Back to the Classroom — Tuesday

Posted in teaching resources by Editor on August 24, 2010

Our first response to Julie-Anne Plax’s syllabus for an undergraduate course on eighteenth-century art . . .

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Georgina Cole is a part-time lecturer and researcher at the University of Sydney. She has just been awarded her Ph.D. from the same university for her thesis “Painting the Threshold: Doors, Space and Representation in Eighteenth-Century Genre Painting,” which examines the role of doors in the work of Watteau, Chardin, Hogarth, and Gainsborough alongside a new theory of genre painting. Georgina has taught and contributed to a number of art history courses at the University of Sydney, the University of Technology, and the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

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Overshadowed by the looming edifices of the baroque and the nineteenth century, the eighteenth century is often an unfamiliar period for art history students, and prone to be written off as a frivolous century lacking any real achievements. Faced with these prejudices, a good course needs to show students that there is a lot to be gained from taking this playfulness seriously and that ultimately, the eighteenth century is a crucial turning point for many ‘modern’ ideas about representation, science, and private life. Julie Plax’s syllabus tackles both of these issues, and it does so by focusing on the intersections of eighteenth-century art and cultural identity, politics, travel and scientific discovery. The range of seminar topics here is impressive, as is the attention to things that aren’t paintings, such as monuments, buildings and gardens. This approach accurately emphasizes the ‘artfulness’ of the period and its fluid relationships between painting, sculpture, architecture and decoration. Her pan-European focus is particularly refreshing, and includes English, Spanish, German, Russian and Swedish art and contexts. The thematic and chronological organization of the course is well devised and should help students engage with the themes, forms and contexts of eighteenth-century art rather than just its stylistic affiliations.

While I liked the breadth and diversity of the course content, I was really impressed by the forms of examination and their focus on student learning. The numerous assessments – multiple exams, an article critique and a final research paper – provide the student with continual feedback to aid in the development of writing skills and critical analysis. As a teacher, I have found that students need and want constant feedback on their academic performance. This can sometimes be a heavy burden, but it is vital for their academic development. The ongoing opportunities for assessment in this course, especially the submission of multiple drafts of the research paper, will certainly help students improve their writing, research and interpretive skills. Spreading the assessment loading across multiple tasks also keeps students engaged throughout the semester.

Also on the topic of examination, I was intrigued by the lottery for the allocation of research topics. This is an ingenious solution to an often difficult and time-consuming problem, and admirably avoids “Fragonard fatigue”, a condition experienced after marking 97 papers on Happy Hazards of the Swing. It means a good spread of topics for marking, and forces students to study works they would not have chosen for themselves. Although we generally introduce more critical articles and essays into the reading list at the University of Sydney, I think that the way Julie has controlled access to more difficult material by turning it into a form of assessment is a great way of ensuring that it is comprehended and critically analyzed. The article critique assessment is an excellent way of developing reading and interpretive skills and the emphasis on discussion improves communication and argumentation. All in all, this is a comprehensive and in-depth approach to the major concerns of eighteenth-century art that emphasizes its interaction with social, cultural and political contexts, and effectively promotes student learning.