[Guest post by Alexa Sand, Professor of Art History, Utah State University]
As recent discussions within the field of medieval studies and medieval art history in particular have made clear, there are politics to the way in which we organize our survey courses and present the “Middle Ages” to our students. In the wake of some disturbing recent expressions of racism, Eurocentrism, and religious bigotry from within the ranks of medievalist academicians, the need to critically examine how and what we teach is more urgent than ever. As I set out to redesign my upper-division medieval art survey course for the spring semester of 2018, I challenged myself to think beyond the standard narratives and outlines that shaped the textbooks and syllabi from which I had been taught, and from which educators continue to teach the topic. I developed a research-focused, student-engagement-centered curriculum that, while retaining the chronological organization of a traditional survey course, turned away from an exclusive focus on “the west” to present a more varied, multicultural, and fluid picture of what “medieval” means.
The five units of the course allowed students to explore in depth periods and regions as different as eighth-century Northumbria and twelfth-century Sicily, and to trace cultural exchange back and forth across boundaries of religion, language, and geographical or ethnic identity. While it felt strange to downplay the narratives that had always shaped my syllabi in the past, this new, somewhat more fragmentary approach allowed the students to delve deeply into topics and ideas more often passed over as mere indices; for example, they learned not only to recognize the stylistic origins and cultural significance of the interlaced motifs in early Insular book arts, but also to reproduce these motifs using the mathematical and geometric tools developed by monastic artists to generate complexity and connectedness. Subsequently, students were much more attentive to methods of construction and composition across all media; whether looking at the interior of the dome of the Great Mosque at Cordoba or at the labyrinth pavement at Chartres, they were sensitized to the way in which abstract, linear forms express complex social, religious, and aesthetic concepts.
A variety of both online and in-class assignments tapped into my students’ varied training as designers, artists, and scholars; my goal was to give them a sense of ownership of the material by engaging with it on their own terms. Several students, both those representing the majority culture at USU and those from URM groups, expressed a sense of wonder and pleasure at discovering that the Middle Ages wasn’t “just a bunch of knights and cathedrals,” as one student put it. Many class discussions turned from the historical material towards contemporary issues, and readings that emphasized the uses to which the Middle Ages, and in particular its visual culture, have been put encouraged students to think about how we make (art) history in the image of our own beliefs and blind spots. In this post, I will discuss my pedagogical choices, share my syllabus and some student work (with their permission), and investigate what worked, what did not, and why.
I began the process of redeveloping my syllabus with the question of how to teach the art of the Middle Ages in a relevant and compelling way suited to the particular demographic of my typical upper-division survey classroom. This includes a majority of white students from the Intermountain West, many of whom are active members of the Church of Latter-Day Saints, and many of whom have never travelled far outside our semi-rural, semi-suburban region of northeastern Utah. In addition to these majority-population students, a significant minority of students who identify as Latinx, Pacific Islander, or Native American Indian characterizes the student body in our department. Furthermore, only two or three out of all the students in any upper-division art history class are art history majors; most are studio art or design majors seeking their BFA or BID, and few are non-art majors from other humanities departments, such as History, English, or Classics. Once in a blue moon, I will have a student from a STEM field taking the class for breadth distribution requirements. This means that my students tend to have the following characteristics:
- Little or no knowledge of the Middle Ages
- Little experience of cultural difference
- Little sense of prior investment in art history
As I always do when planning a new course, I used a backward design approach (Wiggins and McTighe, 1998 and 2001), asking myself at the outset what my desired results would be. Whereas in earlier iterations of the course I identified these in terms of historical content, scholarly practice, and art historical theory, for the spring of 2018, I added specific language about the contemporary relevance of medieval art history. In addition to my usual focus on integrating research skills into my instruction, I wanted my students to walk away from the course with some transferable learning about multiculturalism, about the ways in which historical narratives shape the present, and about how the study of the Middle Ages might help them see past the glib stereotypes of identity and ethnicity that shape so much of the discourse they encounter in the media.
