An Art Historian’s View of Technology in the Classroom

By Madeline Vuong 

“I’m no luddite,” declared Professor Andrew Stangel. 

And it’s true—Stangel has a very progressive take on technology. “At the beginning of every class that I teach at UNH [the University of New Hampshire in Manchester], I like to invite and ask my students to bring laptops, iPhones, iPads—any sort of tool that will help them learn. I think of these new technologies as just another way to enlarge my students’ perspective.”

From his championship of technology in the classroom, it seems logical to infer that Stangel teaches computer science at UNH.

But he does not.

Instead, Stangel teaches the two subjects that seem, at first glance, to be the least likely to involve—let alone appreciate—modern technology: history and art history. Indeed, all four of his degrees are in history, so it took some explaining to understand how he came to feel the way he does about technology. 

“My particular interest is not in technology. No, my entire life, both personally and professionally, has been devoted to art. I feel very fortunate to have had a professor in grad school who impressed upon me that history should be looked at with the eye, using the same critical attention we apply when we read descriptions in archival and textual materials. Visual remnants of the past broaden and deepen our understandings of the past, so I believe they are a crucial window onto history,” he said.

It seems then that, for Stangel, technology and art objects are surprisingly of a kind, since both can provide students of history with another lens through which to discover information about the past. 

“The reason I’m a teacher who wants—and actively encourages—students to bring their iPhones to class is because I want them to check up on the material that I teach, as I’m lecturing. I want them to Google images of the slides we’re talking about. I want them to find recent news articles about these objects. I want them to marshal the wealth of information that technology puts at their fingertips to extend their knowledge beyond what I can present in the classroom,” he said.

Of course, for anyone that’s spent any time in a college classroom, this might seem like a deeply optimistic vision of what students will do if left to their own devices (so to speak). 

But Stangel has another ace in his sleeve that makes it unlikely that students’ attention will wander to Facebook—something cultivated during the twenty years he spent as a lecturer on art and its history in Europe, prior to taking his professorship at UNH—his voice. Dramatic and carefully measured in its cadence, yet genuine and personal, Stangel sounds like he should be an audiobook narrator. It’s hard not to want to listen to what he talks about.

Luckily, this desire is realizable, not only for his students, but also for the public at large. In addition to teaching at UNH, Stangel also lectures weekly for free at the Currier Museum of Art in Manchester, New Hampshire. Most recently, he gave a lecture entitled “Treasures of the Vatican,” wherein he showed slides of some of his favorite antiquities—a lecture series that very much emerged from his time in Europe.

“What many people don’t realize is that the Vatican has an astounding collection of antiquities because it was located Rome. The famed Roman empire was not just the Rome of Caesars, but also the Rome of popes, and those popes were great commissioners and collectors of art—renaissance paintings, canvases and frescos of Raphael, Michelangelo, the Sistine chapel, to name just a few,” he said. “And I was lucky enough to get to personally photograph some of the artifacts in the Vatican. Not just anyone is allowed in there.”

Stangel began his career in Europe as the chief photographer for a Los Angeles art museum but eventually put on other hats, including art history lecturer to American Armed Forces stationed abroad. Through that position, he toured around the continent familiarizing himself and others with some of the world’s best collections.

“I created and directed the Art History Tours program for the Armed Forces in Europe—the position didn’t exist until I came along,” he said. “We were quite busy—on the road for a hundred days a year, for twenty years. And we went all around, from the Arctic Circle, to Greece, to Turkey, to Spain and Portugal.” 

Then Stangel became a chaplain for the Armed Forces, so he toured the great collections with a particular eye to Christian history. “I looked at Christian material from the Holy Land to the Eastern Mediterranean Roman Christian world, through ten centuries of the Middle Ages to present. During the Advent season, I had a special job—I was sent to military bases in Germany, Holland, and Italy to show the Christmas story through different historical pieces of art that I had photographed whilst on tour.”

It was through his work on Christian history for the Armed Forces that Stangel wound up invited to show the Treasures of the Vatican in America. “I befriended a man, named Father John, who would eventually become the Cardinal of New York. He had me fly around military bases in Europe to lecture—and even once to an aircraft carrier at sea. After landing on a runway of only 1,000 feet, I told him, ‘Father John, I feel my mission is on solid ground,’ so he invited me to photograph and show the Treasures of the Vatican stateside.” 

Despite having been practically ordained to lecture about art in America with his magnetic voice, Stangel admits that sometimes his broad-minded view of technology backfires. “It’s rare, but I do sometimes see students texting,” he said, then added cheerfully, “But I like to think that what the student is texting is what wonderful art his friend is missing!” 

Madeline Vuong is a recent graduate of Williams College in English and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. She became a member of Phi Beta Kappa in junior year. Williams College is home to the Gamma of Massachusetts Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.