Friday, December 28, 2007

Software for Sketching

Few art history students use tablet pcs. As far as I can tell, the tablet or convertible is still more the province of engineering students.
I suspect this will eventually change, however, as more and more students find out the advantages of taking notes directly onto the computer. One outcome I can imagine is that some students will want to sketch details of the art. For that, Student Tablet PC provides a nice roundup of several programs designed for sketching.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

To Pre-Post or Not to Pre-Post?

All right, fall semester is ending and we've been very much distracted, but here we are again. The question has arisen: when one has the PowerPoint presentation for class prepared significantly in advance, is it wise to post it online? (This is in relation to presentations that definitely will be online after class.)
One of my students suggested that it would be good to have the images ahead of time, and I didn't have any objection in principle. A colleague, however, states that this leads to students simply printing out the presentation and feeling that there's no need to take notes on the lecture.
I said, what, when the only data on the presentation is the image, the artist, the title, and the year?
She said yes, even so.
Let's have some discussion on this!

Saturday, June 30, 2007

For Students: Organizing Notes on Computer

Robert at Student Tablet PC provides a nice summary of how he sets up an electronic filing system to deal with his course notes. Robert points out that while his example uses the GoBinder software program, the same effect can be achieved with other programs, as Damon shows in a detailed comment to Robert's post. Both file via the course (Robert by its number, Damon by its name) and have sub-areas (Robert divides by lecture date and also by other types of material such as Essays). Damon uses a combination of Outlook and OneNote to handle his notes.
While both Robert and Damon use tablet PCs to write and file their notes, their general strategies can be adapted by students who use regular laptops or even desktop machines. In these cases, the student might either scan the lecture notes or just keep them as paper, but the filing strategy could be used for keeping track of other materials related to the course, such as the images being studied.
Robert will be doing a follow-up that deals specifically with note-taking.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007


Since it's summer in the Northern Hemisphere, we're either not thinking much about teaching or teaching summer school and therefore overcome by all the prep and grading.

There'll be more soon enough.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Remembering Dates

One of the most painful study problems for many art history students (especially, but by no means only, non-majors) is the recall of what can be hundreds of works per course.

We'll be returning to this issue in later posts, but for now, a couple of tips on recalling dates.

My own method, which was a pain in itself but was reasonably effective, involved creating a spreadsheet of all the works covered. With it sorted by artist and date, I could see where things tended to fall in the larger chronology.

A more interesting method, which uses a more visual mnemonic technique, comes from medievalist Robert Burdock's Paperless Undergrad blog. Robert reasons that one generally studies a work with an image of it at hand, and that one thus ought to have the date equally handy for study.

If the student is studying from a textbook, the date is indeed usually close at hand... but not usually very noticeable. Captions tend to be unobtrusive.

Robert, who puts digital copies of his artworks on his tablet PC (tablet PCs, for those not yet familiar with them, are akin to laptops but take pen input instead of or addition to typing, and are increasingly popular among students). Robert's mnemonic strategy is to look for some feature within the work itself--a squiggle that looks like a 3, for instance--that will remind him of the work's date. He can then mark it digitally to help himself remember while studying.

As Robert notes, the technique doesn't work for absolutely every work of art, but it does help him remember quite a few works in a much more active, creative manner.
Robert explains his method in detail, with examples, so I won't duplicate his efforts. Robert's method could probably be adopted for very successful use with an electronic flashcard program.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Words Students (and Others) Often Confuse

Some words are tricky. For example, students new to art history have to learn that formal analysis means an analysis of form, and has nothing to do with formal dress. But that's an easy one. Once learned, it's seldom forgotten. More troublesome are pairs that are easily confused and that frequently appear incorrectly in print or on the internet, reinforcing people's mistakes.

Tenants and Tenets: A tenant is someone living in a space, a tenet is a foundational idea.

Simple and Simplistic: Simple is... well, simple. Easy. Uncomplicated. Plain. Simplistic refers to a notion someone has simplified to the point of being rather stupid. Simplistic explanations are not good, simple ones may be.

Compliment and Complement: A compliment is when someone tells you you're smart or they like your sense of style. A complement is an addition, generally of a positive sort. For instance, your new shoes may complement (add to and go with) your wardrobe, but as they are not animate, they do not compliment it.

