Museums & Crisis: December Update, and Final Reflection

On December 9, we officially wrapped up classes for the semester. I am currently grading my students’ final projects, but my time in the classroom is officially finished. Let’s take a look back at these final weeks and take stock of the semester as a whole.

My desk with the wooden bird my students got me. Image: a desk with a laptop computer and a minimalist wooden bird painted teal and yellow.

Instead of assigning any new readings, I dedicated the last two weeks of class to student presentations. That first Monday I didn’t schedule any presenters, but instead let the students use that class time to work on their presentations, as I didn’t know how much work they’d gotten done over the break. In hindsight, I might have been better off keeping the presentations to one week, as there weren’t enough presenters to fill the entire class and I ended up letting them out early a couple of times. Then again, given how tired and distracted everyone is after Thanksgiving, I don’t know how much they would have gotten out of an extra week’s reading. The fall semester and its frequent interruptions can make it tricky to schedule consistently.

What was satisfying, though, was seeing all my students’ presentations. They’ve been working on some great topics over the course of the semester, and it was gratifying to watch them share their research with their peers. I also liked seeing the variety of formats students have opted to take for their projects. One student put together a zine about decolonization, while another wrote a magazine about queer representation in museums. Still another student put together an exhibition proposal featuring art installations on solar panels, while another recorded a podcast addressing the role of Black Lives Matter in recent museum reckonings. Other students opted for the research paper format, and the topics they’ve explored have ranged from museum complicity in property crime to unethical funding practices. In subject and format, they’ve all pursued ideas that have interested them, and their passion has shone in both their presentations and the final projects.

One of the challenges with designing a course is that you don’t know how it will play out until you’re in the classroom. I spent a lot of time on this syllabus over the summer, and put thought into each assignment. Overall, considering how stressed and tired students are, I think it went pretty well. If I were to offer this course again, however, I’d do some things differently:

  • Ask for student input before the class meets: At the beginning of the term, I invited students to suggest potential topics and readings for the syllabus. While I did get a couple of suggestions, I think this would have worked better if they’d had more lead time. Grant it, registration opened relatively late this fall, but in the future, I’d love to ask for student input over the summer or winter.
  • Assign less reading: As the semester progressed and assignments from other classes accumulated, my students became less likely to complete the readings. They often made up for this with insightful response papers, but it wasn’t great for discussion. I did include websites and other reading alternatives at the beginning of the semester, but over the term, I found myself increasingly swapping readings for other media. In the future, I’d be more intentional about taking a mixed-media approach.
  • Focus on local museums: Our discussions were always liveliest when we discussed museums with which the students had familiarity. Our best discussion by far took place when one of my students described a trip to the Smithsonian, and an in-class visit from Highland’s Maria DiBenigno also proved quite fruitful. If I offered this course again, I’d seriously consider focusing exclusively on museums in the Virginia/DC area.
  • More collaboration with other institutions: In addition to focusing more attention on local museums, I’d bring in more guest speakers from these institutions. In the long term, I’d also consider looking into a semester-long collaborative project with one of these sites.
  • Address attendance: I didn’t grade attendance this semester because I didn’t think it was a good precedent in light of the pandemic, but this definitely affected my discussions. On the one hand, I’m glad that students were comfortable with taking the time they needed to rest. At the same time, I could never be sure how many students would come to class, which made planning activities and discussions challenging. This was especially frustrating when it came to the research project workshops. I’d planned on having the students assigned to the same groups all semester, but inconsistent attendance levels meant I either needed to create new groups each time or just have everyone share their work with the entire class.
  • Offer a session on note-taking and other academic skills during the Foundations unit: One thing I observed during the second half of the course especially was that students had trouble remembering the readings, and I think a lack of adequate notes contributed to this. Rather than assume that students know how to take notes, I’d start the semester by showing them some of the notetaking techniques I used during comps and my overall coursework. It’d be up to them whether or not they used it, but I would at least offer the knowledge.

Hindsight is 20/20 though, and all things considered, I think the course went pretty well.

Emotionally, this class has been the most challenging assistantship I’ve had. The workload itself wasn’t an issue. I knew to prioritize my dissertation and didn’t let teaching take over my life. But the routine of teaching, of seeing the same students multiple times a week, means you get invested in their lives to some degree. Unlike the Career Center, where I usually only saw each student once, maybe twice, over the course of the year, these kids were a regular part of my routine. Even if they don’t tell you what they’re going through outright, you can see the effects of exhaustion and anxiety on their physical and mental well-being. And that, in turn, affects you.

Yet the rewarding aspects of the course, the lively discussions, the engaging student research, have been among the most satisfying moments of any assistantship I’ve had, and I can see why so many people long to become professors. When the students are engaged and eager to learn, there’s no other high quite like it.

The final week of the class proved especially moving for me. One of the most peculiar aspects of teaching is that you usually don’t know what impact you’re having on students. You spend all this time developing lessons that you think will engage students, but given all that’s going on in their lives, you don’t know if anything will stick. Sometimes it’s a bit like giving a Zoom lecture where everyone has shut off their cameras and muted themselves. You know you’re interacting with a group of people, but you have no idea what they’re thinking or how they’re responding to you.

But for this course at least, I got a positive affirmation.

At the beginning of the course, I asked each of my students to pick a museum website and analyze it in class. I wanted them to think about how museums present themselves to the public through the site’s content, organization, or design. I especially wanted them to look at the infrastructure of the site to see what the museum prioritized, whether it was Board transparency, educational activities, or even the gift shop. Through this exercise, I wanted them to start critiquing the idea of neutrality, and consider how museums create a specific image of themselves for their publics.

While we were taking a look at MoMA’s site, we visited their expansive online design shop because it was one of the most prominent options on their menu. I ended up getting rather hung up on this Kay Bojeson songbird. I thought it was a bit twee, cute but expensive for what’s essentially a small decorative object, and it launched a discussion on museum shops and the kinds of audiences they hope to attract through their merchandise. Admittedly, the bird became something of a running joke in class, usually coming up in discussions about museums resisting difficult conversations about social issues in favor of comfort and the familiar. It garnered a few chuckles, but I didn’t give it more thought than that.

Imagine my surprise then, when my students presented me with this very bird at the end of classes (which, in all fairness, was considerably bigger than I’d realized). And with it, a card filled with hand-written notes thanking me for teaching the course. Many described it as their favorite class that semester. One person said they’d discovered a whole new interest in museums that they hoped to pursue further. To say I was moved was an understatement. I had no idea the class had resonated with them so deeply.

Does that mean I want to become a professor now? No, not especially. But I am grateful for this opportunity I’ve had, and I do see myself being comfortable with teaching a class if I’m ever in a situation that warrants it.

And as for that bird, it will forever occupy a place of honor on my desk.

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