Renee McGarry, Sotheby’s Institute of Art
Communicate your expectations to your students—and to yourself.
Sometimes when I teach I feel like I’m playing Wii with a ten-year-old boy. Theoretically, I should have the upper hand, but he knows the rules and I don’t, and neither one of us is admitting the inequality of the situation.
In my classroom, I know the rules, and I have to tell them to my students. Or else it’s just not fair.
A couple of years ago, I was a contingent faculty member at an art school teaching a very small introduction to art history class. The first day of class, I announced that we would all set up Tumblrs and follow each other. I pointed out that a Tumbling assignment would be due each week, and that Tumbling was part of their 15% participation grade.
I showed my students a Tumblr. I demonstrated how to set one up. I sent them on their way to repeat the process. They did it, mostly, and all of a sudden my account was being followed by usernames I didn’t recognize.
Rule #1: Communicate the obvious, even though it’s the obvious.
I didn’t tell my students to use their names on their Tumblr accounts, because who wouldn’t use their own name? Apparently, everyone. We easily spent the first three weeks of class figuring out who was who, and the first three assignments got lost in the shuffle. Students didn’t post what they thought about art history, or about medieval animal imagery, and even when they did, I missed it because I didn’t know who was posting what.
We were all frustrated. But no one was saying anything. Not a single student–all in their first semester of college, most of them non-native English speakers–said anything about how this wasn’t working. And I wasn’t going to admit it.
Rule #2: Talk about it when something doesn’t work.
For many reasons, this class made me feel insecure. I didn’t want to acknowledge my experiment wasn’t working, and my students were too shy, or too nervous, or too confused and overwhelmed to tell me. We never talked about it. No student resisted. We just sat there, week after week, in bad relationships with our Tumblr accounts.
When I look back at the assignments now, I can see that these assignments weren’t meant for Tumbling. They were meant for longer posts. I never provided a rubric. I never explained how the students would be graded. I did all of the “bad teacher” things I swore I would never do.
Rule #3: Just because you think a technology is awesome doesn’t mean it’s the technology for you.
Compare the ideals of beauty involving the human form between Greece, Rome, and Early Christianity. Please include images as examples, two of which must be an image you took on your visit to the Met.
That’s an essay! You can’t put that on Tumblr. I didn’t know that then, but I know that now.
Rule #4: Have a back-up plan.
Assignments fail! And that’s okay. I just should have done something, anything, when the assignment started to fail. But I didn’t. I swept it under the rug, and my students and I all acted pretty much like the only tumbling we knew was the event in the Olympics, and it wasn’t an Olympics year so why talk about it at all.
Rule #5: Learn from your mistakes. And learn to listen to your students, even when they aren’t talking.
Having been scarred by this experience, I never tried to Tumbl with my students again. On the plus side, I did walk away thinking about this experience reflecting on an additive approach to technology. Why did I add something to my syllabus without really thinking about it?
Fortunately, I turned this Tumblr experience into a positive. In my next course, I asked my students to visit the campus art gallery and create a word cloud from ten of the labels they read there. After generating the cloud I asked them to write a reflective essay that considered how they felt going into the museum, reading the labels, and taking photos. Did they like the art? Did they think the exhibit made sense and told a story? Does their word cloud match the experiences at the museum? How did they experience generating the word cloud? Was it easy or hard?
Some of my students grumbled at first, complaining they didn’t know how to generate a word cloud or even what a word cloud was. But at the end of the day, they all did it. And the majority of them reflected on how generating the word cloud either served as a reminder of what they’d seen or provided them a new understanding of it, particularly because the cloud tended to highlight the materials used in the art objects. Overall, students saw the word cloud experience as positive even though they expressed initial resistance.
Rule #6: Tell your students what they are doing, and why they are doing it, and they’ll respond.
When I think about these two assignments, which are just two examples of how I’ve integrated (or not integrated) technology into my classrooms, I can see why the first one failed. I didn’t think about it, I didn’t ask my students to think about it, and nobody, not even me, knew the point of the assignment. The second assignment used a different technology, one that served the intended purposes, and I communicated both the how and the why to my classes.
Rule #7: Rule #6 is the lesson you’ll need to revisit every day of your career.