Semantically Yours…

Technology and Collaboration in the Art History Classroom was an interesting – if slightly frustrating – session. It was good for me – a Brit – to hear about some of the tools art historians are using to teach art history in the US and the success rate they are having with them. I certainly made a note to look into VoiceThread as a way of getting my students to research and present their ideas in a different way. As I haven’t used it yet, I’m not clear what it brings to the table that is particularly new, but I could definitely see the benefit of getting students to collect information together and witness their own construction of critical data in this way.

What bothered me about this session, however, was the uncritical use of certain terms like ‘open source’ and ‘collaboration’. Open source is not quite a synonym for free. Rather, it is about giving people access to the working model in addition to materials and, importantly, what is implied is that they take these and rebuild/rework what’s there. Few if any of the platforms or tools cited as open source in this session actually were, and as an historian of New Media art this is an important sticking point for me.

One of the obstacles to the art historical representation of New Media art is that many of these terms have their own histories and cultures and what we’re often missing from art historians is their critical application (beyond the niche realm of New Media art history that is). We, as art historians, do need to understand these terms better. We need to know the difference between open and closed source just like we know the difference between oils and watercolour, not just so we can recognise New Media art, but because these concepts are a part of our everyday lives now.

Collaboration is another word liberally (mis-)used today. It can be found in the title of this session on teaching but not (for reasons I’m about to introduce) in the title of the session on Participation and Engagement: Curating Contemporary Art After New Media. The organisers of the latter session have written extensively about the subtle distinctions between ‘collaboration’ and ‘participation’ (and while we’re at it ‘interaction’) that are too often overlooked. (See their book Rethinking Curating: Art After New Media.)

I would argue that Technology and Collaboration in the Art History Classroom focused more on participation, because the tools discussed were predominantly about getting students to take part, to be more active in their learning. There was less about how these tools make students active co-producers of new material (VoiceThread, I believe, is an exception to this if used in the right way). And so it follows that Participation and Engagement emphasised curatorial projects where the audience was given a more active role but not entirely turned into a co-producer of the work.

The presenters in both these sessions raised a wealth of issues associated with the nature of teaching art history and curating art. They looked into the various possibilities of new technologies at our disposal as educators and curators. But, for me, what is often missing from sessions on art historical technologies is a New Media artist/curator/historian/theorist on the panel, who can provide valuable and, I’d say, necessary insight into how we can and should understand the type of knowledge construction fostered by proprietary software compared to something FOSS-based, for example. This is not the sole domain of the New Media artist/curator/historian/theorist but, right now at least, these are often the people best placed to help make these distinctions.

This entry was posted in Sessions, Technology. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Semantically Yours…

  1. Fran Altvater says:

    As a participant in the panel, I see your point that being more engaged does not necessarily equal producing new knowledge construction. To use what is perhaps an outmoded definition of collaboration, we are trying to work jointly in intellectual endeavors. I think you take us to task somewhat unfairly as we all did ask some very critical pedagogic questions about how these (and other) technologies can change the classroom dynamic, arguing that the more active a student is in the learning process, the more likely collaboration is to occur. You imply that collaboration is more mutual, that the unequal dynamic of the classroom creates a situation where we are asking for participation but cannot create the perceived equality of collaboration. The reality of that balance of power is important to what we are currently engaged in: We all teach surveys; my classrooms are students who are not even ready for a program with a major. Teaching participation is an important step in the discussion of how students move from participation to collaboration; it is a step on the route to ownership of ideas and communication of those ideas with others.

    What is perhaps most exciting to me are the ways in which using these technologies is helping to break down barriers to participation and to change modes of participation in the classroom. Technologies such as Prezi can change the dynamic for comparisons and make art history less traditionally linear. That CAN have a far reaching effect on how our students make connections in the discipline. Audio technology (my particular area) is about asking the students to develop critical aural/oral communication skills (that they so desperately need); as I mentioned in my paper, the idea was to create a collaboration with the museum so that students could create tours, comment on current collections/exhibits, and reach a wider audience. The fact that there were technical limitations that kept us from reaching that goal (editing what they considered the “finished” product) was actually relevant to the discussion of how technology helps or hinders the process. But anything that gets my students thinking about how what they choose and say about those works is part of sharing knowledge and that audio tours help them reach a wider audience than just the prof (and that they should WANT to share that knowledge) is important to me. I think VoiceThread is, as you note, some interesting technology for creating participation that feeds student ideas off each other.

    In the questions/comments afterward, questions about systems and architecture can hamper that discussion did come up. Many of us are concerned with issues of student access and faculty participation. We did talk about issues of how to address the “bells and whistles” element, to integrate the technology into the pedagogy. You should also listen to the session “Beyond the Slideshow: Teaching the History of Art and Material Culture in the Age of New Media” which also addressed some of these issues. The sessions are both too long and too short for us to do everything…just have to keep talking.

    By the way, you mention Twitter elsewhere. I have an Rhetoric prof colleague who uses it but I haven’t talked to anyone in art history who does. I see the benefits of it as immediate and forcing tight responses but can you talk a bit about the ways in which you use it? What kind of conversations are you having?

  2. Janice Robertson says:

    I have been following the New Media scene for some time; I’m not a specialist, but I am at home there. My investigation of Aztec “picture-writing” was transformed by my experience of New Media, so it’s clear to me that it’s not just frosting on the cake. I later discovered VoiceThread and find that it “works” (in the classroom) without needing to journey into the underworld of critical theory, a place that I am also familiar with:) Indeed, George Landow speaks of digital technology solving critical problems articulated by Derrida and the like: “Here as in so many other cases [technology] creates an almost embarrassingly literal embodiment of a principle that had seemed particularly abstract and difficult when read from the vantage of print” (Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992, p. 53; italics added).

    I’m wary of talking theory in a vacuum, there is so much of that going on: people walk out of those sessions bleary eyed, and there are few questions because so few understood what was even being said. This session, sponsored by “Art Historians Interested in Pedagogy,” was addressed to everyday classroom teachers. VoiceThread is fun, it’s easy, and I think actual use of VoiceThead will have teachers rethinking their material and their teaching, in practice and each in their own way; in that respect, I really do see VoiceThread as a form of faculty development.

    You speak about the desirability of “tools [that] make students active co-producers of new material,” allowing that VoiceThread might turn out to be one of these tools “if used in the right way.” You are, of course, right to add that qualification. New technologies are, in the beginning, typically used in ways that mimic old technologies. A VoiceThread that’s set up in a question-and-answer format, with the teacher controlling the questions and the students trying to come up with “right” answers to the teachers question will probably maintain the “old school” student/teacher status quo. I say probably, because even in this case, some important things will have changed and those things can turn into openings for students. So, for example, in the classroom, students do not have time to think over the questions posed by the teacher, and there is only so much time allotted to student responses. On a VoiceThread, students have as much thinking time as they want to take–they also have as much space as they need to develop an answer. A teacher who receives these kinds of responses on their question-and-answer VoiceThread, might start to realize that there is more to their students than they initially thought, they might even begin to cultivate their behavior in ways that will open a bigger door for their students.

    In case anyone missed my talk: “Look, Listen, Speak, Text, Link, Draw: VoiceThread Changes the Balance of Power,” it’s available on VoiceThread and open to any comments that you might have, here’s a direct link:

  3. Charlotte says:


    I’m really excited about the discussion we’ve kicked off, but I’ve just got back to the UK with a cold, jet lag and my central heating has packed up. I’ll respond properly just as soon as I can and thanks for taking the time to comment, I appreciate it! :-)