Learning evolves—by Javier Berzal

This is the third post in our series by Smarthistory contributors.


St Proba reading at a desk, 1497, woodcut, Bodleian Douce 287, p. 5 verso (The Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, Bod. Inc. Cat., J-085) (thanks to Erik Kwakkel)

St Proba reading at a desk, 1497, woodcut, Bodleian Douce 287, p. 5 verso (The Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, Bod. Inc. Cat., J-085) (thanks to Erik Kwakkel)


Learning evolves.

The idea of publishing a textbook for profit is not particularly new. Edward Muir, for example, notes that Galileo Galilei “sold a didactic package to students that consisted of a compass, training in its use, and an instruction booklet.” For Galileo, private teaching was more profitable than university lectures. Publishing his manuscript notes as a printed manual allowed him to increase his teaching revenue. Recalling Galileo’s entrepreneurial practices, I once jested with my students that were I to receive a percentage from textbook sales, perhaps then I would be more inclined to assign one. In truth, I have no need for a textbook, an object that has always struck me not only as anachronistic, but also ineffective.

My students have been vocal about their aversion to paying for a textbook, a sentiment I myself shared during my undergraduate years. Anything that appears in a textbook can be found online, for free, and likely presented in a more engaging manner. The problem arises in how to be selective when culling through such an abundance of sources and how to redirect the students to those that are most useful and reliable. Creating a course website with videos, music, and articles has proven much more successful than using a physical text. Being attentive to the needs and desires of students as agents in their education does not imply reducing pedagogy to client management services. For me, it comes to this: we cannot assume that students today learn the way that students learned twenty years ago.

In higher education, we are (thankfully) facing a challenge to the traditional emphasis on rote memorization in order to prioritize extended reflection, evaluation, and critical consciousness. This has materialized in syllabi changes, which increasingly focus on internationalized curriculum, analyzing information from a variety of sources, introducing scholarly debates into the classroom, etc. Moving away from the textbook model is central to art history’s development as a discipline in order to face the pedagogical challenges of the next decades and to foment student inquisitiveness.

One of the reasons I find SmartHistory so useful is that it provides a consolidated platform to which my students can refer that offers authoritative, plural, and engaging voices. My goal in constructing a course is not to substitute a textbook for a single website, but to utilize a modular course system of manageable content in which SmartHistory coexists with other links. This allows me to teach my students to navigate various sources while retaining the benefits of structural consistency and dependability. Here my courses find commonalities with SmartHistory’s model, whose entries incorporate readers’ questions and links to additional resources. Students become active agents in the learning process: they choose to engage with the material at different levels in ways that suit their personal learning styles and schedules.

And let us not forget, there is world out there beyond higher education. The possibility of public pedagogy to foster art historical discourse outside classrooms and museums is not to be neglected. Virtual tools create wonderful spaces through which to find curious and inquisitive minds.


Dr. Javier Berzal de Dios received his Ph.D. from Ohio State University. He is an Assistant Professor of Early Modern Art and Critical Theory at Western Washington University. His research and writing addresses the intersections of art, architecture, and theory, with a focus on space and spatiality.

For Smarthistory, Javier has written about Velazquez’s The Surrender of Breda, Palladio’s La Rotunda and has an upcoming essay on Palladio’s Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza.

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