Teaching with ARTStor

I am a teaching assistant for a course on the early history of Christianity. When the professor for the course asked me to lecture for him on early church art and architecture, I was excited. I had recently come upon the new ARTStor online database, and couldn’t wait to find digital images of the churches I wanted to cover in my lecture. But then he said, “I’ll go over to the slide library with you sometime next week and introduce you to the folks there, and they’ll help you pull slides.” Now I had a conflict: Do I do it the old-fashioned way, my professor’s way? Or do I take advantage of what the latest technology has to offer?

I was truly conflicted over this, so rather than making a decision at once I decided to prepare using both, and then decide. More work, yes, but this way I’d get to try both out and see the advantages of both (though, in reality, this was just my way of delaying making a decision). So, I started gathering slides of churches on ARTStor. Santa Sabina and Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. San Vitale in Ravenna. The great thing about ARTStor is that you can save your groups of images indefinitely. So, if I were to go back and give this lecture again next semester, everything would already be prepared. Also, there are more images to draw from on ARTStor. There are groups of images that a university can purchase rights to, much like a journal subscription, so you have lots more options this way. No more having to use the old red-tinted picture that some art professor took with his point-and-click 35mm while on vacation 30 years ago (I saw my share of these as a student- I could usually tell how old the slide was because the professor’s car always ended up in one of the pictures). In many cases, the ARTStor images were of better quality as a result too.

But here was the winning point in favor of ARTStor for me. You can save images for a lecture to a folder accessible by the students, so that after the lecture, or while studying for exams, students can go back and review the same images. This is a major bonus. I recall taking art history classes in which the only time you saw a given picture was during the lecture, and then you had to be able to identify it again if it was displayed during the exam. The students who took notes feverishly on every detail of a picture but didn’t look up at the images to study them always did poorly on exams, because when a picture was displayed again during the test they had no idea what it was! This ability to recall the images is not just an advantage for exam taking, but for learning in general. After I gave this lecture, I had one student approach me after class interested in a mysterious unidentifiable woman that appears in the arch mosaics of Santa Maria Maggiore. She thought she had seen a similar depiction in another class, and wondered if the two were related. With ARTStor, I could point her back to the exact image so that she could do more research into the possible connection. More interaction with the material for the students means more of a chance to get them excited about what they are learning, and this is reason enough for me to use ARTStor.

All of that said, what did I end up using for the lecture? I decided that while I was working for this professor, I wanted to do things his way. I’ll have plenty of opportunity in the future to do things my own way. And, to be honest, the process of going to the slide library, pulling the physical slides, viewing them on light tables with a magnifying glass, dropping them in the carousel with the red dots pointing the right direction, this was all fun. There is something about the physicality of using the slides, like the physicality of a book, that I can understand not wanting to give up. But, for me, the advantages of ARTStor are so numerous that I can’t see not taking advantage of it.

Former Scholars' Lab desk consultant and current Director of Educational Ministries at the Center for Christian Study in Charlottesville. Fitz is completing his Ph.D. at U.Va., studying the history of the Early Church. He likes talking about how early church leaders read and interpreted their Bible.

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