Thursday, 9 February 2017

Playing cards and portraits

Teaching my undergraduate class on Tuesday I used a new method to help students think about the work that portraits do. I've found that when students discuss portraits in a gallery setting they often refer to the way the sitter is represented, and how the portraitist has tried to make the subject (for example Elizabeth I, below) appear majestic, powerful, and so on.

Elizabeth I (1533–1603)
British school, Elizabeth I, c.1590, oil on panel, 119 x 91cm. National Maritime Museum BHC2680.

The problem with this approach is that it doesn't help us understand the work that portraits do, and the effects they may have. It relies too much on reconstructing intentions, which are difficult to establish at the best of times, with any clarity. So I tried a method that I first encountered in a class on public speaking, and which a friend assures me is widely used in acting schools.

I gave all the students a playing card which they held on their foreheads. They couldn't see whether the card was a Queen, or a three, or an Ace (etc), but everyone else could. Then I asked them to walk round the room - a large room in Queen's House Greenwich, newly re-opened and with a fantastic display. As they walked past each other they were to behave in response to the card that they saw the other person had: if someone had a low number (a two or three, for example) you could look down your nose at them or turn away. But if someone had a high number, such as a Queen, you would defer to them, bowing or acting in an appropriately reverential manner.

It took some courage for the students to start walking round and bowing, nodding, or snubbing, but they gradually got into it, and we all had two or three minutes of fun.

The key question that followed was this: based on other people's reactions, what do you think is the value of the card on your forehead? This opened some interesting (and fun) discussion but everyone guessed fairly accurately.

Then  the really important question followed: returning to our portrait of Elizabeth I, what card - in a purely notional sense - do you think you're wearing when you look at the portrait? A pretty low number, was the consensus. And so to the important point: when we consider portraits, we do need to look at how the sitter is represented, but we also need to consider how the portrait represents us, the viewer, and how it manages to do this.

We followed this up by each finding a portrait in the room that was appropriate to our card number: one student with a two of clubs stood in front of Philip II, whereas someone with a seven could maybe stand in front of Anne of Denmark or the youthful Edward VI. (This helps raise questions about gender and age, as well as rank).

Philip II of Spain (1527–1598)
Netherlandish school, Philip II,  17th century, oil on canvas, 107 x 71cm, National Maritime Museum BHC2951.
It took some courage for me to do this but I think it worked well and would like to do it again, and at a suitable point, find out what the students thought of it all.

Thursday, 17 November 2016

Practices of enquiry at UAL

University of the Arts London has put on a fantastic 'exhibition of teaching' called Practices of Enquiry, taking the imaginative and refreshing route of making creative education visible and communicating it to the UAL community and beyond, using the means at which they are most adept (and the rest of us aren't) - an exhibition, co-created (and curated) by students and staff. The private view was heaving and a second visit this morning gave more time for conversation and contemplation. I'll write more shortly, but here are some photos of one of the exhibits.

Dr Mark Ingham, Cultural Exchange Cafe

Tracey Waller, Meta-assessment (accounts discussions by staff and students about assessment)
Tracey Waller, Meta-assessment (detail of the central explanatory panel)
Graham Barton & Dr Alison James, Lego Serious Play

Tuesday, 25 October 2016

A response to the AAH letter about the axing of A-Level Art History

Plenty of harrumphing in response to AQA's decision to axe A-Level Art History, especially in the Guardian. A protest letter from the Association of Art Historians to AQA was signed by over 200 academics, none of whom would give Art History an ounce more weight on a UCAS form than subjects such as English or History, or even (I bet) a good A-Level in Economics or Chemistry. There's a very good reason why they're right not to.

The reason is that art history, while a highly specialised field, doesn't have the cumulative, atomistic nature of most 'hard' disciplines, where you need to study A before you can understand B, and where C is considered really difficult, and best left till your final year. A famous paper published a few years ago characterised 'soft' subjects as having a 'reiterative, holistic nature ... which can be described as spiral in their configuration, returning with increasing levels of subtlety and insight into already familiar areas of content'.

This brings weighty intellectual challenges, as it means that students are exposed to the full range of material in the discipline at an early stage of their study. Who could forget reading Kant as a new undergraduate?

But it also means that there are few prerequisites to studying the subject, which is why few Art History degrees will nominate specific A-Levels as an entry requirement, let alone Art History itself. The pool of potential applicants for an History of Art degree will always be far wider than the numbers who have studied it at A-Level.

So are the signatories of the AAH letter right to say that AQA's decision will 'have grave consequences for the future of the discipline in universities'? It may impact on numbers of applicants - although without evidence this case can't be made with any conviction - but it certainly won't impact on how, what or why any of the signatories elect to teach, still less to publish, and to this end I feel we need to be more balanced in our response to AQA's decision.

Thursday, 20 October 2016

Digital pilgrims and other communities

'A fascinating project-in-progress report last night from the Digital Pilgrim team of researchers based at the British Museum who are producing 3D digital models of a few of the 900+ pilgrim badges in the BM's collection. (The BM is making 2D images of most of the rest for its Collections Online database).

The models themselves are fantastic - just take a look here. They enable the viewer to get a much better sense of the object's tactility and its construction than would a 2D image.

The presenters reviewed some of the uses to which the resource could be put, and echoed the government's own Culture White Paper (2016, p.38) in suggesting 'the benefits of digitisation are obvious'.

Obvious? Well I beg to differ.

Thursday, 13 October 2016

A-level art history axed

News that the last exam board to offer A-level art history will axe the subject: see here. The news has been received by many with dismay: see Bendor Grosvenor's blog post, and the Association of Art Historians' statement regarding the decision by the AQA exam board.

But is this bad news for higher education?

Monday, 26 September 2016

Helping students write better (3)

I've adapted my description of this activity from a colleague, Hulya Oztel, Principal Lecturer at de Montfort University. It's called 'reading cards' and is designed to help students engage with literature and provide feedback on their writing - a very soft form of formative assessment, if you will. Hulya says she got it from school in France and uses it with her students, and it's certainly something I'd like to try in future. It's as much about reading as writing, but I think it's principal use is to keep the students writing regularly and critically.

Students read a journal article, chapter from a book, or book section. They then compile a 'reading card' that consists of the following:

1. The full bibliographic entry of the book/chapter/article. (You'd need to say what format you wanted it in: MHRA, Chicago (footnote), MLA, etc).
2. An abstract. Students should write their own abstract of the piece, limited to 250 words. Plagiarism is a danger here but we are helped in a subject like art history because a lot of literature is published in books rather than journals, and even journal articles don't always have abstracts.
3. Some key quotations drawn from the piece.  
4. A short critical discussion, up to 500 words. Students can identify strengths and weaknesses of the piece, and say whether they agree or disagree, and why. Graham's Hierarchy of Disagreement, or a 'hierarchy of agreement' can help them clarify the nature and extent of their critical response - see my earlier post 'Seminar Activities (2)'.  
5. Further reading. Students nominate further readings - you stipulate how many - and add a short sentence for each one explaining their choice, eg. 'Addresses the same issues in an earlier period', 'Mentioned by the author as important for shaping their views on this topic', and so on.

Hulya says she asked the students to complete four reading cards over the course of ten weeks, and after she'd given feedback the students could revise three and submit them as part of their coursework portfolio. It needs to be a regular activity but how you organise the feedback would need some thought, especially if your group is over say 15 students!