Mad Men of the 19th Century

Chinese MenLast week I gave a brief presentation on John Thompson’s China in one of the small classes I’m teaching this semester. For the second part of class, I gave students this team-based collaborative exercise, which I’ve named Mad Men of the 19th Century:

The year is 1878. You work for the Vanderbilt Exotic Travels Company in Newport, Rhode Island, a company that arranges luxury travel expeditions to foreign lands. The company has launched a new tour: a nine-week expedition to China.

Your team’s task is to choose two images from John Thompson’s photo compendium – one view (a landscape or street scene) and one type (a portrait of an individual) – for a brochure that promotes the tour to China. You team will need to prepare a five to seven minute sales presentation that uses either the five C’s, juxtaposition, or framing to explain why these two photos will convince people to pay $1,489 to join the tour. Teams will deliver their presentations in today’s class.

Your team’s presentation should focus on answering two questions: What sells a product? What will sell this product?

My primary goal for the exercise? Get students to explore the biases contained in what at first glance appears to be an objective visual historical record, through an activity that has more authenticity than an abstract academic essay. Since I thought of this exercise at the last minute, I had low expectations, but it went fairly well. Students did interpret the photographs chosen by their teams in meaningful ways. I did notice that students are generally unfamiliar with tasks that simulate what happens in the workplace — in this case, the use of images to communicate specific messages — which is extremely unfortunate.

The Mind as a Muscle

Some further thoughts on the mind as a muscle and training it to perform more effectively:

I recently gave a presentation to colleagues that began with a different sports analogy — a baseball player who wants to improve his (I’ll stick to the male pronoun to reflect professional baseball in the USA) ability to hit the ball. At batting practice, the player can focus improving his ability to hit one type of pitch — before moving on to another type. For example, a player who is weak at hitting curve balls can spend the day trying to hit nothing but curve balls. Another option is to try to hit a random variety of pitches.

The latter training method is most effective. Why? First, the inability to predict the kind of Babe Ruth pitch that is thrown makes hitting the ball more difficult, and the greater mental effort that is needed to hit the ball creates a stronger memory of how to successfully achieve this goal. Second, the unpredictability of pitches better reflects the conditions that the player will experience in an actual game.

The hypothetical player also has another choice to make: he can engage in batting practice for ten hours on a single day once a month, or do it for one hour on ten different days each month. The latter method is more effective at improving performance, because repeatedly retrieving a memory over a long period of time helps strengthen it.

My use last semester of MIT’s Visualizing Cultures image database in my Asia history and politics course was based somewhat on these ideas — have students repeatedly engage in different tasks, encountering the same information in different ways, throughout the semester, with a slight element of unpredictability:

Stage 1 – Analyze (short essay)

  • What is your interpretation of an image?

Stage 2 – Critique (short essay)

  • How do your ideas compare to someone else’s?

Stage 3 – Communicate (presentation to the class)

  • Can you collaborate to teach about the topic?

Stage 4 – Evaluate (survey)

  • Were you and your teammates effective?

Stage 5 – Test (quizzes)

  • Do you remember what you have read, seen, and heard?

Stages 1 to 4 were team-based — each team selected a different topic from the Visualizing Cultures curriculum and delivered a content lesson about the topic to the class. For Stage 5, all students took two quizzes on each topic. Quizzes for a topic were spaced forty-eight hours apart and contained the same questions. Obviously students had no idea what questions would appear for the first iteration of the quiz, and had to try to remember what they had seen a few days earlier for the second iteration. The first quiz on a topic did not become available until after the team that had chosen the topic had completed its Stage 3 presentation. Each quiz was available for only a twenty-four hour period and had a fifteen minute time limit.

Each student completed Stages 1 to 4 within his or her team over a period of several weeks. The entire class experienced Stage 5 eight times, because there were eight topics, and with two quizzes for each topic, they were tested a total of sixteen times over the entire semester.

Less Is More — Or At Least Just Enough

I’m once again teaching the comparative politics of Asia. When I first arrived at my current university, the course in question was limited to East Asia — China, Japan, and the Koreas. I had to strip out past content on South and Southeast Asia. I recently managed to persuade the powers-that-be that ignoring one-fifth of the world’s population was not a good idea, and the content on India, Pakistan, Indonesia, etc., is back in. Consequently, I’m reviewing old lecture notes and visual aids.

My immediate mental reaction to the change was “how can I possibly jam even more material into a single fourteen week semester? How can I fit in everything that is essential to this subject?” I noticed that I was falling into the trap of assuming that I had to “cover” “everything” to do a good job, when even the undergraduates who eventually become academics remember very little of what they encounter in college.

I think this reaction is something that gets inculcated in us by our professors, and we  unconsciously pass it on to the next generation of students when we teach. We learn to define doing well — whether as a student or a professor — as being able to call forth a plethora of minute details.

So as I look through my lecture notes, I have to constantly remind myself to focus on what not to teach rather than what (in a perfect world) I could teach. I ask myself “will students’ lives twenty years from now be irrevocably changed for the worse if they don’t remember this?” If the answer is “no,” then it becomes much easier to delete it from the list of things that I think I must cover.

Student Teaching

I’ve got one of my favorite subjects coming up next semester — comparative politics of Asia — and I’m going to experiment with MIT’s Visualizing Cultures (VC) curriculum. My goals are to introduce students to the scholarly interpretation of visual source material and to get them to learn course content by teaching it to their peers.

I’m going to divide the class into teams; each team will work on one of the topical units in the VC database. Each student will need to complete the following tasks:

  • Write a 2-3 page essay that analyzes an image (or images) from his or her team’s unit, using the VC-provided guidelines.
  • Read a teammate’s essay and write a 1-2 page critique.

Each team will then lead the class through an exercise on the team’s topic that uses images from the VC collection. Instructions for these exercises are conveniently available on the VC website.

The class will evaluate each team’s presentation and teaching, and students will evaluate their own performance and that of their teammates. I’ll factor the results into the participation component of each student’s course grade.

After a VC topic has been taught, students will take a online quiz. The quiz questions will focus on the essays contained in the VC website — written by top scholars in their respective fields — and the other assigned readings in the course.

The class meets twice per week; I’ve scheduled the “student teaching” for once each week so that it becomes expected and routine. I’m expecting that the whole process — analyzing images to answer questions posed by the scholars who have organized the VC curriculum, two individual writing assignments, collaboration and teaching, and a quiz — will help students learn content and skills more effectively than standard lectures.

One last note: the image collections hosted by the Visualizing Cultures project are currently focused on China and Japan in the contemporary period. I’m hoping that the project eventually expands to include India.