Johns Hopkins University
Fall/Winter 2006
Vol. 4, No. 1


Tutoring Project to Celebrate Golden Anniversary

A Conversation with Trina Schroer, professor of Biology

Putting Biology Field Work
on a Map

Looking at Art with a "Period Eye"

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Looking at Art with a “Period Eye”

eyeWhat do you get when you sit a bunch of undergraduates down in a darkened auditorium and show them gazillions of slides of artwork ranging from Michelangelo’s “Pieta” to Mondrian’s “Composition with Red, Blue and Yellow”? Well, by the end of the semester, you get a group of students who know a little bit about a lot of art.

Ryan Gregg and Ben Tilghman wanted to do something different for the introductory history of art class they taught this past summer. “What we wanted to teach was less great masterpieces and more the skills to walk up to any work of art and be able to think about it and look at it intelligently,” explains Tilghman, who is a third-year History of Art graduate student specializing in Medieval art.

The result was the three-credit How to Look at Art, a course aimed at teaching students “how to consider aspects such as the play of abstract forms within a work of art, its narrative content, and the historical and cultural influences that shaped it,” according to its syllabus.

That’s a pretty tall order, especially considering that Gregg and Tilghman covered thousands of years of art from ancient times to modern day, and even threw in a little museum studies for good measure.

Their secret? Well, there are several actually.

Secret No. 1: Choose your topics wisely. “Instead of doing an entire section on Gothic Art and architecture, we did a section on reliquaries,” explains Tilghman. The class wasn’t about hitting the biggest, most recognizable works. Instead it was about selecting a few examples to illustrate a particular period or style, even if that meant skipping 300 years—as the instructors did in between one class on the Italian Renaissance and the following class on pictorial space that cited some of Picasso’s Cubist paintings. “Don’t worry, nothing interesting happened,” Tilghman joked to the class. They responded with looks of only mild concern.

Secret No. 2: No textbooks. “Our readings are articles or chapters from scholarly books,” says Gregg, a third-year History of Art graduate student specializing in Renaissance Art. “We are stressing having a historical mindset, a ‘period eye.’” From writings of Gregory the Great to musings of Giorgio Vasari, the idea was to avoid having one definitive voice weighing in on the art. The goal: to teach the students about the many opinions that can converge in art history.

Did it work? “Yes,” says Hopkins sophomore Saya Russell, who is considering a major in art history. “[Other] survey courses I’ve taken were more about the teacher lecturing and explaining things than about how we understood the readings,” she says.

Secret No. 3: Get out of the classroom. “The problem with most survey classes is that there’s a real lack of engagement with any actual works of art,” says Gregg. Sure, the students in the class saw about 35 slides per day—but they also trekked to local museums at least once a week to see items at the Walters Art Museum and the Baltimore Museum of Art. “The class was actually based around the collections available to us in Baltimore,” Tilghman adds.

Students were graded on two museum presentations, two 5- to 7-page research papers, a final exam, and class participation.

It sounds like the ideal introduction to art history class. And it was. Except for the small matter of museum hours. One day the group was scheduled for a two-hour discussion in Merganthaler 255 but Gregg and Tilghman wanted to surprise them by ending an hour early. “We’ll walk over to the BMA for the last hour of class,” Gregg said. Brilliant idea, they agreed. Then they paused. “Wait, what day is it?” Tilghman asked.

“It’s Tuesday,” Gregg said.

They sighed.

“Museum closed.”