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Award-winning art history teacher Wanda Corn plays at pedagogy

Rod Searcey Wanda Corn

Corn spoke about how she incorporates role-playing and re-enactments into her art history classes.

BY BARBARA PALMER

Wanda Corn, the Robert and Ruth Halperin Professor in Art History, was a bit daunted when she was asked to speak at the Center for Teaching and Learning's "Award-Winning Teachers on Teaching" series, she confessed during her May 4 presentation.

The recipient of a 2001 Phi Beta Kappa teaching award and a Graves Award for outstanding teaching in the humanities, Corn is an expert on American art. She described herself as a self-taught teacher. During more than three decades of teaching—including 26 years at Stanford—she has never had so much as a single class on pedagogy, she said. "I had very few of what I would call fine teachers in my college years or even—if I must admit it—in graduate school," she added. She said she used the sermons of her father, a Congregational minister, as models and relied on intuition and trial and error for the rest.

But Corn, who earned her undergraduate and graduate degrees from New York University, used the invitation to talk as an opportunity to dig around in her old notes and recreate her own growth as a teacher, she said. As she did, she discovered that she had used role-playing as an instructional tool over the years, and adopted it as a kind of "homegrown" pedagogy. Her talk, "Playing as Pedagogy," served not only as an exposition of Corn's interactive classroom techniques but also as a mini-retrospective of her teaching career.

She was terrified during her first year of teaching at Washington Square College, where she barely lifted her eyes from her lecture notes, Corn recalled. "I mimicked my teachers, who rattled on for a hour," she said. "They always came in suits—they were always men—and it was a formal occasion."

After earning her doctorate, Corn traveled west with her husband, history lecturer Joe Corn, to the University of California-Berkeley for his doctoral studies. Their arrival on the Berkeley campus in 1969 came at a "charged moment," when experimentation was not only in the air, it was de rigueur, Corn said. Her husband's PhD constituted a "second education" for her and inspired her to think about art history in ways other than as a "rhetoric of connoisseurship," Corn said. "There was a concern then that the way we were teaching art history was not accessible."

Corn's own use of experiential teaching began at Mills College in Oakland, where Corn taught from 1970 to 1980. Mills was undergoing its own transformation, from a "girl's school" to "women's college," Corn said, and the faculty was "very much intent upon reshaping every aspect of the education our students got."

In her art history classes there, Corn asked students to figuratively step inside the minds of 19th-century French neoclassicist and Romantic painters by imagining how Jacques-Louis David and Eugène Delacroix might have composed a history painting, and then staging live tableaux. Students learned about cubism by creating cubist works and immersed themselves in surrealism by participating in "Surrealist Nights," complete with costumes, student artwork and cutouts of pictures of disembodied eyeballs and mouths presented as canapés.

Despite student enthusiasm for such assignments—and her view of her Mills years as "magical"—Corn put such playful experimentation behind her when she began teaching at Stanford in 1980. The times had changed, she said. "I wasn't at Berkeley anymore. We had gotten past what people called the sixties—which was really the 1970s."

Or so she thought. Over the years, little by little, pieces of those assignments kept popping up alongside more traditional lectures and assignments in her art history classes at Stanford, she said.

For example, Corn asks students to take a position and re-enact the debate between the regionalists and the abstractionists when teaching about 20th-century American art, or to re-argue the 1878 libel case the American painter James Whistler brought against the critic John Ruskin. She's asked students to write in the voice of the French philosopher Denis Diderot and to create prose portraits of painters in the style of Gertrude Stein, which they then read, imitating Stein's distinctive elocutionary style.

For her course Transatlantic Modernism: Paris and New York in the Early 20th Century, Corn pulls out all the stops. She dresses like Gertrude Stein and invites her students and their guests to come in costume for an evening "Chez Stein," with a student-created, modernist portrait as the price of admission. "We've had a Josephine Baker in a banana skirt, and there is always a Marcel Duchamp or two—or three or four," she said. One year, she even borrowed a white poodle from a friend, in honor of Stein's pet poodle.

Such assignments, which Corn introduces mid-term and which she usually doesn't grade, require students to think outside the academic box, she said. Most are shared or group assignments, so that students have an opportunity to learn from each other.

They also make some students extremely anxious, she said. "I don't remember anyone at Mills wondering how they would be evaluated on such assignments, but I do remember a lot of Stanford students asking me that question."

Although there are as many "ordinary" days as extraordinary ones in her classroom, Corn has noted that the things her students have learned experientially tend to stay in their memory banks, she said.

And she has had the pleasure of a former student re-introducing herself with the words: "I was the student in the banana skirt."