The skill set of an art historian- and how to teach it. Part 1: site visits #teachingrenaissance

The blog has had to take a bit of a backseat while term has been going on, but as modules have settled down now for the second semester, now seems as good a chance as any to muse about some of my observations from last term. Regular readers of my posts will know how much value I place on first-hand engagement with objects, so wehenever an opportunity presents itself, I will try to teach on site, as a means of both encouraging students to go out more and see works of art first hand but also to teach fieldwork methodology and ways of looking. Because it can be hard to find sufficient space for fieldwork within the constraints of a normal University timetable (most modules in my Department will have between 2-4 hours of contact time per week, and not necessarily consecutively, and that is just not enough time to get students off campus and on site!), we introduced changes to our flagship second year core module and now dedicate Friday afternoons in the first semester to site visits. In addition, we use one teaching week each semester, our consolidation week, for teaching off-site. During Consolidation week ALL teaching takes place on site, and students choose which sessions they attend. The idea is to offer site visits that are relevant to particular modules but also allow students to attend visits which might have nothing to do with a module, but to a site they are interested in. Of course, this helps with socialisation across the course, so there are a number of advantages to running field trips.  Nottingham University is based on a campus, so the majority of (local) site visits require travel time to get off campus, and as a result we need to make space for this activity in the timetable. Coordinating and bunching the trips into Consolidation week also allows some trips to go further afield (recent locations have included Derby, Leicester, Manchester, and London) and all of this of course plays together to prepare students for the International Study Trip in their second year.  In a way, the local field work is very much training for the International trip, because while it may be possible to visit local sites repeatedly, the costs associated with travel abroad certainly preclude return visits. So its imperative, when abroad, to make the most of the visit and to get it ‘right’- but what exactly do I mean with that? What exactly is it that art historians ‘do’ on a site visit? In other words, what is the methodology for a field trip and what are the necessary skills sets for a student art historian? And how about the question that concerns me most which is: how do I teach those skills?

Much of my last term has revolved around these issues, and they will undoubtedly remain at the forefront of my mind as I continue to develop our core module, setting up a model that can be co-taught and shared in our Department where the core modules are normally co-delivered, if not by all colleagues, but at least by a team of colleagues. The situation last term was a bit unusual because due to some last-minute staff changes, I found myself unexpectedly in sole charge of the core module. Much as I love working as part of a team, I tend to be more adventurous with teaching experimentation on my own modules, so the core module got a possibly more vigorous working over than it might have done otherwise, but all of the changes I Introduced were developed with two learning objectives in mind:
1) methodologies for on-site work and recording first-hand exprience;
2) assessing this by working with the students on developing an individual research project based on something seen/something experienced.

So, the model I worked with is to develop a module that alternates between classroom- based teaching and site visits; the teaching philosophy underpinning the module is to outline ideas and principles in class and to test and apply them on site, sort of taking the flipped classroom methodology to its ultimate conclusion. As the focus of the first term has been on an exploration of the local context of Nottingham, Nottingham became the case study for thinking about different theoretical models for exploring urban space,

For the first week, the group met in Nottingham, outside a very modern piece of architecture, the aptly named Nottingham Contemporary Gallery, and for once, instead of going inside the building, the questions we considered were focussed on how  this magnificent  building signifies in this particular space. And how, if at all, has the architect responded to the building’s surroundings. In other words, it was all about place, space and palimpsests from a theoretical point of view, but the focus of the first fieldtrip really was on looking, on looking up to rooflines and observing street furniture, landmarks and street lay outs. Its quite amazing what you can see when you look; for example, most architectural alterations in spaces that are in heavy use over a long period of time concern entrances and ground floors, whereas the upper floors and especially the rooflines often stay intact. Looking at rooflines gives you a sense of flow and shapes, and looking at gutters and lamp posts often reveals dates stamped on them. And that goes hand in hand with engagement with maps and similar primary sources, so looking reinforces the evidence from the sources. At least, this is the plan…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhile the initial session on fieldtrip methodology was little more than a guided walkabout with lots of pointing up to interesting features. as the weeks progressed, the visits became more focussed, on spiritual sites, civic sites, transport,  the University etc etc. For example, we undertook a trip to a particular favourite of mine, St. Mary’s in the Lacemarket looking at a religious site that has been in continuous occupation since the Normans, and has everything one could wish for in terms of teaching palimpsests, from Gothic architecture to ravaged Renaissance statuary to Pre-Raphaelite Stained glass windows and a Tess Jaray Floor... There were further trips to the wonderful Art Deco gem that is Nottingham’s Council House and the no-less-splendid University of Nottingham itself. It is quite interesting to watch students ‘look’ at their surroundings all of a sudden as they recognise the outstanding architecture of their HEI….

Great Hall, Nottingham University 1927

Great Hall, Nottingham University 1927

Of course, what also needs to be considered is what to do on a field trip and how to record impressions, and here it becomes possible to draw on a particular skill set many art history students share, which is a very strong creative side. Many students come to University with a range of practical A-Levels (Art, Photography, Creative Writing, Fashion Design, Drama). It is sort of obvious if you think about it that students who are drawn to a degree at the heart of which lies an engagement with the visual, are interested in experimenting with and making images themselves, A fieldtrip, and working on site, requires looking but also asks for responses to what is being seen and often creates reactions and emotions which can be recalled at a later, writing stage. So, one way to respond to a visual experience is to make an image that captures what you want to recall, let’s say by taking a photograph. Such a photograph is of course far from being an objective form of documentation, but a tool for subjective interpretation, and strange as it may sound, that is a skill that requires practice. Most students came to the site visits, as instructed, with a sketch book and either camera or a smartphone; as the weeks went on, there were fewer phones and more cameras, and all of a sudden there were cameras with filters and prime lenses, or, for students who preferred drawing, out came boxes of pencils and charcoal sticks. Visits slowed down because we were moving less and looking more- and in order to encourage visual reflection, the assessment for this module has been designed with a view towards these learning objectives too. I have already written about using posters as an assessment component elsewhere on this blog, and after assessing the first bunch of them, have been very encouraged to see them used both creatively, and well. To embed the methodology of looking on site visits, one required assessment element for this module is a study diary, submission of which is required but its not awarded a mark, so it forms a formative part of work on this module.
‘Marking’ these study diaries has been fascinating, because- predictably- the responses from the students have been so varied. In some cases, the study diary was nothing more than a visual record of what we visited that day: just photos , no commentary, arranged in chronological order of taking them, and often very focussed on whatever particular aspect I was concentrating on during that trip. That is fine- these serve as valuable records. There are other diaries though that document the evolution of ideas, both in texts and words and the study diaries become essential parts of the planning of an essay. These study diaries I recognised as students often brought them in to meetings with me, and the diaries and site visit impressions started to help inform the essays.

So, as regards teaching onsite engagement, the lessons I have learnt this semester are that:

* it helps to link site visits with classroom preparation. That way, students know what to look out for, and have something to start the process of looking with. It definitely helps if I am there and guide that process, especially if I have my camera in hand and actively ‘look’ myself. And yes, I keep study diaries to record my impressions.

* link site visits to assessment, whether essays, as in the development of research projects, or posters or study diaries. Students ca be quite strategic learners so if a task is assessed, it gets prioritised

* allow for creativity. Different learning styles can really come to the fore on site, so make space to allow creativity as part of clearly defined assessments. We make extensive use of Pinterest and especially Instagram to showcase images taken on site (for the record, the department’s Instagram account is @nottsarthistory)

This little series will continue with a blog on site visits abroad, focussing on this year’s trip to Berlin in January 2015.


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