Laura E. Smith

Associate Professor of Art History, Michigan State University


As a scholar, teacher, and humanist, I aspire to affect the ways people see themselves, others, and the world. Considering that the writing of history provides, among other things, a means for societies to evaluate, affirm, commemorate, and sometimes change their identities and relationships, I hope to make the world a just and equitable place.

My course assignments have included Western art history surveys, special topics in art history, photography, and film, and professional development classes.  These courses have provided the opportunity to teach subject matter that I am passionate about, sharing my expert knowledge through perspectives that encourage students to engage in critical thinking, interdisciplinary problem solving, and sensitivity to cross-cultural perspectives.

A primary goal for my classes is to foster an understanding of the inter-connectedness of art, culture, power, identity, and history.  By examining art in its various contexts, rather than as the product of the canonical mainstream, I feel the creative efforts of many people can be more equitably evaluated and celebrated.  I structure lectures around themes or issues that accommodate the study of the multiple points of view and experiences.  In some cases, I choose readings that further illuminate the cultural or historical contexts for the objects presented in lectures.  At other times, the articles are more argumentative and meant to challenge exclusive assumptions about the meaning and value of the artworks, as well as provoke class discussions.  Lastly, I set up my lectures, assignments, and exams to build students’ skills in visual analysis, evaluative reading, and critical thinking.

To encourage student engagement with real art objects and promote active learning, as well as underscore the vibrant historical and contemporary relationship between art and society, I have made frequent use of guest speakers, and the university’s and surrounding community’s rich material culture resources in my courses. I also arranged for my History of Photography students to present their creative final projects in one of our department’s galleries and at the MSU Museum in conjunction with their exhibition Adventures in Time and the Third Dimension: Through the Stereoscope (2012-13).   I have regularly invited artists and scholars to campus to present lectures and work with students. I often develop concentrated units related to art production and historical events such as the Civil war, WWI, or museum exhibitions. For example, in recognition of the 150th anniversary of the formation of the national park system, students in HA250 and HA453 visited the Broad Art Museum’s mixed-media installation The Land Grant: Forest Law.  In a writing assignment, students compared issues of indigenous and American colonial perspectives on nature as presented in the Forest Law videos and in Carleton Watkins’ 19th c. Yosemite and Yellowstone parks photographs, and envisioned possibilities for negotiating more equitable and responsible ecological relationships.

More recently, my teaching has employed digital technologies.  Beyond simply enhancing the accessibility of information or imagery, I am increasingly interested in the ways digital technologies can invigorate art historical pedagogy, facilitate collaborative learning, and promote equity and diversity in the creation and critique of knowledge.  I seek tools that exploit the strengths of the digital humanities for art history: 1) process-oriented teaching and learning that emphasizes the journey over the destination, and 2) community building and collaborative knowledge production.  To enhance student understanding of the expressive potential of human-made structures and spaces, I developed two lectures where they virtually explored sites such as Chaco Canyon, and Vatican City, St. Peter’s Cathedral, and the Sistine Chapel ceiling through the Abrams planetarium’s projections of 360° videos and photographs. The visual experiences are made richer by a guided dialogue from guest scholars and follow-up writing assignments.