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Case Study Report, September 2003

Paul Shakeshaft:


Update, Nov 2004
Background Report 1
Background Report 2
King's College Chapel Course Outline
Objects in Space Course Outline
Visual Theories Course Outline
King's College Chapel Bibliography

NB. For pdf versions of the course outlines and bibliographies please go to the GLAADH Resources section and then choose Initiatives Course Materials or Initiatives Bibliographies and scroll down the index.



The Cambridge School of Art is a smallish school within APU. Its enrolment includes a contingent of around one-hundred-and-fifty students who study fine art and art history on a number of overlapping pathways: BA Art (Practice and History), BA Art History and BA Modern Visual Culture, all of which can be taken in combined form.

The five lecturers who cover art history and contextual studies within the School teach a largely Western-centred curriculum, which, unfortunately, lost some of its historical range in response to the QAA teaching review. The pathways were redesigned and revalidated in 2001, so that for now a radical revision of the curriculum is not feasible. Recently, however, we have come to feel the pressing need to re-expand the curriculum, both spatially and temporally.

The problems we face may be similar to other art schools of our size in institutions such as APU. None of the existing staff claims to be a specialist in non-western art. The School budget is threadbare. Though we would wish to heed Robert Hillenbrand's advice to ensure that a future appointment is a non-western specialist, the next colleague(s) to retire may not be replaced.

For the academic year 2002/3, we decided to set about extending the range of the curriculum immediately, so as to affect as many of our students as possible. The proposal was formulated by myself and approved by colleagues at a staff meeting in winter 2002. The initial idea was to involve all five members of the team in the programme in the forthcoming academic year. We realised that we would have to attempt this task without the assistance of specialist teachers and that the modest GLAADH budget would not provide very much towards developing our limited library resources in the new areas.


We took our cue from Evelyn Welch's (University of Sussex) presentation at the GLAADH Launch Workshop, where she discussed inserting a week's teaching on Benin bronzes into an introductory module on the Italian Renaissance. This approach seemed to offer immediate advantages. It side-steps revalidation requirements, can be credibly executed by non-specialists, requires a fraction of the library resources of a whole module, sets up fruitful comparisons and is attractively adaptable.

We nominated seven modules as being particularly suitable for this treatment. As it turned out (see below) just four modules were modified in the academic year 2002/3, two from level one and one each from the other levels.

In order to ensure the widest impact, we adapted the introductory module Objects in Space, which is compulsory for all art history and fine art students. The module was originally designed to take students through the history of the figure in 20th century sculpture, developing study skills along the way. For the fine art students, this module parallels a practice module, which also considers the human figure. Into Objects in Space were inserted Egyptian and west African figures, as well as studies of Greek and medieval figures; overall, the modifications became quite extensive. Students were in the Fitzwilliam Museum and the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge, as well as in the British Museum. The seminar centred on a suggestive reading by Schmalenbach. A 1000-word assignment required a discussion, amongst other matters, of the proportions of a west African figure.

At level one, we also made a small adjustment to Introduction to European Painting: the Fitzwilliam Museum. The module is intended to do what you would expect, introduce students to visual analysis, using the Museum's collection of European paintings. As part of the project, a seminar was arranged especially for the art history students, looking at examples of Persian and Chinese paintings. The simple purpose was to dispel any convictions that sophistication in painting is a European monopoly.

At level two, we modified another compulsory module, Visual Theories. This war-horse module was adapted by inserting a week's study (lecture and two-hour seminar) entitled 'cultural difference and anthropology'. The purpose was to consider the legitimacy of western methods when applied to the investigation of 'non-western' images and objects. Readings from Firth, Faure, Fagg, Baldwin, Oguibe and Davies were discussed in the seminar. All students had to explain, in a 2000-word essay, how they would go about defining and examining objects from 'western' and 'non-western' cultures. On its earlier outings, of course, Visual Theories has examined cultural difference but this time the emphasis was much more deliberate and the anthropological readings and the essay entirely new.

At level three, I decided to try adapting a less likely module, King's College Chapel, which looks the Chapel in the context of the discourses and institutions of Christendom, its universities, churches, theologies, dynasties, courts, regions and so on. Here the idea was to extend the perimeter of the context to include the Islamic world and, specifically, the madrasa, to establish visual comparisons between Moslem places of learning and those of Christianity. This module requires students to write a 3000-word paper, supported by a class presentation, on a closely researched aspect of the Chapel and its context (the fiction being that the paper constitutes a chapter in a forthcoming book on the Chapel). As 'editor', I insisted that one of the chapters deal with the Chapel in an Islamic context and so a student volunteered to research the topic, give the presentation and write the essay.

As for the time the implementation of the project took, the method involves inserting components, and so the initial investment wasn't crippling. Moreover, delivering such isolated topics doesn't involve the relentless demands of an entirely new twelve-week module, which can quickly drain the reserves of the novice. Most of the initial work involved modifying the module booklets, and this was complete by September 2002. The modified component of each module was designed to place as much responsibility on the student group as possible, so that the lecturer did not have to pretend expertise. The greatest demands on my time have been made by the central requirements of the GLAADH project itself.


