HAA 1909: Undergraduate Research Assistantship UHC Section: Encounters – Teaching Art History


Spring 2014 (2144), 3 credits.

Faculty Member

Pitt Faculty instructor: Prof. Gretchen Bender, History of Art and Architecture Department

Community Partner

Community Partner: Pittsburgh Assistance Center for Educators and Students (PACES), Emily Lilly, President of the Board


Why does the History of Art and Architecture matter and what benefit might it serve for those outside academia and the museum? What usefulness might ‘thinking like an art historian’ have for younger students in secondary schools and what role can it play in the community more broadly? This project centers on these questions.     Advanced HAA majors will mentor small groups of students from Pittsburgh Science & Technology Academy (SciTech), a grades 6-12 magnet school within Pittsburgh Public Schools, on a collaborative project that engages them in the activity of art and architectural history by studying Public Art in the local environment and around the world. Undergraduate students will be learning to teach art history and its practices to younger students, showing them how the encounter between observer and object, image or site can be meaningful and exciting, and demonstrating how this encounter can be used to articulate a stake in world culture and global history.   

Because art historians are trained to contend with visual images, material and cultural objects, and physical sites and structures, disciplinary practice centers around an encounter: someone looks at, addresses, faces, or occupies something. So our discipline is predicated on the act of interpretation as it emerges from this meeting point, an exchange that attends very carefully to the physical attributes of and issues of facture inherent to objects and sites. We are concerned with why human beings have made things. By addressing our attention specifically to Public Art, younger students will understand the relationship and interconnections between self and other, individual and collective in the contemporary world and the local landscape. They will learn how artists and they, as observers, become actors, agents and makers of place. They will recognize the role public space plays in articulating identity and social difference. Because this project’s main goal is the enfranchisement of younger students as inhabitants and citizens of our community, we will ask them to become artists. They will work collaboratively on the creation of art and installation projects that reflect on what they have learned. These works will be exhibited in the University Art Gallery in May of 2014. The design and management of this project is a partnership between the History of Art and Architecture Department at the University of Pittsburgh and the Pittsburgh Assistance Center for Educators and Students (PACES; www.pittsburghaces.org) with generous support from a University Honors College Service Learning Course Development Grant.

This service learning experience will enable both Pitt undergraduate and SciTech students involved in the collaborative-based project to develop essential professional skills as it will require them to:

  • Adhere to deadlines and demonstrate reliability
  • Navigate competing creative ideas and conflicting opinions
  • Compromise and seek solutions that benefit the team as a whole
  • Plan diligently to successfully execute a product that results from a multi-scaled sequence of actions and decisions
  • Develop a creative product that is professional in appearance, communicates ideas effectively and solicits interest and curiosity from a diverse audience

The undergraduate students involved in the program will need to master essential leadership skills, learning to:

  • Direct, lead, teach and mentor (and understand how to differentiate between these tactics and determine when to use each)
  • Instill enthusiasm and engage the energy of others
  • Recognize the particular strengths, interests, and abilities of those you lead
  • Summarize complex ideas and difficult theoretical material so that they can be understood by others
  • Determine how best to assess and evaluate the success and failures of their efforts and recommend changes

Fundamentally, though, the Encounters project will enable them to make a real impact in the lives of students living in Pittsburgh, to engage in a project that can be a source of tremendous pride both for the high school students with whom they will work and for themselves. The students – all of them – will be able to take ownership over a project whose final manifestation is made public in the space of an art gallery.  

Finally, this project provides significant benefits to the PACES organization as it should provide positive publicity and exposure to a new donor population through the exhibition’s opening event and can be used as a model of success for future grant applications. This pilot program will also provide momentum to the organization as it seeks to establish connections with other schools throughout the local community. As a new organization, this type of project and the corresponding public exposure will prove highly beneficial for PACES as they build their reputation and seek to implement other programs that will enable them to accomplish their core mission: “Enrich students. Support teachers. Foster community.”