Challenging Teaching Norms: A New Art History Curriculum
In the rise of a socially-conscious zeitgeist, a spectrum of practices across the vast catalog of art institutions and programming have come into question, specifically around the issues of representation and equity. From hiring policies to curation, art audiences are demanding more inclusive narratives.
Often our digital platforms provide the unfortunate circumstance of sustaining a highly contentious environment around these conversations. A common response across many institutions has been to remain steadfast and inflexible in questionable practice, as opposed to considering the validity of such cultural objections.
But some institutions have found a way to respond to the current state of cultural criticism in more productive ways. One such educational institution is Trinity Washington University of Washington, D.C. I was honored and initially surprised when the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Sita Ramamurti, reached out to me on LinkedIn seeking a meeting. I was even more surprised by what she asked me to do for them.
Seeing a major gap in Trinity’s offerings within the Art History Department, Sita and her colleagues asked me to develop two new curricula: 1) a two-part class in the history of African American art, and 2) a class in the history of worldwide resistance art. Though I would be unable to teach the courses myself due to time considerations of a healthy work-life balance, I was thrilled to develop the architecture for these courses. But I knew from the beginning that I did not want to create a typical art history college-learning experience.
Trinity was a founded on a mission of social justice, seen across the campus in programs, classes, and culture. With a population of 35% D.C. residents from Wards 7 and 8, Trinity serves a largely black and female community of college learners.
With this in mind, I wanted to approach the development of these courses with sensitive consideration to the rising tension around cultural representation in the arts. So instead of focusing on the direct memorization of artworks and artists, as is the foundation of most art history teaching, I wanted the students to activate their critical thinking skills around problematic practices within The Canon of American Art.
Dialogue, journaling, and comparing museum experiences are the foundation of these courses. Students will keep a weekly journal to challenge and question the required readings, specifically about the ways in which artists of different cultural backgrounds are valued or iconized. Students will perform a mock canon tournament-style debate where only one student will be victorious, and that student’s artist will receive the fake honor of being immortalized within The Canon. For their final papers, students are encouraged to discover an artist marginalized from the class teachings and make the case for said artist to be included the following semester. In this way, a generation of students will begin to influence the curriculum itself, thus increasing the inclusive practice within.
These activities are designed to encourage students to challenge the monolithic narrative of the history of art that we continue to teach.
If we collectively agree that there are culturally-significant problems within art history, but we do little to empower a generation of new thinkers armed with the skills to make change, then we will continue to have contentious debate with no solution.