Phase and faze: A phase is time related; we can refer to a phase in someone's life or career. When you are fazed, you are generally disturbed by something (one more often says that a person was unfazed, meaning the disturbing event or situation didn't seem to bother the person unduly).

Affect and Effect: To affect something is to have an effect on it. (Yes, really!) Affect is also a psychological term referring to how someone presents him/herself ("depressed affect"), but this sense is unlikely to be used in art history. One can affect change (pretend change or have an effect upon it) but more often one will effect change (make it happen). The two words are devilishly similar in some of their meanings, and more troublesome in that Effect is often carelessly pronounced just like Affect (as if both were spelled Uffect). Also, the psychological term Affect stresses the first syllable, whereas otherwise the stress is generally on the second.

Handy guides include
Carnegie Mellon's Tricky Words
Alan Cooper's Homonym List

Please add more of these in the comments section!

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Rooting Out Plagiarism

This morning Google brought up a list of "Sponsored Links" that reminded me of one of those perennial teaching problems: how to keep students from plagiarizing.

It's disheartening to see Google accepting sponsorship from links that offer the likes of

"Essays written for you,"

"Custom College Essays
Low Prices. 100% Satisfaction.
No plagiarism. 100% Original."

"100% original essays. No Plagiarism
Only 9.95 p/pg and Free delivery."

"High Quality Essays w/out the Work.
Free Samples - Find Your Essay!"

It's also a bit mindboggling to see these outfits claiming "no plagiarism," as while their staff may not have plagiarized in creating the essays, this doesn't alter the fact that the purchaser is turning in someone else's work as his or her own. This is what we don't allow, never mind whether the original author consented to the deception by putting the piece up for sale.

The tricky part for us, however, to construct written assignments that are relatively plagiarism-proof. I'm not sure it's possible to design an utterly plagiarism-proof writing assignment done outside of class (I know a musicologist who assigns concert reports, and still has problems with students who plagiarize from album liner notes and such), but we can make it more likely that most of the work will be original.

For starters, have the students write something in class the first or second day. In my Writing Practicum (a one-credit course whose students are simultaneously enrolled in a specific lower-division art history survey, such as Intro, Intro to Modern, or Intro to Asian), I have the students do a description and formal analysis of a work I choose. While few of the students have ever done such a thing before, and it is an ungraded exercise, it provides me with an idea of each person's initial writing style and level of experience in writing about art. This is both a yardstick for observing improvement, and a way of catching unnatural leaps in sophistication. Other types of in-class writing (including essay quizzes and exams) can also be used as controls.

Try to come up with topics or approaches that are unlikely to have been done by others. This isn't as hard as it sounds. For instance, in the Writing Practicum I give an assignment in comparison. One of the works to be compared is the same for everyone in the class. This one is generally a canonical work. The comparison work can be chosen from a list of about ten, some of which are much less famous. While more than one student may choose the same pair, I give new choices every time I teach the class, so students cannot get a prewritten comparison from someone who took the class before. It is also relatively unlikely that these comparisons will be available elsewhere, although one cannot rule out the possibility of individual phrases being lifted.

Having students write about works seen at a local museum or gallery is also relatively safe. The older or more famous the work, the greater the chance of plagiarism, but even so, unless the work is particularly famous, finding a source to plagiarize may be more trouble than writing something original. Pedagogically, too, there is considerable value in having students write about works they can see in person. Even apart from the Benjaminian "aura" of the original work, matters of scale and texture come into play when the student can see the original.

At a more advanced level of instruction, many professors require students to turn in a series of related assignments, such as a proposal, a preliminary bibliography, and finally a research paper. This type of compartmentalization has both pedagogical and anti-plagiarism benefits. The student learns to write proposals (depending on how detailed the proposal has to be, of course), and there is less chance of a wholly plagiarized paper. When time can be set aside for students to talk about the progress of their papers, and discuss both problems encountered and exciting discoveries, this can be very helpful to students who are stuck--and also discourages plagiarism.

