Rethinking the Introductory Survey: Selected Bibliography

A Teaching Fellow Toolkit

by Linda Merrill, Senior Lecturer, Art History, August 2018

  • Harrington, Christine, and Todd Zakrajsek. Dynamic Lecturing: Research-based Strategies to Enhance Lecture Effectiveness. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing, 2017.  The recent enthusiasm for active learning has prompted a call for the old-fashioned lecture--the sage on the stage--to be thrown out altogether. That categorical damnation and dismissal makes me uncomfortable, especially now, as I prepare to update the art history survey, an introductory course that relies on faculty lectures. This book takes a measured approach, calmly examining the claim that lecturing is an ineffective means of encouraging student learning. Somewhat surprisingly, it concludes that the lecture, when combined with active learning, is in fact an effective instructional approach, particularly in introductory courses. When students come to a course without prior knowledge of a discipline (as they come to art history), lectures are far and away the most efficient way to deliver the foundational knowledge that must precede critical thinking. In fact, lecturing proves most helpful to the students with the most limited knowledge: “In other words, students who do not have much background in a content area will learn best when an expert shares knowledge about the topic in a lecture,” partly by modeling the way scholars think. Novice learners are not prepared to distinguish between important and less-important concepts, or to mentally organize a welter of information, and benefit most from a higher proportion of lectures in a course. (The opposite is true for advanced students). Some form of active learning—museum visits during discussion sections, for instance--will help solidify the learning that takes place in lectures. Of course some lectures are better than others. The authors walk the reader through several categories of lecture, assessing the advantages of each, and concluding that the “interactive lecture,” which combines traditional lecturing with brief activities that allow the student to apply material just learned, is the gold standard. This book is a welcome corrective to the call for radical pedagogical change. Sometimes traditional methods survive not because of inertia, or because professors tend to teach as they were taught, but because they work.
  • Heller, Scott. “Art Historians Replace Traditional Surveys with New Approaches.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, May 3, 1996. This article spotlights the introductory art history course taught at Swarthmore in the 1990s by Michael Cothren, who contradicted the slide-a-minute model of traditional survey courses by projecting a single image on the screen for a 50-minute class. For those of us who have relied on Marilyn Stokstad’s popular survey text Art History, this will come as some surprise since, for the past few editions, Cothren has been the co-author: I guess he had a change of heart! What we see here is one reimagining of the traditional survey: this experimental approach favors case studies over the sweeping linear narrative of Western art. Other elite colleges, including Harvard and Northwestern, also moved away from broad overviews of history toward “problem-oriented courses, which raise questions about art interpretation, the division between ‘high’ and ‘low’ art, and how the art-history canon is conceived.” I can’t help but wonder, however, whether those issues would make sense to students who don’t yet know what constitutes “high art” and have never encountered a “canon.” In Cothren’s class, students considered a single work of art from a range of perspectives--feminist, Marxist, psychoanalytic, and semiotic—but to Bruce Cole, former chair of the NEH, teaching methodology to undergraduates seems misguided. He considers this approach “part of the jettisoning of art from art history. Students need a basic amount of information before they can find connections.” It may be that Swarthmore attracts students already knowledgeable about art, but as one physics major there complained, he might have learned how to think like an art historian, but “I don’t have anything to think about.” A cautionary tale, indeed.
  • Sienkewicz, Julia A. “Against the ‘Coverage’ Mentality: Rethinking Learning Outcomes and the Core Curriculum.”Art History Pedagogy & Practice 1, no. 1 (2016).  This excellent overview of the issues besetting the art history survey also offers practical suggestions for addressing them. Sienkewicz re-envisions Bloom’s Taxonomy, replacing “remembering” with higher order skills as the broad base of the learning pyramid. Practically speaking, this means shifting the focus of introductory courses from memorizing terms and object identifications to developing a deeper knowledge of a smaller number of works—from the “coverage” model, which is doomed from the start, to a model based on “understanding” and “application.”
  • Sipress, Joel M., and David J. Voelker. “The end of the history survey course: The rise and fall of the coverage model.” Journal of American History, 97, no. 4 (March 1, 2011): 1050-66. These two historians employ historical evidence to understand a current situation and create models for change. In surveying the history of attitudes toward introductory courses, they demonstrate that the “coverage model” has always been under attack, and with good reason: knowledge of facts and the ability to regurgitate them on exams does not lead to an understanding of the discipline, nor does it contribute to enhanced citizenship, which they regard as the greater goal of studying history. (In art history, that goal might be described as “cultural citizenship.”) Spress and Voelker advocate a course design that encourages students to practice the historian’s ways of thinking by examining competing claims and using evidence and logic to support one or the other. Such an approach might be considered “question-based,” rather than “coverage-based.” Although it retains “content,” or factual knowledge, that content is not inert, but is deployed in historical argument. This is an important lesson for introductory courses in general: hold onto foundational knowledge but put it to use right away so students understand its importance to and function in the discipline.
  • Spivey, Virginia, Andy Schultz, and James Hopfensperger. “Measuring College Learning in Art History.” Measuring College Learning Project. Social Science Research Council, 2018. This dull but dutiful paper results from a convening of art historians charged with identifying the fundamental learning objectives of introductory courses in the discipline. Despite the ubiquity of survey courses, it turns out, no one had ever stopped to consider exactly what constitutes foundational learning in art history. The authors discover a diminishing emphasis on covering all areas of content (an impossible goal, anyway), citing a 2016 survey of art historians that ranks the skill (and concept) of visual analysis highest among desired course objectives: the introductory course, then, should tend toward the conceptual rather than the factual. In rethinking our own course, we must begin with a list of clearly articulated and well-defined objectives; this study provides a helpful template, along with practical suggestions for exams, projects, and papers. “Our goal is not that students might gain comprehensive knowledge through the survey experience,” the authors conclude. “We believe that learning essential concepts will help students begin to internalize the fundamental assumptions, methods, and ways of thinking that distinguish art history as a unique field of study.”
  • Worthen, Molly. “Opinion: Lecture Me. Really.”New York Times, October 17, 2015.  Like Harrington and Zakrajsek in Dynamic Lecturing, Molly Worthen takes to task the new orthodoxy professed by Harvard active-learning-guru-physicist Eric Mazur, who declares that these days, “it’s almost unethical to be lecturing.” She argues the point of Dynamic Lecturing, that “the traditional model of the large lecture course combined with small weekly discussion sections” is sound—but makes the vital distinction that it works especially well in the humanities: lectures, she says, teach basic skills—“comprehension and reasoning, skills whose value extends beyond the classroom to the essential demands of working life and citizenship.” A good lecture is a well-constructed argument that challenges student minds to synthesize and organize material. Should we abandon the format, she asks, because students find it difficult? Moreover, lectures teach “a rare skill in our smartphone-app-addled culture: the art of attention.” Indeed, we might consider lecture courses “an exercise in mindfulness and attention building, a mental workout that counteracts the junk food of nonstop social media.” Finally, Worthen argues that lecture show how critical thinking “depends on mastery of facts, not knee-jerk opinions.” Her slightly cranky harangue sets my own mind in motion. Worthen’s perspective may be unfashionable, but it is critically important to foundational courses in the humanities. In this respect, we should not feel compelled to follow the lead of the sciences.

Keywords: Revising Intro Classes