I place three quotes at the top of each of my syllabi that collectively represent my fundamental approach to teaching. The first quote is, “I’m not telling you what to think. I'm giving you some things to think about," and it was spoken by journalist Michelle Martin. Placing this quote at the very top of my syllabus signals to my students that my classes are spaces for free thought and open consideration of new ideas wherein each student is both trusted and expected to sincerely engage with the material at hand, despite their own personal opinions or orientations. The second, “it is only with the heart that one sees rightly: what is essential is invisible to the eye” is taken from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s 1943 novella Le Petit Prince emphasize my desire for students to recognize that the material we are working with in my classes is important because it ranges from the personal to the political, activates deeply felt emotions, and addresses lived experiences that range from joyous to traumatic. I work hard to create conditions wherein students are willing to engage with the course from more than just an intellectual perspective.
The third quote at the top of my syllabus is from David Freedberg’s 1989 book, The Power of Images: “People are sexually aroused by pictures and sculptures; they break them; they mutilate them, kiss them, or cry before them, and go on journeys to them; they are calmed by them, stirred by them, and incited to revolt. They give thanks by means of them, expect to be elevated by them, and are moved to the highest levels of empathy and fear. They have always responded in these ways; they still do." Trained as an art historian, I regularly use art objects as entry points to course material, whether or not I am teaching an art history class because objects enable us to ask, “what are they doing?” and “why?” when we see all of the responses that objects can evoke. I often select images that might initially evoke particular feelings—for instance, photographs of the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial quilt project spread across the National Mall with the Washington Monument towering in the background—before turning to discussions of research on the history of the AIDS crisis in the US and globally.
I choose content for each of my courses—whether the field is art history, American studies, or LGBTQ+ studies—based on its potential to challenge and empower students to meaningfully engage with their own experiences as living, breathing, human beings raised and coming of age in culturally and historically specific contexts and conditions. I regularly introduce complex topics that are sensitive to a student's own internal life, speak from a variety of cultural perspectives, are made of materials that are familiar to those cultures, and critique the structures of power that have shaped the experiences of those cultures, their materials, and their histories.
As an art historian, I rely heavily on the power of objects to generate interdisciplinary inquiry. It is my goal that students of all disciplines gain the observational skills necessary to carry out effective research in any field or to be an informed and observant citizen of the world. This is rooted in two fundamental tasks that my students practice repeatedly: (1) see what appears in the material before you (be that an object, person, record of an event, etc)--not what you think you see and (2) creatively describe what you see in the material, not what you think it might mean. As a scholar of art history as well as American and LGBTQ+ studies, I then seek to teach my students how to analyze what they have seen and described by practicing several additional exercises: (3) identify the historical contexts in which objects were produced, individuals emerged, or events took place and (4) investigate how those contexts contributed to their creation; (5) evaluate how objects, people, or events were understood after they were created, emerged, or happened and use this information to (6) appraise how objects, people, or events impacted the worlds around them; and (7) argue for the significance of objects, people, or events based on their formal qualities and specific details, as well as their relationships to historical and contemporary contexts. After practicing these tasks over and over with an array of materials related to interdisciplinary topics, students leave my courses confident in their ability to approach new material with curiosity, the skills needed become experts in that material if they so choose, and to present their findings in compelling ways.
I believe that college classes should be spaces for students to take risks and to develop their writing and critical thinking skills. This development necessarily includes failure. However, anxiety about grades often prevents students from taking risks in their thinking and writing and distracts from the process of learning. Thus, I use alternative, labor-based methods to assess engagement and willingness to take risks.. Students also enter my classes at different stages, with different language skills, and varying levels of preparation. Some students are disadvantaged by standard grading methods due to their previous educational experiences, others struggle with exams, and others still have learning styles that defy performance-based assessments. My grading methods also enable me to level the playing field among students in my classes.
Grading in my classes is based on methods of “Specifications Grading,” which are different from standard grading. I give both detailed instructions for each assignment and substantive feedback to help students improve their critical thinking and writing skills. This system rewards the effort and work students put into this class and encourages them to try out new ideas. This system also holds students accountable for completing each assignment according to the specific guidelines provided and for working toward the grade they have committed to strive for at the start of the semester. I want students to focus on learning, and I give substantive feedback to help them improve their critical thinking and writing skills. Students have reported that this grading system has decreased their stress and increased their motivation to learn through sincere effort and experimentation. Please see any one of my syllabi for specific details on how this system works.
SUPPORTING WRITING AS AN ESSENTIAL SKILL
All my courses are designed to emphasize the importance of writing, not just for success as a college student but also in their lives after graduation. Art history, American Studies, and LGBTQ+ Studies—my primary areas of focus—are not just the study of objects, people, and histories but places to practice writing from continuously evolving perspectives. Writing is a fundamental life skill. Therefore, my courses help students develop their ability to describe objects, people, and events with skill, precision, and richness that will serve them in their endeavors beyond this course, beyond graduation, and into their careers. I incorporate regular progressive writing workshops into all my classes to make sure students have thorough instructions, clear examples, and templates to follow in drafting their assignments. I also assign all writing projects to be turned in in stages so I can offer feedback and give opportunities for revision along the way to the final product. I also spend time at the end of each semester teaching students a few key strategies for giving effective and engaging presentations that will not only end our semester together with energy and enthusiasm, but also provide students with tools for presentations that will help them perform well in job interviews and public speaking opportunities that will come to them after the course is over. Many previous students have returned to tell me that the emphasis I place on writing and presentation skills provided them invaluable pre-professional training.