Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Teaching with Inflammatory News Coverage

Last month a clip was posted online of the conservative commentator Glenn Beck condemning Rockefeller Center. While it is nice to see part of the canon of American art history in the news, many academics lamented his factual errors and a-historical treatment of the visual program. This leaves a dilemma of how to respond intellectually to it. Should we ignore this type of coverage, thus leaving it uncorrected? Or should it be brought into the classroom so as to rigorously engage with it? I think it would take the better part of an hour to do it justice, but holding a classroom discussion about this material could be a lot of fun to teach.

One possibility would be to have the class read a scholarly essay about Rockefeller Center and also walk through a building on campus that is adorned with art as homework. I would use Posvar Hall at the University of Pittsburgh, built during the 1970s. Ask each student to bring in one page of typed notes, which focus on the content of the art in both places.

Say to the class that whatever the merits of Rockefeller Center's visual environment is, it was clearly meant to be meaningful to the people of New York during the 1930s. Also, whatever the merits of Posvar Hall is, it was clearly meant to be meaningful to the university community during the 1970s. Divide the class into groups. Have each group share a reason that the University of Pittsburgh is an important school, and a reason that New York is an important city. Try to keep the lists parallel in structure, even if that means adding things as the instructor that the students are unaware of. Ask students to compare the total message a viewer is left with from the art in Rockefeller Center with the total message a viewer is left with in Posvar Hall. Make sure that they address which environment is better at speaking to local people, creating an aesthetically pleasing environment, and providing an important message.

Then say that art objects have living histories, and that each generation redefines its relationship to them. The goal is to think, as a class, about whether Rockefeller Center and Posvar Hall continue to speak to the people of today. Say that you have one example of a person with a strong opinion of Rockefeller Center for them to use as a springboard in their discussion. Show the video while they are in groups, with the instruction to write down 5 things that are factually correct with the interpretation by Glenn Beck, 5 things that are factually wrong, and 5 agendas that Beck has. When the video is done have each group share items with the class that they have written down. Then have the class discuss which environment continues to speak better to the people of today—Rockefeller Center or Posvar Hall. Finally have the class vote on which environment they find most personally meaningful.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Grading with Voice Recognition Software

Like most people, I've always done my grading by hand--students hand in a physical paper, I take a stack of them to a cafe or the library, and settle down with my pen. Again like most people, I try to provide useful comments that will help the students in the future.

This quarter I've been trying out the electronic dropbox, where students have to turn the work in online. My main reason for this was admittedly that I wanted to try out the anti-plagiarism software Turnitin, and that requires digital papers. (So far there has been no hint of plagiarism, I am glad to say.) My secondary reason was that I thought it would be worth trying typed comments. My handwriting is not terrible, but my hand does get tired and sometimes I do spill coffee on papers. I've been using Word's tracking and commenting functions. It seems to work reasonably well, except that I find I experience much more eyestrain.

James M. Lang's recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education provides an interesting look at a rather different approach to grading papers electronically--the use of voice recognition software. Lang's colleague, Geoffrey Vaughan, uses Dragon Naturally Speaking to compose responses to papers. Lang states:
"[F]or years now I have been typing up my remarks on students' work. I began doing that because my handwriting is so illegible, but quickly found it had two unforeseen benefits. First, because I can type faster than I can write, I can give more substantial comments on each paper without adding additional grading time. But second, and more important, instead of my students flipping right to the back page of their paper to see the grade and comments together, my students now almost always sit and read my typed comments first (they are stapled to the front of the paper) and only then flip to the end and check the grade. It may be a small change in how they process the graded work, but to me it sends the right message that the written feedback matters more than the grade."

Intrigued by Vaughan's twist on typed comments, Lang asked for a demonstration of how he dealt with student work using Dragon. Vaughan showed how he gave "a full page of text, single spaced, in numbered paragraphs. Each paragraph corresponded to a number he had placed in the margins of the student paper. A short paragraph at the end provides the standard final comment."

Vaughan says
"I used to put some scribbling in the margins of each paper, and I would draw lines from the margin to the bottom or write 'See over' and then write two or three sentences of a final comment at the end of the paper. Now I simply put a number in the margin, and I speak my response to each of those numbered points."