The evidence on which the following evaluation is based is drawn from student questionnaires, interviews with individual students, student assignments and tutors' reflections.

The modest initial plan to add one week on West African figures to Objects in Space was quickly left behind. The topic seemed too isolated, in a module which had hitherto confined its interest to the 20th century western figure. The inclusion of Egyptian, Greek and medieval figures has transformed the range of the module. Objects in Space now seems capable of capturing figures from anywhere and anytime and next year will take on the Mayan figure. Studying the figure at first hand in museums has given the module an immediacy which has been apparent in students' written work. The sculpture tutors also report that the modified module has had an evident impact on students' talk and work in the sculpture workshops. There is no denying, however, that the lack of tutorial expertise and the poverty of resources have led to shaky moments.

According to its tutor, Vivien Perutz, the seminar on Persian and Chinese painting, inserted into Introduction to European Painting: The Fitzwilliam Museum, achieved its simple purpose of opening students' eyes to the unfamiliar. This year, the seminar depended upon a slide presentation but next year, given the support of the Fitzwilliam, it will take place in the Museum. Vivien felt exposed teaching these new areas and next year we hope to persuade David Baxter to take the seminar; this is another case where further staff development is desirable and where library resources are still thin.

The insertion into Visual Theories of the topic on cultural difference and anthropology made a significant difference to the whole nature of the module. Though this new topic was one of ten, it turned out to be the fulcrum. The set readings seemed to articulate concerns which were already forming in the minds of some students and the discussions in the seminars were more urgent than usual. The compulsory 2000-word essay asked students to choose two objects, one of which they would define as 'western' and one 'non-western' and to discuss the methods they would use to investigate each. Besides begging the question of what constitutes the 'western', this assignment required students to tie in the topic of cultural difference to the other topics covered by the module. The question is demanding and provoked the students into writing some of the most cogent and considered essays so far generated by this module.

In the case of King's College Chapel, the expansion of the context to include the Islamic world was only partially effective. The idea is potentially liberating and the student who volunteered to research the subject displayed admirable curiosity and resourcefulness. The twenty-minute presentation certainly riveted the group. However, the King's College Chapel experiment suffered from two problems, the poverty of the written and visual resources available to the student and my lack of expertise, which was cruelly exposed at this level. To provide plausible leadership, I will need to be able to demonstrate first-hand familiarity with the architecture of Cairo, Damascus or Istanbul.

We had anticipated modifying three other modules: at level one, the architecture module Inhabiting Time and, at level two, Filmform and the Aesthetic and Romantic Landscape Painting. Inhabiting Time was to include a week devoted to modern Japanese architecture but the plan was abandoned because of the difficulty we faced in acquiring adequate books and slides. The tutors of the other modules were absent last year and modifications will have to wait until next year.

Has the project made a difference? To the students, undoubtedly, as every first- and second-level student has encountered new elements in the curriculum at least once this year. In seminars, it is quite apparent that the range of reference of these students has already expanded. However briefly the light is switched on in an unfamiliar area, its territory becomes an indelible part of a student's mental world. In a curious way, by including an area in the curriculum, you legitimate it for the student.

To the two tutors most directly involved this year, the project has certainly made a difference, as they have both had to flick switches in their own minds, in order to view new areas. Though the impact of the project may not be, as yet, so obvious in the work of other colleagues, there is a collective view that the process of modification should continue. For us, one of the most insidious effects of the QAA teaching audit was the implication that our curriculum was too ambitious and should be contracted. We see the GLAADH initiative as a welcome recognition of the moral responsibility of the subject area to introduce students to other cultures.

In material terms, the library, which is very strong on western art but weak on anything else, has had its stock augmented by £2300-worth of books and videos, related to the inserted topics. However, divided between so many modules, the money has been spread too thinly to provide any more than the seed-corn for future developments. It is a shame that more could not have been released from the overall GLAADH budget.

What reservations do we have? The piecemeal nature of this process of insertion is a pragmatic solution to immediate problems. It cannot be a substitute for a fundamental review of priorities in the curriculum. Correcting the bias towards western art will require a commitment to entire modules devoted to non-western visual culture (we are preparing a module on Islamic art), which will need an investment in staff development and library resources. Besides, there is a paradoxical danger to the insertion method, as it can have the effect of reinforcing perceptions of the subordinate place of non-western art. When the insertion occurs in a heavily western module, it can appear to be another kind of tokenism or, worse, seem to set in higher relief the alien otherness of the foreign body.

Is the method transportable? Well, we imported it from Sussex. For schools such as ours, which will not be supporting an Asian or African research group in the near future, it is worth considering. It is a DIY approach, relatively cheap to apply, easy to manipulate, immediately effective and requiring, in its basic format, not even the affectation of expertise. We have chosen to adapt seven modules but we could just as well have included as many more. The method has proved itself well enough in this limited trial and could almost come with a guarantee.

However, it is not, by itself, the solution to the larger problem.

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