Mungo award winner: Anna Swartwood House

Art history professor shows students how to teach themselves

Knowledge is constructed, not passively received.

That, in a nutshell, is Anna Swartwood House’s teaching philosophy, the underpinning of everything she does in the classroom. But the University of South Carolina assistant professor of art history isn’t the sole architect of her students’ education; everyone shares in the heavy lifting.

In addition to her own class prep, House assigns “discussants” for each class session — students who do extra reading and are expected to develop a degree of expertise on a niche subject, whether that’s a particular artist or work of art, or a wider theme.

“They become my sounding board for that class, and they’re also teaching their classmates. It’s a little bit more dynamic,” says House. “They also gain a sense that they can acquire knowledge on their own, not just from me.”

House’s decentralized classroom approach is interactive in other ways as well, whether that means incorporating small group projects, field trips or scavenger hunts, the last of which she says she “shamelessly borrowed” from colleague and associate professor of art history, Lydia Brandt.

“We need to do something with new information in order for it to stick,” says House. “It also just enlivens the class and makes it more memorable. And pedagogically it just makes sense.”

But making information “stick” is a two-way street — and if that means House has to plead ignorance from time to time, all the better.

“I think it’s important for my students to see me not knowing something. It’s inevitable that you’re not going to know something, especially when you’re teaching a class that covers a chronological span stretching from 40,000 BCE to 1400 CE,” she says.

In House’s case, the baffler always seems to happen when her class hits ancient Egypt.

I’m still figuring out what it means to be a teacher, and I hope I never stop learning and adjusting my philosophy.

“They’ve seen something on the History Channel, or they learned something somewhere else about the construction of the pyramids, and they will absolutely stump me,” she explains. “I tell them, ‘I don’t know, but how can we find out? What legitimate source can we consult?’ It’s empowering for all of us.”

For House, who initially considered a career as a curator while in graduate school at Princeton, the pursuit and acquisition of knowledge is as important as the knowledge itself. In fact, it was her appetite for the intellectual challenges particular to higher education that ultimately steered her toward the classroom rather than the museum.

“I had a chance to teach a classical mythology course when I was in graduate school. It was in the classics department, not art history, so I was kind of learning on the fly,” she says. “I was a student as well as the teacher, and I really liked that feeling — almost parachuting in and learning alongside the students.”

While she still keeps a toe in the museum world — penning essays on the Italian baroque and rococo paintings in the Kress Collection at the Columbia Museum of Art, for example, or delivering the occasional public lecture — House is most at home engaging a roomful of students, explaining but also exploring, sharing knowledge but also developing her own skills as an educator.

“I’m still figuring out what it means to be a teacher, and I hope I never stop learning and adjusting my philosophy,” she says. “You should always be learning, always thinking of yourself as a student as well as a teacher.  If one theme runs through my short career, that’s it.”

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