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.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Art History Wikis and Other Dabbling in Web 2.0

Art Historians are only now beginning to experiment with the potential for Web 2.0 to change our teaching, as indicated by a glut of technology-related topics to be presented at the 2009 meetings of the College Art Association.

I have long been interested in how the Internet shapes knowledge. And one of the topics that I am interested in is the Wikipedia and various other projects by the Wikimedia Foundation. Most of my own contributions have amounted to tinkering rather than full-blown composition, but I can happily say that I improved entries on a handful of art-related topics. (See, for example, the wikipedia entry for the Discipline of Art History as well as entries on Oscar Howe, John Steuart Curry, Currier and Ives, Robert Stacy-Judd, Andre Breton, Giorgio Vasari, Duncan Grant, and Jean-Frederic Waldeck .)

Although I have mixed feelings about the reliability of wikis for classroom use, I nonetheless recognize that the entries can be valuable--particularly at early stages of research--and that students will use them even if they are forbidden. My solution to encourage my students to be rigorous with information has been to require them to find a large number of sources (perhaps 20) with half of them coming from the Internet and half being peer-reviewed and paper-based. They then compare their content in an annotated bibliography as a step toward writing their final papers.

A lesser-known project of Wikimedia is Wikibooks--aiming to create wiki-based textbooks for the major disciplines. There is an Art History Textbook in progress, but it has stagnated for several years. I am curious whether the book will be rejuvenated by the discussions scheduled to take place at the CAA, as well as whether the project should be rejuvenated. While textbooks are indeed overpriced and often mediocre, can a wiki do better? How can we ensure what a student sees in preparation for an exam if we use a wiki textbook? Because of such questions my instinct is that I would not teach from a wiki, but I nonetheless see the potential for internet-based resources. One interesting Internet-based resource designed to be used as a multimedia textbook supplement comes from the art history faculty at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Called smARThistory, it is filled with video and audio on topics from ancient antiquity to the present. I suspect that many instructors will eventually opt-out of textbooks in favor of content that they develop themselves to post on course-management servers (for example Blackboard and Moodle), items from sites such as smARThistory, and resources they glean from institutional repositories.

Teaching the Loss of Iraq’s Heritage

Last week I had the privilege of spending a few days with Dr. Donny George, who is the former director of the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad—an institution which holds some of the most celebrated antiquities of the Near East. Dr. George fled the country in June 2006 because he had received death threats and is now a professor in the Anthropology department at SUNY Stony Brook. The museum he directed was of course looted from April 10th to 16th 2003 following the U.S.-led invasion when it was left unguarded and unprotected. As art historians, many of us feel an obligation to include these events in our survey courses and to discuss the loss with our students. But for those of us who are not Near Eastern specialists it can be difficult to devise a curriculum. And from my experience wading through news reports and websites I can attest that there is much misinformation published, and it is a struggle to determine what actually happened.

In preparation for meeting Dr. George I read several books on both the history of Near Eastern art as well as the looting of the museum, and the most insightful materials that I found were in an exhibition catalog titled Catastrophe! The Looting and Destruction of Iraq’s Past published by the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago. It includes the details of the tragedy, high quality color illustrations, and essays by scholars that have been involved in the recovery. The essays are particularly valuable because they are short and written for a general audience—the perfect type of material to use as supplementary reading in a class. A friend of mine assigned one of them and the students enjoyed discussing it very much.

The catalog describes how, due to the foresight of the museum staff, many of the most valuable and important objects had been removed from display cases before the invasion. Some were put in off-site storage in the Central Bank. Objects too large to move were surrounded by padding and sand bags to minimize damage in the case of bombing. Nevertheless, when thieves entered the museum they were able to locate and abscond with approximately 15,000 objects, including “textbook” pieces of fine art, such as the Warka Vase and Mask. Files were overturned and mixed, thus erasing institutional memory.

The looting was widely-condemned in the international press, and the American occupying government was rightly criticized for not devising and implementing a plan to protect these objects of world-heritage. Of particular negligence is the fact that the museum remained unprotected for three days after the museum staff requested assistance in securing the museum and two days after U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell publicly stated that the museum would be secured. Since that time nearly half of the looted objects have been recovered, but the museum remains closed to the public. Although the galleries were being prepared for reopening, due to political instability they have been permanently walled off with masonry to deter theft if the museum must be left unguarded again.

