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.