What do you see in the Andes?

More than 1,200 first-year students and their advisers visited Reynolda House Museum of American Art on Sunday as part of this year’s summer “reading” project. Rather than reading an assigned book before they arrived on campus, new students instead studied a painting, Frederic Church’s 1855 masterpiece, The Andes of Ecuador.

During the summer, new students were asked to watch a number of videos and read short passages about The Andes of Ecuador. The summer academic project concluded with the visit to Reynolda House with their faculty and upperclass student advisers. Reynolda House, an affiliate of Wake Forest, partnered with the University on the project.

“In a way the summer academic project is a warm up or trial run for what happens in the more intense environment of the Wake Forest classroom,” said Perry Patterson, associate dean for academic advising. “We are focused on looking at the work of art through many different academic perspectives.”

A website with videos, images and selected readings helped students engage with questions of science, politics and religion associated with the painting. Professors of art, biology, psychology and economics shared their views of the painting through the lens of their specific disciplines.

In one video, President Nathan O. Hatch explained the religious context for the painting. The students also read short passages from Charles Darwin, Ralph Waldo Emerson and German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt.

“We are bombarded with images every day, and this generation is particularly media-savvy and media-saturated,” says Jennifer Raab, the Betsy Main Babcock Postdoctoral Curatorial and Teaching Fellow at Reynolda House, who helped develop the project. “It’s important to learn how to critique images and realize that we can’t accept them at face value. The basic tools for ‘reading’ the visual are similar if looking at a 19th century painting or a 21st century web-based advertisement.”

In the past, Wake Forest has assigned essays, books and movies for the summer reading project, but this is the first time a work of art has been chosen.

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