This is the first of what I hope will turn into an irregular series of posts about using galleries as an effective learning environment.
I recently took the simple but bold step of no longer asking my students to do readings in preparation for a seminar. I was teaching a gallery-based period course for undergraduates and I thought it might be better if students read secondary literature after the seminar, in the light of seeing and thinking about the works at first hand, rather than looking at the work through the filter of other peoples' interpretations.
Was this naive of me? I wasn't trying to be a formalist, although I am sympathetic to the view that a painting or a print make demands on our attention that are different from most other kinds of object. I definitely don't think that it's possible to understand a painting without having a sense of how it has been interpreted, valued, and categorised, in the past.
What motivated me was a sense that all too often in the past I had taken students to galleries and ended up using the paintings as a kind of background to a discussion about a reading. This was especially the case with advanced courses where there was more focus on interrogating the construction of meaning in works of art and in the discipline in general.
In place of pre-class readings I used pre-class activities, which usually took the form of visiting a museum or gallery and completing an activity, for example comparing two works of art, or answering a short series of questions I had given them beforehand. In one or two cases I did ask the students to do a short reading (never more than ten pages tends to work well) but in general I reserved the readings for follow-up activities, where a specific reading would be accompanied by something to do, for example 'summarise this reading in three sentences' or 'In light of our visit to the Banqueting House, make notes on whose interpretation you find more persuasive'.
I'd be interested to hear how other people manage the relationship between working with texts and working with objects.