Reflections: Andrea Pappas, Assoc. Prof., Art History, Santa Clara University – Assessing Teaching Art History with Digital Technology: Past, Present, and Future

Pappas earned her PhD from the University of Southern California. An Associate Professor at Santa Clara University, she teaches courses on American art, women and the visual arts, and the history of photography. She is a contributing editor to Teaching Art History with Technology: Reflections and Case Studies (2008), the fruit of a long-standing interest in the potential of technology to advance teaching and scholarship on many fronts. Twenty years ago she co-founded the scholarly listserv AmArt-L for scholars of American art, still a going concern. In a related phase of her career she lectured widely on teaching art history with technology, she has been a consultant, on and off, for a couple of major textbook publishers’ electronic learning projects, and she continues to participate in conferences and conference sessions treating pedagogy. Her publications in museum catalogs examine the second generation of the New York School, art of the 1960s, and women artists. Her current research interests are two-pronged: moving forward with a continuing commitment to improving undergraduate education, and working on a book-length study of women–some of them Jewish–and the visual arts in the U.S. She hasn’t played Galaga but she used to be OK at Space Invaders.


I am starting this blog post with a little history; we have arrived at that happy place wherein some art historians reading this were in middle school when “techno-teaching” in art history first off the ground. Twenty years ago a few art historians saw the potential that digital technology offered to the discipline in teaching and research. Those projects blossomed around the country: Princeton (Marilyn Lavin), Amherst (Laetita La Follette), USC (Andrea Pappas), SJSU (Kathleen Cohen) give some idea of the geographic spread. Ten years ago Eastman Kodak ceased its production of slide projectors, boosting changes in the pedagogy of Art History launched in the mid-1990s. These anniversaries offer an opportunity for reflection on the interchange between technology and teaching in our discipline and some thoughts on what this future looks like now.

The early explorers sought to discover new ways of engaging students once we were unshackled from the side by side comparisons dictated by the slide projector. Turning the lights on and teaching in a lab rather than a lecture hall offered opportunities for engaging students in small groups in class, experimenting with active learning strategies, and enabling better teacher-student interactions. Some projects were modest, relying mostly on available tools and technology at a single institution (e.g., Netscape 1, early wiki-type spaces, hypercard, email) to open multiple paths through the material and to open synchronous and asynchronous channels of communication in the class community. Others secured large external grants to produce multi-institution, large projects that developed new tools and learning modules to visualize monuments and archeological sites, enabling new kinds of student interaction with images. Librarians, programmers, and pedagogical specialists proved to be key collaborators in all these endeavors. In every case, a drive to improve student learning—and in some cases, faculty research—fueled the projects.

These first came to the attention of the wider discipline in 1997 in a CAA session (Learning Digitally: Glossy Gadgets or 21st Century Chalk?) sponsored by the CAA Committee on Electronic Information and chaired by Ellen Schiferl. The advent of digital tech in the classroom accelerated ongoing discussions about the canon and helped refocus the discipline’s global gaze. That year the Art Bulletin gave digital art history serious consideration in a section entitled “Digital Cultures and the Practices of Art History.” Publishers soon followed by supplementing textbooks with online study tools, which continue to grow in number and evolve in sophistication. We also formed organizations around digital art history: Art Historians Interested in Pedagogy and Technology (AHPT) became affiliated with CAA in 2003 and Computers and the History of Art. (CHArt) was organized in England in 1985. In the background, scholars exchanged ideas, syllabi, assignments, and teaching tips on scholarly listservs, a technological development which we now take for granted but which changed the discipline in ways too numerous to discuss here. In short, digital art history now has a fast-growing presence within the discipline and is here to stay.

For some years now we have been using digital interfaces in the classroom whether we welcomed the change or fought it tooth and nail, hoarding slide projector bulbs like squirrels preparing for a new ice age. PowerPoint, Keynote, and Prezi have assisted with the basic issue of image access for students—we began posting images and slide shows to a website, or later, embedding them in course management systems—a big improvement over slide carousels locked to clunky study viewers in the library basement. Yet, most of us settled down to more or less replicating the Wolfflinian side-by-side comparisons in our classroom presentations. It was easy to replicate this teaching practice digitally but other pedagogical options proved to be more difficult and time consuming, and hence more elusive.

