ART HISTORY WITHOUT SLIDES
Art History without Slides is well nigh inconceivable to most art historians. In Fall 1999 I started teaching Art History 002, my survey course in Western art, without using slides; and I found the innovative pedagogic truly successful and gratifying.
The course covers the material from Egypt to the end of the 20th century. Instead of slides I use the illustrations from the textbook. I lecture from the book.
Slides are indispensable in teaching art history, so it seems. This is because we, art historians, learned our art history in darkened classrooms illuminated with slides. At least those of my generation and younger did, at first with black-and-white lantern slides and eventually with now ubiquitous color slides. Throughout my teaching career I taught with slides and built the Department's slide collection tailored to my teaching subjects. We insisted on having two projectors, so that two slides can be projected simultaneously for comparisons. We used to have projectionists, usually recruited from among students studying art history; and we had different ways of cueing the change of slides. Tapping the floor with a pointer, shouting "Next Slide!" across the room or through a speaker system into the projection booth, or simply raising an arm or a pointing finger. Double projection complicated the scheme considerably -- now the left, now the right, now both left and right. Then, slides get stuck now and then; and occasionally the image comes upside down, which invariably get a general laughter.
Lantern slides in teaching were essential when illustrations in textbooks were small and lacked clarity. When color slides came in, they were essential to override the textbook illustrations that were mostly black-and-white. But nowadays color reproductions in textbooks are often far superior to overblown screen images, which are sometimes washed out, often inadequate in conveying texture, and invariably misleading in scale. A Vermeer is enlarged to the size of a underscaled Veronese. A slide of a whole painting can be juxtaposed to a sectional detail; but the scale is then wrong. Then, if the slide is of highest quality, it gives a wrong impression of being the real thing when it is not. More often, we have to caution the class that the color is too green or too pink.
Textbook illustrations also misrepresent; but they are small and held horizontally and close to the viewer rather than displayed on a wall, so that they are not so easily mistaken for the real work. The pedagogic benefit, however, is more in the classroom operatives rather than in the reproduced images per se.
Teaching from the textbook illustrations, I let the daylight into the classroom with the window shades up, keep the students busy turning pages back and forth, and prevent them from becoming couch potatoes. The classroom setup is less conducive to dozing. The students' concentration is much higher. Taking notes is easier, and having the image next to the notepad eliminates the frequent hazard of missing the slides one has to look up to see while assiduously taking notes.
Learning works of art is facilitated, too, because the images discussed in class correspond totally and precisely with those they later review on their own in the textbook from which the material was taught. What was said in the lecture about a particular work is mnemonically registered in the textbook illustration of that work, and it makes learning much more efficient. Captions provide the basic data; so, I don't have to identify the image each time as I have to do with each new slide on the screen. The time saved goes to uttering more important matters. Teaching from the textbook also allows me critically comment on the points made by its author or elaborate on them and spend the classroom time more on professing my own ideas rather than those in the textbook.
When, I taught the survey course with slides, I was always tempted to add extra images for the purpose of clarifying or amplifying the points I would make or of making pertinent comparisons; but this was countereffective. For beginning students any additional material actually adds to confusion. Even without them, it is not uncommon that the textbook uses different examples from those available in the slide collection; substitutions are confusing to beginners. Limiting the works for discussion to those actually illustrated in the textbook streamlines learning.
I require that students bring the textbook at every class meeting. They flip its pages every other day, and this way they are gently coerced to view and review the images regularly -- a special benefit for those students who are inclined to deposit the textbook in their dorm room and open it only when exams are coming up.
A few times, I confess, I cheated, but only when cheating was warranted. In the last few minutes of class, for example, I show a set of dazzling slides, among others, of the objects from Sutton Hoo and of the details of The Ghent Altarpiece; and also a set of slides of Picasso's Guernica drawings on another in connection with the painting.
T. Kaori Kitao, 06.01.99
My Art History