November 23, 2007

Technology as culture, part 1

When the Honors College asked me to teach one of their lower-division arts/humanities classes this fall, I had two thoughts:

  • If I do run for the leadership of the faculty union chapter, it'll be an interesting semester. (For most faculty, an Honors College class is an overload, not part of the regular load.)
  • I'm in the social-science end of history. What the heck do I teach?

Because the Honors College classes have less structure than courses I normally teach (to wit, the start of this course's description is "An introduction to western arts and letters..."), I had both greater freedom to design my class and somewhat different (and greater) expectations. An introduction to western arts and letters! I'm an Americanist, and my strength really is in social science history. In the end, I decided to design an introduction to culture studies using technology as a centerpiece, using Thomas Misa's From Leonardo to the Internet and David Nye's America as Second Creation as nonfiction books and a few novels to round it out. My students would disagree with my judgment at this point: if/when I teach this again, I'll have Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and William Gibson's Neuromancer as the fiction.

Having undergraduates write entries in a group blog about class sessions is working well in the last few semesters, giving me a good sense of what students are responding to. It hasn't worked as well in graduate classes, and perhaps that's a difference in the age of students or the frequency of classes.  But this semester, students' blogging has revealed where students are making connections I was hoping they'd make, where they are making additional connections that delight me, and where I've fallen through in setting up themes of the course.

I set up the first half of the course to undercut the technology-as-progress narrative most students brought into the course. Misa's conceit is that the uses of technology has varied among wealth-producing and wealth-consuming eras and places. But since Misa's first chapter focuses on Leonardo da Vinci, that gave me an avenue to ask questions about Renaissance art. As my friend and colleague Greg McColm reminds me, the cathedral in Florence is an opening to all sorts of topics, from winch technology to blueprints to ... well, the use of perspective in art, given the history of the cathedral dome (with Filippo Brunelleschi, who helped propagate ideas about perspective drawing).

In addition to readings and a few other matters, I made students try their hand at technical drawings of ordinary objects (one student had a mousetrap; I couldn't resist!) and then at perspective drawing, and they had to find a description of how European art acquired perspective. The majority of students found descriptions with a progress narrative. I noted the fact, and over the next month we talked about Misa's central question each chapter (was the technology in question wealth-producing or -consuming?). No connections made back to perspective drawings and the overarching narrative.

So we began reading some cyberpunk as a break between nonfiction books, and we had the completely expected discussion about the genre's being dystopian. Then several students complained that it was disorienting. Okay, I said, time to bring European art back into it (after making a few connections with some of the Misa chapters), and I brought out Paul Cezanne's Still Life with Apples and a Pot of Primroses, a painting with multiple perspectives. The students were largely silent while I showed how Cezanne had different vanishing points for different parts of the painting, let alone the non-perspective way of showing depth in the apples themselves. Disorienting, I asked? Er, a little bit, came the general response, but we're familiar with it... though we're sure that it was considered odd at the time!  (That response was expected, though I should have pushed the parallel to the complaints about cyberpunk; are we disoriented whenever we're unfamiliar with a genre's conventions?)

After showing the class how subsequent artists took Cezanne as a springboard for breaking away from perspective, I asked the question I'd been waiting to spring on the class since the first day:

So if early 20th century painters broke away from perspective, why is the Renaissance use of perspective drawings considered progress?

There was a little bit of discussion on that, but not much. So I left class, wondering if I'd see any blogs mentioning it.

It's been several weeks, and not a peep. That part of the course design has now officially flopped. Other things have gone well, fortunately, and the blog entries show that disparate threads in the course are coming together for a number of students. I think I've convinced students that narratives of progress are limited, including with technology (that's a main argument in Nye's book), and while I wish I had nailed the perspective-drawing-progress item, you don't get everything.

Listen to this article
Posted in History on November 23, 2007 11:40 PM |