Asking Questions: Constructing Understanding in the Humanities
Why do students enroll in the Community College of Philadelphia? As an art historian, if I am honest and acknowledge that the study of the humanities is clearly not the draw for students, a field which is positioned at a great distance from their everyday and is largely absent from the dreams that have brought them to our threshold, how can I make sense of the work that I do? Nursing trains nurses—early childhood education, teachers—graphic design, tomorrow’s digital artists—but I am fully aware that I am not training art historians, nor am I grooming graduate students in the humanities for a life in academia. So what am I doing?
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak with you today. Last May at Commencement, my life changed when I was recognized by my peers, being nominated and presented with the Christian R. and Mary F. Lindback Award for Distinguished Teaching. I am sincerely humbled and honored, but with the clarity that this award is not about me, but to honor an ideal, something rare in these times, a shared ideal that threads through this institution, something worth striving for: excellence in teaching.
Many in this room are teachers, and they all share a piece of this award. We know that too often, the best of our efforts go unnoticed. It is in those fragile moments in our day-to-day interactions with students that together we shape the ideal of excellent teaching. This could be an exchange in the classroom, what we might call a “teaching moment” that suddenly all comes together just right, or any of those countless unscheduled moments before and after class that are too fleeting to merit inclusion as data on an assessment rubric, that can make all the difference in student understanding and persistence. For many of us, the satisfaction we receive when we see the change in student lives is enough to motivate us to keep going.
It is humbling to be recognized by one’s peer group. The entire experience occasions self-reflection. In fact, the process began the instant I heard my name announced by Dr. Curtis. As I made my way toward the dais, my mind was racing to thoughts of what steps had led me down this path. I experienced a rush of gratitude for those who have taken time to mentor me; those colleagues, who in their pursuit of excellence continue to push me everyday to be better; and to the students who inspire me in countless ways. And of course, to the love and support of my wife and family.
With this gratitude, with this awareness, comes responsibility. Responsibility to do more than expected, to continue to grow and strive, to make myself available for those who seek my time, and to attempt to begin to return the favor to those who have granted me theirs.
I love what I do. I have always wanted to teach. When I speak of life change, I refer not to some sudden epiphany or grand cathartic moment, rather something more like a dawning, or recognition of my place, my fortunate situation, within an academic community committed to learning. Despite nearly 20 years at the podium, here was my moment, in a sense, of becoming a teacher.
Today, I will address the challenge of teaching the humanities in the 21st century. I will consider strategies that I have used to attempt to reach students who often have little concept of the field and are not alone in being doubtful of the relevance of studying paintings, poems and plays, to their future success and to their lives. Along the way, I will consider what I perceive to be the successes and continuing challenges of my life in the classroom. This seems to invite an exploration of matters of process, what amounts to my methods of teaching, or at least an analysis or reverse engineering of those particular approaches that have garnered results in the past and are part of the work-in-progress that is my everyday.
In brief, I have learned to work collaboratively with students to construct understanding by means of asking questions, what I will refer to as "real questions," not necessarily ones even I know the answers to. I have come to appreciate the value of a strong foundation in the humanities for student success, and I aspire to nudge those who remain skeptical closer to this position.
I have dedicated my career, thus far, to teaching, and while I continue to pursue research and present papers in the field of art history, my vocation is clear. To begin to consider my good fortune, I need to briefly sketch the two communities, nestled within the broader College, that have been such a part of my story, the Art department and the Honors curriculum.
I was hired to teach my first course in the Art department in 1992. Madeline Cohen, a woman who would become one of my primary mentors and a friend, afforded me the chance to teach outside the harbor of graduate school. Recalling that pivotal moment, as I prepared to face my first community college classroom, I would love to dust off some gem that she offered me, something along the lines of: "Always listen well son, and you will be listened to," or "Be true to yourself and the students will follow;" instead she looked me in the eye and basically said, "You can do this." However, what I heard was, "You can do this? Right?"