Saturday, May 5, 2007

Journal on Austria-Related Teaching

Austrian art may not leap to most people's minds when planning a syllabus. After a moment's thought, however, names begin to come to mind--Klimt, Schiele, and Kokoschka, for example. When we think beyond the borders of present-day Austria and contemplate the Austro-Hungarian empire and its successor states, the possibilities become quite intriguing. The region is still not much studied by American art historians, but a growing number of us are working on topics relating to this area.

How to find resources if you're not a Central European specialist?

Teaching Austria is a peer-reviewed e-journal published by the Modern Austrian Literature and Culture Association. It is devoted to the teaching of Austrian, Austro-Hungarian, Central European, and Habsburg culture, history, and society, and appears annually to present contributions on teaching at all levels and from all disciplines. Vol. 2 has just come online, with nine articles available to download free.

If you already teach Austria in any of its incarnations, consider contributing to the 2007 Volume (#3) of Teaching Austria. Teaching Austria solicits
"essays in English or German that outline ideas for and best practices in teaching at all levels of the curriculum, including, but not limited to, language instruction, undergraduate major and minor courses, graduate courses, Austrian studies courses given in English, course and curriculum design, study abroad programs, and materials design. Essays and notes from any discipline are welcome, as are contributions that deal with Austria in comparative contexts."

… Suggested length: between 2 and 15 double-spaced pages for the essay text (back matter excepted); other options may be considered in consultation.
Author Guidelines.
… Suggested Due Date: 1 July 2007, for a publication by the end of 2007 or early 2008; dates are somewhat negotiable; publication will be rolling, as soon as revisions are made.

All contributions should be submitted to the editor electronically (MS-Word or RTF format):
EMAIL SUBMISSION: to Katherine Arens
Katherine Arens
Department of Germanic Studies
E. P. Schoch 3.102
1 University Station C3300
U of Texas at Austin
Austin, TX 78712-0304

And don't forget about Historians of German & Central European Art & Architecture, an affiliated society of the College Art Association.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Digitization Gear

Increasingly, we need to get images and texts into digital form. Here are some methods of doing this. As far as I know, everything out there is either based on use of some form of scanner or digital camera, each of which has its merits.

All or most of us have used some sort of scanner. The results are usually good, but the process is slow and it can be really hard to position a heavy art book on the scanner while simultaneously using the scanner software. Some special-purpose scanners include:

The Plustek OpticBook is designed specifically for scanning books. How? The scanning surface goes all the way to the edge of the scanner and it's designed to scan the book page without getting a dark or fuzzy edge near the gutter. This scanner is extremely popular with students who use tablet computers, as they can easily (although not all that quickly) scan their textbooks and no longer have to carry them. It's a relatively inexpensive scanner and hasn't gotten stellar reviews for image quality, but it appears to be good enough for most purposes. It is probably not large enough to handle the really big art books.

The Digital Sender is a spiffy machine that will rapidly take your photocopies and make PDF files from them. I believe this is what the University of Pittsburgh library uses to create its electronic reserve readings. The quality depends on the original photocopy, of course, but I've been very much impressed with the results after using it to digitize hundreds of pages of photocopied articles. I recommend using Acrobat's Capture feature on the resulting PDFs so that the text will be searchable and highlightable. Anyone teaching a course at Pitt is eligible to use the Digital Sender at CIDDE. My guess is that other schools also have these magic scanners.

Camera-based tools include:
ATIZ offers BookDrive DIY, a setup that cradles the book and uses two digital cameras to produce the images. Their website describes it as "fast, affordable and upgradable." It looks as though this is a variant on the old-style camera stand, but designed specifically for getting good results from books. Both cameras go simultaneously, and you see your results on the computer screen. It comes in two sizes and I think you supply your own cameras and computer. At 35kg/77lbs this is not a very portable solution, but could be a good departmental purchase.

Snapter, a new software from ATIZ, is designed to turn photos from your digital camera into usable documents. Among other things, it claims to flatten curled pages, improve lighting, and save in various formats. If Snapter does all it claims, it will be a boon to those of us who photograph books or bound periodicals at libraries and archives. For example, I've photographed historic bound periodicals, some of them with rather tight bindings, and plan to use some of them for class exercises in visual literacy. (Students examine two or three periodicals in a language none of them is likely to know, and analyze the editorial direction and readership from the design.) An early review indicates it has trouble working with musical scores, so it may not be ideal for pages that are mostly art, but test results on text seem to be satisfactory. Snapter offers a 14-day free trial and is $49 otherwise.