The change was expressed in my Learning Objectives:
- To build your knowledge of the range of artistic forms, styles, and iconographies of the Middle Ages in their historical contexts
- To strengthen your written and oral communications skills, particularly in regard to the critical analysis of visual works and to the comprehension and integration of scholarly perspectives
- To introduce you to the methods of research and criticism that form the basis for the discipline of art history
- Develop general knowledge of medieval history and culture, specifically in regard to the visual arts
- Understand the connection between “doing” medieval art history and questions of contemporary concern, such as cultural diversity, religious intolerance, violence
- Improve writing and oral communications through both formal and informal, group and individual writing and presentations
- Build fundamental and transferable research skills
The next question in the backward design process has to do with assessment: how will I know if students are progressing towards these outcomes? Keeping in mind that many of my students are visual thinkers, and that high-stakes writing assignments freak them out, I decided to use frequent, varied, and low-stakes assignments, some individual and some collaborative, to keep my finger on the pulse of their learning. This made it easy for me to conceptualize the course as a series of modules with parallel, but not identical assignments that gradually expanded the range of skills, knowledge, and understanding demonstrated.
I planned five such modules, each running three weeks, to fit our fifteen-week semester. This meant that every three weeks, students would have an opportunity to reflect on what they had learned and what questions they still had, and I would get useful feedback that would allow me to adapt upcoming instruction to their learning. The final assignment in each module was therefore a questionnaire that looked something like this:
- Which readings were most useful or interesting to you in this unit, and why?
- Which readings did you find least useful or most difficult, and why?
- Was the feedback you received on your catalog essay helpful, how, or how not? Do you feel that you learned any new writing skills, and if so, which?
- Do I have your permission to publish your essay, with your name attached, on a wordpress site I’m developing about teaching multicultural medieval art history? Please write “Yes” or “No”
- How difficult, on a scale of 1-10 would you rate the Thematic Presentation, and what were the challenges, if any? What would you do differently next time you are asked to present with a partner?
Along with this opportunity to reflect on and critique the course, I always provided them with debriefing notes: these were my general observations about their preparation for classroom discussion, their oral and written communications, and other elements of the coursework. This way, a two-way discussion of how things were going could take place frequently.
The content of the five units was the crux of the course planning – it had to deliver on my commitment to take the concept of a multicultural Middle Ages seriously, and it had to follow at least a somewhat chronological structure so that my students, many of whom were encountering medieval studies for the first time, would not become completely disoriented.
So, I started by looking at my typical syllabus, which usually took a theme (in 2016 it was “Transgression”) and explored it through a fairly linear narrative beginning with a comparison of post-classical and “Northern” art in the seventh century, and culminating with the art of Italy in the early fourteenth century – basically the standard syllabus for medieval surveys as established in existing textbooks. The implied continuities, and the implied central narrative of this approach gave students a strong sense of historical flow, but lacked traction for the discussion of diversity. I always felt I was struggling to “work in” material like Visigothic metalwork or Spanish Gothic architecture because it didn’t fit into the continuous picture I was trying to paint. Furthermore, I often felt like the breadth of the course forced me to sacrifice the experience of digging deeply into the material.
My first decision, then, was to leave the continuity and breadth elements up to the students – they would have to find the connections between our different topics on their own. Instead, I would essentially give them five case studies, and these would not necessarily be the expected cases; I would focus on areas or groups that might seem, in the lens of the textbook narrative, more peripheral. Seeking to expand the geographic and religious landscape of “medieval” within the limits of my own expertise, I identified the following cases:
- Book culture in Ireland and Northumbria in the 6th-9th centuries
- Court arts in Al-Andalus in the 8th-10th centuries
- Power and politics in Bavaria and Northern Italy in the 10th-12th centuries
- Narrative art in zones of Norman occupation in the 11th-12th centuries
- “Gothic” as a multicultural phenomenon in the 13th-14th centuries
Within each unit, I focused on particular media (for example book arts, or ivory carving), institutions (monasticism, Caliphal marriage and inheritance), and/or modes of expression (narrative, allegory). Gender was also a theme that ran through all units of the course, especially 2, 3, and 5. The unit structure gave me space to introduce each case-study in a broad, contextual lecture, and then move into much more detailed and focused examination of particular objects or monuments in the subsequent two weeks of the unit. Readings from a variety of sources ranging from museum websites to scholarly journals and monographs formed the backbone of each week’s lecture, discussion, and in-class activities.
