Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Academically Challenging and Critical?

For the past two weeks I have made an attempt to introduce more meaningful content into the group discussions and slide shows. The class has come to the chapter on advertisements and print media and I chose this as a moment to introduce topics of race, gender, age, etc. To the dialogue. I started by bringing in four different examples of print media ( A political poster, a Vitamin Water EL train advertisement, a children's book, and a breast cancer walk T-shirt) I asked them to consider the audience and elements present in the works in small groups. I also asked them to problematize the images and discuss them in small groups. Afterwards we came back to a large group and shared our findings. They were able to spot many stereotypes and themes that bothered them in the images. We discussed then art historical objects that might have those same stereotypes present, ( Manet's Olympia, Cowboy Art, Classroom art timeline) The students spoke very freely and openly about the popular print media. Over the course of the week students worked on their take home test that consisted of finding an advertisement and scanning it for issues as we did in class. Then they were to respond in visual, written or performative media. Their projects were interesting and critical and wonderful. I then assigned the midterm essay which asked them to chose one of two questions involving fine art and popular images and issues present within them. Students response to the project was good but attitude towards the paper was poor. I had multiple complaints and a few attempts at mutiny. The pressure of the paper, even though it was in their syllabus from day one, was too much they said.

I was so thrilled that they caught on to something critical and really ran with it. The discussed key issues in stereotypes and marketing and made comments on the ability of art to hide issues and bring out others. Discussion was at an all time high and getting more and more student led. The project results were great. So great in fact that I got their permission to post them in an online gallery attached to this blog. Then the paper was assigned and moral and attendance went down. WHY? Sure and essay is an academically traditional way of expressing ideas. But they had already begun to develop these ideas. They weren't starting from scratch. They need sources to quote but many of them already had a few from the previous project. My initial explanation as to why this happened is to say that they are students and don't want to work hard. But I don't really believe that. Sure their time is valuable and they are not always willing to devote a lot of it to school work but I would say the majority of them like being in school and have a goal they are working toward. What is it about the stigma of an essay that really grounded an entire classroom. I have no real Why explanation for what happened.

What does it mean? It can't mean do not assign essays. They are an intigral part of the required course content and they are not bad just because they are academic. No they do not show off everyone's learning style the best but they are important in college life. I am not just teaching some things about art and then letting them go. I am also responsible for getting them ready for further academic endevours. So my next steps....

Set up early on some time in class for writing triage to make sure students have some confidence in their writing.

Journal (online discussion board, blog, or on paper) If students are writing every week then they have a great lead in to their paper already with plenty of sources and ideas.

Choices of questions ( I already did this) to answer so that students can pick one they feel confident about.

encouragement ( I hope I did this) that essays are an important and popular way in academia to put forth your ideas and this is just one step towards improving upon this skill.

Process ( I teach students that art and art history are process not finished products. I need to support this belief in the work I assign. Their essays can be in process. Maybe peer advising rough drafts and then turning in final drafts to me.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006


This past week I gave my first exam on the first six chapters of the textbook and class lectures. It was an in class short answer test based on four slides. The first question was on a work by Kandinsky in which they were to describe the work in terms of elements and principles and then briefly discuss whether they thought the work to be successful or not. They were asked to do the same with Goya's Third of May. For the last question they were asked to compare Da Vinci's Mona Lisa with Barbara Kruger's Your Body is a Battle Ground

These images were similar to images the students saw in class and had already talked about. A week before students gave peer reviews of art work with a very similar question of elements and principles. They had also in small discussion compared works through critique. The students were very nervous before test but during I saw smiles and positive body language (shoulders up, not slouching on the table, confident strides to turn in their papers and mixed comments afterwards about it not being that hard)

Why did it happen? Responses to the test format were mixed. For the most part students seemed to doubt their writing abilities or handwriting abilities. Some wanted something more concrete or a specific outline to study with. I attempted to show in class activities, conversation, and lecture that if I wanted the right answer I could formulate it myself. Instead I wanted a thoughtful answer. They were unsure of this as it was outside their experience. Because it was their thoughts there was no safety net, they had to think! I did however through some scaffolding attempt to model the response with activities which gave them experience in these types of questions and gave them images they had seen before or something close to what they had seen before. I think the positive responses were due to a safe experience where thinking was encouraged but not thrown upon them.

What does it mean? In the preparation of a class like this the teacher, in this case myself) has to truly think ahead to prepare students to think critically, It must be modeled and they must have space to try it out! It is also true that taking away the quest for the right answer is scary for some. Asking them to think is a much harder request and it needs to be supported with resources and time so they feel ready to do this in a test format.

More theoretically, I think it this example helps me to suggest that college and course standards can be met without enforcing right answers and standard responses. These kinds of classes can be impactful for the students in allowing them to take take the lead in learning without throwing them to the wolves with criticality and power issues. This is a process and like I mentioned in may last entry, we are working to get more critical but it does not happen over night. This exam was a huge step and the students really rose to the challenge with great thoughts mixed with correct vocabulary and criticism.

Implications for practice: I will probably never give a multiple choice test again or assume that an essay it the only way to go. Students responded well to short answer in the classroom. They needed guidance to answer the questions but most went beyond the specific question. I once thought if I modeled too much I would be forcing students in a certain direction of planting ideas instead of fostering them. Modeling is a great tool for getting critical thought. It doesn't mean planting ideas but instead inspiring them and allowing for some comfort when trying out new skills.

I also have to continue to look critically at the images I show. I am in the process of teaching with images given to me and then adding some of my own. As I have time after teaching to sit and reflect I will need to question my image choices. These works worked with this group but they may not work with all students. They are kind of heavy hitters in the world of art history and that needs to be looked at carefully as I carry on. But that is another blog for another day.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Thesis Questions with 10 yards to go

This has been a very challenging topic for me to tackle. To compare my thesis experience to a sports analogy it is like I have the football and am running cross field looking for a place to cut the corner and finding nothing but a wall of really angry defensive linemen ready to knock me down with questions and issues I am not ready for. This may be a little over dramatic but I feel like I have found a place to cut the corner, juke the last blocker and make my way for the 1st down!

I was afraid if I asked a question I would spend my thesis time trying to answer it as if there is one answer to the questions I am concerned with. This is not true. It is a just a place to begin to focus the inquiry a bit and get a handle on the specific areas I want to take on. With that said here is my first draft of my thesis question.

Remember it is in progress...

Thesis Question:
What can be done in the Art Appreciation classroom to make the class content critical and relative to the students?

sub question one:
Space? What effects does the space of a community college have on the art appreciation classroom, student, and teacher?

sub question two:
methods of inquiry? What methods (art historical, ethnographic, anthropological, revisionist) of inquiry open up the topic of art appreciation and allow current issues and students experience to play a vital role?

sub question three:
What skills does an art appreciation teacher need to create a meaningful and critical classroom experience?