The key innovation that digital technology brought to teaching has not been image access but the synchronous and asynchronous communication—blogs and wikis (the “next gen” of pre-1990s electronic b-boards) and other collaborative spaces—that it enables. These, with the aid of the “flipped” classroom, have allowed us to avail ourselves of the enormous literature of pedagogy, particularly the recent work in brain-based learning. Historically, most innovation in digital art history teaching practice happened at the level of first year classes—large surveys (or what has taken their place)—changes there affect the largest number of students and yield the biggest bang for tech buck. Administrators and entrepreneurs now eye online courses, MOOCs, and free instruction (such as the Khan Academy) as outreach and as potential cost-cutting options.

Embedding meaningful undergraduate research in teaching has become a best practice (and a staple of STEM education) but the humanities—Art History included—lag far behind, partly because there is little history of collaborative teamwork in our discipline, but also because access to the raw materials of research off-campus is usually difficult. With the right tools and sufficient resources (the latter is no small barrier) we can now begin to collaborate with undergraduate students on research projects in pursuit of active learning, competency-based education, and the like. As archives and library special collections are digitized, access—now limited by travel and financial constraints—is improved. Similarly, access to museum collections online makes it much easier to go beyond the images in a text book or to teach topics for which there is no textbook (and never will be). Access to collections also supports research by faculty and independent scholars. These digital materials give us range for creativity in teaching and open up opportunities for student learning in the future.

What does this future look like? Data mining and data visualization will make statistical competence as important as the acquisition of languages has been in the past. This kind of numeracy will allow access not just to data but, more importantly, to ways of thinking that specialists in the humanities generally don’t have exposure to, much less practice in. Edward Tufte may become required reading in methods classes. Data mining will also allow us to craft different kinds of assignments for our students. Students, especially undergraduates, will face unprecedented opportunities to participate in faculty research projects.

Access of all kinds—to images, data, documents, and tools, equipment, and funding—present ongoing challenges. The new developments discussed above can further democratize the field, closing gaps of opportunity created by geography, type of institution, field of study, and so forth. However, in the background of all this we should hear sounded cautionary notes about costs of infrastructure and maintenance in terms of budgets; also about expenditures of faculty time. In the early days advanced grad students, adjunct faculty and very senior faculty made up the pioneers—people with nothing to lose, or with enough institutional clout to make things happen. We tend to think about students when thinking about tech and teaching but we should also think about ourselves—where does the money come from to support technology and support staff? How do technology costs impact budgets for faculty research that doesn’t necessarily use digital technology (i.e., old fashioned travel)? Is there sufficient staff to support the upgrading, changing, and learning curve of learning management and data visualization software? Is this just one more administrative task piled on top of already full faculty plates?

Historically, once on the tenure track, faculty involvement in digital initiatives tended to drop off due to increased administrative demands, pressure to publish in conventional venues for tenure or promotion, and a widespread perception that pedagogical research is fluffy or that publications in this area aren’t “real” art history. Some of this has roots in the old (and gendered!) cultural division between teaching and practice; some of it in the market—high-profile institutions such as the Terra Foundation and the Getty support the research end of digital art history, but pedagogy generally gets less attention. Art History Teaching Resources’ Kress grant is thus a welcome step in this direction. Art history would do well to take a page from chemistry’s book; pedagogical research in chemistry is well-respected, well-funded, is a session track at the annual meetings on par with other areas of the discipline, and has its own journals and book series. We would also benefit by looking to rhetoric and composition for pedagogical research models, collaborative practices, and again, respect for disciplinary pedagogy as a field of inquiry in its own right. If we take teaching seriously, it also behooves us to participate in interdisciplinary conferences dedicated to innovative pedagogy such as the Lilly Conferences on College and University Teaching. We need to endow pedagogical inquiry and innovation in art history with disciplinary capital, recognizing that pedagogical research drives changes in the discipline by inculcating new ways of thinking and learning in subsequent generations of our practitioners.


AHPT: Art Historians Interested in Pedagogy and Technology Website has reports on its CAA events and an annotated list of organizations and resources useful to art historians who are interested productively employing technology in service of pedagogy.

CHArt: Computers and the History of Art. Website has a guide to the organization’s publications and other resources.

Teaching Art History with New Technologies: Reflections and Case Studies. Still the only volume specifically addressing the intersection of pedagogy and technology, in addition to the case studies it provides a bibliography on the pedagogy of art history.

Lilly Conferences on College and University Teaching. Lilly conferences have a unique format: rather than one gigantic annual meeting with hundreds of people reading papers, there are several small, regional conferences every year, with the individual presentations structured as mini-workshops.

Smarthistory Khan Academy’s open access educational resource for art history.

Art History Teaching Resources A virtual community to support teaching, and thinking about teaching, in art history.

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