ART AND QUEER HISTORY - SAMPLE SYLLABUS
ART AND QUEER HISTORY - STUDENT EVALUATIONS
CREATING AN INCLUSIVE CLASSROOM CULTURE
I am committed to democratizing the field of art history. My experiences as a transgender person, as a sibling of a person with disabilities, and as a trained painter have instilled in me a deep investment in teaching art history in ways that are sensitive to students’ personal identities and experiences. To get to know my students quickly and bring this investment alive in my discussion sections for Introduction to American Art at the University of California, Riverside, I distributed a list of art objects to be taught in lecture and asked students to come to our first meeting prepared to identify three that sparked their interest and explain why in a casual class conversation. This exercise laid the foundation for the collegial atmosphere that I cultivated throughout the term to make students comfortable contributing to conversations and motivated to come to class prepared. Early on in the term, I also asked students to choose an object outside of that list that represented their identity and describe it in writing with as much detail as possible over one full single-spaced page. Not only did this exercise help me gauge students’ writing skills, it also taught me that a majority of my students identified as Black, Latinx, Asian-American, and/or LGBTQ+ and that a number of them were first-generation college students. I used this information to focus many of our meetings on material that spoke to students’ cultural heritage and histories of those identities. I also introduced study strategies, organized study groups, provided clear instructions and rubrics for each assignment, and encouraged multiple drafts of difficult assignments to support the students in my classes who had not received much academic coaching.
TEACHING GOALS AND METHODS
In addition to teaching in ways that activate students’ personal identities and respond to their learning needs, I also use a backwards course design model to craft my syllabi around specific student learning goals and objectives. I use this approach to ensure that students gain the analytical skills necessary to accomplish the following seven tasks: (1) see what appears in works of art—not what they think they see; (2) creatively describe what they see in works of art; (3-4) identify the historical contexts in which works were produced and evaluate how those contexts contributed to their creation; (5-6) investigate how works of art were received after they were created and use this information to appraise how they impacted the worlds around them; and finally, (7) argue for the specific significance of works of art based on their formal qualities as well as their relationships to historical and contemporary contexts.
Close-looking, describing, reading, and writing are the primary methods I use to build these skills. I use exercises in close-looking at objects in-person whenever possible throughout my class sessions to break up lectures and encourage students to keep their attention trained on an object for longer than might be comfortable. These exercises often involve asking students to move around the room to view a work from different perspectives and often even drawing what they see. After these periods of silent observation, I then ask students to describe what they see in the object without conflating description and analysis. This task—deceptively difficult for many—prepares students to both speak and write about art in ways that are clearly rooted in its visual and material qualities. By looking closely at Diego Velasquez’s Las Meninas with students in discussion sections for Survey of Western Art: Renaissance to the Contemporary at Stanford University, students’ focus shifted from the most visible figures to more subtly vexing qualities of the painting, such as the reflection of the couple in the mirror and the verso of a large canvas. After exercises like these, I ask students to refer to readings to make connections between works of art and their historical, political, or theoretical contexts. Using this approach while looking at Robert Rauschenberg’s Bed (1955) at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art with students in the course Art and Queer History that I taught at San Francisco State University, a number of students were able to derive questions about the presence of sexuality in art without figuration from tensions they noticed between the plastic quality of the paint and the softness of the bedding.
The observational and descriptive skills we practice in class not only train students to pay closer attention to visual materials in the world around them, but they also introduce them to the steps required for completing their own research-based writing projects. After a few unsuccessful attempts to teach students how to write research papers by simply demonstrating how to link works of art to historical research in lectures and class discussions, I now guide students through the research and writing process by breaking this project into more manageable and supported assignments throughout the term. In introductory courses, these assignments teach students the basics of research and writing, and these assignments increase in length and complexity in advanced lecture courses and seminars. In the first of these assignments for an advanced lecture course, students write detailed descriptions of two objects from the same period and location that are related to the course topic. Their second assignment is to complete an annotated bibliography that they will use to draft their third assignment, a summary of the historical context in which the objects they chose were made. Following this general summary, I ask students to draft a longer and more detailed assessment of how this history appears in the objects they described; I also ask students to draft a formal comparison between these objects. Using their historical context summaries, object history assignments, and comparisons, I then ask students to pick one of their original descriptions to revise into a “motivated description.” I teach students how to craft this motivated description so it is rooted in their research and also to generate thesis statements that argue for the historical significance of the visual elements that they describe in their object. Breaking this paper assignment into these components helped my students in Abstract Expressionism compose strong, research-based analyses of abstract art objects made in the US after 1945. Furthermore, a number of students in Art and Queer History reported that this strategy provided a model that helped them approach writing assignments for courses outside of art history with greater confidence and clarity.
ASSESSMENT TECHNIQUES AND COURSE EVALUATIONS
Self-assessments, peer reviews, and giving direct comments on each component of this paper are among the techniques I use to assess student learning and the effectiveness of my methods as each course progresses. I also use brief entrance and exit quizzes to note whether students have identified core materials and concepts from each class and if the class structure I have designed supports student learning. These quizzes also guide me in developing new teaching strategies. My methods have consistently earned superlative evaluations from students; students in Art and Queer History praised my enthusiasm for the course material, the inclusivity of the objects and texts I teach, and the creativity of my methods. Creative exercises are central to my efforts to inspire personal connections to art objects. For instance, in advance of our session on gay and Chinese American artist Martin Wong, I asked students to make material self-portraits that linked multiple elements of their own identities before reading an excerpt from Sara Ahmed’s challenging but important chapter “The Orient and Other Others” (2006). After completing these assignments and following our discussion of intersectional identity in Wong’s work, one student came to me and said that this was the first time she had seen her own sexual and cultural identities come together in a way that was celebrated rather than shamed. This motivated her to produce a final paper that generatively addressed how the symbolism in Martin Wong’s Chinese New Year’s Parade (1992-1994) might also speak to Wong’s experience during the AIDS epidemic. Students at San Francisco State also expressed appreciation for the detailed information about what will be expected of them through the entire semester, links to wider campus resources, and the learning guides that I included in the course syllabus because they allowed them to study more efficiently and organize their study time around other courses, work schedules, and family obligations.
I am currently crafting a seminar called Androgyny and Gender Transformation in Art. My primary resources for this course will be temporally and geographically broad scholarship from the nascent field of transgender art history, my own dissertation research, as well as materials from the issue of the Journal of Visual Culture dedicated to transgender art and visual studies that I co-edited. I am also developing a second special topics course called Disability in Art: Before and into the Contemporary based on my research for my second book. This course will ask how and to what end disability has shaped and been shaped by Western art history. Works at the center of this course range from Francisco Goya’s Beggars Who Get about on Their Own in Bordeaux (1824–7) to Otto Dix’s War Cripples (1920), Diane Arbus’s A Jewish giant at home with his parents in the Bronx, NY (1970), and Orlan’s Self-Hybridizations (1994-present) among others. My survey of American art after World War II foregrounds works by artists like Isamu Noguchi, Norman Lewis, and Laura Aguilar and critical events in US social history, such as Japanese internment, the Civil Rights Movement, Women’s Liberation, Gay Liberation, and the contemporary Immigrant Rights Movement. By teaching these and other courses, I aspire to contribute to the development of an inclusive and diverse art history pedagogy that is rooted in and continuously interrogates who or what is seen and what we can learn from what has been rendered invisible.