Like so many others before me, I learned on the job. I quickly found that students are excellent motivators. Early on, I suppose like everyone else fresh out of grad school, I lectured in the way I had been lectured to. I saw my job as transmitting knowledge one slide at a time. For example, I might introduce the Italian Renaissance by sketching out the historical context, along the way citing contributions by key artists and patrons, and capping off the discussion by walking through a quick analysis of the well-known works of art in the period. In this manner, I would make my way through the slides in each chapter.
Now there is nothing absolutely wrong about this approach. This has been the order of march since the early days of the discipline, and many of us here might fondly recall this pattern of knowledge transfer from our undergrad days of taking “art in the dark.” And although I cannot speak to all fields, I imagine that something like this approach is a familiar way to proceed in many freshman-level introductory or survey course. Courses in the business of information transfer.
Formerly, in the flow of my lectures, I happily fielded questions as hands eagerly reached into the air, but at some point it occurred to me, that for the most part, students were posing questions for which I had ready answers. This may seem rather obvious, after all I am a trained professional, an expert in my field. Yet, there I was, at the start of my career, headful of graduate exams and research papers, functioning like a human textbook, ready to dispense wisdom, step by step until the story was complete. In this case the story of art.
Students seemed satisfied, no one came to stop me, so I assumed I was doing a good job. Over time, with experience, my teaching evolved. I cannot recall one pivotal moment, but it was not long before I figured out that I could get better results (meaning—engaging more students, increased retention, higher grades, etc.) if I took more deliberate care to respond to student inquiries, not with rehearsed answers, but with more questions. It was challenging, to say the least, not to offer the answers that represented the fabric of my identity as a teacher; the many lessons from my training that amounted to the accepted shared knowledge of the field. However, more than a mere gadfly, more than a sage on the stage, I had become a learner who was not afraid to join students in the thrill of the chase. By my own path I happened upon the fragility of wisdom. I was discovering the value of allowing students to see me struggle; working right along with them to construct understanding, as a willing partner in a dialogue, modeling the academic process of creating knowledge.
I was hired as a full-time instructor in 2003. At that time, I joined an Art department rich in experience, with the founding members of the Art and Design program, hiring and molding their replacements, entrusting a life's work to the next generation. There are too many role models to mention and to acknowledge, but I gleaned lessons from them all. I happened into a program of remarkably talented individuals who were also great teachers. I continue to thrive on the energy created by the interaction between studio practice and art history. I value the insight of the studio faculty, about ways of looking and investigating of the physical object of art, and together we combine our talents to shepherd the raw creativity of Art and Design majors and help to shape a pathway under their feet.
It was not long after I was hired that Madeline grew ill and I was asked to fill in for her in the Honors program. Little did I realize then that I was signing up for what is now a nine-year run, a wonderful, exhausting, life-enriching run. In Honors I found like-minded colleagues who introduced me to strategies even more developed than my own about how to challenge students in the classroom.
Without digressing into a history of the program, Honors is a learning community within the College, tucked away on the third floor of the Mint building, where faculty are focused on the goal of offering students a solid foundation in humanities education in order to prepare them to transfer to outstanding four-year programs. Students in the curriculum seldom come with an honors pedigree from high school or another college. In fact it is inspiring to consider that nearly one-third of students currently enrolled in Honors began their college career in developmental courses. True to the mission of an open access institution, after demonstrating ability to engage with college-level work, students are offered the challenge to immerse themselves more fully in a learning community of students with similar goals to work within a program with a proven track record of student success.
Working in Honors offers me a rare opportunity to teach in a coordinated fashion with a dozen colleagues at a time. I sincerely treasure the ability to share my ideas and talents with those who respect me enough to not merely listen, but to be critical of my work. I am humbled they have allowed me to build upon the foundation of their great work.
