girl using phone

What Would Boccaccio Tweet?

Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic Licenseimage by by  Sebastiaan ter Burg

by Shawn Maureen Powers

Serious Rejiggering

The textbook weighs nearly four pounds. The timeline of the topics to be presented spans from 3500 BCE to the Protestant Reformation in the 16th and 17th centuries. The topics include visual arts, political theory, literature, music, philosophy, anthropology, history, and sociology, among others. This expansive offering is the survey of the humanities course, a nearly ubiquitous feature of the liberal arts curriculum in higher education.

The field of higher education teaching and curriculum design has an extensive literature on the challenges inherent in the survey course. The issue of coverage versus uncoverage has been pursued by history departments (Calder, 2006; Sample, 2011; Sipress & Voelker, 2011), while the loss of prestige among the disciplines represented in the survey arena has been explored by others (Altschuler & Blumin, 2000; Agresto, 2011; Farganis, 1989; Tyrrell, 2005).

The field of higher education teaching and curriculum design has an extensive literature on the challenges inherent in the survey course.

Another issue worthy of consideration is the relevance of the course material to a 21st-century young adult. The news information sources of higher education publish accounts on the death of liberal arts education on a nearly weekly basis. Yet, given the requirements found in many general education programs, courses in the liberal arts remain in university catalogs.

In preparing for my first foray into teaching Introduction to Humanities at a private, nonprofit university, I found myself reliving the survey history courses I had taken as an undergraduate nearly 30 years earlier. As I lifted the four pounds of department-approved humanities textbook onto my lap and read through its coverage of Western human expression, the original source documents of my undergraduate studies danced in my head. References to the Hundred Years’ War prompted me to pick up my copy of Froissart’s Chronicles (1968) and consider using excerpts to whet the Middle Ages palate of my students. The exploration of empire in ancient Rome inspired me to consider Tacitus’s The Annals of Imperial Rome (1971). And Machiavelli’s The Prince (1984) was a highlight in my history course of long ago, so perhaps we could read it as an introduction to political theory.

But upon reflection, it was clear that I was defaulting to college teaching as I had experienced it in the 1980s. While the ideas and themes to be culled from Tacitus and Machiavelli remain relevant to the world of undergraduates in 2015, the integration and application of these themes needed serious rejiggering.

At the 2013 annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges & Universities, I had the great pleasure of attending a session titled “Disrupting Student Work: Designing Meaningful General Education Assignments” (Hanstedt, 2013). In the session, Paul Hanstedt of Roanoke College presented an assignment design construct that promotes student ownership of the knowledge covered in general education courses, like our survey of the humanities. The student ownership of knowledge is produced by realigning assignments to be directed to an audience of non-specialists or the general public, as opposed to the generic research paper that is implicitly directed to an audience of the professor for evaluation. In doing this, Hanstedt (2013) argued, students are engaging in a real-world practice because they aren’t using academic language. This approach is more similar to what students would experience on the job or out in the community.

Examples of Hanstedt’s (2012) disruptive assignments include explaining the biological ramifications of a land reclamation project in a paper to a policy board unfamiliar with the biology discipline; using theories from a psychology textbook to offer a friend seeking advice about a combative relationship; and role playing as the World Health Organization advisory board to evaluate dietary habits of a region and propose recommendations.

The New England Patriots and Trajan’s Column

Borrowing Hanstedt’s (2012) design template proved easy for Introduction to Humanities. The first occasion arose with an exploration of Sophocles’s play, Antigone (Sophocles, 2000). Following a session of reviewing excerpts from the play and articulating themes from the exploration, I asked students, many of whom were majors in the business school, to develop a quick and dirty marketing plan for a made-up production of Antigone on campus. The plan had to include a targeted audience from the campus population and the reason for selecting the audience as based on a theme or themes found in the play. Many students focused on the university’s large veteran population as an apt audience for Antigone, noting the tension between the mandates of service and individual ethics—much like the tension felt by the citizens of Thebes between the laws of the state and those of the gods.

