Travis Nygard, Art Historian > Teaching
Art History Laboratory. A wiki-based collaborative environment for teaching and thinking about art history.
Writing a Historical Interpretation. Writing assignment for an introductory course on Modern art, designed to introduce students to using historical documents in original research.
Rather than viewing a liberal arts education as an encyclopedic accumulation of facts, thinkers like John Dewey and W.E.B. DuBois argued that we should view it as an act of liberation, providing students with tools of thought and intelligent citizenship. Like them I believe that the teaching of liberal arts – especially art history – has the potential to empower people in a democratic society.
Teaching art history in this way requires understanding the discipline as more than a celebration of beautiful well-known objects. It requires fostering academic excellence as well as the ability to intellectually analyze imagery. I believe that one of the most effective ways to teach these skills is to focus on those works of art that, because of their visual properties, have complex social lives and are tied to struggles for cultural change. These objects, often connected to living social issues with complex visual cultures, are highly intriguing to me, and I believe that my excitement transfers to the students. In the case of my own dissertation research this meant focusing on art by Grant Wood used to rethink the future of farming in America during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In the case of my master’s thesis this meant mosaics by a well-known Native American modern artist, Oscar Howe, used to negotiate racial identity in the Midwest. More generally, the types of imagery that I am interested in sometimes convey cross-cultural communication through a juxtaposition of styles or symbols; they sometimes challenge viewers to think about specific ideas; and they sometimes draw attention to something rarely noticed. I show how works of art were used to negotiate identities, display power relationships, mark ritual spaces, remember the past, advocate for causes, and testify to values.
This approach to scholarship becomes manifest in my teaching in numerous ways as I ask students to think critically about the social history of art. I incorporate some of my own research into the classroom, and I also synthesize the work of other scholars. For example, when I taught a modern art survey I discussed my interpretation of Grant Wood’s best-known painting American Gothic from 1930. When I taught a course on the architect Frank Lloyd Wright I framed each class session around a different way that his buildings became culturally meaningful. The course thus explored how Wright’s buildings are tied to the history of gender, cosmopolitanism, urban landscapes, mass production, labor, nature, and politics. With these broader issues in mind, I teach that art history is ultimately about objects that serve as cornerstones for our thinking, that they are our collective heritage, and that studying them can help us to think through many types of questions about the human condition.
I use a broad range of methods – lectures, readings, in-class discussions, electronic discussion boards, and low-risk homework exercises. To gear assignments toward the many needs of a diverse classroom, I build flexibility into the course projects so that each student can pursue questions they find personally meaningful. I consider such an approach to be in accordance with progressive theories of adult education, such as the writings of Paulo Freire. While his pedagogy was intended for community-based education outside of the academy, many of his principles can be applied to college teaching. Indeed, one of his basic principles was to gear educational work to the specific learning needs of each student and to anchor new material in the prior knowledge of the class.
To provide students with the skills needed to create new knowledge I mentor them through the analytical and writing process. I often accomplish this by breaking down assignments into components, thus making the tasks at hand more transparent to the class. Such staging for a final paper that analyzes a single work of art, for example, might entail smaller assignments in which the students prepare annotated bibliographies, list intriguing questions, work with primary documents, describe visual properties, synthesize scholarship, apply theoretical frameworks, reflect on their writing practices, and present ideas in class. It is my hope that building these large skill sets, especially effective communication, will prove to be useful for my students throughout their lives.
While traditional writing skills are useful for all citizens, I also believe that people should be exposed to experimental and new forms of communication. To that extent, when I teach a survey course on Maya and Mexican art and archaeology this spring the final project will exploit the possibilities of authoring in new media. Specifically, each student will be responsible for one section of a multimedia, collaborative, interactive, and nonlinear website. This website will focus on the nineteenth-century explorer and photographer Désiré Charnay. Its goal will be to show how works of ancient art that this man photographed or cast in plaster were understood in ancient times, how Charnay’s images were understood in his own lifetime, and how archaeologists working today have rethought both Charnay’s work and the creative output of ancient peoples. Through such an assignment I hope that students will understand that the form of communication is often as important as the content.
Ultimately, what I hope that students will retain from my courses is more than a collection of facts. I want them to see art and broader visual culture as part of ongoing debates that change society, and I want them to leave the course better-informed citizens and more personally effective people than when they arrived.