When I ask students to analyze artwork, I always discover how amazingly different their responses are. For instance, the woman in this portrait is either “astonishingly beautiful” or “impossibly ugly,” depending on an individual viewer:
Female students tend to like her looks more often than male students, for some reason. It is also curious that students very rarely see her as powerful. More often than not, they believe she is a victim of oppressive societal forces that persecute her in a variety of tragic ways. Many say she is pointing at the little dog to signal that both she and the dog are objects that are used and discarded at will.
The following piece is always interpreted in a variety of unexpected manners:
Today, however, one student came up with a reading that stunned even me, a jaded old prof. This student believes that the woman is a housewife whom the man is forced to provide for. The owl is the spirit of anti-feminism that does not allow this unhealthy relationship to be dissolved.
This is a writing exercise, so I only grade the quality of the writing, not the readings of the pieces. What is curious is that almost everybody’s writing in this assignment is better than in any other assignments. It seems like engaging with a piece of art creatively helps students shed this stilted, wordy, bombastic way of expressing themselves that they believe to represent a good writing style.