This year, I have been working closely with my colleague, Lynn Ramey to design a unified web portal (Imagining the Past) for students and faculty working on public-facing projects related to early cultural history. We are obviously still in the early stages–as evidenced by the infelicitous Latin-esque.
As part of this initiative, students in my Honors Seminar at Vanderbilt University: (“Leeches & Lancets: Early Medicine in Cultural Contexts“) created a website on the “darker side” of early-modern medicine, hosted on the Imagining the Past portal.* The goal was to make it attractive to a general audience, as well as those already knowledgeable about the subject.
I had no idea how the students would respond to the Medicine & Magic web experiment. But my adventurers rolled up their sleeves and really got to work. They even helped put together a shared Spotify playlist–the choices were interesting, we’ll just leave it at that.
Me? I can tell you it has been one the most invigorating teaching experiences in my career.
The course was divided into two parts. The first was structured as a traditional lecture/discussion course. We focused on the scientific, philosophical, religious, and gendered contexts in regard to:
- the Rise of the Medical Professions
- Anatomy & Physiology,
- Embryology & Childbirth
- Mental Illness
- the Establishment of Hospitals
The second part of the course was taught as a COLLABORATIVE LAB, with a focus on creating well-researched and compelling web content on the history of medicine. Students worked in groups, both in- and outside class, on one of three different topics:
The course blog documents the core texts each group read in preparation for their work–as well as the guided, multi-step process they followed to create these websites. I was there–not as an intractable “expert” but instead as a guide. My job was to guide them toward appropriate resources and to ask the right questions at the right time–as well as help shape tasks and assignments to help them move their projects forward. But it was the students themselves who determined their own research question(s), reference corpus, approach, and presentation strategies.
The comment I heard students say most often? “This is harder than I thought.” And it was.
For as much as we all have become consumers of web content, most people–including and especially college students–have had little opportunity to be producers of this content. From the start, their attention to audience and medium challenged them to dive into their research in different ways. It wasn’t a matter of making a linear argument that would be read by a single person (the professor). There was also no possibility of feigning “expertise” through page count (the longer the paper, ostensibly, the more “important” it is).
Students had to attend to many things at once: audience, content, voice, organization, judicious use of images, responsibility in research. Now, this is something we would hope they’d be doing in traditional assignments anyway.
But what gave students frank trepidation was the fact that the project was going to be public. They knew from the beginning that I would be tweeting their progress (@history_geek), and that I’d be reaching out to both fellow professors and general readers for commentary/suggestions on their work. **BETWEEN APRIL 12-19: Help me with this! Click here for a direct link to a short survey. You can also leave general comments here.**
We had some interesting discussions about why they could not assume an unlimited readerly attention span for online content. (Actually, why students assume that professors would have an unlimited attention span when it comes to traditional papers, and especially poorly written ones, is still a mystery to me. If only they knew.) They also had think through what it meant that, unlike in an academic papers, readers would not necessarily move through their site–their “argument”–linearly.
At one point in the process, I worried that the complexities of medium were eclipsing the content focus of the course: early-modern medicine. When I asked students about this, the answer was that they have never worked harder, probed deeper, and learned more about a topic. They had no choice. The new medium challenged them to think about research and writing in new ways.
A quick word about technology: It was gratifying to see that students needed instruction on Word Press basics (not one of my students had used Word Press before). But once they became acclimated to the basics, they were able to learn–on their own–how to do some ambitious and effective things.
It helps that the Imagining the Past portal itself was designed by a team of fantastic web designers (the same ones who designed and maintain Wonders & Marvels). It meant that the students had a consistent and stable space to work in. No wheels had be reinvented as they spent hours looking for just the right template, which may or may not be stable. As part of a collection of well-maintained and related sites, it also means that the chances are higher that work will be accessible for longer. This would not be the case if it sat as an ad hoc, unhosted site on WordPress.com, for example.
So, you know it’s been a good semester when you’ve worked very hard–but you’re also sad to see it end. I did. And I am. But I also delighted by the lasting, and public, evidence of all that we accomplished together.
*The students in Lynn’s Medieval French Studies have also been working on a site on Violence & Crusade, and I am also supervising several independent studies and graduate students working on sites related to “Crime & Passion” in early-modern France–again, hosted on the Imagining the Past portal. These sites are still in development, so stay tuned.