Reading the Faces of Ancient Cultures

Reading the Faces of Ancient Cultures

by Hallie Franks
Spring 2017

I have tried in the past to incorporate class presentations as part of students’ work for the semester. As much as we emphasize critical reading, writing, and participation in class discussion at Gallatin, it has always seemed important to me to hone students’ more formal oral presentation skills as well. But in-class presentations were consistently disappointing: students tended not to prepare sufficiently (perhaps because they see these presentations as an extension of their classroom participation?); in part as a result of this, time was impossible to manage; and while I suspect that the lack of preparation for some stemmed from comfort in speaking to the class, it remained the case that for others, “public” presentations are a truly terrifying prospect. 

The idea for having students do “presentations” as videos came out of discussions with Gallatin’s Educational Technologist Jenny Kijowski about how to use digital technologies to engage students with visual material. In my “Ancient Faces” class, my students now do a final “oral presentation” in the form of a video project that asks them to present an object of their choice from a local museum. The assignment itself is fairly flexible in that students can choose any pre-modern image of a human and they are in full creative control of the aesthetics of their video. But this happens within specific parameters: 
  • The video must offer a brief formal analysis of the object (a skill that we work on throughout the semester and that involves close description and interpretation).
  • The video should focus on specific visual details that are important for interpretation.
  • The video should include details of contextualization, comparison, or scholarly analysis that contribute to the student’s interpretation of the object.
  • The video cannot be more than 5 minutes long.
  • The narration must be in the student’s own voice.
I am clear that grading is based on content, not on skills in video editing. A student can upload a single recording of their voice with one image that lasts all 5 minutes—which is how I recorded my own “sample” video. But most choose to drop in at least a couple of details or comparison images. We set aside a class period a few weeks before the video is due, so that Jenny can come to the class and explain the basics of iMovie. If students don’t have access to an iPhone or computer, they can rent Gallatin recording equipment. 
 
The videos are uploaded to NYU Stream to a closed channel, so that students can access my sample video and each others’ videos, but no one is required to make their own video public. 
 
I’ve found that this has been a really satisfying replacement to the standard oral presentations in class. 
  • Students are forced to be focused and to prepare what they say because the length of the video is set at a (very short!) 5 minutes. (In addition to my sample video, I also distribute the script that I read from, so that they have an idea of how few words can fill 5 minutes.)
  • My sense is that the format, which results in a kind of permanence that the classroom presentation does not (even if it is not publicly shared), encourages students to think more about polish and presentation. But because they are recording themselves, they can do a variety of takes or edit their presentation, and so feel they have more control over how they present themselves than they do in a “live” presentation. 
  • Although one of the significant points of the course is that engagement with objects in person and in the museum context is a different experience than working with photographs, students interact in really interesting and unusual ways when they are photographing and videoing an object for a project like this. They often discover details that they didn’t notice even when looking in person, or they pick up on how different viewing angles change the perception of the object. 
  • The space for creativity is larger here. I am clear that grading is based on content, but students who really enjoy and are skilled in video production—or who want to experiment with it—have produced some lovely, creative, engaging, hilarious videos that speak more to their individual approaches to the material and presentation than a traditional presentation would.
“...one of the crucial aspects of using digital technology successfully is that it should help in accomplishing specific goals without detracting from that learning experience with too steep a technological learning curve...”
To my mind, one of the crucial aspects of using digital technology successfully is that it should help in accomplishing specific goals without detracting from that learning experience with too steep a technological learning curve (shifting grading from form to content is key here, as is making clear that Gallatin’s Office of Educational Technology is there to help them!). This project has really helped me to incorporate and underline for students the importance of formal oral presentation while bypassing the pitfalls that had made in-class presentations so unsuccessful in past semesters. And seeing their classmates through their own videos is a much less stressful and more entertaining way to end the semester than making sure everyone has time to present!