Besides the losses from the museum, looting continues on a large-scale at archaeological sites—particularly in southern Iraq. Unprovenanced objects taken from these areas are often of great beauty and garner high prices on the black market for antiquities. But without the information about where they came from they are of little use for furthering knowledge.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Discussion Boards in Blackboard

Over the summer, I attended a Blackboard workshop ("Courseweb" as it's called at University of Pittsburgh, but the software is the same) in the hopes of upgrading my skills and seeing what was new.

Many of the Blackboard features seem geared more to large lecture classes or to classes that employ considerable quantitative testing, but I was intrigued by the Discussion Board feature and decided to try it out. In the past, I had taught Intro to Modern using the Arnason survey as my textbook, supplemented by two additional readings per week, one read by one half of the class and one read by the other. Each group had to present their reading to the other half of the class.

While on the whole that had worked well (although one half of the alphabet proved to be much more prepared to discuss than the other, which is something that just can't be predicted), it did take up class time to have the two groups discuss how they were going to present the readings. This seemed like something that the Discussion Board feature could really assist with.

Both of the courses I teach this semester are done with this same two-group method. Intro to Modern is an evening class and as it needs a short break, I let the groups supplement their online discussion with face-to-face prep during the break. American Art is twice per week and thus all of their discussion is online prior to presenting. Usually one group presents on Tuesday and the other on Thursday, although there will be a few days when both present on the same day (today will be the first of those).

Both classes are making good use of the Discussion Board feature. They recognize that this is part of their participation grade and for the most part are diligent about posting analyses and comments about the readings. Even though we are not yet halfway into the semester, I'm already seeing improvement in the quality of the overall discussion and increasing attention to how their own posts relate to what has already been said. To some extent they critique the readings, which gives me some sense which readings work well or even which ones are dry and somewhat unpopular but produced good discussion. The students are beginning to really relate these readings to themes in the course (particularly in the American Art class) and to bring in thoughts from other work they have done (for example in religious studies, environmental studies, and ethnic studies) and to think about how present-day works such as Maya Lin's Vietnam Veterans memorial compares to early 19th-century memorial art.

Both classes, but especially the Intro to Modern class, are getting to know their classmates quickly and work well with them, and are becoming increasingly comfortable about speaking up during the presentations, although naturally some students are more comfortable presenting than others. Since the shyer students know that their Discussion Board contributions are read, they know that while I do expect them to help present, it is not as problematic to give a nervous presentation as it would be if that were all they were assessed by. Their online comments are there for me and the rest of the group to read, and in class the group can chime in with additional comments to round out the presentation.

I will definitely be using the Discussion Board feature in the future and recommend it highly. It does take a little extra work on my part, but really not much, and it will help me grade my students much more fairly in the end.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Scanning with Acrobat 8

For the past year or so, I've been using ABBYY Finereader to scan documents, rather than Acrobat, in part because I was often scanning multilingual texts (something Finereader does quite well at), and in part because the version of Acrobat I had been using (6, I believe) kept wanting to reset the scanner software to black-and-white and was generally annoying.

I thought, however, that I'd see what Acrobat 8 did, and I was pleasantly surprised. Acrobat 8 no longer wants to reset the scanner software to a useless black-and-white, but offers its own controls, which include specifics on OCR and target language, and gives the option of viewing the scanner software settings as well, which I recommend doing.

Acrobat 8 was amazingly easy to set up to scan English-language chapters and articles. I was able to switch from grayscale to color for pages with color illustrations, and the program runs the OCR automatically once you tell it you're done scanning. My test searches seemed to be quite accurate.

Acrobat 8 offers more languages than the version I had used before (it now includes Czech!), so for monolingual documents it seems to be very fast and easy. For documents with text in multiple languages (I am thinking more of names with umlauts, cedillas, and so forth), I suspect it would be best to use ABBYY or Omnipage on a multi-language setting in order to make sure these are properly searchable.

