Thursday, April 15, 2010

Medieval Art Connecting with Students

One of my commitments to teaching comes from what bell hooks called the openness to a multiplicity of narratives (Teaching to Transgress, 1994). The straightforward historical narrative of the textbook is one narrative; my own interpretations in lecture is another narrative. But there is also the narratives that students create with the very same material. Every semester, I try various techniques to understand those narratives by simply asking my students how the material engages with their "real" lives. Most of my students are not Art History majors, so they come to the class with different backgrounds and agendas. In the past, I have done polling, I have conducted recorded interviews, and I have made my students write short stories (see Teaching Thursdays and House Stories)

After the Dumbarton Oaks conversation on archaeology, I realized it's time to take the pulse of my Medieval Art & Architecture class at Franklin & Marshall (ART 275). On Monday, I explained to my students what went down at Dumbarton Oaks, especially the anxiety that we scholars feel over the relevance of Byzantium to contemporary America. I asked them why they are taking the class, what they thought the class would be like, what they have learned, what skills they have developed, etc. etc. The discussion was great!!! I wish I had done it more frequently in the semester. Then, I asked them to go home and consider what work of art from our survey is their absolute favorite and prepare to talk about it. Every Wednesday, we have a graded writing exercise, typically contrast-comparison or discussion about important ideas covered in the readings. This time, I gave them this question:

"This work of art ---- (Fig. --- ) in Snyder's Medieval Art is my favorite. Somehow it spoke to me more than anything else. It entered my private thoughts and actions in the following way."

Once I get permission from the students, I hope to post some individual entries. For the time being, I want to share some of the trends. Reading through all 19 entries, a number of consistent themes emerged.


50% of my students made some reference to travel in Europe. Whether they have themselves been there or not, they articulated an important function of the survey as introduction to travel. More amazing than that was the realization that 1/3 of all my students had actually visited the monument of their choice in real life, typically with their parents before or after college. 83% of that sample chose a monument in Paris, and 66% chose Notre Dame Cathedral specifically. Whatever we say about the social utility of art history, we must embrace its touristic dimension. My role is not to criticize a certain socio-economic group (they are my bread and butter) but to highlight that personal site inspection is a central part of our process. One student was explicit, "I think many people in this class can't appreciate these monuments because they haven't seen most of them in person."


44% of my students discussed the emotional power of art and architecture. They mentioned some kind of awe and admiration. Medieval architecture and the art on its walls evokes a sublime response of power. The romantic tradition is alive. Monuments from the past, ruins and masterpieces transform the individual by some awesome power that they exercise on the viewer.


28% of my students involved some discussion of their faith in their answer. Since the art of the Middle Ages is monotheistic (Jewish, Christian and Moslem) this makes a lot of sense. The class serves as a vehicle for addressing faith. Some students remembered their own religious education or lack thereof. Some students used the material in the class to access some elements of faith.


17% of my students used gender in their answer. For some, it was a political inquiry. Representations of women (Eve, Mary, etc.) in the medieval world triggered a general inquiry about the social status of women. Some students picked up on the "femininity" of some works, either because of some aesthetic quality or because of subject matter. For instance, the articulation of an emotional relationship between mother and child was highlighted in scenes of the Virgin. One students even talked about sex (the sexual implications of Mary's Lamentation scene). I should also note that the class is predominantly (83%) female, a little higher than my usual distributions.


17% of the students spoke of how medieval art relates to their own studio production. Here, the work of art inspired or communicated with them as artists. They talked about style, or techniques of drawing the human face.


11% of the class spoke about how medieval art has helped them understand contemporary America. Sometimes, it was a direct lesson such a in understanding collegiate Gothic (as seen in F&M's architecture) or the Brooklyn Bridge in New York. Some students took pleasure in contrasting a medieval synthetic life with the fragmented present (lack of focus, digital media, etc.)


Only one student (6%) mentioned the pleasures of understanding the interworkings of an old culture. In other words, only one student seemed in invested in the primary culture as such and figuring out what it was all about (regardless of how it relates to the present).

These are entirely preliminary, but they give me a good sense of what my students are after. I've highlighted the major emotional connectors, but there are plenty more. In conclusion, I was amazed by the statistical prevalence of three modes, The Grand Tour, Emotional Power and Faith. I was interested in three other consistent themes: Gender issues, Studio practices, and relations to American life today. It was enlightening to learn that only one student engaged Art History as a project of historical inquiry. Only one student showed emotional interest in the factual realities of medieval society.

Finally, about a quarter of the students mentioned some kind of inter-personal engagement. 22% of the sample talked about engaging their friends and relatives with the material that they learned in class. Some of it was engaging others in the mode of "our next vacation." But other students talked about critical conversations and experiences.

1 comment:

Amelia said...

Hi! How interesting. I'm pretty stunned that only one person got into the history for its own sake-- that is what excites me, and I just assumed that was more widespread. Certainly food for thought... I wonder if the prevalence of the touristic and auratic responses might indicate that it's time for some Benjamin or something? to get them to think about what power exactly they are attributing to being in the presence of the object?

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Kostis Kourelis

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