Back to the Classroom — Wednesday

Posted in teaching resources by Editor on August 25, 2010

As we continue this week’s focus on teaching the eighteenth century (with Julie Plax’s syllabus serving as a prompter), Jennifer Germann offers these useful observations . . .

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Jennifer Germann is Assistant Professor of Art History at Ithaca College where she teaches visual culture and gender studies. She is currently completing a manuscript on the representation of Marie Leszczinska (1703-1768), Queen of France, and working on a project on homosociality and women artists in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic periods.

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Thanks to Craig for inviting me to be a part of this forum and to Julie for sharing her syllabus. Reviewing Julie’s syllabus is a bit like being a Grand Tourist, in the best armchair-traveler style – I have all the benefits of the voyage without actually having to do the grading! Julie’s course is an introductory-level survey of eighteenth-century European art and architecture. It covers (from my perspective as a specialist in France) many corners of the Continent across the length of the century. It considers key cultural developments in relation to science, religion, and gender. For our purposes, consideration of this syllabus engages broader pedagogical questions as well as more specific issues relating to the field.

When preparing syllabi for introductory-level classes, I often find myself facing the complex issues around reading and learning. Most significantly, I find myself confronting the questions of what I can expect my students to know when they come into the classroom. What skills do they possess and which do I wish them to develop? Will they understand the reading? And if they can, will they actually do it? Julie’s course utilizes textbook reading mixed with some juicy articles by specialists that students are required to analyze in a graded writing assignment (about which I would be interested in hearing more). This is a useful way to bring undergraduates into a specialist field and to hold them accountable for the work. In my own courses, students often remark that they enjoy encountering ‘real art history’, not just survey books; I imagine Julie’s students feel the same way.

However, this also raises the question of how students are introduced to this field of study. In terms of background reading, Julie relies on a variety of textbook sources but returns most frequently to Petra ten-Doesschate Chu’s textbook, Nineteenth-Century Painting. Is the lack of focused survey (or more choices of one) about eighteenth-century European art and architecture a problem for those teaching the field or for students encountering it for the first time? I certainly recognize that for specialists (as in Julie’s case), this may not be a problem but it may suggest a lack of ‘institutional presence’. I think this issue resonates, for me, with a recent Enfilade discussion about the ‘risk’ of and to eighteenth-century studies that Mary Sheriff raised. Or, as Michael Yonan suggests in the comments section for that posting, would a textbook simply create a confining canon out of our beau désordre?

As I read Julie’s rich syllabus, I am also reminded that the fifteen-week semester looming ahead isn’t actually a very long stretch and there are topics, areas, and works of art that have to be omitted. This raises a final question: how to cover it all? How do other HECAA members choose what to cover and what to leave for a different encounter?