Creative projects: Interpreting history through various media

This post is republished from Into Practice, a biweekly communication of Harvard’s Office of the Vice Provost for Advances in Learning

Vincent BrownVincent Brown, Charles Warren Professor of American History and Professor of African and African American Studies, trains students to interpret history through various media including graphics, data visualizations, videos, and art installations.

The benefits: By tackling creative assignments in HIST 1912 History Design Studio, students learn as historical artists to evaluate and articulate the rationale for why they might select a particular medium. “History doesn’t have to be told in the medium of print. Every medium has different virtues, and sometimes it’s beneficial to see or hear information rather than read it.” Students also complete a final project and 5 to 7-minute presentation open to peer critique.

The challenges: Some students express nervousness that there is little technical skills-building infrastructure in the course, but Brown reassures them that their vision should be their focus and to work with the medium they are most comfortable, be it video editing or geographic information systems (GIS). “It’s similar to writing assignments—I don’t teach writing composition; I teach how to think historically through media.”

Takeaways and best practices:

  • Focus on the method. “I run my history seminar in the way one might run an art studio.” The research, design, and production of creative projects help students understand that historical data themselves are artifacts of a broader history—they need to be interpreted in context. By selecting media to convey an argument or story, students learn to think critically about primary sources and their use of evidence as they interpret and communicate about the past.
  • Emphasize scholarly collaboration. Media projects require that students articulate their vision to others, recognize their own strengths and weaknesses, and rely on peers: “You may have the vision, but you will need others’ skill sets. Trust-building in a collaborative-working environment is a skill that one can and has to learn.” Peer critique also builds this toolkit.
  • Safeguard adequate time for the process. In his 2013 offering, Brown invited many practitioners to class (e.g., filmmakers, museum curators) but found that too many guests came at the expense of student presentations and critique. This past semester, he pared down the guest opportunities and reserved an entire month for project presentation and critique.

Bottom line: According to Brown, we experience knowledge through and should teach to a variety of communicative forms: “We can teach that all knowledge is mediated, and that learning media skills helps us understand how it is we can experience the world.”

Photo credit: Sharona Jacobs Photography