By Jennifer Borland and Louise Siddons
We recently co-wrote an article for the relatively new journal, Art History Pedagogy and Practice, which outlines and reflects upon a class project we co-conducted in two courses we taught in the fall of 2016. Very briefly, we co-developed a semester-long project for two classes to work collaboratively around a public demonstration and community survey about a new piece of public art in our town (for more details, please go check out the article!)
There were a number of reasons why we were interested in doing such a project. We have been scholarly collaborators since graduate school, and had both reached tenure—a moment that naturally invites a deeper assessment of one’s professional development. As that implies, we had both also been teaching for years—enough of them that we were eager to reinvigorate familiar courses with some of the energy of our scholarly collaboration. Students responded positively to courses that were polished, but we had begun wondering aloud to each other about the distance between plateau and burnout on the scale of teaching growth. In other words, we wanted to push ourselves as teachers, increasing our satisfaction with that aspect of our jobs. And perhaps most importantly, we just really like working together!
Existing curricular structures at our institution often make it difficult to co-teach, so we worked around those limitations by aligning projects in two courses we were teaching in the same semester, rather than creating a new co-taught course. It was a workaround that allowed us to put our idea into action immediately, taking advantage of current events and community resources, as well as our own enthusiasm.
Our community resources, in fact, had recently come to include a life-sized mass-produced reproduction of a Frederic Remington sculpture in our downtown business district. We (and our friends and colleagues) had spent some months grumbling, griping, and rolling our eyes about the sculpture. Eventually our grumbles were consolidated into questions—and those questions soon struck us as locally relevant teaching tools and opportunities. What if, instead of just complaining about The Bronco Buster, we actually talked to our students and our community about it? What if we invited our students to guide that conversation, based on research and outreach to local stakeholders? How might an investigation into local decisions about public art constitute a real component of our responsibility to share multiple narratives, beyond canonical or mainstream ones, with our students—many of whom come from underserved populations and who find little with which to identify in the traditional survey canon? As we brainstormed, we got excited about how we could involve our students in the creation of a more nuanced narrative, hopefully privileging a wider range of students’ views at the same time. We began to see the Bronco Buster as an opportunity—and not just an eyesore.
Although collaborative teaching and community engagement don’t need to go hand-in-hand, we both have an intellectual commitment to the latter. Working with Art History That, we developed #arthistoryengaged, a hashtag connected to a series of activities that sought to mobilize collegial thinking about more comprehensively and effectively engaging art history with the community. The spark that ignited our specific project was our desire to see our students connect their classroom experiences to their real-world visual context in a way that generated awareness of their own agency in shaping their built environment.
Neither our excitement nor our long history of scholarly collaboration prepared us for the kinds of surprises we discovered when we brought our classes together, and there were some bumps along the way as we figured out how to do it well. We considered the project an end in itself: we saw our students as participants in the educational process whose experiences and input would actively shape its direction and outcomes. And so despite the fact that all of our previous work together had been scholarly writing, we never conceived of this project as a research project; it was about doing something new and collaborative—and intentionally open-ended—in the classroom. In fact, had it been suggested to us at the beginning, studying our students for the purpose of creating scholarship would have seemed counter to our goal of genuinely empowering them in the learning process.
So why—and how—did we decide to turn this into scholarship? In part, it was those bumps in the process, which demanded real-time analysis and adjustment, that helped us clarify our teaching goals, refine the architecture of our participatory learning model, and articulate the value of student discomfort in the context of community-based education. Much of our analysis happened in and with our scholarly community: as we were actively engaged in the project that semester, as well as for months afterwards, we talked to people about it. We chatted with colleagues on our campus; it came up in emails and on Facebook; we mentioned it in conversations at conferences. In particular, we found that we were often talking to other art historians who seemed really interested and wanted to hear more. Our excitement was bolstered by sharing the incredible work our students were doing, and our anxieties were allayed by their empathy and insights. All those conversations clarified what we already knew from research collaborations: that sharing our stumbling blocks was just as valuable as sharing our successes. We started to think about documenting the project more publicly—perhaps in a blog post such as this one.
