Getting Time on our Side: A Pedagogical Experiment

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This weekend Christi Spain-Savage, Siena College (Loudonville, NY), Myra E. Wright (Queen’s College CUNY, New York) and I will be hosting a workshop at the University of Milwaukee’s “Attending to Early Modern Women: It’s About Time” conference.

Our workshop engages with the Pedagogies subtopic, as it specifically focuses on time as a pedagogical tool. Interdisciplinary and comparative in its aims, our workshop proposes to examine three literary and art objects from a limited time frame, the year 1621, in order to perform a pedagogical time experiment. As a group of junior scholars, we are interested in how a perpetual shortage of time affects our methods in both teaching and research. Given this year’s theme, we’d like to take the opportunity to be frank about our hurried practices, and to ask whether there might be ways of viewing time limitations as fruitful intellectual challenges. Our workshop is therefore both experimental and highly participatory—we invite other teachers to join us in candid conversation about how we can get time on our side.

This workshop asks whether a delineation of historical time chosen at random—like the year 1621—can be a starting-point for interesting and productive work in both the classroom and the archive. We wondered how, with limited time, we could each develop short studies (also viable as lesson plans) that would relate to one another in useful and surprising ways. Could there be benefits to singling out a particular temporal frame and studying three different cultural objects that emerged within it? A decision to narrow our field of inquiry to 1621 is clearly a way to save time. One of our questions is whether this arbitrary decision can lead to rigorous scholarly work and dynamic classroom teaching. We also ask if it is possible to use the undergraduate classroom as one forum for our own very specialized research, without putting our educational needs before those of our students. With little time to work on conference papers and articles, we find ourselves having to choose between: either a stack of essays that need to be graded, or a proposal for a workshop; either a detailed lesson plan or a stint in the library. Can we find ways to make our research contribute to our classroom work, and vice versa?

This line of inquiry is particularly apt for academics early in their careers who are often faced with the daunting task of teaching survey courses, or introductory level classes with a very broad chronological or geographic range of subject matter. Indeed our decision to focus in or to narrow down may seem counter-intuitive, but many teachers are now wondering if new methods of close, limited analysis might help us deliver broadly defined curricula. For example, the idea of “skipping centuries” in favor of a more “object-centered” approach is proposed in a recent blog post by Olivia Powell, Associate Museum Educator for Academic programs at the Frick Collection and part-time Lecturer in the Department of Art History & Archaeology at Columbia University. In “The Art of Skipping Centuries,” Powell describes Columbia’s Art Humanities course, as an appended form of the canon which, rather than cramming centuries of art into a single semester, focuses on three or four key images, with an emphasis on visual analysis rather than historical context. In order to do so, Powell calls for instructors to “flip the classroom,” a model in which instructors are encouraged to “trade the lectern for the roundtable and facilitate critical dialogues.” From a pedagogical perspective, the flipped classroom is learner-centered and drastically increases student engagement.

One of the drawbacks, however, is that while forsaking the “sage on the stage” role in order to be the “guide on the side,” instructors need to budget more time for preparation. Keeping such pedagogical considerations in mind, we are interested in performing time experiments. Our workshop will ask questions that address how close reading and object-centered approaches in literature and art history can help us not only better value the time and education of our students but also better utilize and manage our own academic time. Abandoning our usual fantasies about devoting plenty of time to scholarly work, we have made a commitment to spend only a few hours on the studies with which our session begins, and to work with materials that are relevant to our own research. Each of the three facilitators will present a ten-minute lesson on a single text or image, and the discussion that follows will address the following questions:

1. Did the time frame of 1621 emerge as a significant connection between these various cultural objects? Are there other points of convergence that seem more compelling?

2. Why does a date of publication or composition matter (if it does)? What do we tell our students about the scholarly conventions of dating texts and images?

3. Imagining ourselves as undergraduate students, what information and methods to we gather from each of these lessons, and from their presentation as a triad?

4. Does an interdisciplinary and collaborative approach to teaching allow us to do more with less time? What are the specific benefits of sharing the classroom in these ways?

List of Readings:

Taylor, John. THE COLD TEARME: Or the Frozen Age: Or the Metamorphosis of the Riuer of Thames.1621. EEBO: STC (2nd ed.) / 23910.

Wroth, Mary. The Countesse of Montgomeries Urania. 1621. (selections)

Images:

Buytewech, Willem Pietersz. A Poultry Market in a Dutch Town (1621), The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Upcoming Event

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On June 21, 2015, Pioneer Works will host its first Summit on Pedagogy. The program will consider the values and beliefs that underlie the way we teach, interact and collaborate; and offer hands-on workshops on a range of disciplines and approaches.

The summit is co-organized by Catherine Despont Director of Education at Pioneer Works, and Hallie Scott, Education Director at the Wassaic Project.

Full schedule here.

Register here.

My turn!

Okay, now it is my turn to facilitate our class discussion forum.
While I have experience facilitating in person, I have never Vintage+woman+office+type+writeractually attempted an academic conversation online. So I began where I usually do when I want to learn something new: Google. And as usual, a quick online search turned up some valuable advice.

In particular, a blog post on “How to Facilitate Robust Online discussions,” proved to be most helpful. Debbie Morrison notes, “The role of the moderator is to promote thinking, challenge learners to think, consider a problem or situation from alternative viewpoints and to develop new knowledge through thinking and constructing.” Check her blog out for more information on how to set goals for the discussion, ask the right questions, and promote controversial discussion.

