Witnessing and practicing open-minded conversation

Aravinthan D.T. SamuelAravinthan D.T. Samuel, Professor of Physics, created The Science of Optics in the Visual Arts, an interdisciplinary freshman seminar that explores the mystery behind Renaissance-era innovations in realism that reached the standard of modern photography long before the camera. Samuel took advantage of the virtual classroom to bring world experts into the Seminar. “We ‘Zoomed’ to museums around the world including the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and Mauritshuis in the Netherlands.” Students spoke with curators at the very museums that hosted artworks discussed in class and asked world experts about the methods and practices of artists including Vermeer, Ingres, and Van Eyck. “Together, we learned that the answers to many questions are uncertain because of gaps in the historical record. Historians of art and historians of science are continuing in debates that may very well last forever.” For Samuel, the class was a safe space to witness expert debates and examine questions from all points of view. “Settling debates would be terrific. But many debates are perennial with people on all sides. If students can nevertheless gain an appreciation of why someone with a particular background or set of experiences holds another contrasting view, they learn the more important art of intellectual empathy that will be useful in any academic pursuit.”

The benefits

Many of the guest speakers are world experts in their areas of the history or technology of art. Students were thrilled to meet renowned experts and discuss their thoughts and achievements face-to-face. “Even if we did not always agree with a guest speaker or each other, everyone developed a sense of why people came to different views through open-minded conversations.” The feedback for the course overall was overwhelmingly positive and even without traveling to an actual brick-and-mortar museum, several students reported a keen and newfound interest in going to art museums for the first time when they re-open.

“In the absence of evidence that might finally settle a debate, it’s vital to consider the different possibilities. If you master the art of empathy for different points of view, you are in a better position to learn from colleagues you might disagree with and deepen your own understanding.”

The challenges

The seminar included students from a diverse range of experiences in science and the arts, as well as guests with various backgrounds and expertise. Students with strong backgrounds in art gained an appreciation for how understanding science could change how they see artwork or the world around them. Students with strong backgrounds in the sciences looked carefully at many artworks for the first time, deepening their aesthetic sense. Everyone had the opportunity to try to make their own artworks with optical tools, often for the first time.

Takeaways and best practices

  • Reach out to external experts, even those outside Harvard.
    Samuel contacted experts in a variety of fields, including art and art history, so students could be exposed to a range of perspectives. “The number of collaborators snowballed as word got out, and more and more people were excited to talk to us about the topics in the class.” Working with experts from outside Harvard allowed Samuel to immerse students in a truly broad range of perspectives.
  • Maximize the benefits of tangible forms of learning.
    Samuel also coordinated with colleagues at the Harvard Science Center to compose ‘home science kits’ which included optical instruments such as the camera lucida and camera obscura which helped students to learn about the properties of light and optics. Artists originally learned how to make realistic representations by experimental trial and error, and so did his students. Students also learned how these tools developed by natural scientists might have given artists a new way to capture visual images in artwork.
  • Be an active learner along with your students.
    Samuel underscores that, in thorny topics where academics disagree, it is essential to incorporate a variety of views and expertise outside of one’s own, even as an expert faculty. During class he would often take a facilitator role to direct the conversation but leave flexibility for students to bring their own views and to engage with what they found most compelling and enjoyable. “You’re going to learn more,” Samuel smiles, “if you actually do stuff rather than read about it in books or solve homework problems.”

Bottom line

The virtual classroom reduced the burden for speakers to attend class and allowed them to engage with others on their work, even in periods of quarantine or museum closure. In future iterations of the course, Samuel hopes to blend the benefits of both in-person and virtual learning to maximize laboratory engagement while also creating space for a broad range of guests. Allowing students to be active learners in the classroom is important as a means for everyone in the classroom to learn together.