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Increasing Engagement Through Diversity and Inclusion

Almost all disciplines have long-standing traditions within their field that are the most widely accepted methods of conveying information to students. In a few specific traditional lecture courses, particularly Art History lectures, there is usually little room for discussion. Instead, there is one room, one projector, and an onslaught of slides and images all shown in the dark which only helps to create a comfortable environment for students to drift off and wake up suddenly when the light switch is abruptly flipped at the end of class. In addition to this issue, there have been many concerns as to how those images are chosen, how the information is presented, and which parts of the art history timeline are given more attention than others. This seems to be of importance for many areas of study, however these issues came to light for me through teaching Art History.

Hip Pendant Representing an Iyoba Queen (Queen Mother)
Hip Pendant Representing an Iyoba Queen (‘Queen Mother’). 16th century. Nigeria, Court of Benin, Edo culture. (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

About two years ago, I was teaching the section in the Art History book labeled “Ancient African Art”, which included sculptural pieces like the “Hip Pendant Representing an Iyoba Queen (‘Queen Mother’)”, which is a powerful work of art illustrating a large change in trade with the Portuguese; signifying a direct influence of art made in Europe. One of my students asked why we only discussed African art for one day. I realized then that this chapter has the fewest pages dedicated to artwork from a specific region. Additionally, it glazes over broader questions of commodification and appropriation, and the long-lasting effects of European colonization. While it is understandable that to exhaustively teach every work of art in the book is nearly impossible, it has become increasingly obvious that there is a Euro-centric bias in art history, and likely in many other areas of study.

After discovering more research on de-colonization and diversification of art history, I decided to change the way I teach. Shifting my perspective, and in turn the students’ perspective as well, will be an ongoing process. I am constantly rearranging and reorganizing material, but there have been a few specific changes that I believe have helped the classroom atmosphere to become more energetic and have increased student participation. First, I have adopted more discussion questions which foster debate around what is missing in the art history timeline. The students take on a more active role in their learning as there are more opportunities for students to ask questions and close gaps on misunderstandings, as well as more openings to offer different perspectives.

Early Greek red-figure and black-figure pottery. Terracotta Panathenaic prize amphora. 530 B.C. (Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Early Greek red-figure and black-figure pottery. Terracotta Panathenaic prize amphora. 530 B.C. (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

We generally discuss larger time frames or geographical areas, according to the chapters and categorizations in the textbook. Although categorization can be helpful in understanding a broader scope of art history, this means the ways in which regions are connected are largely ignored. For example, it is rarely thought that Early Greek red-figure and black-figure pottery was created within the same century of the birth of Confucianism and Daoism, while Jomon pottery had already been a practice in Japan for centuries. I believe more efforts should be made to make these connections, not to say that one culture or region is better than another, but to bring to light that many cultures were creating artwork of equal importance to societal and cultural growth at the same time.

Although some of this is specific to art, and the humanities, I believe that many of these techniques can be powerful in broadening the scope of understanding other cultures, traditions, habits, time periods, and regions. I have also found that using some of these techniques gives power to students and makes them more confident in class. Through encouraging students to look at the same topic through multiple lenses, they begin to internalize a sense of belonging and realize the importance of individual perspectives.

“Flame-rimmed” deep bowl. Middle Jomon period, ca. 3500–2500 B.C. Japan. (Metropolitan Museum of Art)
“Flame-rimmed” deep bowl. Middle Jomon period, ca. 3500–2500 B.C. Japan. (Metropolitan Museum of Art) 

Some ways to create a more diversified curriculum:

  1. Ask students to connect multiple cultures, time frames, or topics and find what is in common with all of them.
  2. Include discussion questions that ask the students to push beyond the boundaries of the traditional course/textbook. What is the flipside of this question? What have we not considered?
  3. Include contemporary examples and ask students to find connections between them. For example, what was happening in the 1700’s that relates to what might be happening today? Ask students to reflect on what has changed, and what hasn’t changed.
  4. Flip the classroom and ask the students to find what they think are the most important questions to ask, or the main ideas, before you have lectured. Not only does require more effort of the students, but it helps you to understand what they don’t.
  5. Give students a specific theme to the class, to help them consider all time periods, cultures, societies, religions, etc. instead of grouping by what is considered to be “most important” or “most popular”.

Abigail Felber
received her MFA in Printmaking from the University of Arizona in Tucson, AZ, where she explored all realms of printmaking, including non-toxic processes. She has shown her work in multiple galleries in Tucson, notably the Tucson Museum of Art Biennial 2015. Other pieces have been shown at the Appalachian State University, University of North Carolina Pembroke, Penland School of Craft in North Carolina, University of Colorado, and Murray State University in Murray, KY. She is currently an Assistant Professor of Art at Volunteer State Community College, teaching Intro to Printmaking, Foundations I, Art History and serving as the Director of the Honors Program.

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