Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 21, 2009
Kelly Donahue-Wallace, Laetitia La Follette, and Andrea Pappas, eds. Teaching Art History with New Technologies: Reflections and Case Studies Newcastle, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2008. 161 pp.; 26 b/w ills. Cloth $49.99 (9781847184542)

Stimulated by the availability of new technologies, the pedagogy of art history is in the midst of dramatic transformation. Until recently, college courses in the discipline were customarily illustrated using manually sequenced film transparencies extracted from local slide libraries. Now, nearly overnight, it seems, art history programs have all but abandoned that tried and true method in favor of PowerPoint presentations assembling digital files downloaded from shared image databases. Meanwhile, class meetings in brick and mortar settings are giving way to electronic communications among disparately located teachers and students participating in distance-learning courses. What are the implications of this upheaval for the teaching and learning of art history? How does the adoption of the new technologies impact day-to-day practice in our universities and colleges? Which techniques work? Which ones fail? How can we harness the potential of the internet to improve learning in our classrooms and dorm rooms?

Teaching Art History with New Technologies attempts to address these questions and others like them. A collection of essays by authors of diverse academic backgrounds, the book considers from a healthy variety of perspectives the effects of computers, digital imagery, and the internet upon the teaching of art history. Although hardly the final word on its subject (how could it be?), the volume makes a welcome and timely contribution to the literature of art history pedagogy. It should prove useful to teachers just starting out as well as to veterans eager to update their courses or otherwise come to grips with the technological changes occurring around them.

The essays in this collection fall into three types: 1) ruminations upon the changes in art history pedagogy brought about by developing technologies; 2) case studies outlining the pioneering use of digital resources in selected face-to-face art history courses; and 3) descriptions of strategies for teaching art history courses online. The book groups its material into three sections accordingly. An essay written by the editors explaining the objectives of the compilation precedes the main chapters.

Part 1 opens with an article by art historian Christopher L. C. E. Witcombe that attempts to place the current computer-driven revolution into historical perspective. Entitled “Bye bye slides, Bye bye carousels, Hello, Internet . . .” in jocular reference to plaintive lyrics made famous by the Everly Brothers, the piece makes the case that today’s upheaval is but the latest chapter in a story of continuous technological change that has shaped art history from its beginnings. According to Witcombe, “the trajectory of the discipline of art history—both in its selection of content and the methodologies through which that content has been addressed—parallels innovations in communication technologies” (15). That specific point requires more substantial support than it receives in the essay. But the author does show that the teaching of art history has long benefitted from the adoption of up-to-date tools, a notion that will please devotees of the new order and may also provide some comfort to recalcitrant technophobes.

Other articles in the section advise proceeding with caution. In “Dangerous Romances: The Rhetoric of Teaching (Art History) with Technology,” Stephen Carroll warns that “computer technology distorts our rhetorical relationships with our students in the same way that writing did for Socrates” (28). The author, a lecturer in English at Santa Clara University, has in mind the potential for miscommunication over assignments and expectations that, he contends, becomes magnified by the obsessive reliance upon computers. He provides a set of “principles of application” intended to help teachers to refocus their efforts upon their principal task, motivating students to think for themselves. In “The Slide Library: A Posthumous Assessment for our Digital Future,” art historians Beth Harris and Steven Zucker also warn of the revolution’s potential downside. Most significantly, they rue the loss of the communal space around the light table, the art historians’ “public square” where meaningful interactions among colleagues and students traditionally have taken place. “How can we reclaim and extend the community of the slide library in the digital realm?” (38) the authors ask. Alas, they don’t answer this important question, but their ruminations on the subject are most welcome.

Other injuries to the teaching of art history brought about by the new technology bear mentioning in this context. Owing to the relatively paltry number of pixels that they are capable of reproducing, today’s digital projectors tend to minimize the distinction between lustrous and matt surfaces, rendering the textures of objects unnaturally undifferentiated on the screen. Until projection systems improve significantly, surface values, always difficult to bring to the attention of students, will likely receive even less consideration in our classrooms than previously. Another matter of concern is the fate of the one-to-one comparison as a pedagogical device. The single, centrally located digital projectors equipping most of our high-tech classrooms are poorly suited for reproducing more than one painting or object at a time. Placing two images side to side always means compromising resolution, and the crowding that inevitably results from expanding the pictures to improve their quality can produce a confusing and unpleasant visual experience. The new technology, therefore, militates against the comparative method. Two projectors and screens large enough to allow for adequate image separation would go a long way to solving this problem. But who has the money for that?

The book’s second part, optimistically titled “Improving Learning,” gets down to the nitty-gritty of teaching lecture courses with computer imagery. Laetitia La Follette’s “Blending New Learning Technologies into the Traditional Art History Lecture Course” offers a blow-by-blow account of her art history department’s decade-long effort to design and implement an online supplement to its undergraduate survey courses. In addition to documenting that process, it presents examples of intriguing assignments designed for completion on the computer, including a clever build-it-yourself Greek temple. “ARTIFACT: Mapping a Global Survey of the History of Art,” by art historian Eva R. Hoffman and photographer Christine Cavalier, discusses Tufts University’s use of an interactive web-based curriculum tool in teaching a global art history course. The authors encourage the exploitation of computer-generated “concept maps,” graphical tools for organizing and representing interactions among ideas, to help students to grasp notional relationships. The samples of such maps that accompany the text, all but illegible on the pages of the book, inadvertently attest to the advantages of computer over print technology in reproducing charts and graphics. Two additional articles co-authored by three scholars each from Columbia and Santa Clara Universities recount experiences developing a media center and course management software to support the collaborative teaching of art history courses on those campuses.

The essays comprising the book’s third section, “Teaching Art History Online,” address primarily practical matters endemic to that method of course delivery. These case studies and overviews, provided by art historians Eva J. Allen, Kelly Donahue-Wallace, and Geoffrey Simmins, offer much in the way of first-hand experiences, and document the success and failures of various approaches. Teachers preparing themselves to offer courses online for the first time may find much of value in these descriptions and records. Art historians eager to encounter cogent arguments in support of e-courses on pedagogical grounds before taking that plunge likely will be disappointed, however.

As eloquently as the book documents the degree to which art history is currently responding to new technologies, it reminds us how much more there is to understand, and how many opportunities there remain to exploit. We are, after all, only at the beginning of the current technological revolution insofar as the study of art is concerned. Can it be long before technology and our collective efforts as photographers and simulators permit teachers of art history to transport their students regularly to locations far and wide, to visit and examine structures and objects in situ? Will they soon be able to provide their classes interactive learning tools based on sophisticated gaming technologies that revolutionize the acquisition of knowledge and understanding? What of collaborative learning projects facilitated by the internet involving diverse teams of students and faculty members drawn from campuses around the country? Pedagogical tools and initiatives such as these are bound to develop before long. Indeed, some of them may already exist. A new edition of Teaching Art History with New Technologies will soon be necessary to tell us about them.

David A. Levine
Professor of Art History, Art Department, Southern Connecticut State University