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In September I will be delivering a plenary address at the American College of Greece in Athens about active learning and gamification in higher education. I'm immersing myself in as much on this topic as possible and would love to hear others' thoughts on the issue.

I have been "gaming" since 2007, when I first started using the pedagogy Reacting to the Past. Just about anyone who knows me also knows that I am committed to the Reacting pedagogy. Reacting consists of highly immersive role-playing games, set in a historical period. Each student has his or her own role that comes with a  character sheet with victory objectives, strategy, and key ideas. Students must read primary texts from the time period (for instance Plato's Republic for Athens game set in 403 BCE and Rosseau's Social Contract for the French Revolution game) and use references from those works in speeches to persuade people to their side of the issues in order to WIN. And students really do want to win; their competitive natures come out. Because reading and writing can help you to win, students realize that doing "work" can lead to something worthwhile - and even fun.

This is what the gamification movement seems to promise, but it appears to be mostly tied to the realm of video games. Reacting seems to be on the fringe or the edge of this movement, because it's not a video game. Although Reacting games can be played online, and have been used that way successfully by some of my colleagues, the pedagogy essentially is a face-to-face active learning technique and is one of my favorite options when I incorporate the flipped classroom paradigm.

I need to learn more about gamification in other arenas beyond Reacting. From what I have learned so far, it seems to me that students will see right through the idea of "levels" and "badges." I am concerned that adding those particular elements as part of a course won't really make it any more "fun." I was watching a video of Gabe Zichermann talking about gamification (October 26, 2010), and the speaker had this image up:

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He was suggesting that the bottom words are not associated very much with fun - but the words above in color are associated more often with fun. It seems that the move towards gamification in higher education is an effort to make school more fun.

This gets to the heart of what I think about day in and day out: I teach because I want my students to learn. But I also want my classes to be engaging places where students are active. I wish I had more evidence to back this up (does anyone out there have such studies?), but I do think that students who are engaged in classes also learn more. I think the flipped classroom has allowed my students to be more engaged, and yes, have more fun. I know that I have a lot of fun right alongside them when they are involved in the class. And I am learning from them, too.

I know I need to do more research, reading and study to better understand this arena of gamification in higher education. I am hoping that some wise sages out there can point me in some directions about what to read, and tell me whether or not the levels and badges really lead to deeper learning. Maybe I am just cynical, but if I were to call "learning about the Sutton Hoo Ship Burial" a "Quest" I would get some eye-rolls. And this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education by (October 29, 2015) seems to suggest that we should not give in to where students are. But I wonder, is the alternative to leave them behind if they don't ever learn like they are "supposed" to?

I am planning to incorporate some "leveled" quizzes and will incorporate the idea of adaptive release in my hybrid class History of Western Art this coming fall semester. Students will have a randomly selected set of images that are fairly easy to identify for art history survey in each module. After that, a second quiz will include more difficult images. Is that gamification? Somehow I think the Reacting games, case studies and peer review sessions that I am planning for the face-to-face portions of that class are going to make more of an impact, but I am set to give it a try.

Readers: what else should I read and learn about as I work through this new area of teaching?



It seems that I only ever have time to post to this blog, that is supposed to be all about teaching, when I am finished with a semester. Once again, I am finished with a semester, and I find myself thinking over my immediate past experiences with my students.

What I am thinking about the most now, two days after graduating the Class of 2016 at McDaniel College, are all the students that I was most excited about seeing graduate. I won't post their names, but some of them (if they see this post) will know who they are. They are the students who did not get awards. They didn't write the best papers. They didn't have high GPAs; as a matter of fact in a few instances, I'm betting that they just squeaked by with a high enough GPA to graduate.

But these are the students that speak to me. They move me and inspire me. These are the students that I love to teach.

Right now I am pondering, why? Why is this the group that makes me want to be a better professor? Why is it not the top students? We have some stellar students who are very high-achieving. I had the privilege of teaching one of the students who won the top writing award at graduation and one of the students who won the award for the highest GPA is in my major, and we're very proud of her.