“Conveying information in a striking, concise way”

According to my favourite guilty pleasure resource, Wikipedia, Information graphics or infographics are “graphic visual representations of information, data or knowledge intended to present information quickly and clearly. They can improve cognition by utilizing graphics to enhance the human visual system’s ability to see patterns and trends… Infographics have evolved in recent years to be for mass communication, and thus are designed with fewer assumptions about the readers’ knowledge base than other types of visualizations.”

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Last semester, on a bit of a whim, I assigned creating an infographic as one of the students’ portfolio options. In doing so, I was surprised to find that very few students claimed to know what an infographic was or how to make one. And now, thanks to my latest PIDP course, here I was confronted with my own infographic to create.

At first I was surprised by how many free, online tools there were for creating sleek infographics. Piktochart, Canva, Hubspot, Venngage, and many others all provide rather user friend programs to assist in visually arranging data in a visual way. Once I did a quick bit of research into the topic I wished to present, I got down to business, attempting to diagram in a meaningful way, my selected student engagement technique. And to be honest I loved it! I could have spent hours fiddling with the information blocks, playing with varying fonts, and choosing appropriate images. The process however did make me realize how important it was to not just cut and past text, but how to best express in visual terms, what I wanted the viewer to quickly understand.

Regardless of whether you believe in learning styles, many of the students I work with are practicing artists and are therefore, obviously, visually inclined. Now having experienced the process of creating an infographic for myself, I am impressed by the potential they have for encouraging students to research, and present their ideas in an organized, impactful, and immediate way. Next semester I will be asking students to create infographics depicting the different art periods that we will be covering in class. Because this is a relatively new type of assignment, I am already thinking of ways to create a marking rubric that will guide their efforts.

Educator Ann Elliot recently declared in an Edudemic post on Infographics, “Conveying information in a striking, concise way has never been more important, and infographics are the perfect pedagogical tool with which to do so.” And now that followed the process myself, I couldn’t agree more!

“Conflict is a sine qua non of reflection and ingenuity”

Conflict is the gadfly of thought. It stirs us to observation and memory. It instigates invention. It shocks us out of sheep-like passivity and sets us at noting and contriving… Conflict is a sine qua non of reflection and ingenuity. Dewey (1916, p. 188)

As outlined by Elizabeth F. Barkley in Student Engagement Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty, “academic controversy” is a cooperative learning technique in which learners are grouped to debate two opposing views on an issue before attempting to reach a consensus on the issue (Barkley 199).

I have used debates in classes before to have students discuss issues that have sparked academic controversies, but I have never formally structured the activity in a way where students debate each side, before working toward a unanimous decision. Ideally, this student engagement technique (SET) would be implemented in one, three-hour session, where I present a highly contested topic for example the much-debated work by Andres Serrano, Piss Christ from 1987. Students could then research the troubled history of the work and form opinions as to if the piece is a thoughtful work of art or an outrageous blasphemy. In doing so students would not only learn about Serrano’s production but also the art market in the late 1980s, contemporary museum practices, theories in conceptual art, and what is often referred to as the field of cultural production. Ideally this SET would provide an opportunity for students to consider the often very complex, nuanced perspectives at play in art production. As Barkely notes, “participation in this SET challenges students to grapple with an fundamental dilemma in the discipline and deepens their understanding so that they are better prepared to address the issue either as future art historians or as citizens who care about the collections in their local, state, and national museums” (Barkley, 201).

Initially, the role of the educator is to select an appropriate, applicable controversy for the students to debate. As in other situations it is important that the task provide an optimal level of challenge, where the concepts are sufficiently difficult to stretch thinking, but not so difficult as to dampen the motivation (Barkley, 27). During the exercise the educator must truly facilitate the discussions in a way that moves the thinking along but does not stifle the sharing of opinions. Finally, the educator must conclude the exercise by leading an appropriate debrief that aligns the ideas discussed to the learning objectives and allows for students to make connections to other applications. 

Academic controversy is a great SET to use because the good far outweigh the bad. According to Jacobs, the strategy “maintains the educational benefits of controversy, while blending the benefits of cooperation, in order to facilitate an environment that encourages everyone to take part, to learn, to support the learning of others and to address important issues” (Jacobs, 295). It encourages a range of modes of expression other than speaking, for students to present their findings. Another consideration is the ways in which teachers, peers, and materials provide scaffolding for struggling students. And ultimately by encouraging students to empathize and argue different sides of an issue, the activity promotes agile, critical thinking (Jacobs, 293-295). Some of the cons for this SET include the potential for one person or pair to dominate the conversation, the activity could require an extended period of time to allow students to thoroughly research the topic and form a cooperative group, and the issue could become too controversial for students come to an agreement. That being said all of these disadvantages can be avoided if the teacher has created a positive learning environment where students can collaborate and respectfully challenge ideas.

I am excited to include the Academic Controversy SET in my lesson planning for this fall. Not only is it a fun activity but as Jacobs suggests, “The supportive environment promoted by cooperative learning techniques such as Academic Controversy makes it more likely that these issues can be addressed not just as academic topics to debate in class but also as real world matters that require real world actions” (Jacobs, 295). As such, I am looking forward to utilizing it as just one more way to promote active, engaged learning in art history classrooms.

References

Barkley, E.F. (2010) Student Engagement Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper &Row.

Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and Education: An introduction to the Philosophy of Education (1966 ed.). New York: Free Press.

Jacobs, G. M. (2010). Academic Controversy: A cooperative way to debate. Intercultural Education, 21 (3), 291-296.

Piaget, J. (1975) Equilibration of cognitive structures. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.