Victoria Wyatt (right) with AHVS undergrad Baylee Woodley in the new art collections classroom

From large lectures and working with TAs to a lack of one-on-one time with professors, there’s no question first-year classes can seem overwhelming to students. But the Department of Art History & Visual Studies is looking to broaden first-year opportunities with both a new classroom and a new class concept: AHVS 101 — a seminar focusing on art, images and experience — launches this month and will be anchored in the department’s new art collections classroom.

“The idea is to create a context in which students transitioning to the university can have an experiential education by interacting with the instructor and their peers in a small group,” explains AHVS professor and course creator Victoria Wyatt. “My job is to create an environment that encourages them to engage actively.”

Pull-out racks will allow for easy display and storage of art

Created with release time made possible by UVic’s Division of Learning and Teaching Support and Innovation and her department, AHVS 101 is open to just 20 students from any faculty and is already proving popular: the debut semester filled up fast, and has a healthy waiting list.

Wyatt notes that first-year students are hoping for something beyond the traditional “sage on the stage” model, where they sit passively while taking lecture notes. “They used to rely on the instructor as a source of information . . . now they look it up on their smartphones,” she says. “Rather than receiving information from an authority, they want to play an active role in navigating that information, actively discussing it. My goal is to give them some tools that will be transferable to whatever discipline they end up majoring in.”

Conceptually, AHVS 101 not only reflects changes in the K-12 education model but also provided the opportunity to create a new learning environment. Featuring purpose-built display and storage cabinets, pull-out painting racks and hanging wall, a dedicated print cabinet and rolling furniture for a flexible learning environment, the art collections classroom will allow students to engage with the paintings, prints, sculptures, and other objects in UVic’s 19,000-plus art collection in an entirely new way.

Rolling furniture allows for easy space reconfiguration

“As one of the leading world art history departments in the country, the new classroom gives our students the opportunity to work directly with the UVic Art Collection,” says AHVS chair Erin Campbell. “[Wyatt’s new class] was designed with the room in mind, and I believe it will be the first small-numbers, seminar-style class to be offered to first-year UVic students.”

As well as other AHVS courses, the new room will also be used for the department’s new Museum Studies minor, Fine Arts classes, and by Legacy Gallery’s art educator. “The classroom will also provide an inviting space for community members to work alongside AHVS faculty members and students with artworks from our collections,” notes Campbell.

Until now, art works had to be transferred back and forth between campus and either downtown’s Legacy Gallery or the storage facility at Queenswood, which is risky and expensive; now, work can simply be left in the room, safely stored and ready to be used. “Because we have to be really careful of security and conservation requirements, this creates an opportunity to make better use of the Legacy art collection and to have students engage with artworks much more intimately,” says Wyatt.

She also feels increased visual literacy is essential for first-year students given the diverse contexts in which we encounter art and images today. “I’d like them to gain experience in how to think about and manipulate visual images in different contexts so they develop greater acumen in looking at websites. How would they use the artwork if they’re a curator at a gallery, for example, or using it as a background in retail, or putting a banner photo on a website or a thumbnail on social media? How would they photograph it? What would they say about it?”

The art collections classroom is one of two new spaces unique to the department and UVic: also new this year is the Fine Arts interactive media lab, designed to support the growing strength of AHVS’s Visual Studies stream.

Cubbies will keep the space tidy & keep personal items away from objects

Wyatt, the 2017 recipient of the Fine Arts Award for Teaching Excellence, feels the new course is a perfect fit both for students and herself.

“This actually links into my research about relationships between Indigenous ways of knowing and paradigm shifts in western science, because it’s about non-linear thinking, how everything connects . . . . it’s about encouraging students to develop ideas of what they need to think about as they navigate complex, dynamic systems. The Internet is a complex, dynamic system, so is global warming . . . everything we need to engage with in a really serious way is a complex, dynamic system. I want to expose students to that way of thinking and hopefully it will help them as they move through university.”

Interested in finding out more? An open house of these new interactive learning spaces will be part of UVic’s Ideafest in March.