Close Looking: Art in the Classroom

Introducing Students to Close Looking

Many early career college students struggle with recognizing their capacity for engaging in sophisticated analysis and interpretation. Students frequently feel compelled to consult the internet or outside sources for information before considering the value of what they have to contribute. That students in first and second year courses struggle with analysis and interpretation isn’t unexpected. The difficulty students experience in embracing analysis and interpretation certainly isn’t their fault, especially considering that much of the assessment of knowledge they are familiar relies on memorizing information and then being asked to confirm that memorization through quizzes or tests. To help students transition from familiar assessment models to an emphasis on creating knowledge and meaning, I have found that introducing students to close looking and the analysis of artwork is an effective low-stakes way of encouraging students to recognize their ability to contribute ideas and analysis without first finding validation from outside sources. Plus, incorporating art in the classroom is a valuable tool to have in your teaching toolkit.

Close Looking: A Natural Approach for the Student-Centered Classroom

The practice of close looking, along with the related idea of slow art, emerges from a movement in art and history museums to encourage visitors to engage carefully with objects and artifacts in a meaningful and personal manner. Close looking decenters the traditional dynamics of power in cultural spaces by inviting visitor introspection without museums’ traditional apparatus of exhibit labels or other interpretive content. The visitor-centered emphasis of close looking as a form of engagement is complementary to the pedagogical emphasis on student-centered learning in the classroom, thus making it a natural fit as a classroom methodology. An appealing aspect of this form of engagement is close looking’s decentralization of power in the exchange of knowledge. Introducing close looking to students provides an opportunity that emphasizes the role of students as creators of knowledge and meaning. In order to illustrate close looking and the philosophical issues involved, I like to share this easily accessible video with students. The video provides a succinct overview of the concept of close looking.

Engaging Audiences

Just as close looking is an effective tool for museums to engage their audiences, incorporating art in the classroom marks an effective way of engaging with a variety of student populations, ranging from high school students to first and second year students, while also providing them a valuable analytical tool. Incorporating artwork and related methods of analysis is helpful in the introductory literature class because it provides a complementary method of analysis to close reading. While incorporating artwork is effective for the literature classroom, it is also beneficial for first-year writing courses, which frequently include an emphasis on rhetorical and visual analysis. Regardless of whether close looking is used in a literature class or a first-year composition course, it encourages students to build analytical skills, to recognize the value of noticing detail, and encourages engagement in analysis and interpretation of a cultural artifact.

Generally, I find introducing students to close looking and artwork is effective during the first third of the semester. An early introduction to close looking provides students with a useful analytical tool and way of thinking they can utilize during the remainder of the semester. Additionally, taking time to examine art is different and affords a change to the usual class routine by changing things up as the semester slips into a daily grind or the occasional slump. In short, working with art and introducing students to the idea of close looking, provides a way of recharging the semester, gets students active by doing something different, and introduces a new analytical tool. Introducing students the concept of close looking can easily fit a 50 minute class period or, if introduced with a low-stakes writing component, can be adapted for an hour and 15 minute class period.

Because this activity moves students from considering texts to considering images, it’s helpful to explain to students the purposes of the activity and its relationship to their larger learning experience. First, begin by highlighting that the students are learning about a new analytical tool that they can add into their toolbox. Highlight that they can continue to use this method of analysis in their current class and in other classes. When introducing close looking to students in a composition class, I highlight the relationship of this activity to rhetorical analysis. If I introduce close looking in a literature class, then I explain the connection between close looking and close reading by highlighting their shared emphasis on analysis and the interpretation of details. Regardless of the type of class I am teaching, I highlight for students how we can continue to use this activity in future classes. For example, in the composition class I like to tie close looking to future rhetorical analysis assignments. While in a literature class, I highlight connections between working with texts and images. Incorporating art in the classroom pays long-range dividends if it is introduced as an activity that will be revisited over the course of the semester, especially if incorporated as a “wonder object” at the start of class.

The Photo Analysis Worksheet from the National Archives

After introducing students to close looking, I share with students a helpful tool from the National Archives: the photo analysis worksheet. Granted, the worksheet is for photo analysis, but the method of looking and interpretation introduced by the worksheet is applicable to artwork, prints, objects, and many other pieces. The worksheet, which emphasizes an introduction to analysis and interpretation, guides students through initial general impressions towards considering specific details. At the end of the worksheet, students are encouraged to create questions and indicate paths of future research. Because further outside research is one of the last aspects addressed by the worksheet, it dovetails with close looking because it emphasizes decentralizing authority and power in and outside of the classroom.

Follow-Up Activities

After completing the worksheet, I invite students to share what they have found through the experience of looking closely at a piece of art or an object. The length of the class period dictates whether we share results verbally or record our discoveries on the board. I find that inviting students to write on the chalkboard and share their discoveries works best because it gets them moving—and—short-circuits responses like “someone already said that” or “I pretty much have what everyone else has.” Asking students to share their results on the board provides a way of addressing the subtleties of ideas and language, highlighting that their contributions are different and nuanced. After reviewing the material on the board, I invite students to write a description of the action that they see depicted in the piece of art we are examining. I encourage them to use what they found through their own work and the subsequent class discussion. After a few minutes of writing, I ask students to share what they wrote. While students might initially feel as though they are making something up as they write, they are actually engaging in analysis and interpretation. It is at this point in the lesson that I like to turn to the related museum website for the object. Reviewing the information on the museum website is a powerful moment for students because the topics raised are frequently ones that we’ve already addressed during our own discussions.

Picking Your Piece of Art

Encouraging students to engage with a new analytical tool is one reason I use an object that is unrelated to the course topic. First, this unorthodox selection focuses attention on learning about close looking; second, it prompts students to rely entirely on their own analysis; third, I have an object that I know works well. After introducing students to slow looking, I use related images in future classes that provide opportunities to connect analysis with course content and themes.  When using this activity in class, I find that it is best to use a museum object from a major collection and one that has a web presence on a museum website. I recommend using a piece that is accessible, but one that students aren’t likely familiar with from previous experiences. Additionally, I recommend selecting an object with a web presence that provides background information and interpretation from the museum. At the close of this activity, I like to turn the students’ attention to the website, not to confirm what they gained from the activity, but to show that with time and the use of analysis their ideas of what is important in a given piece can go toe-to-toe with an expert in the field. I find that when students recognize this fact that it is an empowering moment for them.

King Menkaura (Mycerinus) and Queen. Source: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Accession Number: 11.17388   

I have a go-to object when I introduce students to close looking, and I’ve used it successfully with this activity for many years. I like to use the statue of King Menkaura and a Queen from the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. This is one of my favorite pieces of art, but from years of classroom experience, I know picking something I like should not be a reason to use it in class. From a classroom standpoint, I find that the statue is both familiar and accessible, but it is also one that students have never seen before. In fact, in the several years that I have used this activity and this specific object, I’ve only had one student recognize this specific piece of art. Additionally, the museum website for the statue includes background and interpretive information, which is useful, as I described in the previous paragraph, to show students at the end of the activity. There are additional reasons that I like students to work with this particular object and I’ll explain those reasons—along with a demonstration of close looking—in a follow-up post later this week!

Note: the National Archives recently updated their photo analysis worksheet. You can download the old version, which I prefer and used in writing this piece, here: photo_analysis_worksheet-old-version You can find a link to the new version by clicking here.