Understanding culture through material artifacts

November 12, 2018

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

Yukio LippitStudents in Japanese art and architecture courses taught by Yukio Lippit, Professor of History of Art and Architecture, often encounter cultures quite different from their own.  Lippit immerses them in those cultures through deep engagement with material artifacts, by examining roof tiles or carpentry, visiting the Japanese house at the Boston Children’s Museum, or participating in a tea ceremony.

The benefits: For Lippit, objects unlock the “syntax of cultural practices” in ways that other forms of study cannot; they manifest “modes of meaning in the world, dispositions of thought and comportment.” Focusing on objects also equalizes participation: “There’s something democratic about presenting an object and standing around it. People have a direct sensory encounter that’s catalytic of discussion, and are less self-conscious about what kinds of backgrounds they may have.”

The challenges: Lippit notes that helping students think deeply about how objects reflect culture can take more time than one might think. “Students are immersed in images, but they look at them very quickly, so the big challenge is to bring a metabolically slow approach to their observation—a space-time bubble where they can close themselves off from the hubbub of their daily lives and contemplate.” Another challenge is that while “tactile engagement is a major part of experiencing the work,” some objects are not allowed to be physically handled, given the mandate of museums and other collections to “conserve for perpetuity.”

Takeaways and best practices:

  • Design with objects at the center. “Usually the study of artifacts is an afterthought to the design of the course, but if you embed artifacts within the design of a course, they’re profoundly more effective.”
  • Sequence engagement over time. Rather than studying an object in a single class or assignment, Lippit orchestrates “repeated engagements,” beginning with an initial experience “unmediated by prior knowledge” allowing students to “absorb the phenomenological and sensorial experience” followed by additional interactions over the semester.
  • Translate sensory experience into language. Lippit believes that when students verbalize about their visual or tactile encounters with objects, it “congeals into memory and synthesizes the experience, so they own it more.”  Doing so further contributes to the depth of student understanding by “approximating the immersive experience” of more time-bound cultural creations, such as “listening to a sonata, or reading a novel.”

Bottom line: Teaching with objects can unpack complex cultural layers and enable students to “live in the world of the work.”