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Emphasizing the Human Dimension of Early Modern Art History in the Midst of a Pandemic

Rachel Miller
California State University, Sacramento

Although my 140-student survey of art history from 1300 to 1700 is always filled with a wide variety of students, the majority of them take the class to fulfill a general-education requirement. Though many of these students enroll because they are interested in the subject, there is always a sizeable portion who take my class because it is the only one with open seats that fits their schedule. My single biggest challenge every semester is convincing this type of student that the course is worth their time and attention. Of course, I am not always successful with everyone, but I would like to think that I have developed some reliable techniques that help general-education students see the value in studying early modern art. When Sacramento State announced that we were moving to online instruction due to the COVID-19 outbreak, I realized that in order to retain students in these chaotic times and help them succeed in extremely adverse learning circumstances, getting them to care about early modern art history would be more important, and more difficult, than ever.

When revising my course for remote instruction, I used L. Dee Fink’s Creating Significant Learning Experiences as a guide.1 In a normal semester, I use his six categories of significant learning to help me write the expected learning outcomes that form the basis of my backwards course design: foundational knowledge, application, integration, learning how to learn, caring, and human dimension.2 However, with this online iteration of my course, it became clear that the human dimension category, which Fink defines as addressing “the important relationships and interactions we all have with ourselves and with others,” had suddenly become much more important and, hopefully, would be the key to retaining students amidst a pandemic.3 I hoped that emphasizing this category of learning would cause students to feel that they were members of a learning community, driven by a sense that there were meaningful links to be made between their lives and the early modern art we were studying in class. Although increasing student engagement with course material and each other would be far more difficult online, it seemed vital to helping students alleviate their sense of social isolation, manage their stress levels, and maintain some sense of normalcy in their lives.

In rewriting my syllabus, I changed as little as possible to avoid confusion and disruption. Students could attend interactive synchronous lectures via Zoom, if their technology capabilities, living situation, and work schedules allowed, or watch the recorded lectures later and respond to discussion questions asynchronously. Approximately one hundred of my 140 students elected to participate in class synchronously. I assessed student learning primarily through quizzes and exams that I adapted for remote learning by focusing more on application and analysis instead of knowledge recall. In my pivot to focus more on the human dimension, I did not want to add any additional mandatory assessments for this category of significant learning; instead, I decided to do extra-credit discussion boards on our learning management system approximately once every two weeks. Abridged versions of several of my prompts are as follows:

  1. 1. Post a Renaissance work of art that best summarizes how you feel about school, life, COVID-19, etc. Explain why it sums up how you feel at the moment.
  2. 2. A lot of people are having fun recreating historical works of art while under quarantine. (Check out some examples.) Using only the objects in your home and the people/animals you are sheltering in place with, recreate a work of art created between 1300 and 1700 in Europe.4
  3. 3. For bonus points this week, share with someone else (virtually, or if they live with you, in person) the artworks you have been learning about in this course. For example, you could explain your favorite work of art you have studied this semester to a family member and discuss it together or talk to a friend about what you have been learning in this course in recent weeks.
  4. Tell me 1) what you discussed; 2) how you felt about the conversation, and 3) what did you learn from this experience? What new thoughts or ideas do you have afterwards?5

Finally, several students mentioned that they were playing Animal Crossing: New Horizons, a Nintendo Switch game that involves renovating an island.6 An update released in April allowed players to collect works of art, including Leonardo da Vinci’s Lady with an Ermine and Rembrandt’s The Night Watch, for a virtual museum.7 They have to purchase these from an art dealer, being careful to observe all of the details to be sure they match the real artwork or else they run the risk of buying a fake. In response to their enthusiasm for this game, I offered bonus points for posting a screenshot of a Renaissance or Baroque work of art hanging in their Animal Crossing museum, along with a paragraph-long analysis of the artwork’s meaning in its historical context.8

Two important aspects of Fink’s human-dimension category are learning about one’s self and learning about others.9 The first prompt allowed students to explore their emotions about the current situation, while also reading about their fellow students’ feelings. Many of them described similar feelings of loneliness, worry, stress, anger, and boredom. Students wrote about how they connected to the world-weary expression on the face of Leonardo da Vinci’s Genevra de’ Benci or the chaotic, apocalyptic feeling of scenes like Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights. One student, a graphic design major, posted an image of Albrecht Dürer’s Melencholia I print, writing about being paralyzed artistically in the midst of these major world events. This activity provided an outlet for students to give voice to the complex emotions they were experiencing.10 They could see that their fellow students were going through similar issues, while connecting on an emotional level to artworks that can often seem inaccessible and removed from their lived experiences, finding commonalities between themselves and people who lived hundreds of years ago. I often vaguely hope this will happen in my course, but the circumstances of online teaching and the COVID-19 pandemic caused me to create a space in my class where such connections could actually take place.11