And yet. I kept thinking of my middle of the road students: my baseball players from my FYS.  The student in my class this semester whose friend died and who stepped up with her friends to make sure requirements were met so her departed friend would be awarded her degree, albeit posthumously.

I wonder if my focus on the middle is because the way we set up graduation and even education is so hierarchical. Of course I want to commend the very best students. But sometimes I worry that doing so gives the middle students a feeling of futility. I wonder if they feel that since they likely are never going to reach those lofty heights of a 4.0 GPA, they just disengage. Do our expectations of precision in citations (something that is probably anathema to admit but  drives me crazy as a scholar in the field), drive students to just give up? The top students master it, sure. But what about the vast majority of the others? Where are they?

All of this has led me to embrace active learning pedagogies in my classes. They debate, read, discuss, analyze, write, meet, present, and lead. I would love to hear from them through this post. Because I want to know:

Did this make you want to learn? Do you think you learned? More? The same? Did it "stick"?

What about my colleagues? What say you? Are the middle of the pack students worthy of some love? If so, in what form?



In 2006 I attended my first Reacting to the Past annual Institute at Barnard College in New York City. I went with the worst attitude imaginable. And it was August and sweltering in New York. And I had to stay in a residence hall. Games for teaching sounded juvenile (oh, can you hear the whining?). I was as skeptical as they come.

But I was transfixed by the students who were there to help faculty members, who, like me, had not prepared an iota of material for the games we were to play in condensed form over the four-day conference. Those students made me realize that Reacting was a powerful pedagogy that could change my own students' learning in profound ways.

I took a leap of faith and first used Reacting to the Past in my First Year Seminar in the fall of 2007. I will admit it: it was hard. Reacting requires you to trust the students, and to put the material and the topics in their hands and see what they do with it.  But it was also the most transformative experience as a teacher I have ever had. I saw my students explore, engage, research, write and speak in ways I had not before.

Flash ahead to me a semester or two later, walking across campus one day. I realized that there was a game I could use in every art history class that I teach at my liberal arts college, with the exception of my nineteenth-century art class. And, as the saying goes about necessity being the mother of invention, my next thought was, "Well, I guess I will just have to write a game."

And so I did.

With the help of game designer extraordinaire, Nicolas W. Proctor, Professor of History at Simpson College and Editorial Board chair for the Reacting Consortium, and Michael A. Marlais, now-retired Endowed Professor of Art History from Colby College and a specialist in late nineteenth-century French art criticism, we went about crafting a game that I would use in my nineteenth-century art class. The result was Modernism versus Traditionalism: Art in Paris, 1888-89. I chose the dates of 1888-89 for a specific reason: I am bothered by the scholarly narrative that indicates that Van Gogh and Gauguin somehow had actual authoritative power in the art world at that time. Reality was starkly different.

The game includes artists from the Academy who follow a more traditional approach to what art should be about. Think Bouguereau, Meissonier.  The Impressionists are included, among them Monet, Renoir, and Degas as well as a few American artists including Cassatt and Whistler. The Avant-garde is there, too, with Van Gogh and Gauguin making their calls for the modern in art.  Several critics are in the game, and they function to help the artists who adhere to certain aesthetic considerations. To help students understand the beginnings of the commodification of art, I added two dealers who compete with each other for sales of art.

The game begins in the 1888 Salon, when the characters defend or decry the selection of Detaille's painting The Dream as the recipient of the Medal of Honor in the Salon. That day, and the subsequent days, students in character debate the current state of art (as indicated by the art in the 1888 Salon) and the future of art that they all have a hand in shaping. The last day of the game is a recreation of the 1889 World Exposition in Paris, for which the Eiffel Tower was built. All of the artists are required to "show art" that they hope will sell. However, only "secret buyers," who are recruited by me in a large crowd that I invite to the Exposition, can actually buy anything with a special "certificate of sale." The buyers must remain secret to try to achieve some sense of how art buying works: no one knows who in a large crowd might actually buy a painting. Students playing artists, critics, and dealers must try to steer all of the visitors to the art for which they advocate, in hopes of making a sale.

