CHEYENNE — It’s difficult for college instructors to break the mold (or rather, Zoom window, rather) in the era of COVID-19, but teachers at the University of Wyoming are using a medium that, in other schools, wouldn’t typically be in every syllabus: art.
Assistant history professor Melissa Morris is one such instructor. As a historian, she understands the power of imagery to reveal details about the time period during which it was made. This is her first time, however, being part of the UW Art Museum’s Pat Guthrie Special Exhibitions Teaching Gallery.
Every school year, UW faculty from a range of academic disciplines select artwork from the museum’s permanent collection to support the coursework in their respective classes. These faculty work with Curator of Academic Engagement Raechel Cook to choose artwork that students can use as a tool for comprehending a particular theme or lesson within their coursework. This usually involves physical trips to the museum, but during the pandemic, many students are accessing the teaching gallery online.
“Sometimes, if you have an image, then students can react to it in a way that doesn’t feel like, ‘Oh, am I saying the right thing?’” Morris said. “Everyone can kind of approach an image on equal footing. I can say, ‘Oh, I really liked the colors,’ or ‘Oh, that’s really weird that they decided to use this medium.’ ... Everyone kind of comes to it being able to say something interesting.”
Morris believes there’s an inherent accessibility with imagery, and Cook agrees. She also challenges students to engage with the artwork in a way that’s more thoughtful than how they usually interact with online imagery.
“One thing that we practice when students come to visit or when I visit virtually is spending five minutes with one work of art,” Cook said. “We call this close looking or deep looking, and so you spend time with one object and just note observations. … I ask students to think about when they’re on their social media feed and someone posts a picture, on average, how long do they spend looking at that? Most of the time, unless the picture is really, really interesting, it’s a couple of seconds, and then they keep scrolling. So this is a chance to slow down and be observant of the space we’re in.”
Up to four UW faculty members from four academic disciplines can be part of the teaching gallery every year, and every participating instructor is given a full exhibit wall that stays up all semester. The first step in the planning process is always a conversation with Cook, who asks about the instructor’s learning goals for the class overall. Once Cook understands the overarching themes and big ideas that will be portrayed to students, she brainstorms artwork that can be a good conversation starter for that class.
One of the current participating instructors is Laura De Lozier, classics section coordinator for the UW Department of Modern and Classical Languages. Her class, Athenian Democracy, examines the radical democracy of 508-322 BCE Athens, but a particular theme she wanted to discuss this semester was “the role of older people in the American experiment in democracy.”
This comes from the class reading Aristophanes’ comedy “The Wasps,” a play that examines what roles senior members of society want, should and can have in democracy.
“Dr. De Lozier’s wall is focused on something very specific, and it has to do with, ‘What does aging in America look like?” Cook said. “What you see on the wall, none of it looks Athenian, but it’s focusing on a very specific idea from the class. … Different people are going to connect with different things in the artwork, so this is a moment to pause and consider perspectives that might be different than one’s own.”
Cook said most instructors choose to incorporate the teaching gallery exhibit into a larger class project, and sometimes that involves collaborations outside the university. Last week, De Lozier’s class partnered with Laramie theater company Relative Theatrics as part of the museum’s Read, Rant, Relate series for a livestreamed Zoom reading of “The Wasps” and a post-show discussion facilitated by De Lozier.
On April 15, another Read, Rant, Relate event held over Zoom will be devoted to Morris’ class, Global Environmental History. Her course focuses on how people have responded to environmental crises in the past and how those methods offer ideas for modern times, so she wanted to help students understand humankind’s relationship to the environment through some environment-oriented artwork.
“There’s these images that spring to mind when they think of the environment, for most people. And so, for me, I thought it would be cool to try and see how images could kind of promote their thinking about it,” Morris said. “Also, I’m interested as a historian how images can be used as sources and how they’re kind of like a testament to help people think about the places they live.”
Morris already uses imagery such as maps in many of her classes, but that kind of imagery can only take her so far via Zoom. She was interested in utilizing the teaching gallery as a way to further connect with students over Zoom and capture their attention. This is particularly important to do, Morris added, because her class includes both history students and science students.
“To have another thing to kind of engage the students during the semester … that’s one cool thing about the gallery being available,” she said. “One of the things we talked about living here is what is it like to live in kind of a landscape that’s beautiful, but can be really harsh, and one of the images is from this part of Spain, and you can just look at it and it looks really dry, hotter than here, but the idea is to be like, oh, … there are places around the world that are not like where we are in every respect, but there’s this place that maybe resonates with our experiences living in this environment.”
These are the kinds of connections Cook tries to help facilitate when she joins classes for virtual presentations.
“By looking at the work of art and asking questions in a guided class session, I’m trying to help students start to make connections between their course content and the artwork,” she said. “So they’re thinking about things holistically and not just a thing they’re learning. It’s helping students relate Point A to Point B, and it’s also providing, maybe, a different perspective on themes and ideas in the class.”