Charting New Departmental Directions

At the moment, the Department of Art History and Archaeology at my home institution is undergoing ideological renewal and renovation. For the first time in a decade, and first time since I’ve been a graduate student, the department is selecting a new departmental chair.

One associate professor is running unopposed for the five-year term chair, so it’s not a particularly contested election.

(And for the record, I was hoping she would run and think she will be a fantastic chair.)

Prior to the current election, the departmental chair position was last voted on around 2002. After that chair’s five-year term, the position was held in short spurts by that full professor and another full professor for the next five, leading to the current situation. One result, especially over the past two to three years, has been a state of stagnancy born out of an “interim” mindset.

This isn’t to say that things were bad, only that the department has been slow to respond to some changing situations in education, particularly disciplinary pedagogy. A focus of the prospective chair’s presentation to the department was better preparing graduate students as future faculty and on improving the attractiveness of art history courses to the campus at large – building a larger footprint for a small discipline, which has about 100 majors and 40 minors at the moment. In the same breath, online education, MOOCs, and distance learning were summarily dismissed both by the nominee and the faculty members in attendance, not as fads but as somehow being an inappropriate or ineffective method of education.

Also slow to change has been the department’s view on the purpose of graduate studies. It’s an old-fashioned department, where the primary career output for PhD students is the academy and curating, and that’s it. Compared to some departments, mine (at a research-intensive university) is at least open in that they aren’t chagrined when a grad accepts a position at a SLAC, but the mindset is university teaching, curating, or bust.

All that said, there were a number of innovative ideas to come out of the presentation and ensuing Q&A which hinted at a strong future for the department. One was a classmate who asked how the department might improve its survey courses to enhance the “wow” factor and make them a transformative experience for students. Another was the prospective chair’s suggestion that the department reconsider its name. That’s a fair suggestion, particularly considering the full name is “Department of Art History and Archaeology” and there isn’t a single archaeology professor on the faculty, outside of maybe a Greek specialist whose interest covers architecture as well as art. I would be shocked if the faculty and grad students decided on something radical like “Department of Visual Culture,” but the mere idea – and apparent open reaction from the assembled crowd – was a good sign that the faculty may be on its way toward moving out of that stagnancy and finally accepting that we’re living in the 21st century, for better or for worse.


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