"Seeing Well": Art History Faculty Make Writing Values Visible to Students

"Seeing Well": Art History Faculty Make Writing Values Visible to Students

By Caitlin Martin
Published: Nov. 11, 2019

One semester after participating in the HCWE Faculty Writing Fellows Program, art history faculty Annie Dell’Aria, Jordan Fenton, and Pepper Stetler are using their guide to writing in art history to make disciplinary writing practices more visible to their students.

In their guide, the art history faculty provide an introduction to the field through threshold concepts, including a statement of their own threshold concepts, a description of writing characteristics art history values, and several resources for student writers.

“It’s a really valuable thing to have articulated and organized,” said Associate Professor Pepper Stetler. “It’s all stuff that we knew but had never thought of telling students before.”

It “sounds like we keep these dark secrets from our students,” she continued, adding that they try to make these ideas clear to students, but having the disciplinary guide “really is amazing.”

Research shows us that experts often overlook steps that have become automatic. Experts think conceptually, but students tend to learn “a bunch of techniques” instead of a “lens through which to view the world,” according to research on learning and expertise conducted by the National Research Council. Because experts have acquired a disciplinary “lens,” the techniques that enable their work can become invisible to them. HCWE staff encourage faculty to create and use their own disciplinary writing guides as one way to name disciplinary writing values and practices and make them visible to learners.

Art History Faculty Fellows Jordan Fenton (left), Annie Dell’Aria (center), and Pepper Stetler (right) during their graduation from the HCWE Faculty Writing Fellows program.

Art History Faculty Fellows Jordan Fenton (left), Annie Dell’Aria (center), and Pepper Stetler (right) during their graduation from the HCWE Faculty Writing Fellows program.

Making Knowledge Visible

Disciplinary writing guides begin as a “Mad Lib” activity in the Faculty Writing Fellows program in which participants are asked to fill in statements like, “We tend to write in genres such as _______” and “Professional writers in our field are understood to be credible when they ______.”

This activity allows faculty to synthesize the conversations from the first part of the program, when they work to make their own writing practices more visible to themselves. This process helps them recognize some of the invisible aspects of writing in their fields that they should share with students.

A pullquote that says: "I think students appreciate a retrieveable, very available resource."Through this reflective process, faculty often notice unstated aspects of writing that their own expertise hides from them. The Mad Libs activity is one way for faculty to begin making these hidden aspects more explicit to their students. It can then be revised into a concrete document that faculty can share with students.

The Art History guide, for example, explains that art historians “value the complexity of seeing and the diversity of different ways of seeing,” which means they expect most writing in their field to directly address the subject or a work of art, to include “interpretive analysis” that is “backed by research from credible sources,” and to engage “with significant interpretive and theoretical frameworks.” The guide also includes a section on Locating and Engaging Credible Sources.

Assistant Professor Jordan Fenton is using the disciplinary guide in his advanced writing course (ART 285), which is taken by both art history majors and students from other disciplines. He said the department should have written a document like this “a long, long time ago.”

“It is so direct,” he said. “This is what we’re after.” He added that the online guide is something students can “fall back on” to reinforce the ideas discussed in class.

I think students appreciate a retrievable, very available resource,” he continued. “It repeats a lot of the things we’re trying to say, but in a very different way, and hearing it different ways, of course, is very helpful.”

Art History Assistant Professor Annie Dell’Aria (center) talks with Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs Jason Osborne (left) and National Advisory Board Member Jennifer Grutsch McKinney (right) about their Disciplinary Writing Guide.

Art History Assistant Professor Annie Dell’Aria (center) talks with Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs Jason Osborne (left) and National Advisory Board Member Jackie Grutsch McKinney (right) about their Disciplinary Writing Guide.

Responding to Student Needs

In addition to annotated samples, the Art History disciplinary guide also includes a Quick Guide to Citations for Art Historical Writing created by Assistant Professor Annie Dell’Aria. This guide explains how “Citing your sources is more than an application of rules or the insertion of quotes” and identifies how footnotes work.

Dell’Aria said this guide was “inspired” by the Fellows program as well as concerns over using footnotes she heard from her students.A pullquote that says: Writing art history and writing in general for me is not just an exercise. It's a way of orienting myself in the world. I feel deeply confused if I don't write.

“I decided to make a guideline for using citations that had citations in it that were examples of what I was talking about,” she said, adding that she learned how to use footnotes as an undergraduate student by looking at readings she’d been assigned and copying what the readings did. She wants to encourage her students to learn writing through close reading, as well.

The disciplinary guide is just one way that art history faculty are making processes of their field visible to students. Fenton said participating in Fellows helped him “learn to be more open and honest with the process of writing” with his students. This means both making unstated conventions visible, but also sharing his own writing struggles and victories, an approach Stetler said she wanted to adopt to help get students invested in what they write.

“Writing art history and writing in general for me is not just an exercise,” she said. “It’s a way of orienting myself in the world. I feel deeply confused if I don’t write."

In addition to the Art History Disciplinary Writing Guide, you can also see Disciplinary Writing Guides for other departments who have participated in the Faculty Fellows Program on the HCWE website. Looking at multiple guides on the HCWE website can help illustrate disciplinary similarities and differences. The annotated writing samples included in the Art History and Anthropology Writing Guides, for example, make their differing writing practices and values more clear. Seeing the valued practices of other disciplines is a key part of naming one's own values and practices.

The HCWE is taking applications for Fellows teams for Fall 2020. Anyone interested should contact Elizabeth Wardle for more information.