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Actively Teaching (Artists) Aesthetics
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Kathleen Desmond

I am afraid of philosophers. Actually, I am in awe of philosophers, aestheticians in particular. Ever since graduate school I have been “star struck” by philosophers, art critics and visual cultural theorists. Now, as the saying goes, I are one. I am a professor of art – a distinguished one even. I teach art history, art criticism, studio art, art theory, aesthetics and ethics. I write about contemporary art and artists, art theory and pedagogy. I chaired the College Art Association’s Education Committee for four years and conducted sessions about pedagogy at national conferences and I am still afraid, I mean in awe, of aestheticians!

In 2005 I found the courage to step out of the familiar College Art Association and National Art Education Association venues to see if I could keep up with real philosophers. (I figured if I couldn’t at least I would get to hear Christopher Rothko!) To my delight I found, except for the most technical of discussions, I understood the procedures and the discussions. I even knew the references. The ASA was most welcoming to this anxious art professor. I made pages of notes for my own thinking and teaching and I noticed a few missing components in the now three conferences I attended.

For instance, I found no mention of continental philosophers Foucoult, Derrida, Barthes, Baudrillard and Walter Benjamin who are so influential to contemporary artists. I also noticed there was no mention of non-Western aesthetics. In order to teach about contemporary art and art criticism these days, both continental philosophies and non-Western aesthetics are germane. And finally, I noticed the pedagogical practices of ASA presentors were similar to those I experienced in my undergraduate philosophy courses in the early 1970s, in other words, with all due respect, out dated.

Art history professors have a tradition of outdated teaching and presentation methods, too: dark rooms, two projectors, lists of names, dates and styles to memorize (and regurgitate on tests). There is also a “canon” of white male Western artists and art works that have to be “covered.”

Because students today learn differently than they did thirty years ago professors are required to change their strategies in order to be effective teachers and presentors. And this goes beyond using power point, face book and blogs. In the Humanities it means keeping up with cultural theory, visual culture and contemporary practices.

About ten years ago CAA’s Education Committee conducted a session called “Alternative Modes of Pedagogy: Theory and Practice in Teaching Art History.” It was based on Ernest Boyer’s (former director of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching) Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate and supported the Carnegie Foundation findings that for 70 percent of today’s professors, teaching represents their primary interest. The session was surprisingly packed. Art history professors were and are eager for pedagogical discussion.

In a later CAA session, art professors from art schools, public and private colleges and universities responded to “What Do College Students Know About Art, Anyway?” Participants said art students are passionate about manipulating materials and solving visual problems but they lack a conceptual understanding of what working artists think and do and why they do it. In general, young art students have little or no knowledge of theory or aesthetics and they have not been taught to think critically.

So important are critical thinking and aesthetics to CAA that in 2006 Arthur Danto was keynote speaker at the Annual Conference. Danto detailed contemporary aesthetics brilliantly that evening and his published remarks are required reading in my senior Integrated Capstone class called Artists in Contemporary Society. Current trends addressing the need for critical thinking, art theory and aesthetics in college art curriculums include integrated capstone, visual studies and cultural theory courses like Artists in Contemporary Artists.

It was with this interest in teaching and learning that pedagogical theories and practices continue to be explored at CAA. It is with this same interest that I propose some theories and practices for teaching and learning aesthetics for college professors.

Involved in CAA discussions and prompted by a former student who is now a successful artist and graphic designer, I am writing a book tentatively called Ideas About Art (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010) to address philosophical issues in art that will benefit art and design students and professors as well as a general public interested in understanding contemporary visual art. Ideas About Art provides theory and practice for developing and supporting philosophical positions through the use of case studies/aesthetic dilemmas as a “hook” for motivating readers to explore relevant aesthetic issues and art theory. Case studies provide concrete examples that make knowing aesthetic and critical theories worthwhile. Grappling with real dilemmas provide opportunities for readers to concretize their ideas and support their positions specific to theories in the visual arts. Ideas About Art moves beyond historical and analytical aesthetics and adds continental and non-Western aesthetics along with discipline specific art theories. Ideas About Art updates Margaret Battin et al’s, Puzzles About Art, and provides a pedagogical approach supporting Battin’s research proving case studies are effective methods for teaching and learning aesthetics.

Active Learning

Active learning can be very useful in engaging students in critical thinking and philosophical dialogue. The Socratic method is a kind of active learning. Group processing and cooperative learning is also a kind of active learning. Active learning is founded in Constructivist Theory and based on the notion that different people learn in different ways, that the process of learning is about self- development, and that learning is only meaningful when learners make knowledge their own. Elements of active learning are talking and listening, writing, reading, and reflecting. Teaching and learning strategies include the use of small groups, group projects and presentations, short writing exercises and in-class real-life case study debates.
Active learning allows students to engage in course content, making knowledge meaningful, and contributing to their own self-development and learning process. According to research studies, the lecture method of teaching has the lowest learner retention rate. Teaching others has a 90% retention rate, practice by doing 75%, and discussion groups 50%. Teaching strategies that incorporates active learning provides learners opportunities to exercise their creativity and critical thinking and make knowledge their own.

