Classically Inclined

April 20, 2011

Creative teaching in the humanities – Part III

Filed under: Teaching — lizgloyn @ 5:54 pm
Tags: , , , , , ,

This is the third of three posts on creative teaching in the humanities. The first looked at why we might want to teach creatively to begin with; the second introduced three in-class activities you might use to shake up the lecture format and try other ways to communicate your content. This post looks that creative ways to use technology in your classroom. Before I begin, I should acknowledge my debt to the ProfHacker community, since thinking through their posts gave rise to most of these ideas.

I’m going to start with two visual tools…

Google Art

The Google Art Project is newly launched this year, and is an innovative way to let students explore museums and museum collections from the comfort of the classroom or their own laptops. This reflects the wider point that it’s good to tie what you are teaching into visuals if you can – it helps students with different learning styles, and also gives a different connection point to the material than just words.

A really obvious way for a classicist to use this material is in a ubiquitous Classical Mythology course. If I were teaching such a course, in class I could use this website to visit the Uffizi in Florence, and look at paintings of Aphrodite or Medusa, and ask them how those images relate to the ancient myths and images we had studied in class. This lets me discuss both myth and the reception of myth (sometimes called ‘the classical tradition’) at the same time. The website could form part of a class lecture, or serve as a starter for discussion.  

Since it’s a new project, the collection of museums is not exhaustive; they are planning to expand, so it’s a good opportunity to get in early and watch the potential functionality develop.

When I gave my presentation, one attendee asked ‘well, what’s different about using Google Art to just showing pictures?’ I would say there are two important differences. The first is that the Art Project lets you visit actual galleries inside museums, so you can show students what paintings are displayed next to each other, and consider the impact that viewing an image has within that display context. The second is, frankly, an access issue. Many of the students I have taught at Rutgers are not in a position to go to Italy and see the Uffizi in real life. Some of them may be that lucky, sure, but for the vast majority, that’s just not an option. Giving them access to museums and galleries in different countries is a way of showing them that they are entitled to participate in the forms of culture that create those institutions. They aren’t just for people who can afford to travel to them. The Art Project, deliberately or otherwise, is participating in a radical breakdown of privilege. Making museums something ‘normal’, something that you talk about in class and that you give students the skills to interpret, may even inspire students to reevaluate their own relationships with museums nearer to them. It’s an opportunity to bring students into a network of culture that they might otherwise be excluded from in a way that showing pictures doesn’t quite manage.


Wordle is a website that creates word clouds, by picking out the most frequently used words in a text and making them into a picture. It ignores frequently used words like of and and, so it really picks out words of significance to the text. As an example, I took the text of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness from the Project Gutenberg website, copy and pasted it into Wordle, and got this out:

Heart of Darkness Worlde

Already you can see big important word coming out – man, time, black, ivory, first, little, seemed… This image could serve as a reflection point for students, asking them to discuss whether they agree with the themes this seems to be picking out; a starting point for discussion about themes and ideas; or even a place for students to get prompts for their papers! It’s an interesting way of involving technology in doing literary analysis.

It also works quite well when applied to academic texts and secondary literature. I did this one of my thesis for fun, and as you can see, it’s nicely pulled out some key words and themes:

Wordle of My Thesis

So one way to incorporate this into class discussion might be to do an assignment or in-class activity with a Wordle of an academic article, to provide a different way of thinking about how to analyse the article’s argument.

I am not, of course, suggesting that Wordle should take over as the primary method of textual analysis in our classes! However, it’s an interesting way to come at the question of textual analysis from a different angle, and also gives a very strong visual message to those visual learners you may have among your students.

And now, on to two text-based technologies…

Google Docs

Google Docs should be a fairly familiar tool to most people by now, but they are not really being used for collaborative work in academia as well as they could be. For those who are unfamiliar with the service, Google Docs lets you share documents with others, and collaboratively edit them. Obviously there is clear potential for using this tool in collaborative article writing for research, but there are plenty of possibilities for using it in teaching too:

  • Set up a collaborative document for students to take notes from your lecture.
  • Create a collaborative document summarising and commenting on the week’s readings.
  • Use as a platform for students to write collaborative papers as a group project – especially as the ability to see which person has done what edits to the document means there is no way for someone to pretend they have done more work than they have.
  • An easy method for students to share essays with each other for peer editing.

The way the site is set up makes it very easy to track who has contributed, who has made what changes, and if necessary to revert to previous versions of the document. The ability to share documents in this way gives several different ways for a teacher to foster a learning community among their students – which, as far as I’m concerned, is one of the most important things for an instructor to do in a course.


Now, this is the controversial one, since everyone immediately panics at the thought of having to read what their students had for breakfast. However, there are plenty of interesting ways to use Twitter pedagogically, as this brilliant diagram from Mark Sample makes clear:

In short, the further up the table you go, the more you enter into dialogue with the students; the further to the right of the table you go, the more active you require the students to be in their engagement with you. So at bottom left of the table, you find things like universities’ Twitter accounts, that communicate purely official information or press releases about research taking place in the organisation, that don’t require students to do anything but read and (perhaps) be informed; while at the top right of the table you find ‘in class directed discussion’, where the instructor actually gets students to tweet in class on a set topic – obviously more useful in a lecture hall of a couple of hundred students than in a room with thirty or so, but still a method of engagement that has its uses.

One of the points I’d like to draw out of this table is the ‘tracking activities’ box in the middle of the first column, or (in other words) asking students to find people engaged in your academic field who also tweet, and follow them. Speaking personally, I’ve got a great deal out of following various researchers, publications and generally interesting folk on Twitter – and have actually got far better connected with the latest developments in classically inclined news stories than I would otherwise be. Twitter is a great way to get students involved in the wider conversation in the field, and to exposing them to parts of it that you may not cover in your course or that may not be your speciality.

The beauty of Twitter as a teaching tool is that it’s incredibly flexible, so you can use this the way that you are comfortable using it. (Or indeed decide not to use it at all – as I said in my first post on this topic, that is an entirely acceptable decision to make!) You don’t have to try activities from all segments of the table, or the ones that you feel might encroach upon your authority as a lecturer, but you can pick and choose approaches that suit you and your course and the size of your course. You can also change how you use it over the course of the semester – for instance, you could move towards a more dialogic approach as classroom community builds.

If this has whetted your appetite and you want to think about the possibiliteis some more, here are two really great articles by Mark Sample on teaching with Twitter from ProfHacker which got me thinking along these lines: A Framework for Teaching with Twitter and Practical Advice for Teaching with Twitter. ProfHacker also has a Twitter tag, where you can find more posts on this topic.


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