Intro to the Arts

I wrote last January about sitting in on an “Intro to the Arts”-type class in order to learn how to teach it myself, and now I’m actually doing the teaching.  So far it has gone well.  I wasn’t particularly pleased when a student I’ve taught in several classes and who is taking my Intro to the Arts class now figured out that I’m teaching it for the first time; I prefer to act as though I’ve got experience in the classroom even when I don’t.  It’s not that I need to be an expert all the time — I have no problem telling students when I don’t know something or acknowledging that in some fields they know more than I do — but it’s easier to feel like an experienced authority when the students think I am one, so the pretence helps.  And this particular class requires that I teach fields I’m not an expert in, so I need all the help projecting authority that I can get.

The class starts off with discussions about creativity (what it is and why we need it) and the creative process — how we go about fostering creativity and trying to find moments of inspiration.  Those discussions were fun, if a little abstract, but now we’re getting into the nuts and bolts of various art forms: visual art, music, dance, literature, and film.  We spend a few days (such a short time!) on each area, breaking it down into its elements (line, color, shape, space, and texture in the visual arts, for example) and learning how to use those elements to analyze various works of art.  Here is where I have to work hardest to know what I’m talking about because in some cases the students will know more about areas such as music or painting than I do.  But all those piano lessons I took as a kid are paying off, as, thank God!, I have some idea about things like 4/4 time and what a quarter note is.

The first major assigment the students complete is to look at one example of each of the five types of art we study and to write a response to it where they discuss their first impressions and their sense of the work’s meaning.  I’m reading through their papers now and am pleased.  The papers are fairly informal, which means they have the chance to respond personally, discussing emotions the work conjures up or memories it evokes.  The students who produced the best papers take this seriously, using their personal experiences to say interesting, new things about the art.

I’m also pleased at the way some of the students are trying their hardest to keep an open mind about the art.  I’ve asked them to watch a dance that they find challenging, mostly because it doesn’t have a clear narrative to it and so is hard to interpret.  They have to look closely at the dancers’ movements and use their imaginations to figure out what they think it means.  Several students described the process they went through while watching it — surprise, bewilderment, and frustration at first, and then after another viewing or two the inkling of an idea, and finally some confirmation after they came to class and figured out other students were thinking along the same lines they were.

It’s hugely satisfying to watch them go through this process and realize that some art takes time and patience to understand, and that the more they understand it, the more likely they are to enjoy it.  I don’t kid myself that all students are responding this way, but teaching is always like that — you reach some and consider that a success, and then you try to reach more.  The class scares me a little bit, I’ll admit, but it’s a good kind of scared.  It’s probably not so different from what the students themselves feel.


Filed under Teaching

10 responses to “Intro to the Arts

  1. It’s really interesting to hear about the classes you teach–especially hearing from the professor’s perspective. I think that would be my greatest fear–teaching something and having students who know about some aspect of it more than me, but surely that is bound to happen occasionally. I can totally understand your desire to be in control of things and it does sound like it would be challenging and exciting, too. It sounds like a totally fun class. Do you use videos a lot? Or digital images online? I hope you’ll share more as the semester progresses.


  2. Sounds like a fabulous course – one I would have loved as a student. I still regret pulling out of my History of Art course in my first year, but I was totally intimidated by the professor who expected a professional and sophisticated reaction to Egyptian art and I had no idea what to think, let alone how to express it.

    Good luck, and hope you have fun teaching it.


  3. I think it must be so helpful to these students to be able to think about and react to art in the way you describe — that must be very engaging. I’m so glad a class like this exists — it’s the kind of thing that’ll stay with them all their lives and be a source of great pleasure. But most of all, this just sounds like FUN!


  4. What fun this class sounds! I frequently am frustrated and bewildered by contemporary art but sometimes I find something that resonates for me and it keeps me engaged enough that I don’t throw up my hands and give up on the whole enterprise. I am sure you are dong just fine in teaching the class and none of the students would question your authority to do so.


  5. this class sounds fascinating and one i would have certainly enjoyed as a student. I was a dancer and then an actress for a long time, and now as a writer I sometimes long for the physicality of those art forms…incidentally, there is a new ballet – Romeo and Juliet set to the music of Radiohead. If it comes your way you should check it out!


  6. wow – I’m impressed. No way could I teach anything to do with music (and although I did dance, I don’t know that I’d have anything to say about it!). But I have recently got hold of a very interesting book called: Creativity; Theory, History, Practice, by Rob Pope. Full of fascinating things. Good luck with the rest of the class, and don’t mind the student. They will soon have a proper teaching relationship with you and stop trying to be such a smartie-pants.


  7. It sounds like such an interesting class, one that ought to be required for all students, I think. What a great way to get minds exploring. That being said, I could never, ever teach such a course. Good for you!


  8. I wish I could take your class — your students are so lucky! I’ve been wanting to read The Artists’ Way for a long time now, hoping it will answer some of those questions you pose to your students.


  9. zhiv

    Wonderful concept for a class–I love anything even vaguely interdisciplinary, stuff that forces us out of our categories (like triathlons?). And a really nice post in your signature easy-going, determined-not-to-panic style. But the best part is that you’re teaching this course, you’re right in the midst of it, and that it’s going well. Enjoy!


  10. Danielle — normally students knowing more than me isn’t really an issue, but I’ve never taught dance or film before! We have a textbook that we use for visual arts analysis, but we do listen to a lot of CDs and watch dance and film DVDs. One of the other scary things about the class is that I have to hope the technology works!

    Thanks, Charlotte. Yeah, being expected to know how to respond to Egyptian art would be intimidating — that stuff needs to be learned, it doesn’t come naturally!

    Bloglily — it can be fun — next class we’ll be returning to kindergarten for a little bit and making puppets (to practice with the elements of visual art). The class is very hands-on.

    Stefanie — thanks. The class is meant to give students tools with which to respond to art, including modern art, although sometimes even with some conceptual tools, bafflement is the only possible response!

    Courtney — that ballet sounds very interesting! We’ll be doing a tiny bit of dancing in this class — I’d love to have you there to show the class how to do some of the moves!

    Litlove — that sounds like a great book and one that could be useful for the class. I haven’t had any problems with any particular student (thank heavens!), it’s just my own insecurities I have to deal with … but the first time through the course is the hardest, and next semester will be much easier (I hope!).

    Emily — oh, I’m not so sure you couldn’t teach the course! Anyway, lots of students take this course at my school (something interdisciplinary is required and this course fulfills that requirement), so that’s a good thing.

    Debby — I’ve heard good things about The Artist’s Way — I’m sure it will be a good read when you get to it!

    Zhiv — ha! I’ve never thought of triathlons that way, and I like the idea! Stretching the body as well as the mind to do new things … cool.


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