College Age Students

William Perry (1970) described the concrete thinking and dualistic nature of beginning level college students who ask the teacher “just tell me what you want.” Students at this level of intellectual development regard their instructors as the ultimate authorities. They often consider the development of their own thinking skills to be a “frill” or an intrusion in the REAL substance of learning as they conceptualize it.

Learning psychology can help professors know their audience. Some learners are introverts and need time to digest questions before they can come up with responses that won’t embarrass them. When using the Socratic method you call on a student who says “I don’t know” when you know they do, it’s probably because they are an introvert and need time to prepare their answer. That’s when giving all students a few minutes to write and prepare answers to questions you pose allows for reflection and better answers from both introverts and extraverts. That time allows extraverts to prepare better answers than those they are immediately ready to volunteer. You know the extraverts in your class. They have their hand in the air before you even have the question out of your mouth. Active learning teaching success provides for a variety of learning differences including psychological learning differences.

Cognitive theorists promote strategies that help professors understand and teach students at different predispositions and levels of readiness for learning. Learning differences are described in cognitive and developmental psychology as well as in educational psychology literature. Encouraging students to recognize and use their own creative energies in constructing knowledge by providing them with a framework for learning is an essential component in college teaching and an opportunity for faculty creativity. Creating an active learning environment that includes a variety of teaching strategies for engaging students in discovering how knowledge is essential to and meaningful in their lives is on ongoing challenge for all professors.

What about “Covering the Content”?

Think of teaching critical thinking skills as an exchange, rather than giving something up for the skills that will foster a deeper understanding of the discipline and that will allow students to continue learning long after they have left your classroom. I think about teaching as “performance.” Story telling is key to teaching performance. Influential 20th C artist Joseph Beuys, said “To be a teacher is my greatest work of art.”

To connect content to something important in students’ lives, seek relevance. What is important to college students? Ask questions about the kind of music students listen to or what kind of posters they hang on their walls. What designs on CD covers do they think are effective? Why? Ask them to define art or music or film. Ask these questions every semester. It’s surprising how the answers change from semester to semester and from group to group. Learners, no matter what age, connect with the familiar, with what they know. They connect with what is important to them now, at this time and in this place, making context vitally important.

Case Studies Connect Learners to Content

Case studies are useful in connecting content to something relevant in students’ lives. (I thank Margaret Battin for demonstrating the usefulness of Case Studies in Puzzles About Art.) Case studies can be examined in terms of the values as well as consequences. Local newspapers or internet news sites can provide relevant case studies. Rarely does a week go by without at least one art world news item conducive to a case study appearing. You can develop your own case studies to connect students to the issues and content of your class as well as to the significance critical thinking plays in their daily lives. For instance…

Art or Vandalism?

Graffiti or Tag Artists are active in many cities around the world. Articles and books about Graffiti art and artists can be found in bookstores and newspapers. Several years ago in Kansas City, two young graffiti artists were arrested and felony charges were filed against them for property damage in the first degree. One of the tagger’s marks, FCC, stands for “Forever Causing Chaos.” This young man was part of a larger “tagger crew” called CST “Can’t Stop This.” Similarities were drawn between these Kansas City Tag artists and those in Los Angeles and New York and to famous artists Keith Haring and Jean Michel Basquiat who started out as graffiti artists in New York City. An Associate Press article appearing in the Kansas City Star (6/11/2008) claimed “Graffiti artists come to New York City from all over the world to make their mark on subway cars, buildings and billboards.” Kansas City Police said tagging was a nuisance but not a violent crime, “They need to find another way to express their artistic visions,” they said. This encouraged a local art gallery owner to offer an exhibition to these artists, on the walls inside the gallery.

Is graffiti art? (The Pitch (June 5-11, 2008)) reported that members of the Kansas City Art Institute’s administration “didn’t recognize street art as a legitimate focus of study.” Does graffiti art change if it is exhibited in an art gallery? How? Why? Should graffiti be censored? Punished? Why? When? Why did Plato think censorship was essential to society? Can the same reasons be used today?

Teaching Strategies for Active Learning

There are a variety of active learning strategies for teaching thinking skills. A powerful technique is to model our own thinking processes by taking risks and demonstrating process. The physical evidence of a wastebasket (or computer trash) full of first drafts or thumbnail sketches can be effective. Thinking out loud in class and allowing students to follow your process can be very effective, maybe even visually tracking your process on the board or on an overhead.

Armed with case studies for as many groups of three you have previously organized, ask students to read case studies, answer the questions and prepare their answers for presentation. (Each group is composed of three members and each member has a job-- recorder, spokesperson, facilitator.) Give groups 5-7 minutes to process the assignment before you call on groups to report to the entire class. This allows thinking, writing, and oral presentation practice. Asking students to write their answers before you call on them allows all students to think more carefully about their answers.

