Teaching After Tumblr, or “Post Teaching”

This is a post that has been sitting in my drafts for a few weeks, but Seb Chan’s newest post on teaching a class broadly titled “Museums and the Network: Caravaggio in the age of Dan Flavin lights” inspired me to pull it up, when he mentioned that the students in the course had used Tumblr as their collection management system and exhibition catalogue.

During the last semester, I taught into an art theory course at the University of Newcastle. The focus of the last lecture of the semester was on art and digital technology, and was intended to buttress right up against the present, so when writing the lecture, I decided to explore some of the ways that artists have been using social media as a space for art, like Twitter-based performance pieces, and The World’s First Tumblr Art Symposium.

The more I played around the ideas that were emerging, like ‘post-art’, or art that takes the form of posts, the more I wanted to get away from the usual Powerpoint presentation, so I decided I should match the concept and content of the lecture to its container, and use Tumblr as a presentation platform. Apart from the (not insignificant) downside that I needed to decide in advance exactly what order I wanted my posts to be in (the format being inflexible to last minute additions and changes), the platform seemed to provide an interesting way to create something visual with more possibility for interactivity. And it turns out that it was great.

Since the topic of this lecture was related to digital technology, every work of art or artist that I wanted to talk about was available in some way or some where online. Because of Tumblr’s format, it was easy to include quotes, images, video, links, and all within a single framework, without feeling a need to constrain the content to that framework or location. Rather than assigning specific readings, I was able to pull in images and quotes from the Web, and then push the students back out to the original context in which those works were found, in order that they could see them within context (particularly useful with pull-quotes from articles, or websites that artists had created).

What this made possible was deeper dives into content for students who chose to follow the links, in a way that might enable the students to get lost in discovery, which still having a central site to come back to afterwards. Using Tumblr in this way also seemed to create a useful contextual learning environment, into which external resources could be easily woven, whilst simultaneously maintaining the story arc of the lecture. It felt like the first time I’d given a presentation that fully interlaced the usefulness of the Internet in parallel with the live dynamics of lecturing.

Because this was a stand-alone lecture, I didn’t really exploit some of the platform’s other features, like the “Ask Me Anything” button, the opportunities for comments and questions, or the capacity to allow other people (the students, other teaching staff) to post to the site. However, I’d be interested in how these features could be exploited or played with over a longer time period. Could the “ask me anything” feature be used to encourage students to seek clarification about things they weren’t sure about? Might it be possible to ask students to seek out their own resources on a topic, and bring them back to the class to encourage conversations about different issues, and also about using online sources critically?

I could also imagine other benefits of taking to Tumblr for teaching an entire course, like the accumulation of a full semester’s worth of resources into a single location, which could help students understand the metanarrative for the course, as well as the individual subjects covered therein. In his post, Seb mentions the flexibility of Tumblr’s ‘archive’ view, which ‘provides a great way of visually browsing the objects and other media assets, whilst the standard view gives a more linear look’, and these two are features that could be useful for students seeking an overview of a subject covered in a lecture or across a whole course. By taking a ‘post’-based approach to teaching that cumulates in a single ‘document’ or site, it could be possible to create a significant single resource that tells the story of the course or lecture over an entire delivery period.

Ultimately, what I loved about this experiment was that it provided a way of integrating and weaving the web into the lecture, and it made possible new ways for creating an active and potentially conversational space for students to engage with the content of the lecture in a fairly direct way. Taking this approach immediately made me wonder about how museums could utilise a similar format of treating objects as posts in an exhibition context, giving every object its own post in a Tumblr-like site, which is exactly what Seb and Aaron’s students have done. Rad.

I’d love to hear your thoughts. What do you think about this approach? How else could we exploit the affordances of Tumblr (and platforms like it) for collections management, exhibition catalogues, or even teaching? 

7 thoughts on “Teaching After Tumblr, or “Post Teaching”

  1. Tumblr is all about the low barrier to entry, the ability to do media-only posts, and the default /archive view which is really nice . . . and mobile . . . Our students did their first project site in WordPress and in the process of the course tried about five different online collaboration and project management platforms to work collectively. Part of the outcome of the course was their awareness of what different platforms are good (and not so good) for.

