Theory and Undergraduate education…yes, it can happen….

As we move toward a discussion about college wide learning outcomes, the first one that pops into my mind is…critical thinking and writing.  To me, at some point this always means establishing a theoretical position and recognizing that it is one.  While I will entertain a wide variety of positions on theory, I think it is hard to be critical without understanding where and how one’s position on anything fits into a larger discourse.

At the 2010 College Art Association, I was part of a panel that addressed this issue.  Entitled WTFTalking Theory with Art and Art History Undergrads, four panelists, two of whom were practicing artists discussed the ways in which we integrated theory into course material.  The panel was scheduled for an evening session beginning at 7:00 which often means a small audience; after all, art historians and artists have been known to frequent bars and restaurants instead of panel sessions.  That was not the case this time as about 125 people crowded into the room all with the same concern;  we need to do this more and we need models for doing it.  There was a very lively question period following this which really reaffirmed how challenging this is and how much it is needed.

I am posting the paper that I gave.  There is also an audio recording sof the panel but it is too large for this system.  If anyone is interested, contact me and I will email it to you.

Theory:  It’s not a dirty word anymore

Parme Giuntini, Otis College of Art and Design

I encountered theory as a senior at UCLA when a young Marxist historian suggested that what we were reading was not nearly as important as the concerns we brought to it.  She rattled off questions, said she valued critiques over synopses, and reminded us that every author had an agenda; information was never neutral.  Her language was straightforward and she spent the rest of the quarter delighted as we struggled with material which she refused to let us take for granted as truth.  It was an “aha moment;” I never took facts, interpretations, history in any form as a given again.  I think of her every semester when I walk into class for the first time, and while specifics of that course have faded along with that young professor’s name, I hope I am carrying on her legacy which I see as a pragmatic incorporation of theory to encourage students to think critically, to ask “why” before they jump to the “therefore.”

Unfortunately theory rests uneasily in most undergraduate Art History education, customarily appearing in upper division courses or taught separately at which point it targets Art History majors.  The general student population has a very different experience.  They take broad surveys which focus on discrete bodies of canonical fine art objects.  The typical learning format is lecture, and examinations often stress identification and duplication of specific arguments about particular objects—they repeat what they have heard in class or read in a textbook.  Is it surprising that students focus on quantifying, labeling and assigning fixed meaning in Art History classes at the expense of raising issues, considering different interpretations, and probing for transgression?

Theory is the unwanted intruder in this scenario, taking valuable time away from explicit course content, questioning material or approaches not addressed in those expensive texts and often confusing students who are accustomed to finding the answer in the book:  why else would we insist they buy it?  The situation is the same even in art colleges where a minimum of four art history courses are required but the only mandated courses are broad freshman surveys of western or global art.

Students are remarkably perceptive.  They assume that material critical to their art history education is going to appear in a required course. This is particularly true for studio majors.  Often stereotyped as makers not thinkers, many of them believe that theory is something only fine artists need which is problematic given the significance of design in postmodern culture and the dominating numbers of design majors.  Lodging theory solely in upper division elective courses and couching it in elitist jargon only widens a pre-existing abyss, reinforcing a common perception about theory:  they don’t need it; it doesn’t apply to them, or to what they do, make, or think.

We took this challenge on at Otis ten years ago and decided to prioritize theory and  methodology in our introductory art history course and continue that emphasis through two other required courses;  modern and contemporary art.  By presenting theory as a tool and its practice as a craft, incorporating it explicitly, early and often, we frame it as a natural adjunct to course material.  The change also involves pedagogical practices, encourages the use of technology, and creates stronger interdisciplinary associations with other liberal arts classes and studio courses.

To begin, we eliminated the traditional cave art through 20th century western or global survey which puts us in the minority even among art colleges although we prefer to think of it as being on the cutting edge.  Instead we begin with an introduction to Visual Culture that forefronts theory and critical inquiry, teaches  art historical methodologies, and addresses both fine art and popular culture.  We take a problems and issues approach to the social and historical construction of the artist and designer, the ways that art history has systematically developed and prioritized methods to analyze and interpret representation, and the role that representation plays in the development and maintenance of cultural and aesthetic authority.  We continued this approach in our Modern and Contemporary courses, continually integrating theory and methodology with fine art and popular culture.

This change allows us to immediately theorize and contextualize representation in many forms and facilitates the relevance of the material and the value of theory for studio majors. For example, foundation students taking Introduction to Visual Culture are also taking Life Drawing where they focus on developing a skill set: drawing, proportions, gestures, and idealizing techniques.  It is not a class where they problematize the nude; that is neither its focus nor goal.  In their visual culture class they learn the historical rationale for the canonical nude in western art and Formalism as one method of art criticism, address the problems and issues of the nude and the body in the western canon, its absence in much non-western work, its coded and naturalized presence in contemporary advertising.  To accomplish this, students learn about Social History, Feminist and Gender theory, visual rhetoric as well as semiotics.

