One of the skills that I most admire is the ability to ask meaningful, open-ended questions. I seek to cultivate this quality both in myself and in my students, often finding that the richest moments in learning arise when we dare to question our ideas and those of others. Asking questions can entail risk, after all, as the unsavory “this-might-be-a-dumb-question,-but…” preface reveals. I believe that art history—because it is grounded in visual and textual artifacts, many of which are still extant—can teach people to make responsible inquiries about the past in ways that are relevant for us today. I want my students to walk away from our course with key art-historical tools like critical thinking and formal analysis, and above all a willingness to ask thoughtful, provocative questions, both within and outside the academic context.
My own practice of asking questions within a class session moves from the concrete to the more abstract. In this way, students at all levels generally find that they can contribute to our discussion at some point. If readings were assigned, I begin by asking a student to give a brief summary of the article, and then ask others if anything should be added. We then move on to higher level analysis: how does this writer use evidence to support her argument? What rhetorical devices does she use? Using our knowledge of the artwork, historical period, etc., do you find this argument to be persuasive? What other interpretations can we propose? Or, I might assign students to write and submit open-ended questions regarding the reading in advance of our class meeting, so that their questions can motivate our discussion. Students thereby take ownership of what they wish to learn and discuss with their peers.
I particularly enjoy guiding students through formal analyses beginning with description, on to analysis, and concluding with interpretations. I find that this works equally well in the classroom as in the museum setting, where I draw on my experiences with museum education at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and the Art Institute of Chicago. This training taught me a technique of repeating or rephrasing comments so that everyone in the group can hear what is being said while gently drawing attention towards key observations or important points. Learning in the gallery gives students the opportunity to respond to objects rather than images, and often students who are not generally talkative feel greater freedom outside the classroom. On one occasion at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum, I spent approximately ten minutes with a group of eight Brown University students from an introductory Art History course talking about Claude Monet's A Walk in the Fields at Argenteuil (1873), depicting the artist's wife and young child walking near his suburban home. We gathered around the painting and spent a few moments looking before discussion began. Next, I asked for a volunteer to describe the elements of the painting, and another to describe its condition. I then asked about the compositional elements of the painting: were there obvious diagonals or repetitions? Some observed that the dark verticals of the figures echoed those of the trees, perhaps suggesting an alliance between man and nature. Others countered that the dark colors of the figures' clothing felt unharmonious while another piped in that the red of the poppies reappeared in a ribbon on the child's hat. The students had already learned about Monet in a class lecture, and prepared for our session by reading a pertinent text. Now encouraging them to draw on this information, I asked them what they thought Monet's attitude towards Argenteuil and the suburbs more generally might be. Some, citing the forms shared by human, manmade, and natural elements felt his attitude was positive, while others cited the ominous sky or referenced other Monet paintings to argue for the contrary. By this point, students were addressing each other rather than me as an intermediary in their discussion. Ultimately, they concluded that Monet's work from the period reveals various tensions that were omnipresent in French society: a desire both for man's harmony with nature and an ineluctable need to frame or even tame the landscape in and around cities. From observations of a single painting, we had progressed together as a class to a stronger sense of the artist's relationship to his sociopolitical environment, thereby learning to appreciate the artist's integration within society and his art's engagement with history.
This progression from specific to abstract questioning, repeated from session to session and evolving from week to week, can serve as a model for my students' development of higher level thinking, and therefore their own practices of asking questions. They might start at the level of information gathering: what medium is employed, was this made before or after this other artwork, what is silver gelatin and how does it differ from wet plate collodion? If the material has been covered in the course or an educated guess can be made, I re-direct this kind of question to the group, making clear that I do not have a monopoly on knowledge in the classroom, while intervening as necessary.
From here, students might move to synthesizing questions, which are often tentative, posed when students are beginning to identify patterns in our analyses or through the course. One memorable student in my History of Modernist Photography discussion section, Sally, excelled at this kind of question. She asked if the photographer Robert Frank was influenced by Walker Evans, since she noticed a certain similarity in their approaches. Here, I pushed her to identify what parallels she noticed, inviting others to jump in with suggestions. These kinds of questions display critical thinking—weaving together ideas from across the course, not just the day's material. I always restated her points to the class, as I do in most cases, in case anyone missed what was said. At one point in the semester, she thanked me and told me that she had never before participated in discussion sections in other classes because of her difficulties in making herself understood, but that she felt comfortable in making contributions to our section because her opinions were always valued. This was all the more remarkable because Sally is deaf, with a stenographer who transcribes discussion for her.
Students build on information gathering and synthesizing questions to pose other kinds of questions which originate from their personal or intellectual interests. This might become obvious through a student's major or chosen final paper topic. For example, I had a student, Maddie, with a deep interest in politics. In fact, I had her for three semesters in a row as she continued to enroll in classes in which I was her TA. In my office hours, we had many discussions about making academic arguments in research papers by contextualizing visual analyses relative to historical facts in ways that would be free of inappropriate speculation, all by beginning with a stimulating guiding question and thesis provable within a given paper length. By learning to ask the kinds of questions of art historical objects that piqued her political interests, she was able to engage with the past in a way that made it come alive for her. Ultimately, I think that art-historical inquiry is a reflective tool that can be adapted to investigate our interests, our concerns, through engagement with specific objects and real historical figures.
With questions, we demonstrate both what we know and what we want to know, inviting others into dialogue to build on our prior knowledge. I want to build on this approach in future teaching experiences by continuing to scaffold learning through levels of description, analysis, and interpretation, thereby promoting critical thinking that stimulates students' personal interests—including those they didn't know they had prior to engaging with art history.