Teaching After Tumblr, or “Post Teaching”

Posted on December 4, 2013

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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?