Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Case Studies vs. Survey

I recently was offered a position to teach art history next year at a local university. I will be teaching an introductory art history course that covers Renaissance to contemporary art. I'm excited to teach this class - it will be a new challenge for me, since this art history program focuses on teaching case studies for each period, instead of the traditional method of a survey course (where students learn about/memorize artists, works of art, dates, etc.). Instead of using the texts Gardner's Art Through the Ages or Stokstad's Art History, I will be teaching out of the Art and Its Histories series. These books are structured with one specific case study for each major period in art. The case studies focus on a specific artist, a group of similar works of art, or a common theme in art.

The textbook which introduces the Renaissance - Rococo art is The Changing Status of the Artist (edited by Emma Barker, Nick Webb and Kim Woods). So far, I like the things that are introduced in this book. It seems to help students think critically about art and art history (the introduction wastes no time in explaining how the "artist as genius" idea is a construct), and it also introduces ideas by major art historians. This stress on critical thinking and art historical arguments is something that I think is important - and I also think that it is missing from the major survey texts that tend to be a little to authoritative (and not leave room for questions or debate). So, I think the class will be fun to teach. These smaller case studies and ideas also generate a lot of room for discussion in class, which should be fun.

I also worry though, about how to find a good balance between teaching survey material and these case studies. I feel like there is a lot of value to the survey course - while it is necessary to learn how to think critically, it is also important to learn about stylistic characteristics, major artists, influential works of art, etc. I also feel like some of the works of art that are selected in these books might not be the most indicative of the stylistic traits from certain periods - but does that matter? I'm trying to decide that.

The faculty is very awesome and have given me complete leniency with my lesson plans. I'm going to use these books for sure, but I also hope to find a good balance by introducing other important information and concepts that aren't mentioned in the case studies.

If you have taken an introductory art history class, what was yours like? Did you take a survey? Or did you focus on case studies? What textbooks did you use? What things did or didn't you like about the class structure?