In order to meet my goal of communicating the contemporary relevance of medieval art history, I also included in each unit a reading or viewing assignment or an in-class activity that looked at twentieth- and twenty-first-century appropriations of the medieval. For the first unit, this was an in-class discussion of “Celtic” tattoos and jewelry inspired by Maggie William’s Material Collective blog post of August 2017. In unit four, it was an online “Pinterest” style assignment in response to Isabelle Dolezalek’s essay, “Fashionable Form and Tailor-Made Message. Transcultural Approaches to Arabic Script on the Norman Kings’ Mantle and Alb,” in which students posted pictures of modern fashion that appropriates medieval imagery; they then wrote informal commentary on how such works deploy medievalism in ideological terms [Isabelle Dolezalek, “Fashionable Form and Tailor-Made Message. Transcultural Approaches to Arabic Script on the Norman Kings’ Mantle and Alb,” The Medieval History Journal, 15/2 (2012): 243-268].
Attached to each unit was a substantial research and communications assignment (the course meets a university general-education communications-intensive requirement, so writing, visual communication, and oral presentation are central to its structure). Each assignment took a different form so that students would have exposure to a variety of ways of practicing and disseminating research. The first unit’s assignment was a catalog essay, building on skills students have already developed in the introductory art history survey. Each student wrote on a single folio of an Insular manuscript, and after revisions, these essays became part of a wordpress site “Multicultural Medieval History” which is intended to serve as a platform for sharing some of my ideas about the course and to showcase student work (very much work-in-progress). The second unit involved students working in pairs to develop a PowerPoint presentation on a thematic strand of their choosing; public speaking skills, collaboration, and good design principles for visual aids were the emphasis here. The third unit, which emphasized patronage, was again an individual project – each student designed a small ‘zine on a patron (individual or corporate) and the works associated with that patronage. This allowed students to combine scholarly research with visual and verbal communication aimed at a broader, non-scholarly audience.
The assignment for the fourth unit turned out to be the most intensive, and the most productive. Students were placed into group discussions on the course-management platform (Canvas); each group had an assigned source text in translation and a work of narrative art. They were asked to read their primary source (all of these were literary texts with narrative elements), and study the images, and then respond, in a group forum, to a series of five questions I posed to them about the relationship between the way narrative elements were handled in the verbal and visual texts. The writing they did for this assignment far exceeded the usual quality of text and image analysis for undergraduate papers, perhaps in part because they knew their peers were seeing what they wrote, and in part because of the cumulative and iterative nature of the writing. This is an assignment I could easily see reproducing across all my courses, and the students agreed with me that it got them writing much more deeply and thoughtfully than they were accustomed to doing.
The final unit’s project was far less structured and was designed to tap into the strengths of the students as artists and designers. They were invited to choose an individual or collaborative mode of production, a topic related to the course material, and an outcome; this open-ended approach, I have found, only works when students are already comfortable with the research process, having done more scaffolded work earlier in the course. This particular assignment, for me, was crucial in determining whether the students really got the course objectives: the research and communication skills, the knowledge base, and the understanding of the Middle Ages as heterogenous, diverse, and decentered.
Here is a link to the syllabus, which anyone is welcome to plunder, but if significant portions are used, I’d like to be given credit.
The Students and Their Work
I had twenty-eight students enroll in the class, and all but two stayed through to the end of the term. Unfortunately, both students who dropped represented POC groups, which drastically reduced the cultural diversity in the class; in one case the student’s health issues led to a withdrawal from the university, but in the other, the student’s need to work eclipsed his ability to take the class, a fact that, had I had known it before he withdrew, I would have done my utmost to mitigate. I felt like this was a typical example of how URM students often do not receive the advantage of student-support programs simply because they are not aware that they can ask for help. In future versions of syllabi for all my classes, I plan to add some language encouraging students to be assertive about seeking help from me, from their academic advisor, and from student services if conflicts with family or work obligations arise. This may seem a bit tangential to the topic here, but given that one of my ambitions for the class was to make the study of the Middle Ages more welcoming to students ordinarily excluded from the white, Christian image of the period, it was frustrating to lose even one such student in this way.
