Three ways to incorporate art into your college classroom

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Art is a wonderful way to get students to think more critically about a topic or subject. In my experience, I’ve found that some faculty are hesitant about using art based assignments in their courses because they believe that art projects are less serious than written assignments or they believe that they need to have a background in art in order to make the assignment worthwhile. I’m here to tell you that neither is true, and that art projects are serious pedagogical tools that any instructor can incorporate into their course. With a bit of planning and some careful consideration given to the objectives of the assignment, art projects can be fruitful ground for exploring concepts, material, history, literature, etc. Here are three ideas for how to incorporate art into your college classroom.

  1. End of Semester Collaborative Art Piece

Randomly assign students into small groups of 2-3 and give each group a different art prompt. Start by writing out your prompts as you usually would, but change the wording to reflect the fact that they will be drawing, painting, or creating something. Provide basic supplies or ask students to bring them to class. For example: At the end of the semester ask students to create a visual representation of the most memorable moments/topics that they remember from the course. Give students ample time to brainstorm (it helps if they have their notes handy) and to decide on what they will create as a group. Encourage all students to contribute to the group’s creation. The point of this activity is to get instructors and students comfortable with trying something new. This activity has the added bonus of teaching collaboration and compromise as well as giving students a way to think about what they have learned in the course. Create a gallery wall in the class (use colorful washi tape to hang posters) and ask students to circulate and view each other’s work before asking a group representative to explain the creation. Once each group has taken a turn presenting their work—you might have a conversation about things that each work shared in common and the things that were omitted. You may also want to ask the class what they thought of the activity?

Variations: You could do this activity at the beginning of the semester as an introduction to the syllabus. Ask students to read the course description on the syllabus and to create a visual art piece that reflects their expectations of the course based on this information. Display their creations and talk about them. You might also consider doing this exercise at the end of the semester as described above and comparing the works that each group created at the beginning and end.

  1. Take a reading and turn it into an art project

Select a paragraph or section from a larger reading (you could use a poem or an article abstract/conclusion, etc.) and ask students to draw or paint their response to the piece or to visually depict what the author is saying. Because you’re not grading artistic ability—you’ll need to encourage students to go for it. If you’re teaching sensitive or controversial material—I urge you to think through this activity very carefully. Once students have had a chance to draw their responses ask them to share it with the class and to discuss their creation in light of the assigned material.

Variations: This assignment lends itself to working as an in-class or out of class activity. If you assign this as a take home activity—you might also ask students to do some research on the use of images. As a follow up in class—discuss how drawing or painting the reading assignment challenged them to think more critically about the words on the page.

  1. Existing Images Collage

Ask students to find images related to a topic that you have included in your syllabus. Ask each student to bring a minimum of 5-10 images to class with them on paper. In class or before class—have students write a one-page summary of the images they found and how they relate to the assigned topic. In groups or individually (I would do this in small groups)—ask students to create a collage of their images. Encourage students to tear, cut, draw or paint over images. You will need to provide large poster board, glue sticks and any other art materials that you can get your hands on. Ask students to bring anything they might have around as well.

These collages can then become part of the conversation that your class is having on the assigned topic. You might explore how the images are accurately reflects the topic or make it difficult to discuss. You might also ask students how deconstructing the images (tearing or cutting them) alters their meaning and how the layering of images changes the viewers understanding of the topic.

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