated a massive textbook in favor of web-based resources and an anthology of primary texts.  My goal was that the outside lectures and focused reading materials would introduce core content, and free up class time for discussion and interactive activities.

Indeed, my students were better prepared.  They asked more questions and hands shot up more quickly when I asked about their ideas.  But,  the classroom lectures still bogged me down.  Yes, there were fewer of them, but we were now moving even slower because of increased class discussion.  The flip hadn’t worked . . . because I hadn’t let it.

Finding Faith in Flipping

Flipping, ultimately, requires a leap of faith.  One day as I was commuting to school, armed with my lecture on Surrealism, I realized I had to throw it out.  I walked into class; told the students I was not going to lecture; and divided them into small groups.  I assigned them to brainstorm questions that someone should ask if they wanted to understand Surrealism, and to choose an image that would help explain the movement.  Each group wrote one question on the board.  We spent the rest of class talking about the questions they developed and the images they had chosen.

The results:  We covered a lot less material, but students brought in additional images that I had not planned on showing.   And it was awkward at first, I had to walk out of the room when the groups started brainstorming just to keep myself from intervening.   Once the class began talking, my role shifted to a facilitator–asking follow up questions, paraphrasing and helping them refine their thoughts, and keeping the conversation on track to ensure my goals for that class were achieved.

Like most classroom strategies, my first flip was not perfect.  But, the experience was useful in helping me adapt this approach to my own style of teaching.  I now give students more of a heads up about how class time will be structured.  I assign them prompts to submit via e-portfolios prior to class, and try to provide them feedback before we meet.  The students say they prefer a blending of slide-based lecture with class discussion, so I’ve tried to achieve a better balance.  Most notably, my lectures have shifted away from a narrative sequence of slides, and I don’t feel the same compulsion to discuss all of the images.  The flip was not the solution, but in combination with other technologies, it has helped me create a more interactive learning environment in my class.


“Teaching With the Lights On” is a reference to the dramatic changes taking place in higher education today.  In my discipline of art history, adhering to the standard slide-based lecture has kept us—teachers and students—literally in the dark for way too long.  What worked in the past, no longer seems appropriate for our contemporary world.  I find turning on the lights to be an apt metaphor for my own shift toward more active and participatory models of student learning.  Over the past few years, I’ve begun to integrate a wider range of technologies into my art history classes.  My experience, along with the experiments I see others doing in a range of disciplines, has caused me to radically reevaluate my classroom goals and the pedagogical approach that I have used throughout my career.

I started this site as a collection of my current thoughts, professional interests, and materials I’ve developed.  I welcome your comments and contributions.  Thanks for visiting.