Center for Instructional
Innovation and Assessment


Thor Hansen
Tim Pilgrim
Matthew Roelofs
Linda Smeins
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Linda Smeins
Department of Art



Art History for Students Living with the Globalization of Visual Technology


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."

Developing a Philosophy

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.

Goals and Objectives for this Project

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:

  1. To establish a context for students to become active, responsive and responsible learners and for teachers to learn actively from students
  2. To introduce students to skills that are directly transferable to everyday life
  3. To help students develop critical seeing and critical thinking skills
  4. To introduce students to conceptualizing skills and uses of theory for analyzing diverse beliefs and values
  5. To introduce and invigorate excitement about the study of history and the arts
  6. To establish the important relationship between what we see, how we see it, and how we conduct our lives

Implemented and Soon-to-be Implemented Strategic Objectives

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):

  1. To provide on-line study aids and information, including syllabi, lecture outlines, interactive examination preparation, a web board site for study discussion and questions for the teacher, links to web sites that have multiple views of art works seen in class, and individual exam and assignment scores.
  2. To employ on-line discussion groups as a means to counter the large lecture hall production of students as passive recipients of knowledge. Web board discussion generated some lively debate that often overflowed into the classroom. This past year, I began each week with a rapid response question that set the theme for the cultural issue addressed in subsequent lectures. The questions were designed to elicit personal views of a contemporary situation and prepare the students for using theory from visual culture studies for analyzing their responses in a societal context. Lectures similarly addressed the art from a historical moment being studied. Following, web board discussion groups responded to questions that stemmed from both. For example, one discussion had to do with war memorials in Greece, Rome and the new memorial to World War II veterans in Washington, D.C. Another dealt with social identity and public representations of men and women.
  3. To develop PowerPoint presentations that break down rather than enforce classificatory and linear thinking. Art history classes make use of slides, films, transparencies and document cameras, and power point presentations have become a means to bring together the variety of visual media. However, the common bullet-highlighted list of stylistic features or historical particularities could, through the joined authority of the visual presentation and the informational content, argue forcibly against critical thinking and for passive assimilation or ideological resistance. My goal is to use power point actively to teach skills. For example, visual and textual formats may demonstrate ways to organize information for both classroom survival and making some sense of the wealth of information available through global technology. To accomplish this goal, it will be necessary to collaborate with others to develop cogent visual strategies for illustrating visual, social, cultural, political and economic relationships that make up daily life.
  4. To use the web as a tool for developing directly transferable analytical skills by encouraging criticality as an automatic response to media use. A web site has a strong authoritative "voice," and it is not unusual for students to use a web site as an unquestioned source of information. I will direct students to several web sites that explain the same topic in history. They will be asked to compare the content and analyze it as a means to learn how "factual information" is not objective but is written from differing perspectives. This exercise will be repeated several times through the term and students will be encouraged find sites for all of us to analyze.
  5. To explore more innovative ways to help students conceptualize and apply critical analysis. The Center for Instructional Innovation and Assessment administration, staff and student assistants are developing an interactive "game" for Art History 220 students that will give them a sense of walking through the spaces of a thirteenth century French town. The interactive site will accompany lectures and group discussions about how social meanings are lived in the spaces articulated by buildings, land organization, art, visual media, speeches, literature, laws, customs, beliefs, and other contributions to discourse. One class exercise, for example, will lead students to locating visible indicators of social status. Early manifestations of this ambitious project have been shown to students for their critique, and their input suggests that we will continue to pursue a more complex and more exciting engagement with history and critical seeing/thinking.

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