Lang observes, "His paragraphs are conversational, as you might expect, and not perfectly formulated. Vaughn explains to his students that he uses the software, and that they can always come to him to clarify confusing elements in his comments." He notes that
"As we talked, and I read through the samples he had, it became apparent to me that Vaughan's real commitment to this mode of responding to papers relates more to the conversational tone of his responses than to the time-saving element of it. As he explained it to me, the software has inspired him to think about responding to students' work as more of a dialogue than a summary judgment—a model he learned during the year he spent as a graduate student and tutor at the University of Oxford."

During Vaughan's days at Oxford, he'd been accustomed to having students come and read their papers aloud; the tutor would periodically stop them and discuss their ideas as they read. Use of voice recognition software reminded him of that process and makes him feel like he's having a conversation with the student. "It combines the usual American-style, paper-grading process with the model of the Oxford tutorial," he says.

Vaughan's comments reminded Lang of what he finds "the main challenge of evaluating student work"--the two separate functions of the grading process--"to explain to the students the reasons for the grade they received (i.e., you did these things well, and these things poorly) and to help them understand how to improve their performance." Lang observes,
"To turn our response to a student's work into a dialogue in which we are not simply passing judgment but engaging in a conversation about how the student can improve seems like a pedagogical change worth adopting, whether or not it saves time."

Voice recognition software is pretty easy to use these days. I have Dragon's next-to-latest version and use it to dictate long quotations when taking notes. The key to using voice recognition is simply to spend enough time at the beginning getting it used to your voice and the type of vocabulary you use. It's important to make corrections to its mistakes using the software, because that helps train it not to make the same mistakes again.

I don't know whether I'll take to doing my paper comments this way--I am not good at dictating my thoughts--but this might be a great method for others to try.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Van Gogh Correspondence Online

Van Gogh is one of the artists best known to the average undergraduate, and thus a favorite choice for papers. There's now a great new resource available for everyone from freshman enthusiast to advanced specialist: a digital edition of all 902 extant letters from and to Vincent van Gogh is now online at The site provides transcriptions of the original Dutch or French text, a translation into English, a full zoomable facsimile, and comprehensive annotation. There are also some 2000 illustrations of the works of art discussed in the letters.

This edition, based on fifteen years of research, was edited by Leo Jansen, Hans Luijten and Nienke Bakker of the Van Gogh Museum, in association with the Huygens Institute. (Editorial procedures are explained under 'About this edition'. A six-volume book edition is published in three languages (Dutch, French and English). More information about the books is available at

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Multiple Intelligences

The other day I attended a workshop on Multiple Intelligences, or what one of the handouts called "Eight Ways of Being Smart." The basic idea here is that the types of intelligence measured on IQ tests are not the only kinds of intelligence, and that the wise instructor will try to get through to students through more than one of these.

I think many people these days are familiar with the idea that some people are strongly visual, others more auditory, and still others predominantly kinesthetic. The theory of Multiple Intelligences, propounded by Harvard scholar Howard Gardner, takes this further and proposes that people strong in...

=>Verbal-linguistic intelligence learn best through reading, hearing and seeing words, speaking, writing, discussing, and debating
=>Math-logical intelligence learn best through working with patterns and relationships, classifying, categorizing, and working with the abstract
=>Spatial intelligence learn best by working with pictures and colors, visualizing, using the mind's eye, and drawing
=>Bodily-kinesthetic intelligence learn best by touching, moving, processing knowledge through bodily sensations
=>Musical intelligence learn best via rhythm, melody, singing, listening to music and melodies
=>Interpersonal intelligence learn best by sharing, comparing, relating, interviewing, and cooperating
=>Intrapersonal intelligence learn best through working alone, doing self-paced projects, having a chance to reflect
=>Naturalist intelligence learn best by working in nature, exploring living things, and learning about plants and natural events.

Gardner hypothesizes these "intelligences" somewhat differently than what we might expect if this were just an expansion of the visual-auditory-kinesthetic modes of processing. Rather than having just one dominant mode, the average person would be likely to have strengths in several. One could be strongest, but not necessarily.

