Tuesday, March 26, 2013

In Praise of: SmartHistory

I began my Ph.D in art history at the University of Maryland in the fall of 2001.  At this time, the good people who ran the Visual Resource Center--we will call them Lauree and Quint--were hard at work digitizing images.  At this point they were in the very beginning states of the process.

I was a Graduate Teaching Fellow that semester and working with Professor Promey on the Renaissance to Modern art survey class.  We still used traditional slides, but I could not help but think that the day was approaching--and quickly--when we would all be teaching with PowerPoint; it was only a matter of having access to good digital images.

That point in time came during the Spring of 2003, and I don't think I have touched a slide and a carousel in the same day since.  Powerpoint has fundamentally changed the ways in which art historians teach our disclipine.  The writing was on the wall when I began my PhD almost 12 years ago; it was just a matter of time.

I'm convinced that another revolution is happening, and I'm delighted beyond words to be just a small cog in this ever growing bit of machinery.

That machine: SmartHistory.

And just as I knew that slides would be extinct within a matter of five years--and I was right, I would say--I believe SmartHistory will likewise fundamentally change the art history pedagogical landscape.

If you don't know what it is, I'll both explain a bit, but also urge you to check it out here.  As my wife would say, it's so fantastic that there are no words.

SmartHistory.org is a peer-reviewed online art historial textbook.  That is free.

Free.  For you, me, and for our students.  Free, indeed, for the world.  It's like an art history Wikipedia, with one notable difference: those who write for it have something we like to call ethos.  It's written by art historians.  But not just art historians.  It's written by art historians who have a sincere desire in teaching and pedagogy.  It's a wonderfully useful site.  It currently contains almost 500 high-quality videos and nearly 250 essays.  And by the time you read this, it's likely to have grown (I'm just too lazy to update these number weekly!).

What does this mean for the teacher of, say, Survey of Western Art II (Renaissance to Modern Art)?  It means, quite simply, that you can have your students read the 500 words that may appear in Gardner's Art Through the Ages on Giotto's Arena Chapel.  Or, you can send them to SmartHistory and have them watch a video (or four!) on the same work of art.

Want some proof:  Check out Part I of the video here.  There is absolutely no way that the images or text of any book can match the detail and enthusiasm present in this video.  And it's one video of four that are available for the Arena Chapel.  Quite simply, as this resource grows I believe it will fundamentally change the ways in which I teach art history.  And change it for the better.

As a way of full disclosure (and as I mentioned above), I've been writing for this resource for just about a year now.  And I am but one of dozens of people who donate their time and passion for a wonderful academic discipline   I am a teacher of art history and, when time allows, I am a scholar of art history, but the writing for the SmartHistory website that I have done allows me to combine those two aspects of my job in a unique way.  I love to write, but even more importantly, I love to teach.  And writing for SmartHistory allows me to put those two loves together in a way that truly matters, and in a way that is so distinct from writing a scholastic journal article.  I've received many emails from art history students thanking me for the essays I've written (and I've only written several).  It's as rewarding as any writing I've done as an art history scholar.

Better yet, it allows me to involve students into a collaborative effort of helping to make this resources even better.  I am currently teaching two graduate-level classes at the University of Lodz in Poland as part of the Fulbright Program.  Each student in one of my classes has picked a major monument within the history of American art and is in charge of writing a 1000-word essay that places that work of art within a historical,  political, and aesthetic frameworks.  Aimed at a general rather than a scholastic audience, I hope it helps teach these students the importance of clarity and conciseness.  These are often not the hallmarks of scholastic writing.  But they should be.

Their first draft comes to me, and then I make suggestions to ensure that they have the tone and goals aligned with SmartHistory's mission.  We then do a second draft.  I hope the final result will be a short essay about a single work of American art that will be another cog in the growing mechanism of SmartHistory.  It then will be available and free to the world.  And this makes it better than just about any seminar paper I wrote while in graduate school.

One of the best parts?  It's open and growing, and looking for more contributors.  If you have any interest in sharing your passion and expertise in a way that truly matters, be in touch with me, and I can help put you in touch with The Powers Who Be.  And if you are a teacher of art history, I urge you to utilize this wonderful resource.  It's better today than it was yesterday, and it will be better tomorrow, too.  It will, I believe, change the ways we do our jobs.

It may seem hyperbolic to read such lines, but the are true: I am honored beyond measure just to be involved with this project in the small ways in which I am.  It sincerely signifies the best part of my job of being a professor of art history.

And to my art history friends--Guy, Jason, Jonathan, Asma, Bree, Flora, to name but a few--I'd love to get you guys involved.  Your talents and generosity of time and talent would make you all great (GREAT) contributors to this project.

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