Framing Objects, Cultivating Confidence: Object-Based Teaching and Learning at the Ackland

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Painting of the outline of a breast in gold on a black background hanging on a wall behind a sculpture on a pedestal

Hi! I’m Brantly Moore, a doctoral candidate in Art History and the outgoing Object-Based Teaching (OBT) Fellow at the Ackland. Today, I’m sharing how OBT shaped my teaching and research.

 

About the OBT Fellowship

Each year, the OBT Fellowship provides one doctoral candidate in Art History with critical experience in teaching undergraduate and graduate students using objects from the Ackland’s collection. Fellows are trained and empowered to move outside of their comfort zones while teaching across a range of disciplinary, geographic, temporal, and even material borders. After observing experienced instructors, fellows implement up to 6 distinct class sessions a week while mentoring a phenomenal group of undergraduates.

 

What is OBT?

Objects shape our understanding of the past, present, and future. The term “object” straddles many classification types, disciplinary boundaries, and shifting conceptions of what constitutes “art,” and fosters interdisciplinary thinking. Most of us were never trained in visual literacy, though, so we never learned how to critically observe and interpret 2D-visual media or 3D-material objects, much less trust in our ability to do so. Luckily, each of us is amply qualified to interpret these objects simply by looking closely, thoughtfully, and curiously—OBT teaches us to do just that.

 

What OBT Taught Me

Framing is key. A simple, suggestive framework primes students’ expectations and intellects when looking at works of art. The same goes for our inner worlds: OBT helped me develop a new framework for thinking about my own role as an educator.

Self-reflection and metacognition are skills I honed in the Fellowship, which enabled me to identify and address growth areas, observe how I process and deliver information, and expand my potential. As a voraciously curious person, I have always enjoyed exploring different subjects, but my lack of confidence (and to some extent, specialized doctoral training) has held me back in the past. Speaking extemporaneously has never been a talent of mine, either. Through the OBT Fellowship, however, I have consistently facilitated generative discussions, which has instilled new trust in my visual literacy skills, intellectual agility, and competence as an educator.

 

OBT in Action

Over the course of this year, I began to take more strategic risks by reframing my introverted preferences for observation versus action, deep versus surface-level conversations, and listening versus speaking. One memorable example of this shift in my teaching approach occurred while I demonstrated how to look at “One Object Two Ways.” Working with a group of UNC-Chapel Hill undergraduates, I first framed Pinaree Sanpitak’s Gold Breast as a sacred vessel. Then, drawing upon my own research interests and Sanpitak’s most recent work, I framed the work as interactive. Inspired by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, I prompted students to “See with a feeling eye, feel with a seeing hand” instead of asking the standard “What do you see?” To my astonishment, they all moved closer to the work at the same time to better discern the texture and mood. The discussion that followed was one of the most rewarding moments of my career.

However, sometimes risks yielded growth opportunities rather than unexpected victories; I learned how scary it is to facilitate difficult conversations about sensitive content, and my empathy for students (and faculty) soared. Objects offer unparalleled pathways into empathy for distant peoples, places, and times, and empathy may be more important now than ever. Personally, I cannot wait until face-to-face instruction with real objects in real time resumes at the Ackland and elsewhere; until then, look close and think far.

 


Image credit:

Pinaree Sanpitak, Thai, born 1961, Gold Breast, 1995-96, acrylic, ink, pastel, paper on canvas, 48 3/16 × 59 1/8 in. (122.4 × 150.1 cm). Ackland Fund, 2019.38. Installation photo by Ackland staff.

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