I would have to say that the spark that seriously propelled the momentum that I had been building on my own in my art history courses was ignited when I began teaching in the Honors Interdisciplinary Seminar. In these sections, two faculty members guide a discussion of 20 or so students gathered around a table. The seminar is quite different from lecture classes and bears some resemblance to seminars I had taken in graduate school. Students are asked to read and respond to an assigned text. They are encouraged to offer ideas, and others are expected to engage specifically with whatever has been offered by their classmates. In this way students interact and drive the conversation forward. By design, the text is often densely packed, without a great deal of context to encourage students to become careful readers and excellent listeners to one another. My job is neither to lead nor to lecture, but to facilitate the discussion. To steer students back when they stray too far from the text at hand. To respond to their comments by asking questions that invite them to be more reflective about what they have said and what they have heard. For example, first time students will often raise their hand and offer something like, "I agree with Jane but I think that such and such." In an effort to be respectful of Jane's position and to stress the importance of precision in an academic discussion, I might inquire, "What is it exactly you agree with Jane about?" The lesson here is that it seems only fair that the student should be able to offer an account of Jane's position, especially if he was prepared to agree with her. This offers just a glimpse of the type of exchanges that take place, but every seminar is different because every text is unique and demands particular attention. The exercise is designed less around the transfer of information and more around introducing the rigors of academic discourse.
Time and time again, I have witnessed a profound transformation in students as they soon come to internalize standards of decorum around speaking, reading, writing and listening that will serve them as they move on to their four-year schools and even beyond on to graduate and professional degrees. Students have a voice, they want to be heard, and in seminar they learn to slow down, to take more care around what they hear and to be more precise in exactly what they want to say. Through this interaction with fellow students, they encounter ideas and perspectives different from their own, and through their continued engagement display a willingness to stretch their thinking. Ultimately, they need to feel secure in their learning environment, to have permission to struggle, to not be right, to stumble in this safest of houses, this laboratory of ideas.
A central challenge, which is echoed in colleges throughout the nation, is the prospect of teaching students who arrive less than prepared for serious academic work. This trend is writ large at a community college. And although my time in the classroom has revealed to me that many enroll in college capable of doing great work, reading, writing, speaking, etc., I have also come to realize that they too often arrive with misaligned expectations carried with them from high school regarding how college works. Many lack role models in their lives who have been through it all before and might just be the first in their families to attend. In his seminal work, Clueless in Academe, Gerald Graff claims that "students mostly are not aware of the game being played, in short they do not have a fully-formed idea of how knowledge is created." In other words, it does not often occur to students that there are conversations going on in each of the disciplines that continually effect the shape the field. There is no reason students need to be thinking about this explicitly, but I agree with Graff that missing the game entirely can create a situation where students are turned off by the nature of having no voice in the discussion, other than parroting back what the teachers says.
With my opening question in mind, why do students enroll in the Community College of Philadelphia, I have come to appreciate more than ever that we truly need to begin from where students are. What I propose is not teaching to their personal backgrounds or interests, or succumbing to the temptation to pepper in videos and pop culture references to keep students entertained, rather I am thinking of a sincere attempt to acknowledge how they might be thinking about academic work when they arrive. In this way, I conceive of my role as helping to realign their expectations. To foster their need to have a voice in the conversation and to offer them clear models of how this can be accomplished.
In my experience, motivating students must go beyond offering them maxims about how far they can go and what they can achieve. Inevitably, students success is measured in what they can do, therefore I must set measurable goals before them as a pathway to achievement. One of the learning activities I use in my Art History and Humanities 101 courses is called the "question of the day."
At the heart of any successful academic endeavor is a question. I like to think of a classroom performance as a compressed version of the broader academic enterprise. Consider the possibility of a research project like a masters or doctoral thesis not driven by a question. It would be exhausting, if not maddening to continue to follow new leads without first measuring or checking new ideas against your primary aim. Moreover, it would be foolish to set out alone without mentors to check your course and to keep guiding you back on track.
I have been starting my classes with a question of the day for so long it is difficult to recall exactly when I began. To the best of my recollection it originated several years ago, in one of my summer courses, the sort that meet Monday through Thursday so the group has ample opportunity to bond and to practice. I recall that in the opening class, before I even introduced the scope of the course or discussed the syllabus, I asked the students a single question. I put up a painting and asked, “Is that good art?” It wasn't my best effort, but it kickstarted an activity that would become central in my teaching.
