Crowdsourcing Contemporary Art (Part 2): Structure and Scaffolding

wall-floor-piece-1-1976.jpg!BlogAlthough the course content in my Contemporary Art course is student directed, I’ve developed a highly structured framework  to guide the crowdsourcing process in an effective and productive way.

The course lacks a traditional schedule, birthed fully formed from my fingertips on the first day. Instead, it is designed to evolve over the semester, initially based on scaffolding activities that will support the students’ subsequent work.  

These include 1) assigned readings on theoretical issues in the study of contemporary art, which the students discussed extensively in class; 2) a hands-on workshop with a research librarian to discuss appropriate research techniques and resources;  3) assigned “starter texts” that provide a general overview of the many themes, practices, and concepts that are foundational to contemporary art; and 4) working sessions in class to develop a concept map that will serve as a road map for our semester study and as a visual document that reveals the multiple threads that connect the diverse field of contemporary art.  The map has become even more central than I initially imagined, and it will be the focus of my next post in this series.

Student Commitment

The class’s non-traditional structure clearly scared a number of students away the first week, but those who have stayed seem committed (albeit a tad wary).  It has been imperative that students recognize and accept their responsibility to shape the direction of the class.  If they don’t contribute, they impact not only their own experience, but the ability of others to achieve their learning objectives for the course.

On the first day, I asked students to conduct interviews with one another and then introduce their partner to the entire class.  In addition to general “get to know you questions,” students were instructed to ask the following questions to underscore the participatory nature of the course: 

1. What do you want to learn in this class?

2. What skills and/or knowledge can you contribute to this class?

Communications and Resources

A course website serves as a primary hub where class information, discussion prompts, and post-class activities are posted and shared.  It offers a portal to a library resource guide tailored toward academic research of contemporary art.   Another portal on the course website directs students to a Google Spreadsheet Reading LIst, which students populate with various resources throughout the semester.   Students must contribute bibliographic posts each week.  Each must include:

  • 3-5 images/videos (links to jpgs or stable url addresses)
  • 1 primary source
  • 1 secondary source
  • 1 primary/secondary/or popular source

Bibliographic posts are organized according to topics that students have identified on the class concept map.  As the Reading List is populated, students will determine topics to be discussed in class and each student will be responsible for reviewing and posting key points about 2 to 3 of the listed resources prior to class discussion.


Aside from a short exhibition review and a final writing project that asks student to synthesize their learning (more later), the primary assessment tool in this class will be individually produced annotated bibliographies.  Shared with me through Google Drive,  these documents track all of the student’s independent research to find materials for their bibliographic posts, and in their review of resources posted on the Reading List in preparation for class discussion.   Their annotated bibliographies will be reviewed 3 times during the semester to ensure the students are performing the appropriate research, and maintaining a useful catalog of their sources.  Additionally, I’ve had them create and share Journals, which serve as a more private space to reflect on ideas discussed in class, discovered through their research, or connections they find to course content in their experiences outside of class.

Evaluation and Bumps in the Road

I’m pretty excited about the potential of the class to be a great opportunity for active learning and collaborative study; but admittedly, I have a gnawing concern that my plan will fail brilliantly and we’ll all find ourselves confused and frustrated in a few weeks.  Just in case, I’ve planned for a midterm course evaluation in October, which will be conducted by staff from the university’s teacher resource center.  I figured the students would be more open if I stepped out of this process, although I will work closely with the evaluators to determine what issues I’d like to be addressed.   At that point we’ll look at the existing class structure and redirect as seems warranted.

Since day one, I’ve been transparent about my process and the fact that this course is somewhat experimental, and that I sincerely welcome student feedback and suggestions about the class.   Georgetown students tend to be extremely deferential to professorial authority (more so than at any institution I’ve previously taught), so it’s taken a while for them to warm to this idea. Only this past week (week 3 in the semester) am I beginning to see just a few realize their newly empowered position.  Next week, we begin to populate the reading list and start scheduling discussion topics, which should prove insightful as to how they are adapting to the class structure.


“Teaching With the Lights On” is a reference to the dramatic changes taking place in higher education today.  In my discipline of art history, adhering to the standard slide-based lecture has kept us—teachers and students—literally in the dark for way too long.  What worked in the past, no longer seems appropriate for our contemporary world.  I find turning on the lights to be an apt metaphor for my own shift toward more active and participatory models of student learning.  Over the past few years, I’ve begun to integrate a wider range of technologies into my art history classes.  My experience, along with the experiments I see others doing in a range of disciplines, has caused me to radically reevaluate my classroom goals and the pedagogical approach that I have used throughout my career.

I started this site as a collection of my current thoughts, professional interests, and materials I’ve developed.  I welcome your comments and contributions.  Thanks for visiting.