Living Well across the Media: Teaching Art History + the Environmental Humanities
Jacob Henry Leveton
My approach to teaching derives from my backgrounds in Classics, Literature, and Philosophy in addition to my graduate training in Art History. In my view, the humanities operate at the core of empowering students by inculcating a form of critical inquiry rooted in what Classical Greeks, in general, and Aristotle, in particular, termed εὐδαιμονία—"eudaimonia"—meaning "happiness" or "excellence." For Aristotle then, and as I believe is salient to a broad general education in the global liberal arts now (perhaps modeled best at SOAS, University of London), this stems from the development of rigorous skills in critical and analytical thought and argumentation as the basis for living a well-balanced, engaged, and ethical life. I believe that the interpretation of images, translating between visual and textual media, is integral for students to develop these skills. It is this point of departure that allows for the greatest extent of individual flourishing and contribution to a broader polity that includes respect for animals and the natural world.
I engage students in the study of visual art and architecture, text-based media, and critical theory from the perspective of studying past documents to see how they often intervened within specific sets of social and historical circumstances to make the world a better place for individuals to flourish. Whether teaching the early-modern Florentine conception of the artist through Michelangelo's sonnets, art and politics with Gustave Courbet's realism and T.J. Clark's social-critical art history, protest architecture and the long 1960's, or Vandana Shiva's postcolonial ecofeminist theory against western biotechnological hegemony, my focus as a teacher has always been on how the history of vision and the built environment, literary means of expression, and philosophical thought have been mobilized to re-order the world for the better.
The undergraduates that I have taught at the University of Oregon and Northwestern University—whose majors have included business, biology, architecture, physics, and accounting, in addition to the history of art and architecture—have regarded me as a teacher with an energetic presence in the classroom. In written evaluations of my teachings students consistently comment on that the experienced me as an teacher who successfully motivates them to engage more deeply with readings over the course of a semester, and who shows a consistent and sustained ability to adapt courses to meet with the specific expertise and evolving interests of each group over the course of a term. Given my training in the digital humanities and time spent as an Educational Teaching Technology Fellow, my courses always include a digital learning component when appropriate. Frequently this includes a course website, Twitter feed, or blog to which students contribute and build over the course of the quarter or semester, and that they can include as part of a portfolio of work for postgraduate applications and for future employers. Additionally, a common exercise that I employ in discussion is to project an image salient to the course on the dry erase board and have students, frequently in groups, annotate the artwork and then discuss what they found to be key to its interpretation. Often, the exercise will conclude with a class discussion of what they found that was left out in the secondary literature that they together were assigned and read. In this way, I aim to provide students with the space to engage in active and analytical thinking that instills confidence and empowerment in recognizing what each student has to contribute to broader conversations in the discipline. I also deeply value language study as part of undergraduate education. As a result, I attempt to provide opportunities for students studying (or with knowledge of) languages germane to the course material—often French or Italian, but inclusive of Indigenous Languages in my American Art History courses—to draw upon this knowledge as an aid to class discussion.
To learn more about my teaching, please see examples of the syllabi that I have developed for future courses and examples of PowerPoints that I have created for past and future undergraduate lectures and discussion sections.