Dr Andy Collis

Power to the students, right on

Monday, December 4, 2017
How this lecturer is using biscuits, The Beatles and bold colours to make art history more memorable

A disempowering of my PointPoint presentations is empowering my students and making my History and Theory of Art unit more memorable (for them and me). Attending a workshop by psychologist and psychotherapist Dr Stewart Hase, an Adjunct Fellow at Southern Cross University, inspired me. Hase spoke about heutagogy, in which students examine the processes of learning as well as the actual content of the teaching. This is what happened next.

I stripped out filler slides from my PowerPoints then, using open source video platform Kaltura, posted to our online learning management system Moodle short self-narrated videos summarising the content of each class. This freed more time in class for discussion. I recorded a 30-minute narration over the simplified PowerPoint after each class, which helped absentee students with catch up and attending students with revision.

Two-and-a-half hours of art history and theory is a long stretch, so I provided an in-class refreshment break, which led naturally to conversations about the artworks we were studying. This helped break down perceived hierarchical barriers. Those reluctant to speak in the formal class setting were more willing to speak in the informal refreshment setting. Fostering a sense of inclusivity could be the difference between a student attending class or not. The value of the learning experience more than offset the cost of the refreshments.

Collaboration key
I also introduced more collaborative activities. For example, to learn about the term “modernism,” I asked the students to use their mobile phones to search for an image or a video representing modernity. We placed the phones together on the floor and listened as the students explained the reasons for their choices. Comparing the reasons with those of the artists in the period of history we were studying gave the students a reference point. Similarly, when studying Richard Hamilton’s 1956 pop art collage Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?, I asked the students to collaboratively construct a collage from magazine images that resonated with them.

For the class on European avant-garde movement Dada, I pre-empted Marcel Duchamp’s 1917 exhibition of an upturned urinal by asking, “When an artist simply selects an item and calls it art, does that make it art?”. The students formed a line with those on the right answering “No” and those on the left “Yes.” At the end of class, I repeated the activity to see if the students’ opinions had changed.

Controlled chaos and live music
In a related activity, each student chose an envelope containing a secret directive. On “Go,” one recited the Dada manifesto, one read a piece of Dada poetry, one ripped paper and threw it in the air, one repeated the sound “da” in quickfire succession while another sang random words to the national anthem, then I shouted, “Change.” This re-creation of the cacophony and disrespect for authority and rationality akin to the Dada meetings of 1916 segued into Surrealist activities and to the songwriting of later pop icons such as The Beatles (“I Am the Walrus”) and David Bowie (“Ziggy Stardust”) who extended Surrealist practices. I performed the songs live on guitar. I thought the students might see this as a dumbing down of content but in their evaluation of the class they identified the songs as making a lasting impression on their recall and enjoyment of the class.

A meeting in spirit with Jack the Dripper
The class on les Fauves, a group of early 20th-century modern artists whose works emphasised painterly qualities and strong colour, saw me drawing on canvas outlines of works from earlier times—The Hay Wain by John Constable, Mona Lisa by Da Vinci and Liberty Leading the People by Delacroix. The students then painted reversed but complementary heightened colour values of the originals. We discussed the original works by comparison to what happened with the destruction of illusionism and the onus on expressive colour.

With reference to Jackson Pollock’s action painting, I covered the floor with a canvas and asked the students to take turns throwing, dribbling and pouring paint from old tins of house paint. They discussed what colour, where to throw, dribble or pour and what technique to use to cover the preceding colours. This meeting-in-spirit with Jack the Dripper was, as it should be, a visceral experience.

Yes, these classes require more preparation than updating PowerPoints. Yes, these classes require developing skills in improvisation as you respond to unpredictable developments. But they’re more enjoyable classes and that’s got to be better for students and their learning. Before next year’s classes, I’ll be re-visiting my pared-down PowerPoints to see what else I don’t need to show.

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Andy Collis

Dr Andy Collis is Senior Lecturer in Visual Communication in the Discipline of Humanities and Creative Arts at Avondale College of Higher Education.

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