Teaching Art: “Let me describe it to you”

I mentioned a couple of posts ago that we’ve been watching one of The Learning Company’s ‘Great Courses,’ The History of European Art. In the comments thread, I noted that the lecturer’s favorite move is to “describe” an artwork to us. At first glance (so to speak!) that seems an odd strategy: we’re looking right at the art, after all. There are many things we can’t do (interrupt him with questions chief among them) but we can see what’s right in front of our own eyes.


Or can we? That, of course, is the trick, the gimmick, the magic, even, of the process. We see it, but, as Sherlock Holmes so often says to poor Watson, “You see, but you do not observe.” The untrained eye does not really know what it’s looking at. Professor Kloss may begin by stating what seems self-evident (“there’s a woman in the center of the painting,” “the man on the left side is wearing a wonderful blue robe”) but this is only a preliminary stock-taking, prior to pointing out what requires more expertise to really see: who the woman is, perhaps, and how this version of her differs from other ones; how the blue robe makes other blue bits stand out and maybe form a design across the canvas; why that particular shade of blue is rare in frescoes; how the artist’s brush strokes create a light effect on the woman’s body; what the striking whiteness of her skin suggests about not just the design but the larger meaning of the painting. Even the stock-taking is sometimes a good prompt: perhaps I wasn’t looking at the man on the left at first, because my eye was more immediately drawn to something else.

It’s not a perfect process, especially pedagogically. Not only does Professor Kloss often not describe something we’re curious about, but he never invites us to look first and see what we notice. Realizing this is salutary, as I’ve been thinking that his method is close to one kind of thing I do all the time in my classes: focus on a scene or a passage and try to bring out what’s interesting about it. There too we typically start with a description: “what’s going on here?” Then we move to the more open-ended process of noticing: “what’s interesting about it?” Early in a course, I am likely to do sample analyses, to model what we’re trying to do. Throughout, I also provide relevant contexts, including historical, biographical, literary, or theoretical. But as we go along, the burden of noticing shifts more and more to my students: knowing what they’re looking at — being able to “describe” it with expertise — could be considered our ultimate “course objective.” When I lecture, but also when we discuss and analyze and debate in class, what we’re doing is accumulating the knowledge and skills to make their descriptions more than just statements of the obvious — in my classes, which are fiction-intensive, the crucial distinction is to make them more than just plot summary.

Watching Professor Kloss describe sculptures, lithographs, wood cuts, paintings, frescoes and everything else makes me very aware of how little I have in my own head that helps me with his task: he knows all kinds of things that I don’t, and as a result he sees all kinds of things that I wouldn’t. Sometimes I’d swear he sees things that aren’t there — and now I wonder how often my own students feel the same way. I’m also very aware of how passive it makes me knowing he’s going to do all of his own noticing, and how little room the video lecture format leaves for me to have any ideas of my own. Well, I could have speculative ideas: heck, I can pause the video and say anything I want! But what I really want is to test my tentative observations against his expertise. I feel confident in my own taste (many times I have thought, as he rhapsodized about whatever’s on his current slide, “I hate that!” or “That’s beautiful!”), but I know that visceral reaction is irrelevant to the important process of really seeing and understanding what I’m seeing. That lack of interaction with an informed point of view is the biggest obstacle to my becoming anything of an expert myself.


Of course, I’m never going to become an expert art historian, but my job is all about developing expertise in my students. Stocking their heads full of information is one thing, but it’s not the only thing, and it’s not the most important thing. In some ways, it’s also something they can do on their own, if they’re motivated, though as I’ve written about before, it’s easy to overestimate the ease and efficiency of finding good information, much less knowing how to make it useful. Watching Professor Kloss describe great works of art is very interesting, but it’s also very passive. It reinforces for me the pedagogical necessity of going back and forth. Sure, let me describe it to you — but now, tell me what you see. Then we’ll talk about it.

One question I would definitely ask Professor Kloss, if only I could: we’ve reached Monet and so far pretty much the only women in the series have been Madonnas, Magdalenes, saints, or nudes. In the history of European art to 1860, there’s not one woman artist worth including?

