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Givens teaches the times as well as the art
November 9, 1998

For their first assignment in her art history survey course, Jean Givens asks students to turn to their textbooks. The assignment is not to read the usual chapter or two, but to study how the book is organized and to think about other ways it could have been structured. It's typical of her approach to teaching: thoughtful and challenging.

During the next class, Givens, an associate professor of art history and a past recipient of a University Teaching Fellow award, engages her students in a lively dialogue about the different ways to organize the text. She encourages discussions like this, despite the large class size: 250 students.

Today's lesson is on Roman art and the Romans' use of illusion in paintings. Two slides, juxtaposed, flash onto a large screen. One of the slides is of a painted room in Villa of the Mysteries, a Roman building. The other depicts a painting of a garden in the home of the wife of Augustus Caesar.

"Do you see any connection between these two images?" asks Givens, pointing a laser at parts of each slide. A number of hands dart up. "They're trying to make you part of the scene," a student responds. "How?" asks Givens. More hands are raised.

The study of art history is a new experience for many students who have grown up on MTV and Nintendo. Givens, whose specialty is medieval art, understands this, and tries to make the subject matter in her courses - which may seem remote to some students - alive and relevant.

One of the ways she does this is by providing materials that include texts written in the periods the students are studying. "It breaks through the veil that separates us from them," Givens says. In today's class, Givens reads from a famous ancient work by Pliny, which is about artistic competition in creating illusion. A lively discussion ensues. Givens is delighted.

"The students hear people in the past talking about their own art, and they get a glimpse of what a historical document sounds like," Givens says "It's more interesting and quite moving to hear someone in the first century talking about the art of the time," she explains. It's also information that you can't get from a typical textbook.

"Textbooks are designed to be a point of entry and tend to be pretty simple," Givens says. So she prepares supplementary materials in both her lower and upper division courses that give students a better understanding of the context of the art work.

In her upper division courses particularly, Givens draws students' attention to the relationship between the artists and their patrons, exploring who controlled certain aspects of a process in a given situation. "I've looked at building records to see how the work force is divided up and how people in charge of sculpture are set apart from people building walls," she says. She also has her students read critical analyses "to help them understand that this is not a dead subject; that there are many debates within the field," she says. "They can see two mature scholars disagree about a subject and understand why the disagreement exists."

One of Givens' research interests, which she incorporates into her courses, is the issue of workshop practice: how the craft of image-making was actually pursued in the areas of medieval architectural and sculptural history. Givens examines questions of copying images.

For example, in the Middle Ages artists often would copy prior images, rather than create their own. "So if you were an artist given the task of making a statue of the Virgin and Child, it is very likely that one strategy for you would be to copy a prior image," she says. Her work on the subject relates to the observation of nature in medieval art.

"I've done a lot of research on carvings that look like this," says Givens, pointing to a photograph of a building with carvings of a variety of leaves. "My question is, did the artist make these images of specific plants based on a first-hand encounter with nature, or did he look at earlier works of art? We may never know for sure, but I try to explore the logical dimension of what this image can tell us about this craftsman's working practice."

Givens says the trend in art historical studies in the last generation has been toward studying art in the context of the time period, in its moment in history, as a source of information that tells us about the period. "We also need to be well informed about the period to understand the significance of the object," she adds. In that sense, the study is interdisciplinary, drawing on history, literature and politics.

Givens also teaches students that art history isn't just about the past. "Scholars are constantly digging up new finds." Such information is in a reader she has assembled that includes recent newspaper and magazine articles on new discoveries. "So they understand, particularly in the sphere of archaeology, that some very exciting and sometimes quite scandalous things have turned up," she notes.

Givens conveys that excitement to her students "with the message that if we were to try to write our textbook 10 years from now, we'd probably write it differently to accommodate the new things we now know," she says.

Sherry Fisher