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Jacobs, H. (2016). Wired!: Collaborative Teaching & Critical Digital Making In An Art History Classroom. In Digital Humanities 2016: Conference Abstracts. Jagiellonian University & Pedagogical University, Kraków, pp. 577-578.
Wired!: Collaborative Teaching & Critical Digital Making In An Art History Classroom

Wired!: Collaborative Teaching & Critical Digital Making In An Art History Classroom

The Wired! Lab for digital art history and visual culture at Duke University comprises a group of faculty, staff, and students engaged in applications of visualization methods to studies of material culture and art, architectural, and urban histories. Members of the lab collaborate to develop critical digital research employing 3D modeling, mapping, and database tools. Art historians and digital humanists work together to integrate both digital and art historical methodologies in lab courses and projects.

In the Wired! classroom’s collaborative teaching model, a digital humanist takes on a significant role in both course planning and implementation. She works with instructors, graduate assistants, and librarians to redesign syllabi and assignments for preexisting departmental courses that incorporate not only digital tools but also critical methods. She then attends class meetings to familiarize herself with courses’ art historical content; she delivers workshops on digital concepts and tools; and she works with instructors and students to establish project workflows, to troubleshoot technical issues, and to critique student work. For students, this kind of collaboration can provide opportunities to make intellectual connections across two modes of inquiry as they apply digital methodologies to art historical topics. For instructors, this collaboration can enrich pedagogical practice as digital methods present different possibilities for student engagement.

While some educators have focused on pedagogical challenges such as, “How does one teach students the digital tools to address a wide variety of projects without neglecting traditional discipline-specific issues of research formulation and data collection?”, (Johanson and Sullivan et al., 2012) the Wired! Lab’s digital pedagogy focuses on only the digital knowledge required for a specific topic. This approach ensures that students intentionally engage art historical content via digital methods, prioritizing quality of digital interventions over quantity while also addressing very practical issues of scalability within a disciplinary context.

In this presentation, I will examine two cases in which Wired! Lab instructors and a digital humanist collaborated to design and implement project-based undergraduate courses. These examples will demonstrate how the different teaching teams worked in tandem to create these learning experiences and will discuss benefits and challenges of these pedagogical collaborations. I will also situate the Wired! Lab’s pedagogical work within the larger digital humanities and digital art history ecosystem.

1. Introduction to Art History

In Spring 2015, Professor Caroline Bruzelius implemented a team-based teaching approach for her Introduction to Art History course. Together, we worked with a graduate assistant and librarian to redesign the survey course and student projects. We all attended class meetings, we each taught aspects of the course, and we assessed student projects as a group. Combining our variant expertise, we created a course in which students employed a digital humanities approach to performing art historical critical analyses of spatial, temporal, and cultural relationships that influenced the movement of raw materials and cultural objects across ancient and medieval Western and Mediterranean societies. The digital tools we chose to use in the course were Neatline, a spatiotemporal exhibit builder, and Omeka, a collection management system in which Neatline operates. We implemented Neatline first for visualizing the syllabus and second for developing students’ visual narratives concerning specific pre-modern art historical objects and materials.

Fig. 1. Neatline syllabus for Introduction to Art History
Fig. 1. Neatline syllabus for Introduction to Art History

The interactive visual syllabus (Fig. 1) introduces students to the course narrative: its units and lectures are shown in time and space accompanied by contextual maps, specific geospatial points of reference, and other relevant multimedia including hyperlinks to important objects’ museum pages, lecture slides, and supplementary videos. The interactive visual syllabus makes explicit temporal, spatial, and cultural relationships that effected the development of art practices across pre-modern societies. Presenting the syllabus in Neatline also familiarized students with Neatline’s affordances and interface in preparation for creating their own Neatline projects, in which they used critical understandings of spatiotemporal narrative to develop cohesive art historical arguments concerning particular pre-modern objects, their making processes, political influences, and economic and environmental impacts.

2. Visualizing Venetian Art

Dr. Kristin Lanzoni’s upper level course on early modern Venetian art also employed a collaborative teaching model. She and I worked together to develop a syllabus and project in which students studied course material through processes of visualization. Students spent the semester not only learning about Venetian art, history, and culture but also working together to model a Venetian palace no longer extant and to design an immersive visual narrative about the palace’s political and cultural significance (Fig. 2). The students worked with tools ranging from Adobe Photoshop to SketchUp to Unity3D to visualize the palace.

Fig. 2. Model of a Venetian palazzo created by students in Visualizing Venetian Art
Fig. 2. Model of a Venetian palazzo created by students in Visualizing Venetian Art

As the semester progressed, Dr. Lanzoni and I worked closely with the students to troubleshoot a number of problems that arose as students strove to translate historical evidence into an historically informed 3D model. These issues stemmed from both primary sources, which give conflicting visual evidence for the palace’s scale and appearance, and digital tools, which present challenges for modeling non-rectilinear structures and force compromises with regard to levels of detail. Students had to make joint decisions regarding model and narrative designs based on both historical research and the digital tools’ affordances and limitations.

In both courses, students gained understandings of art historical topics through digital visualization processes. Wired! Lab teaching teams facilitate these types of learning experiences by combining their expertise in course design and implementation. While in the survey course, students were asked to create individual visual narrative projects, guided by an art historian, a graduate student, a librarian, and a digital humanist, the students in Visualizing Venetian Art worked together on a single topic from which their learning about early modern Venice radiated outward. While some digitally-inflected Wired! courses ask students to work individually, other courses model collaboration not only in the teaching but also in the learning. Overall, the majority of Wired! courses are not “Introduction to Digital Humanities” but rather art history courses redeveloped to integrate specific digital approaches that directly support course-specific content and disciplinary methods. The integration of a digital humanist in Wired! art history courses ensures that students’ digital projects are informed not only by disciplinary knowledge but also by critical approaches to digital methodologies.

  1. Johanson, C. and Sullivan E. et al. (2012). Teaching Digital Humanities through Digital Cultural Mapping. In Hirsh, B.D. (ed) Digital Humanities Pedagogy, Open Book Publishers, pp. 121-49.