Before Coursera, There Were the ‘Great Courses’

arenachapelHave any of you watched any of the videos produced for The Great Courses series? We’re pretty big fans of these in our house as sources of enrichment and edutainment. My mathematically-inclined son has watched  a number of them (along with his dad), including The Joy of Mathematics, Zero to Infinity: A History of Numbers, An Introduction to Number Theory, and Discrete Mathematics — as well as some music ones, including (aptly, for him) How Music and Mathematics Relate. My husband and I are currently watching A History of European Art, which I chose as a birthday gift because I’ve strolled through too many museums feeling I don’t really know enough about what I’m looking at.

I’m enjoying the course a lot. The lecturer, William Kloss, is not only erudite but endearingly enamored of his subject: he seems to stay pretty much on script, but every so often he gets this little extra glimmer in his eye or urgency in his voice and you know he just can’t help himself — he has to share how he feels about something. He has a lot of ground to cover in just 48 lectures and as a result has to skip along quite briskly (we got to peer closely at only three works by Michelangelo, for instance) — but that said, I think both members of this Teeny-tiny Open Offline Course would have been happy with a little less attention to medieval altarpieces, however revealing the distinctions between their various reworkings of the identical scriptural scenes.

It’s been impossible to sit through these lectures without thinking about their much larger cousins, the MOOCs. MOOCs, after all, are built around recorded lectures by eminent specialists. I discovered that the booklets accompanying our DVD set include some review questions, so if we were so inclined, we could take that extra step or two to help with comprehension and retention. Of course, we can’t ask Professor Kloss to check our answers (but then, that can’t happen in MOOCs either) — but we’d have each other, and I feel confident our ‘peer evaluation’ would be pretty rigorous. We’re not doing the fairly dull provided questions, though: we’re just watching the videos.


And yet we do have a lot of questions about what we’re seeing. They aren’t usually of the “reiterate the main distinction between Romanesque and Gothic architecture” kind but are, more typically, challenges to Professor Kloss’s conclusions or effusions. For one thing, we find the vocabulary of art criticism — or, perhaps more justly, his vocabulary — kind of impressionistic, if you’ll forgive the pun, and sometimes his rhapsodies about the wondrous unforgettable quality of one piece or another strike us as special pleading more than reasoned analysis. It would be nice to be able to  press him on just what he means, now and then. We often wonder about details of the paintings that he doesn’t choose to comment on, but of course he carries on quite impervious to our curiosity. Sometimes there are technical issues we’d like to understand better, or additional materials we’d love to see. In a MOOC, we’d have forums where I suppose we could crowd-source these questions, and even now if we really cared we could do some research of our own to see if they’re addressed anywhere. But there are at least two advantages to having a real live instructor: one would be our trust in the answers we got, and the other would be the efficiency of talking to someone who can filter the noise for us, rather than trying to create our own expertise on the fly. Here’s a third, actually: that real live instructor can help us reframe our questions too, which itself, in an unfamiliar field, is not easy (as anyone who has ever had students create discussion questions for class can attest), and in that back-and-forth too there is learning.

I do feel I am learning from my Great Course. I would be learning even more if I were doing more than watching it fairly passively, and I would be learning more still if I were actually taking the course in person, face to face. I don’t think there’s anyone who is claiming that MOOCs are as pedagogically effective (never mind as socially engaging) as actual classroom instruction. What’s odd is how much hype there is around them as if we haven’t already, for decades, had similar options. Our TOOC* lacks the online infrastructure, but otherwise, in its essentials, it’s about the same: you watch and listen, and then you decide how involved you want to be. That’s OK for us, because our only stake in this experience is personal, our only goal some extra enlightenment. It’s not OK if you imagine this activity as part of a deliberate process of intellectual and academic development.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a date with Hieronymous Bosch: tonight it’s Lecture 25: Netherlandish Art in the 16th Century.


*Technically it’s not entirely “open” since the DVDs aren’t free (but if you keep an eye out for sales, as we do, they aren’t expensive either) — but they could be borrowed from libraries, I expect.