Museums & Crisis, November Update

The last time I provided an update on my teaching, we had gotten into the course content in earnest, with our readings addressing decolonization and systemic racism. On November 18th, we officially wrapped up the course readings for the semester, as we’ll be dedicating the last two weeks of class to student presentations. Let’s take a look at what we’ve been doing.

The third big crisis the course addressed was climate change. On the syllabus, I had set aside three weeks for this unit, but between an in-class project workshop and the classes I had to cancel to attend ASA, it ended up being two weeks, as with the other units. The first week looked at how climate change affects museums regarding collections precarity, financial cost, and access. The second week looked at how museums are complicit in climate change, with a particular focus on the longstanding association between cultural institutions and fossil fuel industries, especially regarding philanthropy. The third week looked at museums as agents of climate change education and activism through exhibitions, programming, and other interventions.

The final week of content briefly considered museums in the wake of the pandemic. In a lot of ways, this offered a capstone to the course itself, since the pandemic has intersected with so many of the topics we’ve been discussing throughout the class. If nothing else, students have definitely come away with the recognition that these issues are interconnected.

In some ways, these last few weeks have been the most difficult to get through. Part of this is because of the subject matter itself. As I’ve mused in other posts on this blog, the existential threat of climate change is exhausting. As we looked at articles discussing how ill-equipped many museum infrastructures are to address climate disasters, or considered how entangled cultural enrichment has become with oil money, a lot of my students commented on how dispiriting it was to read. For them, the impact of climate change on museums is yet another example of the comprehensive threat that will shape their entire lives, another variation on a dialogue they’ve been hearing, witnessing, and engaging in for as long as they can remember. And at this point, they’ve been living with it long enough to know that anything overly optimistic is insincere.

Similarly, the week we spent on the pandemic had mixed results in terms of discussion. While the students were willing to talk, it didn’t feel as enthusiastic as some of the discussions we’d had earlier weeks. I think a major reason for this is that it’s too recent and ongoing a trauma for them to comfortably discuss. The pandemic has defined their daily lives for over two years. They’ve been thinking about it as they’ve been navigating its effects physically and emotionally. While talking about it is important, sometimes we also want mental space away from it, a distance that allows deeper reflection when the emotional and somatic threat is no longer so immediate. As one of my students speculated in response to a discussion question, a memorial to the pandemic would be good, but we should wait a few years before designing one to give people a chance to not only sit with the trauma, but give it a rest.

But I know that content alone isn’t the only reason why my classes have been quieter of late. By this point in the semester, the students are exhausted. When I TA’d in 2019, I noticed that students were less engaged after the mid-semester break. By Thanksgiving, it was all but impossible to get them to discuss anything unless I used pairing and sharing. I’ve made similar observations with my class this semester, and if anything, they’re more exhausted due to the ongoing stress of living in a pandemic, dealing with inflation, the recent midterm elections, and so on. I’ve found that students appreciate it when I reveal moments when I’ve been too tired or disinterested to do things relating to the course, as when I decided to cancel the class for ASA rather than find a way to make it virtual or asynchronous. As the kids say today, it’s a mood, and they definitely relate to it.

That said, I won’t deny that it’s frustrating when the class isn’t fully engaged, especially after I’ve spent hours preparing for each class. One of the downsides of not grading for attendance is that I can’t be sure everyone will show up, which can make it difficult to plan activities. It can also be challenging to have a discussion with students when they either haven’t read the material or can’t remember it. I’ve adapted by having alternative materials available that we can use instead, with mixed results. When it was clear the students hadn’t read an article on hiring practices and microaggressions in museums, for instance, I had them spend a few minutes reading stories from Change the Museum and discussing those instead, as they conveyed similar points as the article. Not all the alternatives express the same content to the same depth though, so some conversations are richer than others.

I’ve also tried to compensate by varying the reading assignments and exchanging articles for podcasts, videos, and other media. The more interactive I can make it, the better the results I tend to get. During the third week of climate change, for instance, I had the students go to the climate change resource page on the Field Museum website and have them pick a post or video to share in class. Using questions I had written as a guide, they then presented their post to the class, sharing what was included or not, the tone the author took when presenting information, and what kind of images were included to illustrate the argument. This format resulted in a livelier discussion than what I might have gotten with an article, with every student getting a chance to speak.

One thing I’ve learned is that sometimes the conversations that fail to take off in class manifest later on in other forms. Time and again, I’ve been pleasantly surprised to see readings that had not gone over well in class become the subject of insightful response papers or discussion questions. In project updates, I’ve also been able to see how the students have been incorporating the ideas we’ve been discussing into their research, whether it’s addressing topics such as decolonization, or focusing on donor infrastructures and other behind-the-scenes practices. Class discussion may be the most immediate way I engage with students, but as I’ve learned throughout the course, it’s far from the only way that students engage with the materials.

The best discussions often arise when the students take agency over the course materials for themselves. Rather than give a talk on climate change for their current events presentation, for instance, one of my students shared a recent exhibition on men’s fashion at the V&A, using it as an opportunity to discuss gender identities and changing interpretations of masculinities. The other students really enjoyed the presentation and we had a lively conversation about race, gender, and the performance of masculine identities through clothing. That presentation was also an important pedagogical lesson for me. If I were to offer this course again, I’d be less rigid about having the students align their presentations with that week’s particular discussion topic, and instead let them pick topics that appeal to their own interests.

Sometimes conversations that seem unrelated to the class can become relevant in surprising ways. Near the end of an in-class workshop, for instance, one student was discussing watching all of the Oceans movies while recovering from an illness, and getting interested in the topic of museum heists. That led to a discussion of security protocols in museums and comparisons between fictional heists and real-life thefts such as the Gardner Museum incident. As I noticed how excited my students became while discussing the movies, I started imagining a new course centering depictions of museums in pop culture, with potential media including film, comics, tv shows, and more. I don’t know if it’ll go anywhere, but there’d be no shortage of fun material to teach if it did.

The thing about teaching is that it’s a learning experience not only for your students but for yourself as well. It’s only after you’ve gone through it and interacted with the students that you start to understand how to craft a better course. You can spend months perfecting a syllabus, but until you’re with the students, it’s an incomplete document. While part of me wishes I had these insights and ideas before the course started, at least I can use them in future courses, should I ever teach again.

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