Teaching her first course in her first semester at the University of Colorado Boulder, art historian Stephanie Su decided to make use of literally hundreds of unusual teaching “assistants”: 238 objects of Burmese and Chinese art that make up the King Collection at the CU Art Museum.
Students in Su’s first course, Art and Architecture in East Asia, visited the collection, which was donated in 2012 by Warren and Shirley King, who live in Hong Kong.
The students were supposed to spend no less than 10 minutes silently observing objects from the collection, which features objects in jade, bronze, stoneware, earthenware, porcelain and pottery from the Neolithic period through the Tang dynasty.
Su, an assistant professor of Asian art history, joined the faculty at CU on the heels of two post-doctoral positions in New York and the United Kingdom and a PhD from the University of Chicago, where she first encountered “object-based learning,” in which students make their own observations and summon up their own ideas about art history by “engaging” directly with works of art.
“They get a sense of the shapes, colors, functions, materials and textures of the objects and try to construct meanings by themselves—When was it made? What is it for? What does it mean? What does (the object) tell us about the culture in that historical period?—rather than having to rely on someone else’s interpretation,” Su says.
After they examine the objects, the students then exchange observations and ideas about the meaning of the pieces before forming groups to present their findings to the class. Based on selected observations, students also write analytic papers that incorporate secondary sources to refine their arguments, Su says.
“It is a student-centered learning approach that uses objects to facilitate deep learning,” Su says. “It uses objects as multi-sensory thinking tools to stimulate students’ imaginations. They learn to observe the objects and construct meanings.”
One student’s research paper on the technology of glass during the Han dynasty explored the emergence of new objects and colors, particularly purple, within Taoism. That’s something I had never thought about.”
For this semester’s course, Su has asked students to focus their papers on “the shifting notion of the afterlife in ancient China,” comparing, for example, the famous, full-sized terra cotta army created by China’s First Emperor to the miniature figurines in the King Collection—chickens, horses, stoves, attendants, theaters, houses—from the Han dynasty, which immediately followed the First Emperor era.
“For the First Emperor, the afterlife was a continuation of current life, so everything was life-sized, emulating the palace aboveground,” Su says. “But in the Han dynasty, the notion changed. The miniature figurines, vessels and architecture not only substituted for the real human world, but also constituted a world operating in its own logic, free from the natural laws of the human world. In this way, life could be extended in perpetuity. This notion of the afterlife had enduring impact, even on contemporary Chinese society.”
Although she’s just begun teaching at CU, Su has seen the benefits of object-based learning on other institutions’ graduate students, whose observations and ideas have opened her eyes to new interpretations and understandings.
“One student’s research paper on the technology of glass during the Han dynasty explored the emergence of new objects and colors, particularly purple, within Taoism,” she says. “That’s something I had never thought about, so I can learn things from my students’ interests, too.”
Alice Kain, academic initiatives coordinator at the Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago, notes that object-based learning can give students confidence in the classroom.
“It can encourage students to begin to look in depth at the artwork together; I believe that there are benefits of students communicating to each other rather than being told what to look at,” Kain writes in the online journal Art History Teaching Resources.
“I have noticed that some students new to art history can be intimidated by making observations; that they may be looking at something ‘in the wrong way’ or that they are missing language to deal with what they are seeing. Certainly, teachers are able to provide insight into the vocabulary, but small group work allows for students to deal with some of these other larger insecurities together.”
“This indeed is something new in the field of art history” Su agrees. “In the post-war period, study was focused on iconography, looking at images and being told what they mean, but not really looking at the objects themselves.”
“This object-based learning approach allows students to apply what they have learned to new situations and solve the problems by themselves. This process enhances students’ close looking, critical thinking and writing, which are invaluable skills for their future careers. They will become more culturally sensitive, being more aware of how images and objects convey meanings in different contexts.”