Papers & Presentations by Christine L. Sundt


by Christine L. Sundt

The Magic Classroom II -- Making it Happen
College Art Association Annual Conference, New York Hilton and Towers
February 14, 1997

Imagine this scenario: A new multimedia classroom makes its debut on your campus. After months of planning and work, it's finally ready for use. Soon after its inauguration, at a faculty gathering, you hear these conversations.

The first: "Classroom? What classroom?" - to which someone replies:

"You know, Harry, that room with all those gizmos in it. I heard that Anne tried it out, but it was a disaster! I certainly don't want to be the next victim."

In another part of the room, the conversation is more promising: "I hear the new classroom is quite amazing, but I'm going to wait until I have some time to learn how it works."

"Why wait?" someone replies, "It's great - just what I've been waiting for! I'm planning to use it for all of my classes."

What we have here are stereotypes: the first is an example of someone in what I call "technology denial" (this is the same person who would ask, "Why are we wasting our money on this?"). The second, who said "I don't want to be the next victim," is caught up in fear and loathing; the third shows interest, but adds reluctance - employing an excuse (the need to find time to learn). With the fourth, however, we have unqualified acceptance, our poster-child, as they say.

I've used teaching faculty to describe this scenario, but in many ways these same four responses to a new technology environment may also have come from our students: yes, those students who we are told have this technology stuff in their pockets, who know it like the backs of their hands, and who will need and want more than we can ever afford to give them. This may be true for some, but not necessarily for all.

Even though the majority of our students have been "growing up" with technology, not all are able to accept it without some qualms or qualifications, just like the rest of us.

In this paper, I argue that in order for the "magic classroom" to be a success or gain widespread acceptance, we have some work to do. This work is in the nature of teaching and training our students - our future educators among them - to deal with technology, especially images, they are not getting by simply using word-processing software, online public card catalogs, the internet, or even playing with computer or video-arcade games. Nor do they get it in traditional methods courses that are required in most graduate programs.

My experience comes from teaching an experimental credit course entitled Visual Resources Fundamentals, offered last Spring for both undergraduate and graduate credit through the Art History Department at the University of Oregon. This has made me aware of a lacuna in our programs, one related especially to the tools of our trades, namely the image.

I had a wonderful variety of students in my class - 19 in all, coming from various disciplines: art history, fine arts, journalism, Asian studies; and they included two community-education students, plus an auditor. On the first day of class, they were given all of their assignments for the next 10 weeks, plus a hands-on tutorial in using email and the internet in one of our new, well-equipped electronic classrooms, located in the library. The students were told to secure an email account (if they didn't have one already), and that they would be required use computer equipment either on campus or their own, if they had it, to complete some of the assignments.

The aim of the course was to provide instruction in working with images, starting with photography, and ending up with digital images on a web site, the final all-class project.

I should have anticipated what followed. By the next morning, I found five drop slips in my mailbox. From a booked-to-capacity course with a waiting list, the course quickly leveled out to a workable number. Why did the students drop? A few confided that the technology was a factor; others felt that they wouldn't be able to keep up with the assignments, which involved hands-on exercises along with a substantial reading list.

If you are wondering what I did in this course, you may visit the website I prepared for the course and presented to the students in the first day's technology tutorial. You'll also find the URL ( in my handout.

In the text of this index page, the phrase "WWW assignments" links to an outline of the course, week by week, based on information available online, some of it information that I normally would have prepared as handouts and distributed in class.


I. a follow-up to the hands-on training in the electronic classroom

II. links to campus computing resources, free tutorials or workshops for learning how to use email, or connect to the university by modem, and how to gain access to public domain software


I. sites that had information about photography

II. tutorials that I wrote on copystand and gallery photography

III. links to images from museums online.

Their first assignment, in addition to some readings, was to create a "collection" of quality photographic images (slides) using the techniques I explained and demonstrated in class. Some of the images were to be shot from books and illustrations, others were to be of buildings and landscape features, and still others of people and events.

In the weeks that followed, the students learned how to describe these images using standard vocabularies such as the Getty Information Institute's Art and Architecture Thesaurus, and how to organize this information using some old as well as new tools, such as the Categories for the Description of Works of Art. In class, we discussed language and description biases associated with our western-centric culture, as well as how to evaluate information accompanying images included in sources and reference books.

We studied image quality, the photographer's intentions, technical possibilities and limitations, and the many factors that may contribute to changes in the image's quality and condition over time.

The final weeks were spent learning about digital imaging - for example, what functions and practices are involved, as well as digital image formats, image capture equipment, image manipulation techniques, and the integration of images with text towards the development of the class website.

We looked at how images were being used on the World Wide Web - the good, the bad, and the really awful - and we discussed copyright issues as they apply to both educational and commercial uses of images.

The course was successful in that all 19 students stuck with me to the end, and the final class project website came into being, albeit after the term ended. Based on their written evaluations, the students found the assignments challenging but sometimes frustrating. In my view, some of them (the minority) never did blossom from being technologically challenged into white-socked techies. Those who did (however, preferring to wear their Birkenstocks till the end), did so with great flourish.

Several of my students completed extra-credit projects that far exceeded my expectations, for example, the project that recreated large-format glass-plate slides for an antique lantern projector using contemporary materials. This same student prepared his documentation of the project by creating a website, fully illustrated and wonderfully presented with a totally intuitive interface that rivaled some of the best on the Web. Another student, following a more traditional path, combed the WWW for sites related to her areas of study: China, Japan, and Korea, and put together a comprehensive catalog of links with some evaluation of their content. The second project may be viewed at my site (the link is listed under "Web-linked Final Projects." Unfortunately the lantern slide project is no longer available for viewing (the student removed it during the summer). Some of the non-web projects were equally impressive, for example, the system developed for organizing and standardizing vocabulary to describe Japanese textiles and costumes (in the vernacular as well as in translation).

