Museums & Crisis: September Update

A few weeks ago I told you about the course I’m teaching this fall, Museums & Crisis. Let’s take a look at what we’ve been doing.

The first weeks of class were primarily an opportunity to lay down foundations regarding museums, their history, and how they operate. One of the reasons why I stuck to the basics is because the semester’s schedule doesn’t settle into its regular meeting patterns until around week 3. Between the semester starting on a Wednesday, and Labor Day happening the week after that, the first couple of weeks are already a little abridged. Additionally, with an add-drop period lasting from August 31 through September 12, I knew I’d be having students moving in and out of class as they shopped for different options, so I didn’t want to start diving into the course materials in earnest until I knew who would actually be joining me for the ride.

Looking back, I’m glad that my advisor encouraged me to add an introductory section to the syllabus, as my students come from a range of academic backgrounds and have varying levels of familiarity with museums. While some intend to enter museums professionally and have already held internships in the field, others have a more casual interest, having either visited them or grown up in areas that have them. By having a few weeks dedicated to just exploring what a museum is, I intended to give the students a baseline definition for them, even if our ultimate goal is to change or expand it. My students may come from a variety of majors and backgrounds, but moving forward, they’ll share some common understandings that they can challenge or complicate as we start getting to different crises.

These first few weeks have also been an important opportunity for me to develop a sense of rhythm for the class in terms of balancing in-class discussion with media and lecturing. Although I’ve been in a lot of classroom situations before, this is the first time I’ve taught a semester-long course on my own, and there’s definitely a learning curve that’s only been amplified by the pandemic. Everyone’s attention span and resilience have been affected, including mine, so while I have been drawing on my previous experience as a TA and workshop instructor, I can’t pretend that I’m in the same classroom environment as those previous experiences (even if I have, funnily enough, been assigned the exact same office and classroom as I had for my TAship with Utopia in the Americas). The important thing, I’ve been learning, is to remain flexible and adjust the course as needed, whether it’s using more in-class media, limiting the amount of reading, or providing more context for course materials.

The biggest change I’ve made so far is adding lectures on Mondays. Originally I wasn’t planning on lecturing at all, but after talking with one of my fellow graduate instructors, I decided to start giving short lectures where I introduce the topic of the week, go over its history, and introduce major figures or works associated with it. Since we’re covering a lot of material in a short amount of time, I concluded it was important to give the students some context before we begin discussing the week’s reading assignments.

I’ve also been figuring out how to keep students engaged throughout the 50-minute period. While I did have them discuss one text for an entire class period to see how it went (they did fine), I’ve found it’s better for all of us, myself included, if we include of variety of discussion methods or activities. Pairing and sharing, a technique I learned while participating in the Keio program, is something I’ve been doing pretty regularly. I’ve also found that students enjoy engaging with visual materials, as when I had them look at photos of different objects, such as sneakers or candy wrappers, and decide how different types of museums might exhibit or interpret them. Through this activity, they brainstormed a range of creative exhibition possibilities while engaging with one of the texts I had assigned earlier in the week, the introduction from Bowker and Star’s classic Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences. Moving forward, I’ll try to keep activities like these in mind when we’re working on more theoretical materials, as they offer a concrete way to discuss some rather abstract ideas.

I’ve also been reminded of how much time teaching actually demands, and how easy it is to get drawn into a wormhole of endless planning. Just as I found myself spending hours working on my Scalar book of the Roswell Museum because it didn’t feel like work in the same way as writing a paper, it’s easy to find yourself planning endless activities, visual supplements, and discussion questions. And that’s before the grading of assignments even takes place. Fortunately, I have Brandon to remind me to take a more balanced approach, and not let my teaching crowd out my other obligations and commitments, academic and otherwise.

Not all of the in-class activities depend on me though. As we start heading into the main course materials, I’ve got the students taking the lead on in-class presentations and other activities. Every Wednesday, for instance, one student gives a 5-10 minute presentation about a current event relating to museums and crisis, where they summarize the event, discuss its relevance to the course, and connect it to class readings or media. Aside from encouraging students to connect the in-class materials with real-world happenings, I devised this activity as a way to get the students to bring me exciting news and up-to-date events. As a millennial, I know that my pop culture references are dated and that I don’t search the Internet the same way Gen-Zers do (apparently it’s TikTok these days), so I’ve decided to let them find the latest news stories, memes, videos, and other media, and teach me. Aside from saving me some labor, it’ll give them the chance to take agency in the course and shape its content.

And there are the in-class workshop too, where students listen to one another’s research, share what they like or find exciting about it, and offer suggestions to make it even better. We had our first one last Friday, and we’ve got three more scheduled for the rest of the semester.

In short, these first few weeks have been about students getting familiar with the course material while I establish my teaching style. We’ll continue to revisit the content and my approach to teaching it throughout the semester, but I’m getting into a groove that I can maintain for the term.

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