The tri-weekly “debriefings” were one of the elements that I felt worked extremely well for me and for the students. One indicator of the success of this method of dialogue-based feedback and self-reflection were the “Student Ratings of Learning on Relevant Objectives” in the IDEA course evaluations at the end of the semester; 100% of the respondents (about 73% of the class) rated their attainment at a 4 or 5 on a scale of 1-5. Several students commented to me or on their course surveys that they appreciated the opportunity they had to critique the course materials and assignments.
Another indicator of student attainment of the learning objectives was the quality of the work students produced, both in class and as homework; this improved steadily throughout the semester, in terms of both its written and visual content. One assignment common to all five units was that students were required to take hand-written notes on class meetings and on all readings and videos; I gave them individual critique on these notes, but I also included general observations in the debriefings, and almost all the students were taking better, more useful notes by the end of the semester than they had taken at the beginning.
I have already mentioned some of the work that students produced for the major assignments associated with each unit. Here are a few examples:
Unit I: Catalog Essays – the four examples here represent the best work from students in the class. Access them here.
Unit II: Thematic Presentations – These were PowerPoint presentations accompanied by commentary from the partners who had created them. It’s a little difficult to capture the experience in a static form; next time I will use lecture capture technology to get their live performances! Access them here.
Unit III: Patronage Mini-Zines – These individual projects allowed students to focus on some of the artworks they had encountered in the unit and on the people associated with their production. They also had to solve some design problems about how to convey the material. I think the technical challenge was a bit much for some of them, even using the template I provided.
Unit IV: Narrative Art in Word and Image – This project was complex and interactive, so it’s a bit hard to illustrate. Each group of 4-5 students had a primary source text and a work of art with narrative content, and I asked them a series of questions, to which they responded in a discussion format. The writing that some of them did for this assignment blew me away in terms of insight, finesse of visual description, and critical thinking about narrative. The pairings were:
- The Song of Roland and the Bayeux Embroidery
- The Vie de Saint Alexis and the Alexis Quire from the Albani Psalter
- The Auto de los Reyes Magos and the Infancy cycle capitals from the Chapterhouse of the Collegiate Church of Saint-Lazare, Autun
- Le Chevalier de la Charette Chrétien de Troyes and Modena, archivolt of the Porta della Pescheria
And the questions, which were asked over a period of two and a half weeks, were of this nature:
Even in translation, you can get a sense of literary style; elements of repetition, metaphor, exaggeration, diminution, testimonial, questioning… any of these could be hallmarks of a literary style. What are the stylistic features of the text, and how do they relate to its subject matter? Compare these to the artistic style of the pictorial narrative. Elements of artistic style might include figure style (naturalistic, exaggerated, childlike), drapery/garment style (patterned, folded, looped, fluttering), spatial setting (deep, shallow, implied, depicted), depiction of time (episodic, continuous, “flashback”). Are the verbal and pictorial narratives similar or different in their styles, and why might this be?
Unit V– These projects were diverse, though I think my favorite was a crocheted doll that could be dressed in various historically accurate costumes to represent a range of different medieval women (ranging from Central Asia to Ireland) who were known patrons and connoisseurs of the arts. A cookbook that explored medieval food from a graphic-designer’s perspective was also pretty cool. Access it here.
Overall, I was fairly pleased with the course revision. Naturally, the student feedback gave me plenty of ideas for improvement and streamlining. As usual, I overloaded the students with readings, and I will cut back on those in the future, replacing unpopular readings with more relevant material at the same time. The ‘zine project needs a lot of tuning, too – turning it into something more hand-made might spark additional creativity and allow students to spend more time doing research on their topic and writing good prose, and less time trying to figure out how to format the booklet. I would also like to introduce at least one major research/communications assignment that focuses more specifically on multiculturalism and on the medieval-modern connection.
