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Big Lessons for First-Year Students

IF Blog Posting Nov 2010

After passing the midway point of my first year seminar this fall, I have had a chance to pause and reflect.  Last fall I taught an IF course for the first time, and doing this a second time has had its rewards.  I have thirteen students this semester, split into two groups, and they have spent much of their time in groups discussing the question “what is art?”  This year I worked on making the question more concrete by first having a class discussion about what types of art the groups would find useful to discuss.  After getting everyone’s input, the list was narrowed to dance, literature, music, photography, painting, fashion and film.  Each group member had to find a borderline case within her type of art, so for example, one of the people who chose photography had to find a photographic work that raises the question of what art is.  One student discovered the photography of Miroslav Tichy, who took voyeuristic photos of women on the beach, without their permission.  So while the students could see beauty in the photos, they had to struggle with the question of how the manner in which they were taken might give us pause as to whether they are artworks.  Some students found the way in which Tichy took his photographs objectionable, and said that he was just a peeping tom.  Others defended them as works of art.  They had similar discussions about films, music, fashion, and the rest.

The biggest hurdle to overcome this semester for the groups has been avoiding consensus.  While there was sometimes disagreement among group members, both groups tended to move towards consensus, describing what they were doing in the first-person plural: “We think that…,” “our group’s answer is…,” or “our group believes….” Last year I guided them by saying that the groups’ overall tasks was to come up with 5-7 different responses to the question “what is art?”  I chose the term “responses” deliberately to leave open the possibility of answers such as “there is no unified answer,” which counts as a response.  This year I chose the term “conceptions”, in an attempt to focus them more on ways of thinking about art.  I could tell that some of the students have relatively traditional conceptions of art – they believe that the so-called canon is what art is, and they have a hard time with modern or conceptual works.  Others find modern and conceptual work stimulating and are more willing to accept it as art.  So I could see that there were several conceptions at work already among the students, but drawing that out and making it clear has been the challenge. 

One of the groups had a breakthrough several weeks ago, when one of the students, frustrated, said “the textbook says that you can’t define art, so what are we doing here?”  There is no textbook for the course, so she was referring to one of the readings I had assigned weeks before.  But this reading offered one of many views I’ve helped them explore.  Still, the moment illustrated one of the difficulties of teaching first-year students in this way – their education has prepared them to get the right answer on a test.  I told the student later that if we all thought the way she’s thinking, no new knowledge would be possible.  I think she caught a glimmer of the possibility that what she is assigned to read could be wrong.  If she takes only that lesson away from the course, I think I’d be satisfied.

So her group realized that the goal was not to find the one true answer to the question.  This realization came, of course, after weeks of me explaining that the goal is not to find the one true answer, but instead to find 5-7 different possible conceptions of art.  One of the other group members then challenged me, saying, “how are we supposed to come up with different conceptions if we don’t believe them?”  This led to their second realization, also not completely absorbed by the group.  First-year students can also be challenging because they aren’t well practiced at adopting diverse perspectives, and shifting their point of view away from what they personally feel. 

The groups are now revising the reports that are intended to capture the results of their discussions this semester.  The group I’ve mentioned here has struggled the most with the task.  By the time the draft of the report was due, they still didn’t have much of a grasp on what a conception of art is.  In the draft report their different conceptions were abbreviated by headings such as “originality” and “skill”.  I tried to explain that these are concepts that might be included in a conception of art, but they are not yet conceptions.  After all, many things can be original, but that doesn’t make them art.  They have had a hard time grasping the fact that a conception has to be explained in a way that an outside observer would find informative, and it can give someone a framework for thinking about art, both in order to distinguish artworks from other things in the world and to help us understand the value of art and what makes it important to us.  Revisions to the draft are underway, and I’m giving the groups more time in discussions today to work through their changes.  I’ll know in two weeks how much they’ve understood their task.  Hopefully some of them have learned some important lessons that will serve them in their next four years.

Michael Gettings