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.