First Impressions 15 years in the Making

by Lynn Clement


Ah, February.  The month that heralds the final demise of the dreaded January and when I can consider my semester officially off to a successful start.  It occurred to me recently that 2019 marks an important anniversary for me.  It was 15 years ago that I started teaching art history.

A lot has changed in that time: schools, technology, hair-dos, but nothing more than how I approach that first day with my students.

For many of the early years in my career I felt that my main hurdle upon meeting a group of students at the start of the semester was getting through the syllabus without everyone falling asleep, myself included.  However, I now know that addressing the issue of relevancy on that first day is most crucial.  This has become even more urgent as students, and I for that matter, need more from art history.

I begin with a question: “Why does a college require you to take a class such as this?”

In my experience this is a more productive question than those asked of me when I was on the other side of the podium.  Questions like “why are you here?” or “what do art historians do?” or (my most despised) “what is art?” often dead end with answers like “because the college is forcing me to take this class” and “we look at art” and (my most dreaded) silence.  Art history was not required at my university, but I was very lucky to happen upon it completely by accident.  I still feel lucky, but also saddened and a bit angry that it had not been a part of the traditional curriculum at any point of my education.  This is because I immediately saw its worth.  This is what I want my students to consider the moment we meet.

auditorium benches chairs class
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Thus, my class now begins with a discussion of critical thinking.  We talk about what it means to think critically about what we see in the world around us and how we can hone the skills they already have.  I don’t have to search very hard for examples that support how this will help them after they step out of the classroom.  We are bombarded with visual culture at every moment with smartphones, laptops, tablets, television, and on the surfaces of public transportation.  We now also seem to live in this terrible time in which you can see a video or photograph and be told that what you are seeing is NOT actually what you are seeing.  How do we learn to trust our own eyes and our own analysis of what we see?  Hopefully by taking my class.

This discussion leads us to an actual exercise in looking.  Again, I try to pick an image that is relevant, which is why we’ve been spending a lot of time with Napoleon’s portrait in the Tuileries gardens from the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC.  This image easily shows how power can be conveyed through the visual and heavily contrived, also by those in power.

I also try to speak to relevancy in terms of my assignments. It’s just not a hoop, or torture, I put them through because I’m a terrible person!  Really!  I focus less on the parameters of the assignment and instead on why I feel the assignments are important and what skills they’ll strengthen through their successful completion.

I’m particularly proud of the way my final research paper has shifted over the years.  While traditional research papers are still an option, I’ve found that more and more students are interested in researching and assessing how visual culture is presented to them in their communities.

Taking inspiration from the call to decolonize museums (like those made by Olga Viso), the Museums Are Not Neutral movement spurred by LaTanya Autry, and Uncomfortable Art Tours provided by art historian and independent art guide Alice Proctor, I ask my students to prepare a grant proposal, or marketing/business plan that would help to diversify a museums holdings. To complete the paper they need to research the current state of a museum (either the diversity of their holdings, the diversity of what they show on the walls, or how the information provided in wall text or on the museum website might be hiding hard historical truths.)  They have to state the specific problem to be solved or task to be accomplished and explain how do they propose to solve the problem or what questions they need to ask to solve the problem?

exhibit painting display
Photo by Riccardo Bresciani on Pexels.com

Not surprising, my students have gone above and beyond my expectations for this assignment.  In addition to considering how race is treated in their local museums, they are examining gender, access for the differently abled, and issues with conservation and preservation.  What I like most is that they get what I’m trying to do with this assignment and they have used their experiences and creativity to expand what can be done.  Thus, needless to say, the evolution continues.

I’m not sure if I’ll still be teaching in 15 years.  With the state of the college system who know what it will become (more on that in another post). However, I like that I’ve seen this kind of change and improvement in my own approach to teaching art history and it gives me hope for the future…even in the bleak midwinter.