As a teacher, I aim to engage my students on their terms: whether drawing out their individual academic interests, including bringing in the science of art, or framing a lesson plan around a reference to pop culture, I seek to make the past visible in the present and encourage students to make connections to their own lives. This necessarily involves exploring objects through different lenses, including gender, materiality, postcolonialism, and environmentalism. In one instance when discussing monumentality and museum display of Insular stone sculpture at the National Museum of Scotland with first-year art and history of art students, I asked them to tell me why our conversation was important to them. I expected largely cheeky responses highlighting that tutorials were a required course component, but one student, after a couple minutes of silence, quietly began suggesting parallels between the bringing in of Insular monuments and the debates arising from the destruction of Palmyra and Middle Eastern artefacts, citing the destruction of ancient built environments as an inspiration to undertake displays that preserved the objects while also negotiating a museum’s responsibilities to local communities and history. By reminding them to think about why we discuss the art and material culture of the past, I encourage them to develop their discourses around current affairs.
While I try to have at least one class period in a museum context to encourage students to recognise how art has been framed and reframed out of its original contexts, I also try to bring art to life in the classroom. I often start my classes in one of two ways. The first way is to present an unseen image related to the session’s core themes and have students talk about it. While this often challenges students to think on their feet, I always give students a few minutes to jot down anything they know about the piece and ideas. Not only does this strengthen their ability to undertake visual analysis, but it also gives students uncomfortable with being put on the spot in front of their peers a moment to sort through their ideas and develop questions. At the end of the session, I have students hand in their exercise notes and provide them with feedback that they can use to sharpen their skills as an art historian. The other way I start class is with pop culture references: I will show a Star Warsparody or a clip of a movie and ask them to talk about it. Students are occasionally caught off guard, but inevitably forget their reservations about suggesting ideas that they would not for an art object. I will then put up an image of a key object for that session and have them apply the same ideas to it, generating conversation and encouraging students to think differently about art. I have repeatedly found that students will talk about movies and memes because they feel ownership where they may not feel as if they have the authority to talk about important artwork.
Art is messy, and its history is no different. I encourage students to make a mess, as it were: whether sketching key ideas for studying, writing their essays on notecards and Post-It notes and using a blank wall to shuffle ideas before writing, I constantly encourage students to find what works for them and embrace it. I seek to inspire their confidence with material by meeting them on their terms to develop the necessary skills in presenting and writing about art. If their process is messy and non-traditional, then I not only encourage them to embrace it, but I re-evaluate my pedagogical approach and seek to incorporate it into classroom activities and discussions.
For example, in one of my Office Hours, a student expressed her struggles with revising for the end of the year exam and working on her essay. She relayed how she seemed to completely freeze as she tried to jot down everything said in lecture. I asked her if she sketched any part of her notes; my heart broke when she looked at me and said, ‘I can do that?!’ I told her of course, they were her notes. A few weeks later she stayed behind in tutorial to tell me that she started sketching key objects and key themes when in lecture and researching and was feeling more confident in her work; her newly found confidence was evident in her improved understanding and grades. Because of her success, I now incorporate a sketching activity in my revision classes that tap into students’ creativity and allows them to have fun with the material. In courses where I am not working with art students and artists, I have found that the activity still engages student. The poorly drawn, preposterously proportioned, or beautifully rendered sketch serve the same purpose: it gives them ownership of the material and asks them to reinterpret it in their own way. Moreover, it often causes laughter and jokes which serve to further embed the object in student’s memories.
These experiences, and others, have taught me that teaching is not just a matter of presenting facts, but a delicate balance of presenting the key information for students to work with while encouraging discussion, respectful disagreement, and artistic endeavours. From the presentations sketched out as a comic to questions asking for more information, I repeatedly find that my students inspire and challenge me. They inspire my research and simultaneously challenge me to create new ways and topics of engaging them with difficult material that is often overlooked in high school survey art history courses.