Providing practice as part of classroom participation is a successful active learning teaching strategy. Allow students to work in groups answering questions you have posed. In small groups students can present their thinking and receive comments from their peers before they present their thinking to the entire class, or to you. This allows students to learn how to think critically and support their ideas in a safe environment. After enough practice students will feel confident enough to present their well-supported ideas to the entire class.

Develop strategies that allow students to work in cooperative teams of three. Studies show that uneven numbers of students, who are given specific roles in groups, spokesperson, facilitator, recorder, leaves less room for slackers and more room for cooperative learning/team work, a kind of work that will be useful in almost all future work environments.

Empirical studies prove teams or cooperative/active learning is more successful than individual learning. The most significant was a large Medical School assigning a team of first year medical students, enrolled in the required anatomy course, a cadaver and providing teacher generated assignments for student learning of what had previously been taught in large lecture classes. Students were required to develop their own strategies and use team work to learn anatomy. Scores on the national anatomy exam, that all medical students must pass in order to go on to their second year of medical school, were significantly higher when students were given the opportunity to learn actively in teams rather than in a lecture format.

More Ideas for Teaching Actively

Walk around the classroom rather than stand in one place. This engages students in actively watching you. Stop in different spots in the classroom to make your points. This works for professional presentations, too!

Embellish your key points by telling stories; the more personal the better. If you have traveled, tell the story. If you had an aesthetic experience, tell that story. Students immediately respond to the authenticity of personal stories. (Children aren’t the only ones who love stories.)

For two minutes students discuss, in groups of three that you have previously created, what has transpired after every ten minutes of lecture/discussion.

Twenty minutes of lecture/discussion followed by ten minutes in which students work, in teams you have previously created, on a particular problem, followed by another twenty minutes of lecture/discussion.

Twenty minutes of lecture, followed by an activity in which students participate in some way, and finally, a written summary of the important points presented in the mini-lecture and in the class activity.

Begin the class, or the semester, by posing a question or using a case study. Give students two to five minutes to write their answers before calling on them, or have them take the semester to add to their answers. You can collect these at the end of the semester and use them for assessment.

In considering what concepts to include in your syllabus, ask “What concepts do students need to know?” and “What concepts do they need to be taught?”

Combine Active Learning Teaching Strategies

Begin a problem-solving lecture with a question, a paradox, an enigma, or a compelling, unfinished human story – some tantalizing problem that hooks student interest. The answer unfolds during the class hour with the answer revealed with only about five or ten minutes left in the period. The resolution could be an interactive process in which students’ tentative solutions are elicited, listed on the board, and discussed. Ideally, when the problem is resolved, most students will have figured it out themselves just before the teacher’s solution is announced at the end of class.

One More Challenge

I’m still star-struck by aestheticians after all these years. Not so much by their teaching or presentations skills, but by their intellect and passion for being understood. I hope these few ideas for actively engaging contemporary learners, or any audience, in understanding philosophical issues are effective for future college teaching and professional presentations.


Bonwell, C.C. and Eison, J.A. (1991). Active Learning: Creating Excitement in the Classroom. ASHE:ERIC Higher Education Report No. 1 Washington DC: The George Washington University School of Education and Human Development.

Desmond, K. (2008) “Why Artists Need to Know Philosophy of Art.” Review.

Desmond, K. ((2007 & 2004). “Teaching Contemporary Art.” Living With Art Instructor’s Manual. 7th and 8th Editions. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Desmond, K. (2007). “Collaborating with the Philosophies of Nelson Goodman” Review. 9 (6) 28-29.

Desmond, K. (2005). “Art History Survey: A Roundtable discussion.” Art Journal 64 (2), 32-51.

Dewey, J. (1934). Art as Experience. New York: Putnam.

Filliou, R. (1970). Teaching and Learning as Performance Arts. Cologne: Konig Verlag.

Higgins, H. (2002). Fluxus Experience. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Magnan, R., ed. (1990). 147 Practical Tips for Teaching Professors. Madison: Magna.

Meyers, C. and Jones, T. B. (1993). Promoting Active Learning: Strategies for the College Classroom. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Mountford, R. and Richardson, B., eds (1988). A Sourcebook for Large Enrollment Course Instructors: Contributions from the Literature and The Ohio State University Faculty. Columbus, OH: Center for Teaching Excellence.

Potts, B. (1997). “Strategies for Teaching Critical Thinking.” NAEA Advisory. Washington DC: ERIC Clearinghouse on Assessment and Evaluation.

Perry, W. G. (1970). Forms of Intellectual and Ethical Development in the College Years. New York: Holt Rinehart and Winston.

Solomon, G. and Perkins, D. N. (1989). “Rocky Roads to Transfer: Rethinking mechanism of a Neglected Phenomenon.” Educational Psychologist 24 (2), 113-142.

2008 © Kathleen Desmond

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