Our project caught the attention of our college dean, who had been running several initiatives in support of community-engaged scholarship. As we chatted with him at a department event near the end of the semester—after our students had presented their research at a statewide arts conference—he pressed us to consider publishing in a scholarly journal, an idea we hadn’t really considered. Formal publication had obvious academic benefits, but the possibility also intrigued us because it would allow us to reflect more deeply on the project, easily share our ideas, and frame everything we’d done more explicitly in the context of scholarship on teaching and learning (SoTL) than we had in the classroom. It would be an opportunity to celebrate the successes of the project, of course, but also to demonstrate what we learned from its shortcomings—in other words, it would be a chance to practice the sharing of failure (not coincidentally, this is a key tenet of the Material Collective’s Manifesto. Indeed, we feel strongly that failure isn’t a fault, and it was exciting to think about making that point assertively.
Our first draft did just that: we foregrounded pushback from students about several elements of the project, we were explicit about how our personal opinions and knowledge impacted our initial project design, and we expressed our disappointment about the way in which some students’ experience was marginalized over the course of the semester. As teachers, we felt comfortable with the fact that real-world pedagogy is responsive, and we believed that our course corrections were an important part of what we had to share with others. We were surprised, then, when one of the reviewers queried the effectiveness of our project because we acknowledged student dissent or disagreement, and questioned the validity of our experience because we could not produce quantified data regarding student learning outcomes. Committed to revisions, but feeling somewhat defeated, we were struck as we returned to our students’ feedback by how overwhelmingly positive it really was. We had documented several student criticisms in our first draft in order to address the ways in which we resolved them, and the reader’s emphasis on them had negatively colored our recollection of the whole project.
Perhaps if we had begun the project expecting to publish its results, we would have collected quantitative, anonymized data from the beginning. But we had been thinking as teachers, not as social scientists—and as we contemplated the implications of the reader’s comments, we realized that the goals of teaching and learning scholarship and the goals of pedagogy are not the same. Entirely correctly, we were asked to ground our project more thoroughly in the existing literature on SoTL, which we found supported our approach. Pedagogy scholarship is clear: effective learning in the humanities comes from individual experiences, dialogue and dissent, and reflective assessment. By their very nature, such activities are impossible to quantify. In other words, even if we had, from the beginning, intended to use our classrooms as research subjects, we would not have been able to develop meaningful quantitative metrics for our anticipated outcomes. Articulating a more productive definition of success while drawing on existing scholarship became a vital part of our revisions, in which we made an explicit case for the ways in which art history teaching can nuance and complement social-science-driven SoTL methods.
More subtly, we realized that the request to expand our discussion of existing SoTL implied that scholarly “knowledge” was more valid than experience in the practice of pedagogy. For our revisions, we did a significant amount more reading, all of which confirmed our existing convictions regarding effectiveness, and which offered useful technical language for characterizing those convictions in the specific vocabulary of pedagogy. As we reflected on the broader implications of our revision process, we were concerned that applied knowledge and experience were in danger of being disregarded. It is clear that art historians need to participate more actively in the analysis and publication of successful teaching experiences—offering concrete scholarly evidence of the value of qualitative strategies in humanities teaching, and formalizing an expanded range of models. Indeed, we lucked out that the new journal Art History Pedagogy and Practice was launched just as we were developing the article, and we believe AHPP is extremely exciting because it offers an opportunity for all of us to do just that.
Teaching as a team required different skills than collaborative research and writing, but it also offered new rewards. After our students, we were each others’ first interlocutors over the course of the project, and we discovered anew the satisfaction of sharing joy—when our students demonstrated particular creativity, commitment, and passion—and brainstorming through challenges. Working together, we were willing and able to design a project that was more ambitious in scope and length than we’d have attempted alone, and as a result we learned more about our own teaching. We’ve been able to put those lessons, and openness to experimentation, to good use in later courses, and have both pursued subsequent teaching collaborations as well. And although there are things we’d do differently if we did it again—as the article makes clear!—the only long-term damage we seem to have done is to our own visual field: whereas before Fall 2016, we barely registered the proliferation of Remington sculptures (and the Bronco Buster in particular!) throughout the United States, now we see that dang sculpture everywhere we go!