At a less high-quality level, there remains the option of taking existing photocopies and running them through a Digital Sender, then separately using an OCR program on them to make them searchable. I still say the Digital Sender is an amazing machine; over the summer I used ours on hundreds more pages of old articles.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Photos of Medieval Georgian Churches

The Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz gives us the opportunity to broaden our medieval architectural offerings with an online exhibition of photos of medieval Georgian churches (that's the Georgia on the Black Sea, not the American one, of course). A joint research project commissioned a photographic survey in 2006, which was "completed under the most challenging conditions and in regions that were to a certain extent impenetrable." The result is "a globally unique documentation of the medieval monuments of Georgia" with more than one thousand photographs, which can be seen either in the online exhibition or by searching the digital photo library. The latter link gives details on copyright for the database images, which extend far beyond the Georgian collection.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Images from Wikipedia

Professors have mixed feelings about Wikipedia. It's a wonderful resource, but the changeable and potentially incorrect nature of the information makes it a source we hesitate to let students cite.

Without getting into this debate just now, I'd like to point out that Wikipedia offers a surprisingly good selection of useful images, which are by definition freely available for download.

While Wikipedia is unlikely to replace other resources for images of paintings, it can be great for photos of sculpture and buildings. This morning, for example, I was able to get several hi-res photos of works by Czech cubist sculptor Otto Gutfreund, and also to get hi-res photos of buildings designed by the Czech modernist architect Josef Gočár. These are original photos taken onsite by Wikipedia contributors, not scans from books. They come with photo date and various other information about the shot, so that in your PowerPoint presentation you can contrast your scan of a 1920s photo of Gočár's Legiobanka with the Wikipedia photo Petr Vilgus took in 2006.

Wikipedia is, of course, always looking for contributions. Consider photographing significant buildings or monuments in your town and uploading them to the page for that architect. You can find out about Wikipedia's photo policies here, useful whether you are uploading or just downloading.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The Early Americas at Library of Congress

Useful for those doing courses in American or Precolumbian art, the Library of Congress's Exploring the Early Americas
"features selections from the more than 3,000 rare maps, documents, paintings, prints, and artifacts that make up the Jay I. Kislak Collection at the Library of Congress. It provides insight into indigenous cultures, the drama of the encounters between Native Americans and European explorers and settlers, and the pivotal changes caused by the meeting of the American and European worlds. The exhibition includes two extraordinary maps by Martin Waldseemüller created in 1507 and 1516, which depict a world enlarged by the presence of the Western Hemisphere."
If you follow the links to the Exhibition Themes, there are images of numerous objects with copious information. There are also interactive presentations.

It's not clear from the website how long this exhibition will be up at the Library, but the online content should be up indefinitely.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Views of Florence Online Exhibition

Just in time for those summerschool courses in Italian Art and Architecture (at least those starting in early summer) comes an online exhibition by the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz. Views of Florence from the print collection of the Photothek runs April 28, 2008 ­to July 6, 2008. The Institut describes it as follows:
The online exhibition focuses on “Florentine Views”, which represent the largest group by far within this heterogeneous collection. The exhibition is structured by subject. It begins with a range of views which clearly illustrate the changes as well as the constants in the visual appearance of the city between the 15th century and the 19th century. The exhibition includes a copy from 1758 after the famous Florentine chain map (created around 1485, now in the Museum of Prints and Drawings (Kupferstichkabinett) in Berlin), which was adapted in many later views of the city.
The city maps allow a differentiated view over the city and its monuments, documenting the urban growth of Florence over more than 300 years. Stefano Bonsignori’s map from 1584 uses an axonometric perspective to provide both accurate views of the buildings and the exact route of the roads.
Particularly numerous are the 19th century maps, which illustrate the urban development of the city.
The following sections of the exhibition deal with architectural ensembles such as the cathedral complex, the squares, the palaces, the bridges and the gardens. Several plates document the condition of Florence Cathedral before completion of the neogothic front in 1887. Our prints also include a bequeathed view of the rchitecture of the San Pier Maggiore church, which was demolished in 1783. This demonstrates the special source value of the collection.
The last section of the online exhibition is dedicated to “historical events” and provides a brief excursus on the use of print media in the context of the Italian unification movement of the 19th century.
With the digitalisation of its print inventory, the photo library of the Kunsthistorisches Institute has not only made this resource accessible to online users but at the same time also taken a first step towards the academic study of this important partial collection.
The next online exhibition by the photo library opens on July 7, 2008 and is devoted to the mediaeval art of Georgia.