CU Boulder Ethnic Studies Assistant Professor Bianca Williams encouraged her students to use Tumblr to archive the cultural multimedia that they found in their research.
One of the gifts and strengths of teaching Africana Studies and Anthropology courses is the opportunity to have students connect the theories of race, gender, and sexualities they learn in the classroom to their everyday life experiences. During the semester (and sometimes long after they have left my courses), students frequently send me music videos, films, YouTube tutorials, blog posts, email discussions, and various forms of narrative media connected to the topics we have discussed in class. Through these digital links, students show that they are making connections between practice and theory, and finding ways to apply the tools learned in the classroom to the other lenses they utilize to make sense of the world.
My project during the Teaching with Technology Faculty Workshop was to create an exercise that encouraged students to curate the various Internet and multi-media sources they found that connected to the themes and topics of my “Black Women, Popular Culture, and The Pursuit of Happiness” seminar course. Instead of sending dozens of emails to share these resources with one another and having to comb the Internet or our inboxes to find these sources at a later date, I thought it would be more effective to create a digital archive that students could tailor for themselves and potentially share with their classmates. For example, one of the texts we used in the course this semester was Beyonce’s latest multi-media album. Within five days of the album release, there were over thirty blogs posts, video commentaries, TV episodes, and pictorial editorials dedicated to the debate about whether the album and its creator were legitimately part of a (Black) feminist movement. In a project like this, a student could gather all of these digital materials in one place, creating a database for anyone interested in this topic (and the ever-changing contours of the discussion), while creating a great archive for them to draw on as they wrote a final paper on the topic.
“Black Women and Happiness” provides an introduction to Black feminist thought while discussing how race and gender influence one’s definition and pursuit of happiness. In the course, students explore personal notions of happiness, while also examining the social, political, and economic factors that influence one’s access to happiness. I wanted to create an exercise that allowed students to engage in a form of authentic learning, where they could apply the theories of gendering, racialization, and happiness from the course to the media they consume and produce in their own time. By discussing how they were curating their archives, I hoped that this would lead to even more student engagement with both me (the professor) and between peers. Additionally, participating in this exercise would assist students in growing a sense of information literacy, encouraging them to pay careful attention to various modes of storytelling and narrative production, while assessing evidence and audience.
Initially, I thought that this project would result in a course webpage or some other localized archive of multi-media texts. While some suggested that creating a simple folder on D2L or Dropbox would suffice, I was aiming for a more dynamic, interactive space where students could collect sources, put them into conversation with one another, and share them with others interested in the same topic. After reviewing a few online curating tools such as Pinterest, Storify, Evernote, and Scoop.it, I decided to use Tumblr for this exercise. Tumblr’s interface seemed user-friendly and had clean lines; it connected easily to Facebook, which students already utilized quite a bit to find and share their multi-media resources; and many of the students in the class reported they already had personal Tumblr accounts, which meant the technological learning curve would be non-existent for most.
I did not have the opportunity to introduce this exercise to students at the beginning of the semester. However, the seventeen students in this upper-level undergraduate and graduate course were excited about the prospect of completing a digital archive connected to a course theme for extra credit. This allowed students to create a digital archive as they searched for outside resources for their final papers on race, gender, and happiness, and to use their Tumblr pages as capstone commentary on what they had learned in the course.
Three weeks before the last day of class, I handed out a worksheet describing what I was looking for in this Tumblr assignment that interrogated the connections between race, gender, and happiness. Students were to curate Internet images, videos, or any other form of media to create a page that comprised a consistent commentary on a theme from the course. A week later, students complained that choosing one theme was either too rigid or too overwhelming for them. Subsequently, I decided to spend some class time discussing the assignment and figuring out how to make it successful.
Ensuring that students engaged in a conversation with one another, we spent time discussing the ten words or theoretical concepts students felt encapsulated the most important ideas from the course. These ten words acted as a word bank that guided students in their digital archive creation. For each source (image/video/etc) included in their archive, students could provide commentary in one of two ways: (1) write a brief paragraph (5-7 sentences) describing how they felt the source connected to one of the words from the word bank; or (2) post a short introductory video (5-7 min) that described the concepts they used and how these connected to the content on their Tumblr. The Tumblr page had to be comprised of at least seven pieces of content, and the link to the Tumblr had to be emailed to me by midnight on the last day of class.
I would say that the digital archive exercise was partly successful. The preliminary in-class discussion which created the word bank was very successful in that it (1) permitted us to engage in a brief review of course concepts as an entire class; (2) displayed which ideas students thought were most important, and allowed them to discuss where they had seen the concepts in practice outside the classroom; and (3) acted as its own capstone conversation right before they wrote final papers. We had a wonderful discussion about the different ways race, gender, and happiness are represented and included in visual media (like photography and graphic design) and auditory media (such as music and slam poetry). After this introduction to the exercise and the class discussion, many students were enthusiastic about the opportunity to complete the extra credit assignment.
However, when the assignment was actually due, only four of the seventeen students decided to complete it. This was understandable, as the assignment was extra credit. Additionally, the students and I had just completed a particularly productive, yet emotionally-trying semester discussing individual and collective experiences with mental health crises, and exploring connections between power and access to happiness. Many students experienced a tough time synthesizing their personal narratives and the theoretical concepts into an eight-page paper, and spent the majority of the time at the end of the semester focusing on this paper, which was a significant portion of their final grade. However, at least six students began the Tumblr exercise, stating that this initial process of curating helped them make their papers more focused. In this way, the Tumblr assignment acted as a funnel and sifter for personal brainstorming and theoretical mindmapping for their final papers. Thus, many of the words in the word bank, and the sources they wanted to include in their digital archives showed up not only in their final papers, but also in their class presentations.
The four students that actually completed the assignment created Tumblr pages that were provocative and introduced me to several mainstream media sources (such as T.V. shows and music videos) that provided useful commentary on race, gender, and happiness. Their Tumblr pages included poetry, GIFs, short video clips, images of paintings, and photography that connected to the key words from the course they wanted to highlight. I will be using some of these resources in future semesters when I teach this course. The order of the resources, the quotes from texts, and the brief paragraphs describing how they viewed the Tumblr’s contents as connected showed that the students were using the tools from the course to analyze their consumption of multiple forms of media content and venues. Through the layout of the Tumblr page, and the choices made during the process of curating, I gained some insight into how the course affected students personally, which is also useful information. Additionally, a couple of students shared their Tumblr pages with friends and students not in the class, using the page as a way to introduce others to the theoretical concepts of the course. I thought this was a wonderful way of authentically learning, and passing on the knowledge to others not able to be in this particular seminar.
I would definitely use this digital archive exercise in the classroom during a future semester. Next time, however, I would carve room in the lesson plan to introduce the assignment at the beginning of the course, and use it as a tool throughout the semester. This way students could begin curating earlier, observing how their interpretation and analysis of the pieces change as they progress through the course. Also, this would permit students more time to gather a deeper archive, and organize it in a way most useful for them. Last, just as they engaged in a peer review for their final papers, I would have students engage in a peer review process for their Tumblrs also, allowing their peers to provide feedback and additional sources that may add to their digital archive.
I conclude from the low percentage of participation in the Tumblr extra credit assignment that it was not a complete success. However, on the last day of class, students decided to create a private Facebook group for the course, allowing those that wanted to continue a conversation about the course themes and topics, and share media resources they came across that they felt were important. Students asked that their peers who had completed the Tumblr assignment jump start this discussion by posting some of the images, videos, and other sources into this Facebook group, or posting the link to their Tumblr pages. I counted this as a success.