Teaching statement


Teaching Narrative

Much of my teaching involves producing a community by learning through a series of shared experiences. Last semester, I began my “Contemporary Art: The Pacific Northwest” course by inviting students to tell a story about themselves. Although the details of their micro-biographies varied greatly, their narratives inevitably situated the storyteller within some sort of community. The process of exchanging biographies forged connections to other members of the class, sowing the seeds of a new community. We, then, collectively map the constellations of communities represented in the classroom. As the semester unfolds and the classroom community develops, we routinely return to such mapping as a reminder that students are in a community and of communities and their intersections. Mapping also serves as a touchstone for subsequent discussions with contemporary artists, such as Canadian-born Jamaican artist Charles Campbell, who now lives and works here in Victoria and whom the class visited during a trip to Open Space gallery. Our discussion with him treats the contemporary Pacific Northwest as a complex site where communities overlap and separate: a place-specific microcosm of contemporary world.

The University of Victoria’s Strategic Plan and the brief of the Williams Legacy Chair, both of which emphasize the development of experiential learning, community-based research, and civic engagement opportunities for students, inspire my community-centred pedagogical practice. Many of these students hail from historically under-served First Nations communities. I find that many of the Indigenous students in my classes have particular strengths in oral communication, and with this in mind, I have added a healthy dose of Socratic dialogue to the art historical convention of the illustrated lecture, to increase student opportunities to exercise and validate their oral skills. These discussions instill community within the classroom environment particularly for my undergraduate classes “Art History and the Lens” (HA 264) and the course noted above, “Contemporary Art: The Pacific Northwest” (HA 381 B).  For “Art History and the Lens,” I have also introduced assignments that emphasize oral communication skills, such as the production of a one-minute film about the history of a work of art or object, to supplement conventional essays.

Experiential learning also plays a significant role in shaping a community-centred learning environment. In the first offering of “Art History and the Lens” I dedicated entire classes to relevant activities. Photographic images are now ubiquitous, but I hoped to radically transform students’ experience of such images, to introduce them to the seemingly magical properties they present. On one occasion we worked as a team to renovate our classroom, turning it into a giant a camera obscura. Within this darkened space we collectively spent the rest of the class watching the displaced and inverted images of activities taking place on the university quadrangle as they were projected on the ceiling of our Cornett classroom, while we discussed how this experience differed from our routine encounters with photographs.

During the fall 2013 semester, I look forward to extending this model of experiential learning with a new project that will unfold across the course of the semester in a special topics class that focuses on the history of button blankets, through the collaborative production of a giant button blanket alongside traditional button blanket makers. In addition to teaching art history through this hands-on approach, the Button Blanket course is also designed as practice-based and collaborative, modeled upon indigenous knowledge systems approaches. The pedagogy is particularly apt for this material and is intimately connected to a larger program of community-based research that involves this course, which begins with interpretation of a button blanket in the Williams Collection. By weaving together the supposedly distinct threads of community-based research and civically engaged teaching, the button blanket class engages “the architecture of full participation,” a pedagogical approach envisioned by legal and social scholar Susan P. Sturm. It also serves to enact the University of Victoria’s mission and the specific brief of the Williams Legacy Chair.

Curatorial seminars that I have offered over the past five years are frequently enfolded in larger programs of research and exhibition. These courses are designed to help students develop curatorial skills (i.e., conceptualizing an exhibit, selecting appropriate works of art, developing an installation plan, designing text panels and planning a promotional program) while shoring up more conventional art historical skills of research, argument, and writing. Within the context of these classes, art history students face real world deadlines. Though they are familiar with independent work in single-authored essays, students may find themselves learning to work in teams for the first time in these classes. Such accomplishment is exemplified in the installation project at the Cool Aid Community Health Clinic (see: http://williamslegacychair.uvic.ca/access_art_project.html). I provide undergraduate and graduate students with specialized training by developing community-based projects such as the Pacific Northwest Artists database, which includes the Williams Oral History Project, and the Elizabeth Yeend Duer project. In these collective endeavours, my work resembles that of an editor of an anthology (signaled by my use of the terms “chief curator” or “principal investigator”), while the student contributions to these projects are analogous to those of individual authors (see: http://williamslegacychair.uvic.ca/oral_histories.html).

As a graduate advisor, I strive to guide students toward projects that will enrich the body of scholarship that is meaningful to them. My current MA students Kathryn Leonard and Brinlyn O’Hare are working on projects that reach back to the earlier twentieth century with their respective investigations into John Singer Sargent in the Rockies and Emily Carr and Transcendentalism. Ms. Leonard and Ms. O’Hare came to these projects through their own experiences of the landscapes rendered by these artists. The projects of two recently graduated MA students, Melba Dalsin and Dorothy June Fraser, grew similarly from their personal experiences: Dalsin’s particular background provided her unique access to the private archives of Pacific Northwest artist Elza Mayhew (1916-2004), and Fraser had similar access to material concerning Kate Craig (1947-2002). I helped each of these students pinpoint research questions, organize previously unexamined archival material, and negotiate their own subjective experiences of working with the still living friends and family members of the artists. Ms. Dalsin and Ms. Fraser will be entering the Ph.D. program in art history at Concordia University in September 2013.

I took a slightly different tack with my MA student Gareth Clayton, who came from England to UVic to work on Native Northwest Coast Art. I felt that a project born of his direct experiences with a community would be the best path to follow. To facilitate this process, I advised Gareth to enroll in a sequence of SENĆOŦEN language course on the ‘Tsartlip reserve. His research project about the reserve’s racing canoe, West Saanich No. 5, emerged from his weekly visits to the reserve for language lessons. Through the connections he forged in language class, Mr. Clayton was able to tap into the community to gather oral histories about the canoe.
Gareth’s use of oral history acknowledges and engages with an Indigenous knowledge systems approach: the transfer of knowledge through the spoken word. Gareth Clayton is now the manager of Julian Simon Fine Art, a commercial gallery in Chelsea, England.

To the best of my knowledge, the curatorial activities that I offer to research assistants and to students at the Legacy Gallery provide the only entry-level curatorial education in Canada. Some students have secured jobs at museums and galleries, and some have begun work as independent curators, largely on the basis of this specific education. One former student, now an administrator and researcher of Canadian paintings for the Thomson Works of Art Limited in Toronto, gained her most relevant skills through this program. I have also helped place a number of undergraduates in graduate programs, including ones at the University of British Columbia, California College of the Arts, York University, and St. Andrews University in Scotland.