Teaching the Renaissance: challenges and opportunities

I am a Renaissance art historian with a particular research interest in the Venetian mainland empire in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and general research interests concerned with elites, luxury, gender, material culture and a fondness for prodigy houses! especially their roofs.

I am a university lecturer who teaches on pretty much anything from Renaissance Venice to clothing, on Foucault and social media, on Renaissance courts and classicism, on Freud and Habermas, and essay writing skills and how to do a presentation.
So, like all professional academics, one of the issues I am dealing with on a daily basis is how to balance out my specific research interests with teaching Undergraduates and Postgraduates at all levels. What may be particular to me as a Renaissance expert though is the ‘myth’ of the Renaissance as an academic subject that seems to repel and attract students in equal measure, and certainly offers quite a set of challenges when it comes to teaching ‘the Renaissance’. Or so it certainly seems to me, because when you talk to students- something which I make a point of doing as much as I can- you can get a sense both of wariness, and of polite indifference, sort of ‘I have done this at school, and what matters now is something modern’. It sometimes seems as if recruiting students for a modern module is easier, and that I have to work harder in order to persuade a student to give my subject a go. Sometimes it feels as if what students see with the Renaissance is more a set of obstacles and less a sense of opportunities, from uncertainty about language to concern about sources to a sense of being bamboozled by the sheer depth and breadth of the literature available, which can take quite something to negotiate. But surely, this is the challenge for me as a teacher: guide students through my subject and show them what there is to learn from studying ‘the Renaissance’. What I have learnt is that in order to be an effective teacher, I need to be aware of the reservations students might have, and use these as the very starting point for my teaching. in other words, I need a strategy.

To begin with, what is it that I am trying to get across? Am I after a deep, detailed, chronologically refined understanding of an extraordinary period? In other words, am I after an in- depth study of a particular period, in an inward- looking way, in a way that isolates and ‘ghettoises’ the Renaissance as a special period? Well, no actually, nothing could be further from my teaching philosophy which seeks to use a study of the past as a means of validating and understanding a present, and where both periods are equally rich, diverse and responsive to their circumstances. the trick is of course how to achieve this. For me, case studies are the key, case studies, people and hands on teaching, teaching that involves the students in whatever way seems best. Do, that might mean taking a class outside, and explore a modern landscape by looking for its medieval and renaissance bones. It might mean using Twitter to start thinking about means of self fashioning and the need for a propaganda strategy. Or maybe a seminar is an opportunity to use make something in order to understand layers and construction. Basically, whatever works to get a fun, exciting class that engages students with the material. Because, really, the engagement with the subject, any subject, is one where a student runs with an idea, a thought, a hunch they have gleaned from a class, and when learning becomes something that is about discovery and ownership, my job is done
Maybe teaching the Renaissance is not that different from teaching anything after all.

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