While there is research supporting Gardner's ideas, there is not a consensus on their validity. Gardner has been criticized for not really defining intelligence anew. Nonetheless, most educators would probably agree that the first seven at least represent familiar kinds of abilities and that each person has a specific configuration of strengths and weaknesses in these. We also recognize sub-areas: many people who speak well don't write well and vice versa, skill with color doesn't always accompany skill at recalling visual imagery, etc. Primary school teachers have long tried to work with their pupils to strengthen all of these areas. And there seems little reason to abandon strengthening all of these areas at the college level.

At the end of the workshop, my own main question was how we might practically incorporate this into teaching art history. We're in a discipline, after all, that is primarily visual (falls under so-called spatial intelligence) and verbal. There's a certain amount of the logic side of the math-logic area (patterns and relationships, classifying, categorizing, and abstract thinking all have their place in art history), and successful art historians are usually good at working alone on self-paced projects (intrapersonal). But I'm not worried about how those of us who are already art historians function, I'm thinking about all those students sitting there in dark rooms and auditoriums looking at slides. They look at the slides and listen to us talk, and that's about it. If they're already good at processing that kind of input, fine. But it's hard to drag in some of the other learning modes.

To some extent, some of us do have our students do some group work. This gives us a bit of a break from lecturing, and the more extroverted, team-oriented students tend to like it. We don't, however, find very many ways of including music or movement into our classes.

One of the most memorable experiences I had in an art history class was when I first began to attend art history classes, and sat in on the survey class. When we reached the Romanesque, the professor turned on a portable tape recorder and played Gregorian chant while giving us a nonverbal tour of slides of cathedral interiors. I've always thought this was a wonderful way to introduce Romanesque architecture. Almost any period of art after Romanesque could have a musical introduction, but it would take some knowledge and planning. As for movement, that's more of a challenge. Or am I wrong on that?

What are some of the ways YOU have used some of these modalities in teaching art history, especially at the beginning level? What do you think would work well to help students learn?

Monday, July 27, 2009

Academic Email Lists

A recent article in the online Chronicle of Higher Education made me think about academic listservs and their uses. Some scholars believe they've ceased to be very useful, while others say they're indispensable.
The question here, however, is how to use these lists in our teaching. Most of our undergrad students probably don't need to be subscribing to academic lists such as H-ArtHist (especially since so much of the traffic is in German or announces conferences taking place in Europe in a couple of days' time). But the undergrads who are headed for grad school, and certainly students who are beginning graduate work, ought to be learning about these lists. H-ArtHist is a start, because it is purely art-historical, but it is extremely broad and will not immediately strike most students as useful--it is geared mainly to scholars who already have a PhD, and to some extent to the advanced grad student.
But since art history intersects with other history, our students should be encouraged to explore the other history and humanities lists that relate to their research interests. Many of these lists are lively, and have discussions of particular books or topics. H-Net is one of the best places to locate such lists, but many other lists also exist and are just a bit harder to find.

Comments, please?

Sunday, December 14, 2008

The “Extra” Art History Textbook: A Writing Manual Roundup

Art history textbooks are dry, encyclopedic, and non-controversial. They include every work of art except our favorites. We hear these complaints often, but nonetheless we use them. One way to spice up a course is to add extra readings. Some extras are practical references, such as writing manuals. Others cover theory or support specific assignments. This is the first in a series of posts on extra textbooks.

I know of two books specifically geared toward teaching writing in art history courses. They are Sylvan Barnet’s A Short Guide to Writing About Art and Henry Sayre’s Writing About Art. Their strength lies in addressing common problems that students face in the art history classroom. I have found them to be useful guides for viewing assignments and research papers in introductory classes—which is their goal. For classes built around more complex writing, however, the books below are more appropriate.

Pedagogical research has shown that it is useful to break writing assignments into steps. Requiring multiple drafts of an assignment or smaller preparatory assignments that emphasize specific viewing, analytical, or research skills makes the process we expect more transparent and manageable for our students. One of the strengths of this approach to teaching writing is that it allows the instructor to discuss specific writing skills and strategies over the course of a semester. To do this I find that books which encourage students to think critically about their writing process to be most appropriate. Jeff Bollow’s Writing FAST: How to Write Anything with Lightning Speed and John Trimble’s Writing with Style are my favorites.