Another disruption occurred with a unit test on ancient Greece and ancient Rome. In our humanities exploration of these eras, we had talked about the commemorative drive within ancient Rome to celebrate triumphs and victories. We also viewed the monuments built for these occasions and noted the forms often used in these efforts. On their test of these eras, students were asked to brainstorm a recent event or occasion that warranted commemoration. They were to select from one of the forms used by ancient Romans for commemoration purposes and provide a reason for why the selected form was appropriate to the event being memorialized. Given our location in New England, there were a number of submissions that detailed the commemoration of one of the professional sports teams in the region. These submissions focused on celebrating the triumph of national championships, and the forms included larger-than-life sculptures of key players and coaches as well as columns detailing key plays or innings of the particular team’s triumph, as exemplified by Trajan’s Column in ancient Rome. Just as many students, however, focused on the Boston Marathon bombing as a tribute to those whose lives were lost or forever altered. Many of the forms were sculptures that included references to the finish line of the marathon.

One is inclined to ask if these disruptions were successful. One method of assessment can include the completion rate for these disruptive activities. The completion rate for the marketing Antigone assignment was 100 percent, which is what one should expect in a college course. However, completion rates can also be assessed according to timeliness. In the case of marketing Antigone, the students completed the work by the date and time it was due. Again, one would expect this level of compliance in a college course, but this is not always the case.

Perhaps the greatest sense of success emerged from qualitative sources. One of these sources emerged from unsolicited comments in the students’ journals. In an attempt to give pause in the survey course for students to reflect on the essential questions that are guiding our exploration, I try to set aside at least 10 minutes each week for students to respond in class to a writing prompt. One week, students were asked to map the idea of morality to human expression in ancient Greece. The journals included several comments about the learning experience in our session on Antigone and the application of those sessions to the assignment. One remark was, “This was my favorite session so far” (student A, personal communication, October 2, 2015).

In assessing the effectiveness of the exam question, a related look at compliance is helpful. The commemoration question was one of two offered as optional, extra credit, short-essay questions on the exam. Ninety-three percent of the students opted for the extra credit. Of those seeking additional points, one-half selected the commemoration question. However, two-thirds of those applying the ancient Roman commemorative motif to a current event failed to provide a reason for why the selected form of statue, column, etc. was especially appropriate for the chosen event.

The possible reasons for this phenomenon are numerous. They might include students not reading through the entirety of the question before responding and submitting the completed exam, not enough emphasis in the text of the question or the required elements for the response, or not enough scaffolding within the course on the particularities of the forms of human expression and their uniqueness for commemorative purposes.

Despite the formative data that suggest the need to revise both the course delivery and the essay design, there was qualitative evidence that supported the effectiveness of this disruption. At the conclusion of the exam, students told me how much they liked the commemoration essay. Reasons for this might include the opportunity they had to connect to their world and the engagement of creativity in answering the question. Regardless, I was confident I had found a means of engaging active critical thinking in a summative assessment.


Disruption of this survey course has also manifested in using social media. Inspired by conferences, digital journals, field articles, and more, these disruptive attempts embrace the ethos of meeting students where they are. I am currently using the framework of social media applications to assist in bringing contemporary relevance to our studies of humanistic practices of long ago.

Disruption of this survey course has also manifested in using social media. Inspired by conferences, digital journals, field articles, and more, these disruptive attempts embrace the ethos of meeting students where they are.

At the start of the course, I used digital image applications as both an icebreaker and a conceptual introduction to the study of the humanities. Students were asked on the first day of class to review their own digital visual collections. These might be found within such online sites as Pinterest, Tumblr, Flickr, or some other, more recent app that is utterly unknown to their Gen-X professor. Or the collection might simply be found on their smartphones. This digital assignment asked students to select (curate) five of their saved photos. They were asked to respond to a series of questions that probed what they view as happening in the photos and how they came to know what was happening. Was it because of what they see in the pictures, or was it because of what they remember from the time the photo was taken?