The final, creative-response projects gave me a good sense of how the students had come to understand the Middle Ages broadly; that is, whether they had a sense of historical continuity and geographical particularity, whether they had developed an appreciation for the diversity of cultures and peoples, and what they had learned about the contexts for the production and use of visual art. Unlike a final exam, where I could direct them to reveal this learning through pointed questions, I had to rely on them to produce this information. It was striking to me how many of them did, without specific prompting.
On the other hand, the fact that the class was so modular, and that it lacked the final, unifying exercise of an exam, meant that I felt less confident about the attainments of some students than I would have liked. The students who produced the cookbook, for example, did not clearly demonstrate that they understood that there were different food cultures (and therefore different vessels and implements for cooking and eating) throughout the period under consideration. To address this, in the future, I may place some additional constraints on the creative response project, and introduce an element in its grading rubric that specifically looks at these learning objectives.
Two students from the course, my math and statistics major (now an art history minor), and an art education BFA major, have gone on to turn their final creative engagement projects into independent research projects, and this, to me, is a major sign of success. Their curiosity was so sufficiently sparked that they took it beyond the semester and the classroom/for-credit setting.
One question that a number of medievalist art historian colleagues have raised with me when I’ve discussed my approach to this revision is whether it doesn’t “dilute” the really important art historical content. It is true that my students do not necessarily learn the architectural elements of a Romanesque portal, and they may not be able to identify specific masterworks such as the Stavelot Triptych or the Psalter of Louis IX. They would struggle to write an essay exam about the role of Abbot Suger in the early development of the Gothic style in architecture. But I am not sure this is necessarily a drawback, and it might even be an advantage in some ways. Not being bound to a particular set of recognized masterworks and not having memorized canned narratives about change through time allows them to look at all products of medieval visual cultures in a more balanced way; they can bring to bear on any work, no matter how insignificant or difficult to classify it might be under the usual schemes of art history, the same critical attention, the same openness to the possibility that this thing, this object or building or fragment, might have something to say. I acknowledge that something is lost; I still think it is important to know who Abbot Suger was and what he wrote (and I do not entirely leave him out of the course). On the other hand, at this moment when our field is struggling to combat an identification with white, Christian Eurocentrism (at the very least, and violent white supremacism at the very worst), I think we need to be particularly willing to examine every potential shibboleth of our practice as teachers and scholars. What if the history of medieval art begins far from Rome? What if the art of the European Middle Ages is as much a product of trade relations with Asia and Africa as it the outcome of erudite Latin theological concepts? Recent scholarship on medieval materiality has turned us toward these questions; one of my students’ favorite readings was Sarah Guérin’s essay, “Avorio d’ogni ragione: the supply of elephant ivory to northern Europe in the Gothic era.” We owe it to our students to teach medieval art history both as it is being practiced by leading scholars today, and as we wish to see it practiced going forward.
Earlier, I stated that I wanted my students to walk away from the course with some transferable learning about multiculturalism, about the ways in which historical narratives shape the present, and about how the study of the Middle Ages might help them see past the glib stereotypes of identity and ethnicity that shape so much of the discourse they encounter in the media. Did I succeed in this? A long discussion in the penultimate week of class, when we were speaking about urban Jews in Spain and Germany in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, led me to believe that at least the seeds had been planted. Few of my students have ever encountered Jewish people (or if they have, they haven’t been aware of it), and they peppered me with questions about the relationship between the historical diversity of medieval Jews and modern Jewish heterogeneity. Few had even heard of “Ashkenazi” and “Sephardi” (far less Mizrahi or Ethiopian) Jews, and none had been aware of the history of Jewish presence in western Europe since antiquity. What began as a discussion of Nina Rowe’s scholarly work became an eye-opening discussion of modern politics and religious tribalism. They were visibly excited and stirred up by all of this, and I was not surprised when one student wrote, in the free-response portion of the student course survey, “I never expected a medieval art history course to teach me something about the world today. I am an Irish dancer, with Celtic roots, but now I see the whole issue of my family’s pride in these things as more complicated than I thought.”