Teaching Philosophy and Interests
Engaged | Dialogic | Critical
My teaching philosophy and pedagogical practices evolved over time within three institutional cultures—the university, public art museums, and university art museums—and the ways in which I was positioned within those cultures: as a learner, as an educator, and as the member of a larger institutional body. As such, my teaching philosophy, pedagogical practices, and research interests are shaped in a space made manifest by lived experience.
The heart of my teaching is rooted in the work of bell hooks, cultural critic, progressive educator, and feminist scholar:
Progressive educators continue to honor education as the practice of freedom because we understand that democracy thrives in an environment where learning is valued, where the ability to think is the mark of responsible citizenship, where free speech and the will to dissent is accepted and encouraged (hooks, 2010)
In Teaching to Transgress (1994), hooks outlined what she termed engaged pedagogy, an evolving, multilayered practice built upon the foundations of feminist and critical pedagogical strategies. It places education and social justice at the center of a democratic society; situates the teacher and learners as partners in a dialogic relationship where individual perspectives are recognized and the growth of all participants is nurtured; and students are empowered and encouraged to achieve academic excellence through an interactive process of critical thinking. Specific practices that may be employed to support such a pedagogy include creating opportunities for students to connect authentically with the instructor and each other; craft and share personally meaningful narratives; feel a sense of value and agency in the classroom; create understandings through dialogue, academic work, and action; and learn by engaging with subject matter in meaningful and myriad ways. Engaged pedagogy as a practice is necessarily revised, reconsidered, and reconstructed over time and serves as particularly powerful model for students in art/museum education, who are preparing to become socially responsible K–12 teachers, professors, community educators, or art museum educators.
I began teaching in both the art museum and in the university classroom like most educators in those contexts, knowing that there was a particular set of information to be conveyed and I did so in a way that I hoped was interesting, compelling, and that sparked curiosity. I quickly learned that students or visitors who were the most involved were those who had a personal connection with the material, felt comfortable talking with other members of the class (or group) and with me, and gained a sense of satisfaction that came from engaging and discovering with others. While these understandings provided a basic foundation for teaching docent training and education, PreK–12 professional development for teachers, and gallery experiences in the art museum, as well as art, art history, and art education courses, it was not until my education as a doctoral student that postmodern theoretical constructs, most notably feminist deployments of poststructuralism, enabled me to consider the negotiated relationships between identity, perception, power, and knowledge and the implications of their interplay on the learners with whom I worked.
A focus in the field of art museum education on learner-centered models of gallery practice and engagement have informed my pedagogical practices. Examples include “untours,” (otherwise known as emergent curriculum constructed by a group in the space of an hour), free-choice learning, (STEM researchers John Falk and Lynn Dierking’s identity-based characterization of the experiences that take place in informal learning spaces), and constructivist educational practices that build upon existing understandings of learners. In rather poetic explication of gallery teaching by longtime art museum educators Elliott Kai Kee and Rika Burnham, they argue that interpretation (or learning), at it’s heart, is a conversation between an informed facilitator and other people who have important things to say about a particular topic. These dialogic models, emerging as part of an ongoing exploration of the populist and socially-responsive positionality of art museums, inform my classroom practice, docent training and education, and public programming for interpretation and engagement that I facilitate in the art museum context.
The following examples of embodied pedagogical practice are drawn from a class that I generally teach in the fall, titled Art/Art History 475: Contemporary Women Artists. Though I did not train as an art historian, I was offered the opportunity to teach the course due to my work with the contemporary collection and artists at the Palmer Museum of Art. I crafted a syllabus with published and online readings that explored the rich theoretical underpinnings and current practices in the global contemporary art world, then created opportunities for co-constructing knowledge in multiple ways that were engaging and active. Rather than lecturing at the front of the class with PowerPoint presentations, as is pro forma in art history courses, I highlighted work from the readings; connected them with present-day issues using sources from the news, pop culture, and social media; and created space for students to share personal reactions, thoughts, and highlight other artists who explore similar topics. For many of my students, the readings were their first introduction to feminist theory, which is often initially difficult and intimidating. As we eased into the readings, I created an online feminist theory Jeopardy! game with categories such as “–ologies,” “feminist theorists,” “waves,” etc. and handed out the answers on a sheet of paper so that they could, working collaboratively, win prizes by correctly connecting the question and the answers on the screen. Our online forum for the course, sites.psu.edu/contemporarywomenartists, served as a vehicle for shared authority and the co-construction of knowledge. Each student wrote and illustrated a brief in-class presentation on a woman or genderqueer artist whose work fit into the broad thematic criteria for the week and facilitated a discussion about her (or their) work. Additionally, class participants paired up to conduct an interview with a well-known contemporary woman artist for 45 minutes to an hour, effectively demonstrating a capacity for research, synthesizing the readings and real-world situations, and creating an opportunity for rich, complex dialogue with practicing artists. Additionally, members of the course physically encountered contemporary art outside the confines of the class, with visits to the Palmer Museum of Art; student gallery exhibitions in which many of the undergraduate students participated; and studio visits with class members earning MFA degrees. My teaching philosophy does not allow for traditional tests or quizzes, as I fear that they are not realistic or adequate ways of assessing growth and I am not particularly interested in evidence of “mastering” a subject, though I do assign a final project, wherein student may choose from options that demonstrate a respect for and support of each student’s strengths and learning styles. In this class, students could write a biographical essay on an artist of their choosing, explore a particular theme by curating a virtual exhibition, or create a work of art that responded to an artist or topic of discussion in the class. Finally, because our course spanned three hours and was held in the early to late evening hours, students and I volunteered to bring in food and drink to consume together during our break time, enabling all of us to shed our academic personas and develop social connections, if only for a short period each week.
In the very recent past, I have begun to wrestle with post critical/radical museological theory and practices (Dewdney, Dibosa, & Walsh, 2013; Bishop, 2014), which take up the questions posed by critical theoretical examinations of art museums and envision alternative future that might be conceptualized in the form of exhibitions, educational practices, and new institutions. How my teaching practices might be affected by this work is something I am only beginning to know.
Bishop, C. (2014). Radical museology: Or what’s contemporary in museums of contemporary art? Köln, Germany: Walther König.
Burnham, R., & Kai-Kee, E. (2011). Teaching in the art museum: Interpretation as experience. Los Angeles, CA: J. Paul Getty Museum.
Dewdney, A., Dibosa, D., & Walsh, V. (2013). Post critical museology: Theory and practice in the art museum. London and New York: Routledge.
Falk, J. H., & Dierking, L. D. (2002). Lessons without limit: How free-choice learning is transforming education. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press
Hirst, E. & Brown, R. (2008). Pedagogy as dialogic relationship. In M. Hellstén & A. Reid, Researching international pedagogies: Sustainable practice for teaching and learning in higher education, p. 179–201. Sydney, Australia: Springer.
hooks, b. (1994) Teaching to transgress: Education as the practice of freedom. New York, NY: Routledge.
hooks, b. (2010) Teaching critical thinking: Practical wisdom. New York and London: Routledge.