by Dr. Linda Smeins, Department of Art
Participation in the Western Washington University's First-year Interest Group program has provided a context for assessing my current art history survey course and developing new teaching strategies using technology. The Center for Instructional Innovation and Assessment has provided support and expertise for implementing my goals for the course. Admittedly, my inexperience with technology has made this a challenge. On the other hand, my more cautious explorations have permitted me to question two truisms: (a) "Technology improves teaching," and (b) "We study history to learn about ourselves."
That educational technology improves teaching has become a part of an educational mantra. Teachers can engage students in the learning process with on-line discussion groups, PowerPoint presentations, and use of document cameras and the Internet. Students in art history courses across the nation study art works posted on their class home pages (although this is yet to come to Western). These, as well as other uses of technology, are valuable contributions to student education in and outside of the classroom. However, an important question needs to be asked. To what extent does educational technology improve teaching if it is merely overlaid on traditional course content? In my area of teaching, art history survey classes were instituted as a means to inform students about the art from the past. Most survey textbooks for ancient through medieval art history continue to present students with a compilation of the who, what, where and when of art works. This is supported by information about the social context for their making, which students interpret as "background." Teachers and students alike are framed as gatherers of data about the ancient "western world."
When I ask students why we study history, they invariably reply, "To learn about ourselves." When I ask how we learn about ourselves from the study of history, they find it difficult to explain this handy response. When we explore the question in class, students usually rely on the notion of influence, which is a conception of history that proposes a linear progression of events leading from the past to the present. It is a traditional approach to writing and teaching history and is used to demonstrate continuity or grand moments of change. Ruptures in this seamless historical thread, such as the crusades explained from a Muslim perspective, often are seen as addenda or content for another university course. In class, we are able to wrap the people and events of history in neat packages, compare and contrast ourselves with them, and conclude that we have learned about ourselves by that exercise. But how do these neat packages reveal our selves as people participating in a world of global contact where daily lives are filled with social, cultural, political and economic complexity and ambiguity? The certainty of neatly organized bundles of information has little to do with the reality of our daily lives.
For many, a recognition of this discrepancy brings a need for a shift in educational philosophy, and for students of history, different ways to "learn about ourselves." Studying art history, as well as other university subjects, is not about gathering information; it is about learning to analyze people, places, events and the values they express. In art history, how things mean is more important than what things mean. Art history as such is a study of visual culture--with culture defined here as the production of meanings in a society. The content of the course shifts from information about history to critical seeing and thinking as a means to sort through historical and contemporary complexities. To do so, for example, students may examine relationships between political authority and cultural authority when they study the arts of Rome. They study history through a process that helps them ask questions about themselves and assumptions about local, national and international others. Such questions posed about art in history apply to strategies for evaluating contemporary conditions. Students are introduced to questions about society and culture that teach skills in critical thinking, conceptualization and theorization. Courses that emphasize the significant role played by visual forms encompass skills that can be applied to the use of today's visual media and technology. Learning analytical skills empowers students because it helps them to situate themselves as individuals in the larger scheme of things and to become thoughtful participants in the global community.
My goal is to unite pedagogical transition with educational technology opportunities in an ongoing process of transformation for the Survey of Western Art History. Because shifts in course content must respond to a variety of departmental needs and perspectives, transformation will be gradual. Nonetheless, attempts to achieve the following teaching objectives already are making change. Objectives are:
As I noted above, my inexperience has slowed my integration of new educational technology with course content. Materials presented on Art History 220's course website comprise a fledgling attempt, but with help from the Center for Instructional Innovation and Assessment, it will include much more in the future. Objectives for use of educational technology (in place and planned):