Students enjoy Writing FAST because it is written breezily and is filled with practical advice. Bollow is a screenwriter, but his method is intended to be useful for everyone. His argument is that beginning writers are often frustrated and waste time because they do not know the steps required or take them out of order. “FAST” is an acronym for these steps (Focusing ideas, Applying ideas to a structured writing format, Strengthening the writing through multiple drafts, and Tweaking the final version for good style). He includes sub-steps for clarity and summaries of each chapter. I have had success assigning the book in small chunks over an entire semester. When possible I discuss the ideas in class, but sometimes time runs short. In that case the students respond to the reading using an on-line discussion board that I require them to participate in.

Writing with Style is another superb guide. It acknowledges that the “rules” and “superstitions” about writing that students pick up in high school have some merit. The major strength of the book, however, is teaching when to break the rules. Compelling ideas should be conveyed with compelling language. And that often means experimenting with strategies that students fear—like dashes and ultra-short sentences. Examples of excellent writing are included throughout the text, and it is written in a conversational style. Trimble also discusses the mistakes that intermediate writers make in a straightforward way. The book ends with a chapter of quotations by famous authors about writing, discussing how they struggle with the process but ultimately find it rewarding.

I have not used them as textbooks, but a couple of other resources are worth noting for special situations. For students struggling with basic grammar and punctuation, William Strunk and E.B. White’s The Elements of Style remains the standard. Its strength is thoroughness, but the text is dry. For students struggling to finish well-structured essays during exams I recommend Sanford Kaye’s Writing under Pressure: The Quick Writing Process. It discusses the writing and grading of essay exams from both a student’s and an instructor’s viewpoint, which is insightful to both.


Barnet, Sylvan. A Short Guide to Writing About Art. 9th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson, 2008.

Bollow, Jeff. Writing FAST: How to Write Anything with Lightning Speed. St. Pauls: Embryo Films 2004.

Kaye, Sanford. Writing under Pressure: The Quick Writing Process. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Sayre, Henry M. Writing About Art. 6th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2009.

Strunk, William, and E. B. White. The Elements of Style. 50th Anniversary ed. New York: Pearson Longman, 2009.

Trimble, John R. Writing with Style: Conversations on the Art of Writing. 2nd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2000.

Please respond in the comments with your own thoughts on teaching writing.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Grading Essay Exams

Let's talk. How do people grade essay exams that include points for image IDs?

Some people place considerable weight on correct ID; the more recent trend seems to be away from ID and giving full weight to the essays. I fall in between, feeling that it is important for students to have some grasp of the ID and to be able to demonstrate that. This, however, can creating grading problems.

I've just finished grading 40 midterms. My overall reaction to these exams was quite positive: nearly every student wrote pretty good essays that showed they had listened in class, read the readings, and thought about the concepts. Of course, some students have a more advanced understanding of concepts than others, some have a better eye for detail, some write faster, and some even write in well-turned phrases. But the vast majority showed they understood the material pretty well, and even those who didn't weren't producing failing essays.

But perhaps I made a mistake in saying that the ID portion was less important to me than the essays. People freely left out dates (within 10 years generally gets full credit on this exam) and medium ("statue" is not a medium, thank you--"stone" is acceptable and I prefer "basalt" or "marble"). Most people did well on titles, and not so dreadfully on artists. But still. A significant number of people, including some of the best essayists, missed enough on ID (1/2 point each for title, artist, date, and medium) that there is no way that I can apply the usual 90% and over = varieties of A formula. This means that in order to be fair to the quality of the essays, I have to figure out some kind of grading curve.

I am not numerically inclined. The real evaluation of these exams lies in the extensive comments, which I think will help this (clearly motivated) class improve no matter what their current status. But I do have to give them grades that make sense and that indicate which parts of the exam were better done than others--hence the point system.

I'm curious how others are grading this type of ID plus essay exam, which is, after all, a very standard format in art history.