Note: I subsequently tested Snapter version 1.03.04 on book photos, results of which can be seen elsewhere. Art reproductions did not pose a problem, but other things did.

Another note: It looks as though ABBYY FineReader Professional may be the way to handle documents photographed with a digital camera. This OCR program, which is multilingual, can now create searchable PDF files from digital photos. Perhaps less useful for teaching than for research, but I can't wait to try this!

Friday, April 27, 2007

Image Resources Online at Library of Congress

The Library of Congress has loads of amazing images online, and is adding more regularly (see Exhibitions page). Here are just a few of the many to consider when putting together courses.

The Empire That Was Russia: The Prokudin-Gorskii Photographic Record Recreated is an amazing collection of early twentieth-century color photographs from Czarist Russia. Prokudin-Gorskii traveled all over the empire photographing its inhabitants using a system of three cameras with separate filters. This would be great for use in history of photography courses and for Russian art.

Online exhibition on Leonardo's Study for Adoration of the Magi.

Arthur Szyk: Artist for Freedom. Work by a Jewish antifascist cartoonist and miniaturist, mostly around the time of World War II.

The Floating World of Ukiyo-E: Shadows, Dreams, and Substance. "This exhibition showcases the Library's spectacular holdings of Japanese prints, books, and drawings from the 17th to the 19th centuries. These works are complemented by related works from the Library's collections created by Japanese and Westerns artists into the 20th century."

Frank Lloyd Wright: Designs for an American Landscape, 1922-1932.

A Heavenly Craft: The Woodcut in Early Printed Books.

The Work of Charles and Ray Eames: A Legacy of Invention. Showcases the designs of this legendary team. Lots of images.

Life of the People: Realist Prints and Drawings from the Ben and Beatrice Goldstein Collection, 1912-1948. Includes works by Sloan, Benton, and other American artists of the first half of the twentieth century. This would make a good supplement to Frances Pohl's Framing America text.

The Library of Congress has many more exhibitions, plus images such as early photographs and daguerreotypes, early sheet music covers, and so forth.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Why We're Here

Why a blog about teaching art history? And who writes this blog?

Art history like many other academic disciplines, has its own unique requirements, many of which center around the fact that our students need to be able to see reproductions of and/or original works of art, which tends to mean spending a lot of time in a darkened classroom. Historically, this has meant an emphasis on lecture courses, with seminars only for more advanced students. While lectures in darkened rooms are unlikely to disappear anytime soon, with increased use of technology in the classroom (PowerPoint, ArtStor, and Courseweb, to name a few examples), changes in pedagogy are underway.

At University of Pittsburgh, a good percentage of the grad students in History of Art and Architecture are preparing for teaching careers. Everyone in the program can expect to spend some time as a teaching assistant, and will probably also teach at least one stand-alone course. Consequently, we'd all like to improve our skills! We have an interest in finding out about and sharing best practices or innovative ideas, whether technological or not. Sometimes the best way to do something will be an old and familiar way, and sometimes it will be new and surprising. Our hope is to create a forum where we can share tips, resources, and lots of good ideas in an easy to access format.

For example, at University of Pittsburgh, we have CIDDE (the Center for Instructional Development & Distance Education) and a new, department-specific pedagogy course, but many of us haven't taken the course, and some aren't in residence so can't attend events at CIDDE. This is probably a very typical situation--certain resources are in place but not always accessible. A blog, we hope, will help put a variety of resources at our fingertips and provide a friendly forum for discussion as well.

How will it work? We'll post irregularly, as ideas occur to us. We'll have a variety of topics, applicable to different aspects of the field. The blog will be searchable by category (for example, ArtStor, Courseweb/Blackboard, Lecturing, Tests, General Tips) and will include links to other useful sites. Using categories allows easy access to a wide variety of topics, some of which may prove to be a bit more tangential (job interview tips, for example). Readers can comment on the posts, which will provide additional ideas and information.

We hope this blog will prove useful and enjoyable both for the grad students at University of Pittsburgh and for anyone else interested in improving their ability to teach art history and/or visual culture.