Reflections on teaching museum digital practice in 2019

When I was early in my teaching career at GWU, I had a conversation with Cait Reizman  about her belief that students need to be able to leave a museum studies program with something tangible that they could share with future employers. The comment stayed with me, and since that time I’ve thought about how best to realise that aim. I initially asked students to blog, since public writing had been so beneficial to my own career. But recently, I’ve become less comfortable with requiring students take on the risk of public writing without the benefit of prior review. This fall, I tackled the problem differently.

Inspired by the Humanizing the Digital: Unproceedings from the MCN 2018 Conference book project, which my co-editors and I produced in less than four months after the MCN conference last year, my students in Museums and Digital Technology took on an ambitious project. Together, we created a digital publication about the state of digital practice in museums in 2019. Each student was responsible for creating one 3,500-4,000-word piece of writing that dives deeply into a specific research area related to the overall topic of museums and digital technology. Student projects could synthesize current readings and practice around a broad area, or dive deeper into a single technology or case study related to the theme of digital practice and its impact on the museum. Students would then work with a small group of peer reviewers to develop their ideas and writing alongside regular feedback from me. The finished publication is built on Quire, the open source multiformat publishing platform created by the Getty. Each student was responsible for defining and researching their topic and writing their paper, then I, working closely with Greg Albers, Digital Publication Manager at the Getty, was responsible for compiling the final book.

The intent was that that students would gain a broad overview into the issues related to technology in museums today via weekly lectures and discussions; a deep engagement with a topic of personal or professional interest through a research project; experience in a collaborative creative environment through the peer review process; and practical skills in Markdown language. At the end of the semester, each student would have a published piece to share with peers, colleagues and friends. From my perspective, this has been a hugely successful approach to teaching on museum digital practice. As the semester matured, I found students bringing their own research into class discussions with depth and maturity. Additionally, multiple students reached out to museum professionals from around the sector to find out more about specific projects they were working on, growing their insights beyond those that I could provide and enabling professional networking.

I am so proud of what my students have produced in what was ultimately a ten-week period from initial proposal through to publication. Their essays are thoughtful and interesting, with varied topics such as empathy and technology in Holocaust museums, shifting paradigms in visitor participation (which focusses on user-generated content), social media and crisis communications, social media collecting practices in museums, collections management policies and procedures for Time-Based Media and many more.  The flexibility of Quire’s format enabled experimentation in writing style, form and content. Students embedded gifs, Sketchfab mockups and JSON files in their papers. Some essays were personal and others took a more formal tone. 

Of course, there are some challenges with a project like this. Since this project was an experiment in the works, we were figuring out some of it as we went, so there are some inconsistencies with formatting and style. This is exacerbated by the short turnaround time from when students handed in their completed essays to our final publishing date. The tight turnarounds were also challenging for students who get sick or need to miss a deadline for some other external reason. There is, for instance, one essay still to be added to the book, which will now happen after launch. Beyond this, there are naturally gaps in my knowledge in certain areas, so there may be areas of critique that I missed or could better have supported. One possible area for future development of this approach is to seek volunteer peer-reviewers from around the sector who might be able to work with students on their essays, although that introduces other kinds of contingencies to take into account.

This was the most ambitious project I’ve taken on as a professor, and it took significantly more investment than other kinds of teaching, because I needed to be supervisor and editor to each student, as well as running weekly classes. I also needed to learn how to use Quire and become somewhat familiar with Github. But I think the results have been absolutely worth it. My long-term hope is to repeat this project each time I teach this course moving forward, so that we build up an archive of public student research over time, which can act as a marker about their ongoing and specific concerns and interest in the sector.

Thank you to Greg Albers for his generous work helping us bring this publication to life, and to each of my students for diving in wholeheartedly. If you are interested in reading the syllabus for this course in more detail or finding out about this project, get in contact with me and I’ll send it your way.