As we look around our new magic classrooms, it is clear (at least to me) that there is more to teaching today than there was five years ago. All aspects of the work done with the image in Visual Resources Fundamentals appear to relate to bridging the gap between the traditional and the magic classroom. Knowing how a camera works, how to capture the essence of art, architecture, culture or nature on film is fundamental to artists as well as historians, and to all in offshoot careers that branch out from these two major paths. While we may assume that a lot of the work involved in preparing digital images from the analog "originals" can be done by others, there is nevertheless, the time that it takes to select, review, and create access to these images that precedes their use. The vagaries of copyright and fair use must also be reckoned with before deciding how the new digital images may be used eitherin a classroom now frequently open to the world, or for private study or research. Being able to access digital images from home or the office means that less time will be spent in community resource rooms (such as the slide library) and that the images will always be available, not lost, misfiled, or burnt-out. The process of assembling the images into an electronic format requires software and know-how, and depending on the mode of presentation, possibly access to local area or a campus network to facilitate showing as well as storing and retrieving high-resolution, mega-sized image files. This is a bit more cumbersome now than simply loading slides into a carousel tray. While the technology exists, it is still quite expensive to display high-resolution digital images in large auditoriums.

Furthermore, because the classroom is still new, upgrades have not been mentioned. Unlike the traditional classroom where the furnishings (and more to the point, the equipment) are probably the same installed many-computer lifetimes ago, it will be different in the magic classroom. Equipment and software will have to be kept current in order to take advantage of the advances in technology, that will make the use and display of images even more appealing and convenient than today. Users of these facilities will have to grow with the changes that occur, too.

Another phenomenon is evident: there is no time like the present, when there are more people using images in instruction than ever before. For years using an image in class to illustrate a concept seemed to be a trade secret in the arts. This is no longer the case. The secret has been revealed and everyone is clamoring to be part of the image world, whether they understand the meaning of these images or not; whether the images are pertinent to their arguments or not. The push is on and we are part of it, like it or not.

Understanding images: what a reproduction tells us about an object or a scene is as important as knowing how to work with a document related to the artifact, like any manuscript, drawing or copy after the original. Because manipulation is so much a part of working with digital imagery, it is hard to resist making changes when opportunities are many and the process so simple. In scanning, you can add or eliminate frames, crop out extraneous distractions, and apply any type of adjustment to the image to improve its appearance. Once you have adjusted the image's size, hue, brightness, contrast, and increased its sharpness, you are looking at an image that is substantially different from what you started with. Being able to recognize when change is acceptable, and likewise when it isn't, because with the change you have altered a document, must be impressed upon those who create and use digital images.

Cultivating respect for the image also promotes responsible use of others' creative work. When this is done, it should be in accordance with laws governing copyright, moral rights, and access to public property - issues that are often difficult to articulate in an environment that has grown on the shoulders of appropriation and borrowing in both art and scholarship. When is it acceptable to appropriate and borrow; when is it improper to do so, even when the end result seems so natural as an educational use?

I've learned much over time in working with images and now in teaching about them. The message seems clear to me: to work effectively in the magic classroom we must have an understanding of the image: its origins, purpose, process, capabilities, and inherent limitations. The image, the undisputed foundation for most training in art or architectural history, is a tool that requires skills not included in traditional degree programs. On the other hand, these skills are assumed and required in the work of all arts educators and scholars. The weekly exercises or projects done by the students in Visual Resources Fundamentals were designed as group efforts with the goal of training the students to appreciate the importance of leadership and collaboration. Each student also assumed responsibility for a personal final project that had to be both an enriching experience as well as an opportunity to develop a skill or technique that could later be used either personally or in the work that would someday embody a career.

At this time, Visual Resources Fundamentals is also being reviewed as the basis for a larger program under discussion within the Department of Art History, and the Graduate School at the University of Oregon. This program, if approved, will endeavor to prepare graduates, by first meeting all requirements for a generalist's masters degree in art history, to work with images in careers that emphasize image information management, development, use, and scholarly access. These careers are evolving quietly around us on corporate campuses such as Microsoft, Corbis, and Time-Life, as well as in the commercial web-based enterprises that capitalize on the image or access to images.

There is another motivation for promoting this type of visual resources curriculum. For those of us who are a part of public higher education, who find it increasingly frustrating to justify our existence and relevance in the fight for funding, such a program could actually be welcomed because it expands the career options available to our students. Students often do not recognize that there is life for an art history graduate besides teaching or working in a museum or gallery. Furthermore, in developing the curriculum, I have emphasized an interdisciplinary approach, involving faculty from other schools or colleges, such as journalism, business, and computer and information science, to take advantage of expertise where it resides, while recognizing that our environment is no longer a two-dimensional playing field, and that opportunities for gainful employment may come from areas outside of humanistic circles.

The tools of the traditional trade are changing - and in some cases they are new and very different. So too is the classroom changing and different. Making the magic classroom accessible, e.g., building the bridge between the arts and technology, between technology and the classroom, is the reason behind Visual Resources Fundamentals.

If such a program is approved, we will have the means to help our students use tools and techniques that are vital to their success in whatever field they enter: be it as the Director of Imaging at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the image archivist at Playboy or Time-Life, the photograph curator for OSHA, or the producer of the new electronic equivalent of the Dictionary of Art. With this new toolbox in hand, the world becomes our students' easel, and the many opportunities for working with images in the new world may become easier to recognize and grasp.
Last revision: October 25, 2002 by CLS
Created by Christine L. Sundt, University of Oregon Libraries
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