Reflective Essay

Images of Power, my unit of the Teaching and Learning in the Digital Age project, introduces students and teachers to the concept of art as a political tool. The unit employs a series of images of important artworks that illustrate a central theme of authority and power. The majority of images presented in Images of Power serve to illustrate how great artworks often reach far beyond the aesthetic level to serve a variety of political, social, and religious agendas. The introductory group of images span from c. 15,000 BC to c. 425 AD and are thus appropriate for Western/World Civilization I survey courses. On the website the complete image of each artwork is presented first and is accompanied by an introduction to its general artistic qualities, historical context, and purposes. This is followed by a series of detail images that focus on the individual symbols of authority that work in combination to make up the whole artwork.

A general premise of Images of Power addresses the assumption that many if not most, students are very visually oriented yet are not necessarily visually literate. I have noticed that although the vast majority of students seem to prefer textbooks with numerous illustrations they tend to approach the images as merely welcome diversions from the actual "work" of reading the text. Images of Power approaches this problem by analyzing its subjects on multiple levels to allow the artworks to speak with as much clarity as any written source. The first step in this approach requires a basic art appreciation grounding including topics such as general aesthetics, vocabulary, symbolism, point of view, composition, media, and style. Having obtained the basic tools necessary to read the new medium, the student can then approach artworks very much like any other primary historical source. At this level the student can address more complex questions concerning such issues as context, purpose, and effect.

At this point I see the use of technology as an important supplement to my teaching rather than a radical departure from my usual approach to my western civilization survey classes. I have previously used old-style slides of artworks in the classroom but I do foresee the advantages of more efficient digital classroom projectors and an on-line gallery of art sources. Internet-available artworks present the advantages of cost efficiency to the student (full color printed images in books are very expensive), and nearly instant access. At this introductory stage I use the text and images as an added opportunity for my students to review past lectures and prepare for upcoming class discussions. I also encourage them to use the various images as material for out of class extra credit projects.

The first project focuses on the prehistoric cave painting, Rhinoceros, wounded man, and disemboweled bison from Lascaux, France. Although not specifically an image of power, the painting does provide numerous insights into the Paleolithic culture and gives students the opportunity to apply what they have learned about the hunter-gatherer societies of early Europe. The image hints at such important ideas as religion (is the man a shaman?), technology (is that an atlatle that has fallen to the ground?), and the relation between mankind and nature. Closer to the main theme of the unit, pieces such as the Victory Stele of Naram-Sin and the Portrait of Augustus as General can be analyzed individually or used as comparison-contrast assignments. Both artworks are portraits of powerful leaders and both contain a wealth of propaganda intended to bolster the subjects' authority. On the other hand, the earlier image was produced in Mesopotamia and reinforces its message through the threat of violence whereas the latter image is of the first Roman emperor who is trying to legitimize his position more legalistically.

Artworks such as those in Images of Power can also help students realize the complexity of the actual writing of history. Most freshman students, unlike professional historians, have little grasp that the information from the past comes down to us in many forms and must be interpreted with an eye towards bias, veracity, and context as well as a host of other factors. In this view, artworks are primary sources-Augustus as General is just as informative (and biased) as say, Julius Caesar's Gallic Wars. Before approaching either work the students must prepare themselves by gaining background information on the subject and then studying it with a skeptical eye.

The greatest obstacle to fully integrating the new technology into my own courses has been the unevenly distributed computer and internet access to students where I teach. This seems to be due to the wide economic range of students enrolled here at Guilford Technical Community College. Although computer and internet households are steadily expanding, informal polls of my classes this past year suggest that somewhere between 25-50% of my students did not have home access to the internet. Although theoretically these students have access to friends' or the college's computers they are nevertheless at a very real disadvantage from a practical standpoint. Coming from the lowest end of the economic spectrum, a significant number of my students not only attend classes but hold more than one job to support single-parent households. There is no doubt that within the next few years personal computers and the internet will be as all-pervasive as the telephone but until that time I do hesitate to require significant computer-based components of my courses.

As previously mentioned, I do use Images of Power as an extra credit resource for those students who have access to personal computers and their response has been very positive. The most motivated and technologically oriented students have used the site as a springboard to visit museum and gallery websites as well as to supplement their course work. In the future I would like to see other themes added to the site concerning such topics as domestic life, religion, and gender issues. A web discussion room where various topics could be discussed online would also appeal to a number of students I have talked to over the past few months. This would also appeal to me as the instructor as it would help me more effectively monitor student interest in the site and its effectiveness as a teaching component.