Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Art History Wikis and Other Dabbling in Web 2.0

Art Historians are only now beginning to experiment with the potential for Web 2.0 to change our teaching, as indicated by a glut of technology-related topics to be presented at the 2009 meetings of the College Art Association.

I have long been interested in how the Internet shapes knowledge. And one of the topics that I am interested in is the Wikipedia and various other projects by the Wikimedia Foundation. Most of my own contributions have amounted to tinkering rather than full-blown composition, but I can happily say that I improved entries on a handful of art-related topics. (See, for example, the wikipedia entry for the Discipline of Art History as well as entries on Oscar Howe, John Steuart Curry, Currier and Ives, Robert Stacy-Judd, Andre Breton, Giorgio Vasari, Duncan Grant, and Jean-Frederic Waldeck .)

Although I have mixed feelings about the reliability of wikis for classroom use, I nonetheless recognize that the entries can be valuable--particularly at early stages of research--and that students will use them even if they are forbidden. My solution to encourage my students to be rigorous with information has been to require them to find a large number of sources (perhaps 20) with half of them coming from the Internet and half being peer-reviewed and paper-based. They then compare their content in an annotated bibliography as a step toward writing their final papers.

A lesser-known project of Wikimedia is Wikibooks--aiming to create wiki-based textbooks for the major disciplines. There is an Art History Textbook in progress, but it has stagnated for several years. I am curious whether the book will be rejuvenated by the discussions scheduled to take place at the CAA, as well as whether the project should be rejuvenated. While textbooks are indeed overpriced and often mediocre, can a wiki do better? How can we ensure what a student sees in preparation for an exam if we use a wiki textbook? Because of such questions my instinct is that I would not teach from a wiki, but I nonetheless see the potential for internet-based resources. One interesting Internet-based resource designed to be used as a multimedia textbook supplement comes from the art history faculty at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Called smARThistory, it is filled with video and audio on topics from ancient antiquity to the present. I suspect that many instructors will eventually opt-out of textbooks in favor of content that they develop themselves to post on course-management servers (for example Blackboard and Moodle), items from sites such as smARThistory, and resources they glean from institutional repositories.

Teaching the Loss of Iraq’s Heritage

Last week I had the privilege of spending a few days with Dr. Donny George, who is the former director of the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad—an institution which holds some of the most celebrated antiquities of the Near East. Dr. George fled the country in June 2006 because he had received death threats and is now a professor in the Anthropology department at SUNY Stony Brook. The museum he directed was of course looted from April 10th to 16th 2003 following the U.S.-led invasion when it was left unguarded and unprotected. As art historians, many of us feel an obligation to include these events in our survey courses and to discuss the loss with our students. But for those of us who are not Near Eastern specialists it can be difficult to devise a curriculum. And from my experience wading through news reports and websites I can attest that there is much misinformation published, and it is a struggle to determine what actually happened.

In preparation for meeting Dr. George I read several books on both the history of Near Eastern art as well as the looting of the museum, and the most insightful materials that I found were in an exhibition catalog titled Catastrophe! The Looting and Destruction of Iraq’s Past published by the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago. It includes the details of the tragedy, high quality color illustrations, and essays by scholars that have been involved in the recovery. The essays are particularly valuable because they are short and written for a general audience—the perfect type of material to use as supplementary reading in a class. A friend of mine assigned one of them and the students enjoyed discussing it very much.

The catalog describes how, due to the foresight of the museum staff, many of the most valuable and important objects had been removed from display cases before the invasion. Some were put in off-site storage in the Central Bank. Objects too large to move were surrounded by padding and sand bags to minimize damage in the case of bombing. Nevertheless, when thieves entered the museum they were able to locate and abscond with approximately 15,000 objects, including “textbook” pieces of fine art, such as the Warka Vase and Mask. Files were overturned and mixed, thus erasing institutional memory.

The looting was widely-condemned in the international press, and the American occupying government was rightly criticized for not devising and implementing a plan to protect these objects of world-heritage. Of particular negligence is the fact that the museum remained unprotected for three days after the museum staff requested assistance in securing the museum and two days after U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell publicly stated that the museum would be secured. Since that time nearly half of the looted objects have been recovered, but the museum remains closed to the public. Although the galleries were being prepared for reopening, due to political instability they have been permanently walled off with masonry to deter theft if the museum must be left unguarded again.

Besides the losses from the museum, looting continues on a large-scale at archaeological sites—particularly in southern Iraq. Unprovenanced objects taken from these areas are often of great beauty and garner high prices on the black market for antiquities. But without the information about where they came from they are of little use for furthering knowledge.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Discussion Boards in Blackboard

Over the summer, I attended a Blackboard workshop ("Courseweb" as it's called at University of Pittsburgh, but the software is the same) in the hopes of upgrading my skills and seeing what was new.

Many of the Blackboard features seem geared more to large lecture classes or to classes that employ considerable quantitative testing, but I was intrigued by the Discussion Board feature and decided to try it out. In the past, I had taught Intro to Modern using the Arnason survey as my textbook, supplemented by two additional readings per week, one read by one half of the class and one read by the other. Each group had to present their reading to the other half of the class.

While on the whole that had worked well (although one half of the alphabet proved to be much more prepared to discuss than the other, which is something that just can't be predicted), it did take up class time to have the two groups discuss how they were going to present the readings. This seemed like something that the Discussion Board feature could really assist with.

Both of the courses I teach this semester are done with this same two-group method. Intro to Modern is an evening class and as it needs a short break, I let the groups supplement their online discussion with face-to-face prep during the break. American Art is twice per week and thus all of their discussion is online prior to presenting. Usually one group presents on Tuesday and the other on Thursday, although there will be a few days when both present on the same day (today will be the first of those).

Both classes are making good use of the Discussion Board feature. They recognize that this is part of their participation grade and for the most part are diligent about posting analyses and comments about the readings. Even though we are not yet halfway into the semester, I'm already seeing improvement in the quality of the overall discussion and increasing attention to how their own posts relate to what has already been said. To some extent they critique the readings, which gives me some sense which readings work well or even which ones are dry and somewhat unpopular but produced good discussion. The students are beginning to really relate these readings to themes in the course (particularly in the American Art class) and to bring in thoughts from other work they have done (for example in religious studies, environmental studies, and ethnic studies) and to think about how present-day works such as Maya Lin's Vietnam Veterans memorial compares to early 19th-century memorial art.

Both classes, but especially the Intro to Modern class, are getting to know their classmates quickly and work well with them, and are becoming increasingly comfortable about speaking up during the presentations, although naturally some students are more comfortable presenting than others. Since the shyer students know that their Discussion Board contributions are read, they know that while I do expect them to help present, it is not as problematic to give a nervous presentation as it would be if that were all they were assessed by. Their online comments are there for me and the rest of the group to read, and in class the group can chime in with additional comments to round out the presentation.

I will definitely be using the Discussion Board feature in the future and recommend it highly. It does take a little extra work on my part, but really not much, and it will help me grade my students much more fairly in the end.