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Talk About Teaching and Learning
March 23, 2010, Volume 56, No. 26

Collaborative Teaching/Participant Learning

Christine Poggi

Many instructors aspire to create a learning environment marked by creative thinking and collaboration, which in turn demands strategies that respond to conditions specific to a field and course. Teaching the history of contemporary art presents special challenges in that who and what counts is still being determined. The art of the last 30 years, in particular, resists narratives based on clearly defined movements or national traditions. Artists cross borders, use new and hybrid media, and sometimes act as curators or critics. The works they execute may look unfamiliar, seem devoid of aesthetic value, or even be offensive to some people. For these and other reasons, many students enter the classroom with a mix of attitudes, ranging from curiosity, to diffidence, to resentment; others may be passionate advocates of a particular medium, style, or artist. Whatever their attitudes, my goal is to open the door to a serious engagement with a broad spectrum of works of art, by giving students a basis in knowledge and a chance to participate in the interpretive process. This has invigorated my teaching, and led to some experimental approaches that give students opportunities to collaborate in shaping what they learn.

In large courses, I attempt to counter the alienation some students feel towards contemporary art by striving to deliver clear, comprehensive, and lively lectures, explaining all technical terms, and by encouraging students to ask questions and express their views. Rather than simply present information to be mastered, I offer historical contexts and critical frameworks, and also have students read significant essays in the field rather than rely on textbook synopses. Students also visit local museums and write about what they see, sometimes in relation to specific issues.

Although these strategies have been successful, especially in lecture courses, in my graduate and undergraduate seminars I now try to think more creatively about how to engage students as participants—producers to use Walter Benjamin’s term—rather than as viewers or consumers. One of the first steps was to find ways to encourage meaningful collaboration among the members of a seminar. One recent class focused on the works of Andy Warhol and Pop Art.  We were able to take two trips, one to New York, the other to Pittsburgh for a visit to the Warhol Museum. In New York we viewed the Rauschenberg exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, as well as the collection of Pop Art at MoMA (Museum of Modern Art). I don’t think any of the students will forget our mad dash across Fifth Avenue to the entrance of the Met, just seconds before the arrival of the St. Patrick’s Day parade. The trip to the Warhol Museum was illuminating; we spent an entire day with the museum’s comprehensive collection, viewed one of Warhol’s films, examined the objects preserved in one of his “Time Capsules,” and lounged on couches while looking at the Cow wallpaper on the walls. We posed for photo-booth pictures, remarked on how beautiful the “oxidation” works are (made by the artist asking guests to his studio to piss on specially prepared canvases), played with the helium-filled Silver Pillows, ate lunch in the silver cafeteria, and spent some time in the museum’s archive and library.

These intensive trips allowed the students to learn about one another’s projects standing in front of relevant works. When we came to the presentations of their papers-in-progress, the students took the lead in making cogent and helpful comments to their peers on how to develop their research and clarify their ideas. No doubt this was in part because the seminar was highly focused so that they all shared a body of knowledge; but it was also because they had already participated in the critical phase of shaping the initial topics, and had continued to engage in conversations on each other’s research throughout the semester. This class led me to realize how important it is to create a context in which collaboration can occur over time, rather than to limit it to specific assignments.

Another experiment in collaboration was the Vito Acconci curatorial seminar, which culminated in an exhibition at the Slought Foundation (40th and Walnut Streets) in spring 2008. Vito Acconci is one of the most ambitious and challenging artists of the last 40 years, with works ranging from concrete poetry, to performances, photography, video and film, installations, and more recently, architecture and public projects. Students in the seminar visited Acconci Studio in Brooklyn twice: they saw works in progress, spoke with several architects, considered how to exhibit photographs and videos originally made in performance events, and engaged the artist in conversation. On our second visit, the students interviewed Acconci, creating a film that was shown at the Slought exhibition and that is now distributed internationally. As part of the curatorial process, the students also viewed a number of early videos and selected those to be shown in the exhibition; they debated how best to present Acconci’s works to their fellow students; and they wrote essays on individual pieces that were scattered on a large “Poetry Table” along with the artist’s own photocopied writings. They created publicity for the show (designing the poster, postcard, and three large banners that were hung along Walnut Street), assisted with the installation, and some students later gave tours. They also worked closely with Aaron Levy, director of the Slought Foundation, and with Meredith Malone, curator at the Kemper Museum in St. Louis and co-curator of the exhibition. Given what is possible in a semester, and with a limited budget, the class and exhibition allowed students to interact with a living artist, and to collaborate on the organization of a show that posed interesting problems of presentation and conservation (in that many works were time-based, conceptual, or originally structured as performances).  

This past fall I co-taught a freshman seminar focused on the Venice Biennale of 2009. Ruth Erickson (a graduate student and curator) and I worked together to produce the syllabus, to plan our trip to Venice, and to conceive projects that would be imaginative and participatory. Not surprisingly, we found extraordinary resources at Penn and at neighboring institutions. The Philadelphia Museum of Art represented the United States at the 2009 Biennale with a retrospective of the work of Bruce Nauman that was awarded the Golden Lion for the best national pavilion. Curators Carlos Basualdo and Erica Battle invited the class to the museum to discuss the artist’s work and the challenges of installing it, and later Erica Battle gave us a tour in Venice as well. We also spoke with Director Claudia Gould and the curators at the ICA about their views of the Biennale. Finally, Aaron Levy, who organized the US architecture pavilion in 2008, gave us a presentation of that exhibition. Through the interventions of these generous individuals, students became familiar with Philadelphia art museums and institutions, their role in organizing major international exhibitions, and about the complexities of mounting such shows.

Ruth and I also sought to make the learning process in the classroom collaborative and interactive. In Venice, students gave reports on selected artists; later they worked in teams to propose the theme for the Biennale of 2011 (many of their ideas were brilliant); they introduced assigned readings; and they gave oral presentations of their final research projects and participated in the discussions that followed.

In each of these seminars, working collaboratively has meant ceding a certain amount of control and redefining the goals of the course; rather than present material that is already familiar to me, I find myself learning along with my co-teachers, co-curators, colleagues, and students. The open-endedness of the process, which involves interacting with a network of individuals with various kinds of expertise and different points of view, has the effect of eroding the usual insider/outsider, teacher/student dichotomies; in my experience it also encourages students to become enthusiastic participants in the process of learning.


Christine Poggi is a professor of the history of art in the School of Arts and Sciences and
a recipient of the 2009 Ira H. Abrams Memorial Award for Distinguished Teaching.


This essay continues the series that began in the fall of 1994 as the joint creation of the
College of Arts and Sciences and the Lindback Society for Distinguished Teaching.
See www.upenn.edu/almanac/teach/teachall.html for the previous essays.

Almanac - March 23, 2010, Volume 56, No. 26