Using SmartHistory to Generate Good Conversations in the Art History Survey —by Karen Gonzalez Rice, Connecticut College

Smarthistory has contributed to the transformation of student engagement in my Renaissance-to-the-Present survey classroom. For many students, this survey may be the only art history course that they take in college, and my most important learning goal is that they leave the course with the ability to talk about unfamiliar artworks they encounter outside the confines of the class. To this end, I designed the syllabus to help students develop a set of art historical tools that they can use for analyzing a broad array of images, from Michelangelo sculptures to selfies on Instagram.

Since I began using Smarthistory as the “textbook” for the course, students have become more comfortable speaking about art, and more fluent in the language and methods of art history earlier in the semester. In past iterations of this course, traditional textbooks did not seem to support students in building these skills. Even the best textbooks tended to flatten the sharp edges of unresolved debates in art history; and though they provided copious content and useful overviews, textbooks did not engage students in the hard work of becoming critical viewers. Instead, I relied on individual scholarly articles, supplemented by short readings from the textbook for background, to provide insight into cutting-edge art historical ways of seeing. While this approach succeeded in mimicking the open-ended, unresolved nature of scholarship, it also created a challenge: the articles lacked coherence across the semester. Further, the textbook itself did not play a crucial role during in-class discussions, and it did not contribute to helping students learn to generate lively conversations about what they see.

In contrast, with Smarthistory as the course textbook, the experience of seeing an artwork and talking about it together lay at the heart of the course, connecting students’ preparation for class (viewing Smarthistory videos) with their in-class experiences (practicing small-group conversations). Beth and Steven’s audio-recorded conversations take place while standing in front of an artwork, and their dialogues are wide-ranging, accessible, and don’t feel scripted. By engaging in informal but scholarly conversation, Beth and Steven teach students to look closely at art and to talk about art—crucial forms of intellectual discourse in art history and activities central to the goals of my class.

I had been aware of Smarthistory for years, occasionally assigning videos as supplemental readings and directing students to its content. But following their use of the Khan Academy platform in 2011, the site’s content expanded exponentially. Suddenly, there were enough videos on diverse topics that I could assign Smarthistory videos for every topic in my syllabus. Eliminating the paper textbook and committing to Smarthistory as an online alternative allowed me to streamline the trajectory of the course readings. I could focus on only the most useful scholarly articles and support these case studies with directly-relevant material from Smarthistory, both specific (particular artists or artworks) and more general (overviews of styles, movements, or processes). Further, Smarthistory provided coherence across the case studies and scholarly articles by providing a familiar framework that students repeatedly encountered throughout the class.

The following strategies helped me integrate SmartHistory seamlessly into my survey and helped students succeed in the class:

● Transparency: stating clearly, both in the syllabus and during class, why Smarthistory is a useful resource for the course, why I chose it over a traditional textbook, and how it helps students achieve their learning goals clearly communicated its role in the course.

● Authority: describing the history of Smarthistory and emphasizing that Beth and Steven are art historians helped frame the website as a scholarly resource that students view with respect.

● Guidance: providing a written (or video) guide to “watching critically” with tips for listening, watching, and taking notes can be helpful for students not accustomed to watching educational videos with a critical eye.

● Practice: watching and analyzing Smarthistory videos together in class at the beginning of the semester clarifies their internal logic and sets students’ expectations.

Smarthistory has engaged my survey students in the real practices of art history by modeling productive art historical dialogue in all kinds of ways. Compared to previous, textbook-based semesters, students using Smarthistory found the confidence to speak about what they were seeing much earlier in the semester. Because students knew what good art historical dialogue sounded like, in-class discussions, small-group activities, and “talk to your neighbor” exercises produced an energizing buzz of disciplined chatter more quickly, and awkward pauses were fewer. From listening to the evolution of Smarthistory conversations over time, students understood how to build on observations to extend their interactions, and it took them longer to run out of things to say. In addition, Smarthistory videos introduced students to the comparison, the basic unit of art historical discourse, and I noticed that students began using comparisons more frequently in their comments and written work. And because Beth, Steven, and other Smarthistory contributors don’t always agree, students learned how gentle disagreement can fuel interesting debates. In these ways, committing to Smarthistory as the survey textbook supported my learning goals and helped students complete the course with the skills they will need to have rich, ongoing conversations about art well into the future.

— Karen Gonzalez Rice, Connecticut College

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  1. CAA News | College Art Association » Blog Archive » News from the Art and Academic Worlds | CAA - November 18, 2015

    […] I had been aware of Smarthistory for years, occasionally assigning videos as supplemental readings and directing students to its content. But following their use of the Khan Academy platform in 2011, the site’s content expanded exponentially. Suddenly, there were enough videos on diverse topics that I could assign Smarthistory videos for every topic in my syllabus. (Read more from Smarthistory.) […]

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