Art historian Christine Mehring admits her early days of teaching were “completely terrifying.” Not surprisingly, it was art that helped her find her footing in the classroom. As a graduate student at Harvard University, Mehring discovered the power of teaching in the presence of art—a discovery that has shaped her approach to teaching ever since.
“In terms of empowering students and bringing everyone into the fold, there is nothing better than original works of art. I don’t know how anyone teaches without works of art,” said Mehring, Associate Professor in Art History and the College and Director of Graduate Studies for Art History. “There’s a way in which everything is right there in front of you. Everyone can see what’s there, and everyone can talk about it.”
Whenever possible, Mehring tries to choose course topics that will allow her to teach in the presence of art. For many students, studying with a painting or sculpture in the room is a new experience, and “it’s an exciting thing I can give them,” Mehring said.
She taught her recent “Materialities of Modern Art” course in the Smart Museum’s seminar room and galleries so students could get close to the works they were discussing. During one class session, students visited the home of an art collector, who allowed them to peruse his collection at length. “It’s an experience that can really have a formative impact on students,” Mehring said. When students see works in private homes, “they’re not as removed as they are on a museum wall. They come closer, they become less intimidating, more like something that you want to explore, even handle.”
Mehring, who grew up in Germany and did her graduate work in the United States, initially struggled to adjust to the American style of learning, which more strongly encourages students to develop their own ideas and points of view. But over time, she found it “incredibly confidence building” when her professors took her opinions seriously. Now that she is a teacher, she tries to give her students the same kind of confidence.
It’s especially true for her graduate students, who, she said, “often bring things to the table that I don’t know anything about. I learn so much from them, and they really are my peers.”
She prefers to run her classes like workshops and encourages students to collaborate with one another. That way, students feel like “we’re all in this together, and we’re all trying to solve the same problems.”
Mehring was shocked when she learned of the award. “I’ve been here for barely four years. I haven’t seen a single dissertation to the finish line here at the University,” she said.