With lower division students, we avoid jargon as much as possible, frame theory as a tool, “a way of thinking about,” as different sets of questions, issues, and priorities that arise and are articulated in specific historical moments.  We stress application– how theory can be used to maintain and transgress, how it is operating in the classes they are currently taking.   Laura Kaplan argues that theorizing best takes place in the context of concrete experience and we have found that by extending theory beyond fine art to any kind of representation, everything from graphic design to toys, as well as to their own lives, students are better able to comprehend how it works.[1]

To reinforce theory as a tool beyond the art history classroom we work with the English and Cultural Studies Faculties to identify curricular overlap. Correspondingly, in English, students focus on semiotics and popular culture which reinforces the practice of decoding imagery and questioning meaning. Cultural Studies courses study mainstream and subcultures which dovetails with our discussions of otherness and the canon.

We designed these courses with sensitivity to student demographics and pedagogy.  Nationally, most freshmen are Millenials; young, technologically savvy, and steeped in a Web 2.0 culture that emphasizes personal expressiveness, collaboration, and active participation.  They are idealistic, more conservative and adverse to risk taking than their faculties, and extremely interested in answers.  Their typical high school testing practice has been true or false, fill in the blank, or multiple choice; they think in absolutes and  have little training in identifying and defending a position which is problematic if they are to succeed in a world replete with ambiguity and divergent, often competing voices.

We knew that it was important to avoid the common mistake of too much lecture.  Students need time to hear material, talk about it, write about it, argue over its merits, apply it and reflect on it.   Reinforcement and practice is important as well as scaffolding more complex nuances of theory in sequential courses.

For us that meant a reassessment of pedagogy, readings, classroom activities, and writing assignments to encourage greater discussion and reflection and specifically call out theories or methodologies. We adopted a common syllabus for all three courses and designed it to address a variety of learning styles.  We mandated quizzes or blogging on readings and lecture topics, only essay exams, written assignments that stipulated explaining theoretical approaches, collaborative work and peer presentations. Blogging in particular has been extraordinarily productive. The combination of having the time to write, the opportunity to read and comment on what others have said, and the electronic medium is a natural fit for millenials.  Although there are readers and textbooks on visual culture, modern, and contemporary art, we didn’t find any of them an ideal match to our needs so we eliminated textbooks and compiled customized readers which we review and revise each year.  Faculty were strongly encouraged to balance lecture with expanded discussions and to consider weekly student presentations or group work where peer to peer learning could occur.  This meant educating full and part time faculty on newer educational pedagogy which we did through meetings initially and later through workshops, electronic learning portfolios, and interactive electronic discussions.

This past year the Liberal Studies department adopted two additional pedagogical practices which help students think critically and engage theory.  The first is a group of five themes — Creativity, Identity, Diversity, Social Responsibility and Sustainability. These themes are open ended, very broadly defined, and function as an armature to all our courses.  Themes offer students a palpable structure to see where and how specific course material critically fits into a larger body of knowledge.  We address these themes continually and specifically in the core courses and they are proving to be instrumental in helping students connect theoretical implications with their own lives and concerns as well as course material.

We have also instituted electronic learning portfolios for all incoming students in which they will post work for every class and reflect on it critically.  This is where course material, the themes, studio and Liberal Studies, critical thinking and theory all converge.  Reflective writing prompts ask students to thoughtfully consider what they have learned and how it affects them as people and makers, where it has changed their thinking or attitudes, what value they have derived from what they have studied.  Not surprisingly, students are reacting very positively to these kinds of questions where they have to connect their personal positions with learning.  I beta tested student portfolios and reflective assignments all last year with a freshman class and, when asked to write about what most influenced them in their visual culture class, a number of them focused on their engagement with theory, in some cases even identifying a particular theory and the way that it shaped their thinking.

It would be misleading to say that these changes are producing theoreticians because that is neither the case nor our goal; I don’t think that such an outcome is even possible in undergraduate curriculums, much less lower division courses.  However, this model with its combination of curricular and pedagogical changes, consistent reflective thinking and thematic armature is proving far more successful in enabling students to successfully engage with theory than the more traditional “great men, great monuments” approach to Art History.  Fewer students dread theory and assume that it is beyond their capabilities.  More of them are accepting theory as integral to their critical process which means they are better able to think beyond the course material, to identify the linkage between what they are learning in liberal studies, not just art history, with their major fields of study.  I don’t think that we have fixed the problem perfectly yet but, theoretically, I do think we are on the way.


[1] Kathleen Blake Yancy, Reflection in the Writing Classroom, (Utah State University Press, 1988), p. 52.

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