Tomorrow’s the first day of AMST1550, Methods in Public Humanities. I’ve finished the third version of the syllabus today – I’ve claimed I was done back in November, and then again about two weeks ago. Until the course seems real – until I see the list of students signed up – it’s hard for me to pin down what the course should be.
The goal of the course is to give students a quick background across many areas of the public humanities (here’s the way museum people think about artifacts; these are the main issues in historic preservation; here’s what’s happening as museums move online; these are concerns of cities trying to use culture to build both the economy and community) and also some skills and information useful in any of these fields (here’s how to write a memo; here’s the difference between governance and management).
I’ve taught versions of this course before, but not for some years. It went well in the past, but as the public humanities changes, as my vision of the field of public humanities changes, and as my interests change, the course needs to change.
Here’s what I hoped to do with my changes to the syllabus.
- More digital. I gave a talk, a few months back, claiming that public humanities should be half digital, half real-world. Tweets instead of research papers, I said, or something like that. Online exhibits, not real-world ones. Digital humanities should be equal to the old-fashioned kind. That didn’t quite happen. There’s more digital, maybe two or three weeks of the 13, but it is added on top of the traditional. I couldn’t see what to leave out of the traditional, and I couldn’t figure out how to teach and assign, say, social media. For next year.
- More real-world but more practical. This course has always had a strong element of practice. The last few times I taught it, an exhibition was a key part of the course. One year we did a history of collecting at Brown. More recently, we did an exhibition– quite a good one – on the local Cape Verdean community. Students got experience working with community members, working with designers, even painting and building an exhibition. For the students who took the lead, that worked very well. But it made for a crazy last few weeks, put the focus on hands-on skills, and left many students out.This year we’ll have six to eight projects, maybe five or six students in each, working with a wide range of clients, from local museums to public art projects. And we’ll start them right at the beginning of the course, and hear progress reports once a month. This will distribute the work better, make the projects more real, give students more options – but may also make for a crazy entire semester.
- I’m going to change the usual Monday and Wednesday lecture, Friday discussion, for Monday lecture/discussion, Wednesday lecture/discussion, Friday workshop and presentation. Less me talking, more them talking. I had considered trying to flip the class more completely – record lectures beforehand, and just discussions in class – but so far I’m not set up to do that.
- More focused writing. In the public humanities world, one writes a lot of memos and reports. So the writing assignments for the course are memos and reports. Presentations, on the projects, are strictly outlined.
- More focused label-writing. There’s also one exhibit label writing project. Each students will choose one chapter of a work in progress on the history of the university. They’ll have to turn that chapter into a 250 word label, find three images and write short captions, and choose three points for a timeline. The problem with student exhibit label exercises in the past has been that they turn into research projects, not exhibit projects, and that they get unwieldy. We’ll see if this keeps the work manageable.
- Students reading each other’s work. In the past, I set up a blog and had students post writings some weeks, and encouraged others to comment. This never worked very well. These year, thanks to a new course-management system, I can have student work randomly assigned to another student for review. One student writes a memo to the director of the organization; another replies, from the perspective of the director.
Back to rewriting the syllabus and pulling together some pictures to show the class. I’ll report back occasionally. Reflective practice is key to the public humanities, and I’m trying to practice what I preach.