Guest post by Emily Clark
Higher education institutions seem to spend a lot of time talking about students, talking to students, asking things of students, but not necessarily talking with or listening to students. Of course, students attend these institutions primarily to learn from professors (and also because most of us have been told all our lives that if we don’t have a college degree we won’t make it very far in life—whatever that means). But in addition to learning, we have things to say and thoughts about how we learn. I would like to offer a series of specific steps, based on my experiences and those of my peers, and I hope that other students will add their own proposals in the comments section. (For another take on similar ideas, see Art History That.)
1. A more ethical art history seeks to empower the individual to disempower the constructions of systemic oppression in the world around them.
This is important. It means drawing students’ attention to issues that are prevalent in academia that they might be unaware of, or that professors and students alike have been conditioned to downplay. For example, encouraging students to look at things like #CiteBlackWomen on Twitter, or other first-hand accounts that are chronicling issues in real time. Additionally, this kind of art history teaches the importance of recognizing the systems some students and educators are benefiting from that are simultaneously oppressing their peers.
2. A more ethical art history critiques systems of power with an aim to decolonize the discipline.
This calls for emphasizing the importance and necessity of understanding power, identity, and cultural exchange across time and in a global context. It helps students to develop the ability to recognize and articulate engagement with systems of power. Then, language, skills, and problem-solving abilities can be cultivated in order to critique and dismantle those systems.
3. A more ethical art history is open-minded and invites individuals of all intellectual backgrounds, all identities, all ways of being to come and learn more about what it means to engage with both the past and present through material culture by taking an art history class.
Too often art history and academia at large are prone to using language that excludes anyone unfamiliar with the jargon. Using language that is accessible to a variety of audiences and making spaces that elevate diverse voices creates learning environments where everyone feels they have a seat at the table. Perhaps this could look like beginning class sessions by asking what terms in the assigned reading need to be further clarified. This sort of consciousness might be particularly helpful to students for whom English is a second language.
4. A more ethical art history consists of classes that will leave you with more questions than answers, learning that “knowing” is most often becoming more comfortable with not knowing, and seeing and hearing what objects have to say rather than saying things about objects.
In addition to listening better, a more ethical art history helps facilitate learning to ask better questions—students often know that they have questions but they don’t necessarily know what those questions are. Professors can shift from asking “do you have any questions?” to “what questions do you have?” This creates a learning environment where questions are encouraged and expected.
5. A more ethical art history is comprised of pedagogical practices designed to enable students to discern when to foreground the voices of others and when to insert their own voices. Personally, this has made all the difference in shaping me not only as an aspiring scholar but as a person who wants to live in a world where power systems do not oppress and marginalize, but instead empower and promote equity among all peoples everywhere.
This can look like assignments that ask students to design or redesign exhibitions, thinking critically about why we know what we know, and asking questions like “how?”, “why?”, and “to what end?” It might take the form of telling more authentic stories and actively working to listening better—foregrounding and highlighting the art and scholarship of marginalized groups and people.
6. A more ethical art history recognizes the importance and value of being interdisciplinary/transdisciplinary/multidisciplinary.
Through collaborative processes—whether it be co-writing, co-facilitating, or encouraging students to take classes from colleagues in other disciplines—we learn to recognize our limitations. There are times when we are not the best person to tell a certain story, or answer certain questions. By working collaboratively and promoting the work of others, we enable others to tell their own stories rather than speaking for them. These processes and ways of thinking and working are also reminders that disciplines are constructed by humans and are constantly being reconstructed and negotiated. We collaborate not only to bring in more knowledge but to bring together tools from different disciplines and perspectives from different individuals. In doing so, we are able to see, understand, think, and say things in ways we otherwise would have been unable to do. Collaborative work requires rethinking our positions and allowing others to inhabit our worlds. For more on this, check out Asa Mittman’s “This Would Be Better If I Had a Co-Author.”
7. A more ethical art history shows students how to engage with the study of the history of art, and how it is increasingly relevant in every sphere of learning and life, including social media.
Intentional engagement on social media allows students to see that what they are learning and talking about are not isolated things and ideas confined and only relevant to classrooms and museums. Social media also demonstrates the interdisciplinary nature of the conversations surrounding material culture and the ways it is constantly and continually being deployed in the world around us. Social media can also be a space to facilitate connections between individuals and discuss ideas. Things such as #AskACuratorDay are prime examples of this. For those on social media, teaching intentional engagement allows students to begin to engage in professional conversations by connecting with scholars and peers beyond the walls of their institutions.
8. A more ethical art history looks for the intellectual spaces where we can’t know—the liminal spaces between texts and images, the margins of medieval maps, the tensions and co-existences between the multiplicities of identities.
These are the spaces where voices that have been silenced or ignored can be heard, where seemingly inanimate objects come to life, where the silence speaks just as loudly as the noise, where the absent matters as much as the present. These are spaces where we may not have the right to know or see, as is the case with some Indigenous histories.
9. A more ethical art history sees students as partners in learning rather than as subjects to teach.
This can look like professors recognizing and celebrating when a student raises an issue or idea they hadn’t thought of, or when a student teaches them something they had no prior knowledge of. It can look like students having opportunities to facilitate class sessions, whether in part or in entirety. It also can look like emphasizing the importance of peer review and giving students the opportunity to learn from one another.
10. A more ethical art history invites students into professional spaces.
Perhaps this means co-writing with students, inviting a student to work alongside a professor as a teaching/learning apprentice, asking for student feedback and input on syllabi, or a multitude of other things. It can look like advocating for undergraduate research and writing to be able to be presented in sessions other than the designated undergraduate session at conferences. If undergraduates are the future of the discipline, and if the passion and excitement for the work is there, why shouldn’t that be celebrated and cultivated with and alongside more experienced scholars sooner rather than later?
These proposals are by no means intended as a complete solution that when implemented will result in a perfect undergraduate art history experience. They are suggestions, starting points, and will look different at every institution. Some of them might be more possible than others depending on the type of institution. For example, having students facilitate portions of class sessions might be more feasible in a class capped at 30 students than in a lecture hall that holds 300 students. These proposals are intended to be malleable and able to be adjusted to fit the needs of the students at large state schools, SLACs (Small Liberal Arts Colleges), junior colleges, R1s (“Top-tier” Research Institutions), and other types of institutions. Putting these ideas into practice will hopefully move toward an undergraduate experience that equips students with the tools to recognize, critique, and challenge existing systems of power and imagine new ways forward. These proposals imagine an undergraduate art history experience that is focused on becoming more conversational–between object and viewer, among peers and professors, across and within disciplines, and in and beyond classroom settings.
About the Author. Emily Clark graduated from Elon University in May 2019 with a BA in Art History. While at Elon she also minored in Art, Classical Studies, Jewish Studies, and Religious Studies. She is currently taking a year off from school to work (and study for the GRE) and hopes to attend graduate school to further her art history education.