In teaching the Russell Scholars Topics class, RSP 299: Literature and the Arts, I look for ways that students in my face-to-face class can make a collaborative document that allows them to research/create in private and then share/discuss in public. Our Topics class focuses especially on the relationship between visual and verbal elements in culture and encourages students to become more visually aware of their world as they gain linguistic tools to respond to it.
In the first unit of the course we move from the vocabulary of formal elements in painting and the other arts to theories of museum-collecting and museum-going; we talk about the "ways of seeing" (ala John Berger) embodied in an original art work and the free exchange enabled by mechanical reproduction--the process that creates a "language of images" in which we live. From here we read Susan Sontag on photography and build a familiarity with iconic images and makers in the history of photographic arts. To the very moment of the selfies we took that morning before class, this evolving form bears thinking through: what have been the uses of photography? What are the uses of photography today? What does Sontag mean when she claims that "looking is never neutral"?
In teaching the class, I need a format for students to create and share their work that can encompass both research and application. I need a venue or platform that lets them combine images with text--famous photographs with passages they choose from Sontag's writing to "caption" these pictures. And I need a method flexible enough to contain also their own iPhone images from the most casual of circumstances, so that we can forge connections between what we do in the province of the classroom and in the tangential, if not directly linked, provinces of 'real life.' (What better medium than photography to articulate that link, given its near-constant presence, its ubiqitousness, its running dialogue on our multiple screens and in our very pockets?)
Google Slides does the trick.
The course fulfills the Cultural Interpretation (CI) core designation, which means we aim to "engage students in the close analysis and interpretation of cultural representations to learn how people make sense of themselves and their world." This bit from the official language describing the course continues, "Students critically evaluate and develop arguments about cultural representations or the contexts that produce them or give them meaning." For us, in a nutshell, this means we study photographs (and other art forms) as symptomatic and agency-laded artefacts of culture. It also means that in creating their own images and text, students practice critical evaluation of the ideas and values and information conveyed in these artefacts.
Here's their assignment:
Please add two photographs to our Google Slides presentation. One should be a picture you took yourself, and it can be uploaded from your phone or other digital file. The other should be an image from the photographer you’ve been assigned to look up. The ‘famous’ photograph should be accompanied by the artist’s name, its title, if it has one, and the date it was made.
Your own photograph should be accompanied by your name and the date it was made. Give it a title if you’d like.
Each photograph should have its own slide, though you may format the slide any way you like.
With each photograph, place a caption of your choosing from Sontag’s “In Plato’s Cave” essay--the first chapter of her book On Photography. Captions can be very brief or up to a few sentences. They need not include Sontag’s direct mention of the photographer. Make your choice by thinking of how her words might help open up our experience of the image in some way, provoking further thought.
The assignment instructions and reasons-for-being appear in the first few slides on the link below, and then the students' contributions:
The final effects of the Google Slides document are not final - perhaps that's one of the most interesting features of the technological tool. At once it is a record of our experiences in this part of our class and a document paused in its living until someone revisits it--perhaps to add a slide or change a word or leave a comment. It's true that the end of our semester makes a natural, finite timeline or end to the document's immediate relevance, but its afterlife can be a model for a future group of students, a pedagogical tool, a record of collaborative engagement for students to show to friends, family, or future employers.
Savviness with the cultural interplay of images and text seems an essential skill for today's students; the ability to engage in collaborative creation is not far behind.