This probing is meant to prepare students for the visual thinking strategy (Yenawine, 2013) we used in class. The strategy is a protocol based on Abigail Housen’s (2002) work in developing critical thinking through imagery. In using the students’ own digital collections as a starting place, my hope was to reduce the inhibition of approaching the high art found in a college survey course while also presenting the role of interpretation in our view of history.

Another example of social media occurred later in the course as we explored the black death in the Middle Ages. Our textbook features experts of Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron, written in the 14th century highlighting its “objective attention to human society” (Fiero, 2015, p. 364). This introduction to social realism in our historical exploration provided the connection towards employing 21st-century social media as an exercise in integration and application.

After reviewing Boccaccio’s introduction, which explicitly describes the effects of the bubonic plague on the human body, along with Fiero’s (2015) account of how people of the time dealt with the prospect of the black death, students were assigned to create a Twitter tweet and hashtag. Assuming the role of latter-day Boccaccios, the students’ tweets needed to offer advice about how to manage the plague culture in which they found themselves. They could use the contemporary linguistics of texting but could not apply current scientific knowledge in their advice.

Most of the tweets offered advice that used options available in the 14th century, as outlined in the Fiero (2015) text. The real charm and integrative thinking came from the hashtags. Some examples of these include #NeighborsRuinEverything, #EatSleepPlagueRepeat, and #TheseRatsAintLoyal. Jesse Stommel (2012) of Georgia Tech writes that “a clever text-message or tweet unravels, offering layers of meaning and interpretability for the reader” (para. 8) in an act that evokes “playfulness” (para. 7). These descriptors were evident with my students, one of whom, upon receiving the assignment, exclaimed to the room, “This is the best assignment yet” (student B, personal communication, November 10, 2015).

Both of these assignments were characterized by a 100 percent completion rate and on-time submission. The Boccaccio Twitterfeed assignment was also characterized by a 100 percent compliance to the requirements of the assignment in applying the historical limitations to the content of the tweets. Being the first assignment of the semester, the digital assignment served a formative function in that only 50 percent of the students successfully completed each element required in the assignment. Again, the data from digital provided information on the students and their capacity to follow directions and helped me understand how to revise the assignment in subsequent semesters to ensure student success. Those revisions can include simplifying the tasks required or revising the assignment text to make the tasks more explicit.

Mezzes and Live Art

Midway through my inaugural semester in teaching Introduction to Humanities, I found myself seated at a café in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, sharing a mezze platter with a faculty member from the humanities department at my university. Each semester, the university takes students to the museum to do research for their museum papers, where students write about a work of art from the time period covered by our curriculum. It’s a standard assignment used in college art history courses, which I remember from my own undergraduate experience. My colleague and I talked about how the course needed revision, noting it was designed as a lecture-based experience. She explained how she was going to embark on a yearlong overhaul of the course to move it into a seminar-based delivery. I mentioned some of my own disruptive activities over the semester.

However, I didn’t mention a disruption that was happening with my students there at the museum. While my students were doing the required research for the museum paper, their reasons for the research were vastly different from the students in my colleague’s section of the course. I changed the paper assignment into the development of a proposal using a made-up scenario in which the president of the university was working with a wealthy donor to bring works of art on loan to the campus. The impulse for the president in doing this was because of the inherent insight that is gained from seeing a work of art in person instead of through a photographic representation projected onto a screen. This phenomenon of the live observation was happening for real in the students’ research that afternoon at the museum.

As I write this article, we are in the final weeks of the semester and the students are submitting their museum papers next week. It has been an exhilarating experience in both adopting and disrupting a survey course curriculum. As with any new teaching experience, each assignment and lesson plan is a petri dish of formative assessment. I have already begun revisions on the activities where instructions weren’t followed by all students. I have noted where greater scaffolding (which can include other disruptive activities) needs to happen to facilitate greater success in the integrative tasks I am requiring of my students. Next week, I will step out of the classroom for 15 minutes so my students can complete their course evaluations. I hope to learn if tweeting, proposing, and curating made a difference in their connecting to the past.

Shawn Maureen Powers is Assistant Dean at Southern New Hampshire University’s School of Arts & Sciences.


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