Learning from my experience in seminar, I stress the value of encouraging students to engage with one another in dialogue. For example, it is not uncommon for a student to offer a one-sentence response, and then for another student to offer an entirely different response, and yet another their own, and so it goes. Naturally, this sets up not a dialogue but a type of arbitration where the professor is expected to decide who is more correct. With the question of the day activity, it is my aim to allow a series of questions to open up and expand group discussion and essentially follow wherever it leads. I do not offer the question of the day as a groundbreaking teaching method, nor do I imagine in the least it is the only way to generate worthwhile discussion, but offer it as one of the strategies that has yielded results for me in constructing understanding in the humanities.
Over many semesters I have refined this activity with increasing success. I now pose a single reflective question based on an assigned reading at the top of each lecture. I take a student volunteer to respond to the question and assign a second student to comment on what the first student has offered. In this regard, the two students together model an ideal intellectual exchange, with the second responding directly to the first. Students come to realize that by proceeding in this way, ideas can be distanced from the speaker, their classmate, thus freeing them to initiate a variety of available responses or moves, like offering a characterization of what was heard, agreeing, disagreeing, extending the idea or attempting to respectfully pivot and change the course of the discussion in an entirely new direction. It is crucial that I spend time framing student responses, lining them up against one another, being explicit all the while to point out when students are digressing away from the discussion at hand into areas of opinion and emotion. Moreover, in practice, I find that during the subsequent lecture, the initial question functions as a useful reference point to which we are free to return, and often do.
An important aspect of this exercise is its collaborative nature. Focusing on one question as a group pushes students to consider the ideas of others and to recognize the powerful nature of dialogical discourse. It is designed to draw students in, with high hopes that they might soon begin to model the norms of this type of discourse in their academic work and in their conversations with fellow students.
The question of the day has been useful in exploring how students are thinking about art even as they enter on the first day. To consider one common trend, many students imagine art to be a mirror, and as a result find it difficult not to relate the art to their own feelings or personal history. In a world of visual learners, students often mistakenly believe that looking at art is uncomplicated. So as a teacher I have come to realize that their very familiarity with images can at times block more serious work.
Another revelation is that students report that they seldom listen to one another with the intention of responding directly to their ideas, but are primarily focused on rehearsing their own response in their heads, more or less waiting their turn until called on, at which time they usually begin a new line of thinking which in no way follows from what had been said before. This confirms that, at the outset, students think of the game mostly as between student and professor. The pattern seemed to be something like, students try out answers, students share their feelings and in the end the teacher reveals the correct answer.
It will be useful here to unpack what I intend by the term “real questions.” It is difficult to imagine an effective lecture in the humanities that does not engage in some type of question and answer format. However, I see real questions as those that follow a line of thought that grows out of the discussion with students. By contrast, the flip side of real questions might be labeled scripted questions. These are the sort that check on students' comprehension of the reading material or explore whether they have done the reading at all. These act as staging for prepared lecture material, usually of the standard-account-of-the-discipline variety. This is in no way to suggest that to construct understanding in the humanities that I believe one must constantly improvise and work without a plan, rather it is to be more straightforward about the type of game that is being played.
So for example, a typical scripted question, one that I might have used when I first began teaching, could be, “to what does your author attribute the origins of the Periclean building program in Athens in the classical 5th century?” Or, “which parties might have benefitted the most from the rebuilding of the Acropolis under Pericles and why?” These questions demand that students recall information provided in the reading or from a previous lecture. As a result, responses would be deftly handled by an experienced lecturer by pointing back to material provided by the author or spending time didactically correcting information offered by students to assure that everyone is literally on the same page.
Now, this is not to claim that there is not a place in the humanities for this line of scripted questioning, especially to provide some low-hanging fruit to get students going. However, I have found that with real questions I can push students beyond information retrieval to think critically about what has been offered. In this way they are not merely retrieving information, they are being asked to line up ideas in new ways. I find this practice responds to John Dewey's worry over the static nature of what is taught and the need to provide students with experiences that help them to open up rather than shut them down.
