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What's the matter with the Survey of Ancient to Modern Art & Architecture?

What’s the matter with the Survey of Ancient to Modern Art & Architecture?

On an annual basis, SAIC’s Art History Department faces a conundrum: How should a university art history department teach the ARTHI 1001 and 1002 surveys of art history, covering pre-history to contemporary art? The question of breadth and depth of art history coverage is a daunting one, and there are a myriad of opinions as to the necessity, or futility, of teaching art history to students studying fine arts and design. What time-span should it cover? What methodology should be applied? Will there be old-fashioned slide tests?

Behind the scenes of this discussion remains this question: Should all incoming undergraduates to SAIC be required to take a foundational course in art history, and why? When a course is unsuccessful and problematic, it is easy to say that the subject is somehow unnecessary. However, a more convincing argument might be that for students who wish to be art makers, having some form of foundational knowledge of art history is a necessity if they are to contribute meaningfully to art discourse today.

The question also pertains to SAIC specifically: what kind of artists does SAIC want to produce? Do we want our graduates to launch into the world, producing work they think is “avant-garde” and “original,” when, in actual fact, similar concerns or methods were developed fifty years ago? On the other hand, does SAIC prefer its students to be fresh and enthusiastic, rather than jaded and “tainted” by the conventions of art history?

With this in view, it is unsurprising that SAIC’s own version, Survey of Art History: World Cultures and Civilizations, Prehistory to Modern (ARTHI 1001, the first semester of the year-long art history survey), is riddled with problems. The so-called “old guard” of art history has faced the challenge of transforming its subject matter into something appropriate for first-year, non-art history students at SAIC: a school that is inclined toward non-traditional teaching and grading techniques. But in embracing more relaxed teaching methods do we have to lose all connection to the principles of “old-school” art history?

SAIC’s Art History Department has continually discussed this unresolved question of balance: how can they make art history accessible, non-traditionalist and informed by postmodern, poststructuralist and critical theory methodologies — and yet not make it too complex? Likewise, how can art history avoid “dumbing-down” its subject matter to the lowest common denominator? The current incarnation of ARTHI 1001 operates on something closer to the latter method, encouraging students to gain a general sense of themes and concepts in art history, and not to worry too much about memorizing nitty-gritty facts. As long as they get the “vibe,” one might say. That said, a level of historical understanding and analysis is expected, and when students write essays confidently claiming Christianity existed in classical Greece, then we know we have problems.

Added to this “depth” quandary is the sheer challenge of numbers and dollars. Dorota Nelson, an ARTHI 1001 Teaching Assistant (TA), mused: “An important question is the bill that the students receive for the class. What portion of their tuition money goes toward the direct cost of instruction? … While obviously the cost of running the class is much higher than just the instructors’ and TAs’ salaries, we should ask whether there perhaps should be a more transparent and direct correlation between the tuition paid and the amount of instruction received.” It is a mandatory course. In the 2007-08 academic year, at least 600 students were required to take it, and the teaching staff and resources mobilized for these numbers don’t match up. (1 lecturer, 3 weekly lectures, approximately 15 TAs. Go figure.)

Higher-level faculty members in Art History don’t want to touch ARTHI 1001 with a ten-foot pole, chiefly because of other priorities, time restrictions, and this delicate question of how exactly to tackle the beast that is the entire history of art. Meanwhile, lower-level academics and TAs accept relatively poor pay, disorganized systems and vaguely stated working conditions to teach the course to baffled students in large numbers. When TAs are hired they are given no training, and explanations of their roles are brief and sometimes confounding. TAs, who are responsible for up to forty-five students, are told to expect low standards but are given little guidance as to how to effect educational development.

There is precious little of an organized marking system for ARTHI 1001. This year, in response to the lack of a systematized and uniform marking system, many of the TAs have self-organized, without the assistance of the Art History Department, to set uniform marking standards and academic procedures. Prior to this self-organization among the TAs, issues such as how to handle language problems and plagiarism were worked out on an ad-hoc, case-by-case basis. Although former Survey precedents and SAIC policy is discussed, much of the process is left to a TA’s personal discretion. Fortunately, communication among the TAs and the lecturer is active, and these issues are regularly discussed. These are Band-Aid measures, however, and they don’t solve the larger problem of how to structure a more effective class.

Communication is also a considerable problem. Because of the large size of the lectures (and the students’ tendency to be absent and to rarely check emails), communication between individual students and teaching assistants is at the bidding of the students themselves. Other than the lectures—no in-class time is allocated for the Survey, and thus it is near impossible to questions students on their readings and to discuss the lectures in further detail. This is a question of resources: if Art History had the staff and class space to hold tutorials alongside lectures, then the process might become more transparent and effective.

In most art schools (nationally and internationally), some kind of generalist “survey” of art history is a required class in any undergraduate degree. The structure of these courses differs, depending upon resources, willing staff, numbers of students, and whether the school has an art history department.

In looking to how SAIC’s Survey may be improved, it is useful to consider other methods. Many schools (particularly larger universities with art history programs) offer a survey course held by a series of specialized lecturers. The result is students can receive high-quality lectures given by academics with specializations. These lectures are accompanied by separate, seminar-style tutorials with PhD students and other academics as class supervisors. Another method is a methodological survey, as opposed to a linear, historical one, which provides an overview of methods of art historical analysis with examples, rather than the massive undertaking of charting antiquity to the present. Some art schools do away with the idea of a survey, offering courses that explore the 1850s to the present, focusing on “movements” in art history.

SAIC has a brilliant art history faculty, and so it is a travesty that the Survey—the first and only exposure to art history that many SAIC students will ever have —does not reflect this quality of teaching and research. Whatever way SAIC chooses to go with the Survey, there is no question—it has to improve, in terms of structure, organization, educational quality and resources.

Jesse Stein is a TA for ARTHI 1001 and a graduate student in the Modern Art History program.

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