I first ran the game in 2009. In addition to Admissions staff and other administrators and faculty colleagues, I invited several individuals from our Communications and Marketing division to come to the 1889 World Exposition. That led to this story about the first run of the Art in Paris game. I still keep in touch with the "first Bouguereau," (seen in pictures that accompany this story with the bow tie and pink shirt). He was the most bohemian student I have ever had the privilege to teach and he still remembers the game after graduating . He was happy to play an artist against his "type;" he told me he felt he learned more by doing so.

Modernism vs. Traditionalism: Art in Paris, 1888-89 has been used at well over thirty different institutions, including different countries. Others have written about their experiences with it on the Art History Teaching Resources site, such as this post by Keri Watson. The creation of this game has been one of the most satisfying scholarly projects of my career. The publication process for writing a Reacting game is extensive and includes two levels: play-tests at conferences and peer-review by those in the field and by those with game design experience. Art in Paris debuted at Reacting's annual Institute in 2010, and will be played again at this year's annual Institute as well (June 9-12, 2016).

A number of other art history games are being created in the wake of Art in Paris, by my colleagues Mary Beth Looney (The American Artists' Congress: 1935-1939), Marie Gasper-Helvat (1863 Salon des refusés and Guerrilla Girls in our Midst: 1984-1987), Paula Lazrus (Il Duomo di Santa Maria del Fiori: Florence, 1418), Carol Brash (Photography: Art, Science, Document?), as well as Rebecca Livingstone, Kelly McFall, and Abby Perkiss, who have together created Memory and Monument Building: The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, 1980-1982.

For those who have not heard of Reacting to the Past, I urge you to go to a conference or the annual Institute. It will change the way you think about engaging students in the material.

And you might even have a lot of fun doing it.


I know many people have heard of the "flipped" method of education. Essentially, it is the paradigm of old: students do homework and come to class prepared and then new material is covered. I've heard many faculty in higher education scoff at this method, saying that it's actually "what they have always done."

But how many students of your students actually do the reading? Can you tell?

And if students are going to come to class and hear you speak and lecture on the same material, why should they read it ahead of time? Most college students are busy with jobs, other classes, and yes, a social life. It is part of college. How many of us maybe skipped a reading or two (or more?!) in the course of our college lives if we're honest?

While it is true that faculty have always assigned textbook and other homework, one of the new elements that changes this paradigm is technology. There are now newer - and often free - ways to get across content information ahead of class that can lead to more engagement inside the classroom.

I've talked before about whose responsibility it is to engage students on my own blog. I believe that it is partly my job to find ways to have students want to engage in the material. In my upper level art history classes, I have found all kinds of ways to increase student engagement. But the art history survey was proving a very hard nut to crack. That changed in the Fall of 2014, when, coming off of a sabbatical, I realized I could harness the power of online education for the student work ahead of coming to class and then do something to really engage students with the works of art that so energize me as an art historian, and as a human being, in the classroom. In essence, I realized, I could flip the survey.

I used the Khan Academy Art History videos that were first created by Drs. Beth Harris and Steve Zucker, but have been added to by many other fine scholars and teachers over the years. For the flipped art history survey, students watched these videos and then came to class to engage in the ideas of the period in question. I usually assigned about six to seven videos or texts from Khan Academy ahead of time. I make all links available in our class' Blackboard shell. A quiz was given at the start of class in the form of an annotated image that students sometimes filled out individually or in pairs.  This is one example of the quiz on the Woman of Willendorf. After the quizzes, we engaged in deeper discussion of the period in question. For instance, during the prehistoric unit, I included a case study in which hunter-gatherers faced specific threats and difficulties as they decided whether or not to transition to farming, a scenario based on a Reacting to the Past game by my colleague Paula K. Lazrus.