In normal semesters, one major obstacle that nonart students face in art history courses is often wrapped up in their own self-image. A common worry that I hear from students new to art history is, “I am just not an art person,” a self-perception that is often caused by a lack of exposure to art or a bad experience in high-school art class. Fink writes that the human dimension category of learning can help students learn about and change their self-image, causing them to view themselves as a “new, more competent kind of person.”12 Several of my prompts provided students with the opportunity to reflect on how much they have learned and, hopefully, revise their self-image. Even in normal semesters, students tend to get very excited when they encounter works of art they have studied out in the real world (in museums, in the backgrounds of movies, as references in fashion photography, etc.). As they browsed through online images of people recreating famous paintings online or encountered works of art in Animal Crossing, they realized that they could recognize many of them, thus altering their self-image from “I am not an art person” to “I am a person who knows about art.” Being able to share their expertise with a loved one also caused students to reflect on what they had learned, and many of them were proud that they could now explain a work of art to a friend or family member. For example, one student talked to her boyfriend about Caravaggio and wrote “My boyfriend loved learning the stories behind the paintings, and I was surprised at how much history I learned from this class!” Another student said that after she talked with her mother about Botticelli’s Primavera, she “felt really smart for having such a vast knowledge on the topic.” This discussion thread helped students view themselves in a new light, as people who are familiar with art and have valuable knowledge to share with others.

In a face-to-face class, learning about the human dimension often happens naturally to some degree, but in an online classroom, especially when in the middle of a crisis, this aspect of a course has to be more consciously designed. Before the COVID-19 outbreak, I had thought that I was effectively including this in my courses by occasionally connecting historical concepts to contemporary issues and hoping that my enthusiasm for the material would be naturally infectious. However, my impromptu efforts to strengthen this aspect of my teaching in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic have taught me to be far more intentional about how I integrate the human dimension into both online and face-to-face classes in the future.

Rachel Miller is an Assistant Professor of Art History in the Department of Art, California State University, Sacramento, where she teaches lower-division surveys of art history and upper-division courses focused on ancient Mediterranean, medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque art in a global context. She is a contributor to smarthistory and Art History Teaching Resources and is a member of the College Art Association’s Education Committee.

1 L. Dee Fink, Creating Significant Learning Experiences: An Integrated Approach to Designing College Courses (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2013).

2 Fink, Creating Significant Learning Experiences, 35.

3 Fink adds that “College students frequently report that learning about themselves and about others is among the most significant experiences they have during college.” Fink, Creating Significant Learning Experiences, 50–51.

5 This prompt was adapted from Nadine Dolby’s suggestion in Beth McMurtrie, “How to Reconnect with Students and Strengthen Your Remote Course,” Chronicle of Higher Education, 9 Apr. 2020.

6 Animal Crossing: New Horizons, Nintendo (2020).

7 Dean Abdou and Christian Donlan, “Animal Crossing’s Art Gallery Makes You Question What You Value,” Eurogamer, 12 May 2020.

8 Between 34% and 12% of students participated in each of these extra-credit discussion boards, which is generally higher than in a normal semester when I offer bonus point opportunities. The most popular was the prompt where students were asked to recreate Renaissance and Baroque artworks using the objects and people in their homes, and the second most popular was the one where they used a work of art to share their feelings about the COVID-19 pandemic. The prompt with the smallest number of responses was the Animal Crossing thread because students needed access to the game to participate.

9 Fink, Creating Significant Learning Experiences, 51.

10 For more on the pedagogical value of personal essays, see Rachel Toor, “Turns Out You Can Build Community in a Zoom Classroom,” Chronicle of Higher Education, 23 June 2020.

11 For other resources and reflections on using art to help students reflect on contemporary events, their surroundings, their identities, or their emotions, see Julia Finch, “Appalachian Identities and Photography as Social Commentary,” Art History Teaching Resources, 25 Feb. 2017; Mary Slavkin, “Bridging the Gap: Art and Popular Culture in the Formal Analysis Comparison,” Art History Teaching Resources, 5 Jan. 2017; Ellery E. Foutch, “Bringing Students into the Picture: Teaching with Tableaux Vivants,” Art History Pedagogy and Practice 2, no. 2 (2017): 1–23.

12 Fink, Creating Significant Learning Experiences, 51.

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