Seeing the bigger picture: AP Art History provides students with valuable analytical techniques

September 11, 2019 — by Marisa Kingsley

On a recent day, students with thick note packets scribbled down notes AP Art History teacher Joel Tarbox told them about the importance of the afterlife in Egyptian funerary art while analyzing “The Last Judgment of Hunefer.”  

For the first time, AP Art History is being offered at the school and is being taught by Tarbox, who previously taught the class at Pacific Collegiate School in Santa Cruz. It is being offered this year along with relaunched classes like Introduction to Business and Creative Writing. 

The new elective, offered during fourth period, has 34 students ranging from sophomores to seniors. So far, student response has been generally positive, according to Tarbox. 

Students in the class are assigned reading from the textbook, as well as online articles through Khan Academy, stressing the importance of considering other sources’ interpretations of the pieces. 

Along with daily lessons, the course features discussions and practice essay writing. Some of the class may need to be changed next year based on student reactions, Tarbox said. He said students must learn to distinguish between analyzing art  criticism and art history, which is concerned with the academic study of pieces based upon facts and theories of scholars. 

“Earlier on there is a lot more hand-holding to learn how to analyze the material,” Tarbox said. “Hopefully, there will be more independent work and more group discussions.” 

Senior Ben Ryan, who takes the class, said he enjoys art, but didn’t have much knowledge about it. He wanted to gain a better understanding of the artists’ motivations behind pieces, and what impact they had on their society. 

Ryan said he is enjoying the class so far. He added that the class is enhanced by Tarbox’s teaching style that opts for more student-led discussion of the pieces. 

“Tarbox doesn’t just point out the meanings in the pieces; he lets the class figure it out,” Ryan said. 

For Tarbox, this year has also been a new experience as well. 

Recently, the College Board reselected 250 works of art that students must be familiar with for the AP exam. The change encourages students to think critically and instead of opting for memorization. This change also includes a revamping of the essays for the exam as well. 

Tarbox taught AP Art History at Pacific Collegiate School for six years before coming to SHS. There, the College Board curriculum required that students be familiar with any works that appear in their textbook, instead of the 250 defined works. This created a curriculum in which Tarbox says he was only able to give students a “shattershot” of each piece, without going into much depth or analysis. 

With the new standards, Tarbox has had to familiarize himself with pieces he had not yet seen before, in addition to removing ones he once taught. But the biggest challenge for Tarbox is how to fit all the pieces into a historical context that students will understand. 

“You often need to know how did you come [to the conclusion] that this is an important image,” Tarbox said. “[The art] didn’t just happen in a vacuum.”

Despite these challenges, Tarbox hopes that the students will remain eager to learn about the world through an unconventional, artistic lens.

“I hope they see it as a strong addition to their education,” Tarbox said.