Saturday, September 13, 2008

Teaching Thursday: Who Are My Students?

I'm a little behind in my Teaching Thursday postings. However, I've been thoroughly enjoying the discussions in The Archaeology of the Mediterranean World. In Teaching Thursday (Sept. 4, 2008), Bill Caraher reviews Mark Bauerlein's book The Dumbest Generation (New York, 2008), an item very much worth exploring. Bauerlein points out that the new generation's attachment to digital technologies stems from the 1960s youth movement. Most shocking is Bauerlein's observation that despite the rejection of traditional media like books and journals, the new generation is actually not very digitally literate either. Students today use basic computer skills (email, social networking, google), but they are not accumulating advanced digital skills (databases, information queries, organization, computer languages).

My overdue Teaching Thursday (both a week and two days late) will focus on my students at Connecticut College. I am currently teaching two sections of the Art History survey (AHI 121) of about 70 students total. As a visiting instructor, I feel the freedom to experiment with my teaching method, but also to make public statements about the college or the student body without any concerns about tenure. My first objective in class was to learn WHO my students were. Hoping that they will create as many narratives about the subject as I provide for them, I felt it was crucial to make no assumptions about their backgrounds. In a note-card questionnaire, I asked all students to tell me why they are taking the class and what previous experiences they've had with ancient and medieval monuments. I then tabulated the answers to create a communal profile. The results were surprising to me mostly because I have been used to the student body of a large public university, a much less elite population. South Carolina is pretty low on both economic and educational scales. The typical Clemson student taking introductory Art History would have never been to an art museum or traveled abroad (maybe not even outside the state). It should also be noted that the state of Connecticut has the highest per-capita income in the country, while the state of South Carolina ranks among the lowest. So literally, the typical SC student would be about 1/2 poorer than a CT peer.

My typical Connecticut College student has already been exposed to high culture, has been to major American museums and has traveled abroad. According to the declared responses, 15% of my students have parents directly involved with the art world (art historians, art collectors, or artists). Another 8% took the class on the high recommendation of a close relative or friend who took Art History in college and loved it. Most students have been exposed to museums. Amazingly enough, 15% have been to Paris (and mention the Louvre) and 8% have been to Italy, (mostly to Florence and typically mention Michelangelo's David). Other countries traveled include England, Spain, Austria, Greece, Vietnam and Mexico. Some students have even taken Art History classes in high school.

In my questionnaire, I asked the students to pick one art work that has inspired them. A few answered with the Lascaux Caves, Stonehenge and Venus de Milo (at the Louvre), which they had seen. The great majority could not think of anything pre-Renaissance. The list of favorites includes Michelangelo’s
David, Sargent's Daughters of Sir Edward Darley, Delaroche's Execution of Lady Grey, Cassatt's Little Girl in a Blue Armchair, Brueghel's Tower of Babel, Fernard Leger, Kokoshka, William Morris and Frank Lloyd Wright's Falling Water. Impressionism ranked highly, and I suspect this has a lot to do with contemporary tastes and museum block busters.

A typical narrative started with “I have always been very passionate about art” followed by a discussion of early experiences from Grand Tour travels, art instruction in high school, or AB Art History. But when called to mention specific pre-modern monuments, the typical answer was "but I don't remember anything in particular." So, in conclusion, my typical art history student has seen lots and lots of things. Since most are Freshmen, kudos to the parents that have taken their kids to museums from an early age. In fact, many of the mentioned favorites are housed in three major cities from which the Connecticut College student pool is drawn: New York, Boston and Philadelphia. However, art education seems to be limited to post-Renaissance art.

I should also mention that 20% of the students declared interest in an architectural studies major (that Connecticut College offers). 66% of the students are Freshmen and have not declared a major of study (although many are tempted by Art History); the rest of the class is distributed into 19% Sophomores, 11% Juniors and 4% Senior. It was clear to me in graduate school that Art History is very gendered with a great majority of females. Almost three quarters of my students are female (71%). What I've learned from my preliminary study is that students taking the first Art History class are self-selected. They are typically the students that already have some exposure to the arts. Although I don't have any data at hand, this seems to be much less the case with introductory courses in the sciences or history.

This is the first time that I have collected any statistics on my students. Rather than making assumptions about who they are, I would like to quantify my audience in some meaningful way. I also hope that such simple analysis may be useful to Connecticut College directly or to my fellow teachers in other universities. Jennifer Ball, for instance, is teaching a seminar at Brooklyn College on teaching art history. I thank Jenn for sharing her syllabus with me. Bill Caraher has been talking about organizing a conference discussing the value of teaching medieval history and material culture in the 21st century. I am convinced that our discipline is rapidly changing under our very nose through our students. I'm hoping to understand this wonderful group of students that I have the pleasure of teaching at Connecticut College. Their engagement with the material, their eagerness to discuss it in class has been astounding. With every question, there is a sea of hands eager to speak.

In my next Teaching Thursday, I hope to discuss the space in which I teach, following Bill Caraher's amusing posting "Reading the Digital Palimpsest for Traces of an Analog World."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Though not occupying a permanent or potentially permanent position in academia can be a highly demoralizing, frustrating, and alienating experience, there is, indeed, something very freeing (in both teaching and research) when you are not bound to issues/considerations of tenure. I'm glad you're finding that out, too!

Blog Archive

Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States