An example of a real question on the same topic might be something like, “In what way can we understand your author's use of the term progress in reference to the Periclean building program?” Or maybe, “In Spring 2009, writer Christopher Hitchens described the building program overseen by Pericles in 5th century Athens as something like classical Greece's stimulus package—do you find this to be consistent with our author's description?” In the former, students are meant to reflect on how language is used to construct meaning. In the latter, they are asked to line up the ideas of two authors that have been placed in conversation with one another by the question itself and attempt to explore new meanings that might result. This introduces the practice of intertextuality, or the relations between two or more works, that according to theorist Jonathan Culler "can open up fresh pathways of understanding."
To me, there is a significant gap between shepherding students in one direction, as in my scripted question scenario, and encouraging students to push the discussion somewhere new, as in the case with real questions. I find that real questions allow us to work together to construct understanding in a way that is more effective than the teacher-driven scripted format. And I believe students notice this as well.
I wanted to shift a bit to discuss why this business of understanding is particularly poignant in the humanities. Students new to the field may quickly become frustrated if they arrived armed with the assumption that art or a poem is something that can be definitively "figured out." These art forms require a certain kind of attention and dealing with questions of meaning necessitate something quite apart from a scientific approach. Here we return to Gerald Graff's point about the recognition of how knowledge is created in the different disciplines.
To stick with art as a primary example, in his book, Why Are Our Pictures Puzzles, art historian James Elkins suggests that "Pictures are just objects, until we take time to reflect on their place in the world, the occasion of their making, potential meanings embedded by way of historical context, their appeal to a shared vision of the world or their abstraction of it." What pushes the issue of interpretation and understanding can be the lack of a shared vision. We might argue that within Renaissance Florence, paintings were more easily understood by viewers who participated in a relatively tightly-knit shared cultural ethos. To further complicate the matter, art history professor Michael Ann Holly stresses the particular trouble around art objects which are present and past at the same time. They appear in the classroom as images of objects that still exist, yet also represent a time which has long since past.
Once students start to grasp the key intellectual concept of distance, they should come to realize that questioning the artist herself will not be helpful. From here they learn to consider the possibility of interpretations beyond even the artists’ imagination. This amounts to a giant step from where they started, rushing to find an authority to provide the correct answer. Ultimately, students need practice looking, a lot, writing a lot and speaking a lot. With dedication and focus, over time students will learn to trust their own looking and grow more confident translating looking into understanding. Through this approach, students become more self-aware. The process of knowledge creation is demystified, and questions are revealed as building blocks in the construction of meaning.
As a field, the humanities seems to be in a constant battle for existence; under siege as it is in colleges and universities across the county, where some ignore their missions and treat schools more like businesses by cutting programs to make room for more practical degrees. There are many, like philosopher Martha Nussbaum, who have written extensively about how the lessons learned in the humanities can be of vital importance to good citizenship and active participation in our democracy. Along the same lines Anthony Kronman at Yale suggests that especially in these trouble times, the humanities appear extremely well-equipped to assist us as we re-examine our values. This type of thinking highlights a direct connection between the classroom and the world beyond. I shall not use this time to further run out familiar justifications for the study of the humanities in higher education, except to point out how remarkably well they align with the stated mission of this College.
As I have highlighted here, using real questions to construct understanding, the study of the humanities can, quoting the mission: “increase awareness and appreciation of a diverse world; heighten curiosity and active interest in intellectual questions and social issues; and improve ability to pursue paths of inquiry, interpret and evaluate what is discovered, and express reactions effectively.” In the words of professor Patrick Deneen, the humanities offer us the opportunity to "seek to understand, while admitting to the insufficiency of the human capacity ever to fully understand."
As I see it, the wonder of the discipline is that there is always another conversation to be had. Through the approach I have outlined here, students are offered a hopeful vision of the future that includes their voice. If we can hook them with this sense of wonder, we can offer them hope and expand their concept of the possible. This is something we do together as a community. Through all of our tiny efforts we transform lives, we know this, we understand this; we must remember this when we grow weary of the charge and look to one another to redouble our of efforts and carry on.
We do this work; we are grateful.
This text is a transcription of the speech given in March 2012