Intuitively I have always known that good teaching amounts to more than “downloading” content. Whereas I did see myself initially in the classroom as something of a “content coach,” there to present as much historical information as time allowed, my perspective quickly changed. Today more than ever, in an age of hour-by-hour information overload, I am convinced that interface with content alone offers no guarantee of learning.
In my own field of art history, for example, there exists the vast realm of art historical moments to be covered — the myriad styles and art historical periods over the course of time. Yet no one with half a curiosity would support a “laundry list” approach to mastering this content. Memorization without meaning; obedience without imagining further possibilities; and learning environments that do not reward intuition and daring are sure to short-change education.
When exploring the modern period with my students, for example, art historical movements are mined for their content as expression of modern historical conditions and ideologies. War footage; artist statements; political manifestos and philosophical currents make for exploration dense in the ways in which twentieth-century art must be seen as an inseparable part of the larger cultural, political and social context of which it forms an integral part. The student experience in such a course builds upon the foundation laid in introductory art history survey, designed as prerequisite, in which the dominant question is repeatedly posed, ‘How does this work of art or architecture (shown on the screen) reflect both the artistic practices and dominant concerns of the period?’ This question builds student confidence at analyzing works of art and architecture so that students are enabled to eventually pursue significant research in upper-level courses such as the Twentieth-century Art Seminar.
Good teaching also involves getting out of the classroom; there is no substitute for the face-to-face experience of art. I regularly take my students to museums in the states and conduct a biannual seminar in France where Paris becomes the “classroom.” Students (and perhaps most especially students of art) must be in creative, intellectual process with material – not passive receptors before a lectern or screen.
If I expect students to be confident enough to risk failure in front of their peers, so must I.
Finally, students pick up whether the professor himself or herself is in process. Bright students reject dusty lectures. Instinctively, they assess integrity in regard to ongoing commitment within a field. Again, interface with content alone offers no guarantee a student is being transformed. My role becomes a mentoring one, demonstrating through my own scholarship that it is possible to move from idea to idea, stay ahead of issues, and remain creative and imaginative. If I expect students to be confident enough to risk failure in front of their peers, so must I. If I want students to exercise intellectual agility and creative courage, so must I. This requires that an academic institution understand the central importance of opportunity for faculty professional development. Faculty professional development is not essentially a “faculty” issue: it is a classroom one.
In summary, good teaching amounts to more than “downloading” content. It requires cultivation of the full range of conditions (including faculty conditions) conducive to a culture of intellectual courage and creativity. From this, students leave with a desire to further what was begun in their academic experience, throughout a lifetime.