  2. Thanks for the tip and explaining the ins and outs of this app. You have whet my appetite to explore this further with a view of making use of it in my art practice and collection.
    Best regards,

    1. Hi Bruce. I should make it clear that I don’t think Tumblr is useful for all kinds of teaching, or all purposes. There were some considerable downsides, like the fact that in order to scroll through the lecture in the order I wanted, I needed to get all my media lined up, and then load it into Tumblr backwards, and could not vary the order of the posts once they were in. A definite issue (particularly for the disorganised, or someone who likes to shift lecture material around a bit). The formal probably wouldn’t suit all disciplines either. It worked well for this particular subject because it was one that involved lots of online media, was quite visual, and I wanted to be able to link to the works in their (at times) native online locations. But it would be different for different kinds of subjects.

      What I did find useful and interesting was this capacity to weave together the lecture and the Internet more seamlessly. And I loved the visual nature of scrolling from post to post, rather than clicking from slide to slide. In some ways, I wish there was actually a presentation software that took the good things from Tumblr (the media friendly approach, the scrolling, the embedding of links in a natural way), and utilised them in a way that was a little more like traditional presentation software, so that I could alter the order of ‘posts’ without needing to do so by upload time/date, but could stitch them together, and show them in multiple views (like with Tumblr’s archive and normal perspectives). I think that could be really useful.

      Mostly, I just wanted to play with my own teaching, in order to work out how I might better teach in ways more native to the Internet, whilst still remaining very present in the classroom.

      I suppose the point – when thinking about your own art practice – is to try out different platforms to see what works. As Seb mentioned, he had his students use 5 different platforms to work out the strengths/weaknesses of each. It’s working out what you want to do with it, and knowing what tools are at your disposal that counts most, I expect.

  3. It seems like a really interesting idea worth some more exploring, maybe trying it out with other platforms as well and then comparing the results.
    I can also imagine using it as a kind of teaser for an upcoming exhibition or some other museum programme when the order of the posts isn´t so important.

    1. Lenka, I think you’re right. Finding the ‘fit for purpose’ platform makes sense, and for some things, the media-richness of Tumblr will be great. It won’t be for everything. I loved it for a presentation, strangely, even though it doesn’t do so many of the things I’ve really come to expect from presentation software. But it had other qualities that made it lovely – though I still wouldn’t use it every time. It’s all about finding the right space or vehicle for what you’re trying to achieve.

  4. Just from reading your post, could WordPress work? It is fairly easy to use, but also will allow you to edit posts as needed. You would not have to worry about posting them in a certain order, you could change order and group them by classes or topics. It would give you a little more flexibility, and still have the scroll from one topic to another.

  5. I have used Tumblr in 3 separate courses at Sydney College of the Arts. Tumblr’s light, fast and well designed UI offers nimble publishing wrappers for subject references. I think of Tumbler as research notes, or a trace of research paths or tracks.

    Prior to using Tumblr i would occasionally make timed full screen capture of web browsing research sessions, making sure all the URL’s are tagged in text somewhere on the screen. So somewhere between 13 and 50 inline references were navigated in real-time to screen as with mouse tracked framing. In some ways the “narrating and conducing” of a research path has performative qualities that suited the sense of learning and teaching as adventurous journeys in the indices – analogous to using GoPROs on ski runs or gamers streaming game plays.

    I mention this because i see Tumblr in a similar context – more of a breadcrumb trail of references. Tying these tracks into a pedagogical methodology is a little more challenging. Blackboard uses extensive evaluation tools to measure student access to resources. I have found Blackboard extremely useful in understanding patterns of usage. When using Tumbler it’s important to make sure analytics is in place to evaluate access. It’s far less informative in comparison to BB. Except …. when students follow you and you can follow their Tumblr blogs. Closing the circle in this way delivers lovely rich evaluation opportunities. Thanks Ian

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