I attended a great presentation by Lynn and Bob Gillette on the flipped pedagogy at a Lilly Conference in Bethesda, MD in 2014 before I embarked on this experiment. One of their suggestions was more like a warning: “if you lecture on material you assign, you die!” This warning resonated deeply with me. At times I thought, “Well, what will I do if I don’t lecture on this material?”

This is the key to teaching in this manner: use the technology but make sure class time is devoted to deep immersion in the ideas and themes of the works of art and cultures themselves. And, truthfully, at times this was a daunting task.

In fact, the most difficult part of the flipped pedagogy is not lecturing on the material. If you do, you lose the integrity of why you assigned the videos and readings in the first place. To illustrate, one of my favorite experiments in this course focused on the art of the Minoans. Upon coming to class, I split them into teams of “archaeologists.” I created a website entitled “Mystery Culture,” being sure not to refer to them as the Minoans per se.

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I included information on this “mystery culture’s” paintings and other objects, and gave them some geographic information with a map. They were not able to do any research on the computers, but had to use only these objects on this website and visual analysis to construct the basic tenets of the civilization. Then, each group had to present their findings at a press conference. Afterwards, I revealed “The Truth.”

I heard from several students that this was one of their favorite activities from the semester. Rather than my lecturing about the Minoan culture, they had to engage with the material in a deep way, analyzing it visually and thinking about context. One student said the following about this class, and the Minoan experience specifically:

“Letting students take the lectures out of class (and on their own terms) makes time for personal development. In class, we were more often than not paired with new students and given an unpredictable assignment. These assignments helped us think about art in different ways and gain a real understanding of the material. One class in particular stood out to me. After being placed in a randomly assigned group [she] tasked [each group] with the challenge of predicting the history of a "mysterious" civilization whose name was withheld. My group spent the entire class invested in the material and we deeply debated our different thoughts on this civilization. For the first time I discovered I had a deep love of a subject that I had never given any thought about.”

Based on this student feedback, and other similar comments from student evaluations, I will always teach art history with this flipped model. Students were much more engaged with the material even from the very beginning of the semester, asking many more questions than in the past. One assessment of this experiment was week three, when I realized that I knew all twenty of my students not just superficially, but individually. This is because they had all spoken, asked questions, or otherwise made their individuality known. In my experience, this rarely happens in a lecture class, where I consistently engage with maybe five or six of the overall twenty to twenty-five students in the course. In addition to this personal assessment, these students did just as well on exams as students in the more traditional lecture-based classes.

The keys are these: keep them accountable with some kind of quiz on at least one of the several images assigned; keep them engaged in class with an activity, case study, debate or Reacting to the Past game that focuses on the issues related to the art of the period; and never, ever lecture on the assigned material unless your assessments demonstrate that they missed something significant or have misunderstandings.

This post was written for the Art History Teaching Resources site.

I wrote a guest blog post for the Wiki Education Foundation. You can see read that post here. It describes the Wiki Edit Day assignment that I used with my Writing in the Disciplines class last semester. It was a great assignment and  hope you'll check out that post. The team at Wiki Edu are **great**!

This is a timely post, from Deanna Marcum, Managing Director of Ithaka S+R, the company who helped us with assessment of learning and effectiveness in round one the classes that were constructed and taught for the Council of Independent College's Consortium for Online Humanities Instruction. Round two (for me) will be starting today. A new feature I am adding is a Reacting game on Byzantine Iconoclasm. I'm going to try to teach it as a game, rather than a staged debate like last time. A few of my Reacting to the Past colleagues have had success in online Reacting games, so I am going to give it a try.

Here is to the second round of innovative courses, with students enrolling from across the consortium's schools. Updates to come!

For the fall semester (2015), I taught our department's Writing in the Discipline course. It seeks to teach majors in both studio art and art history at the junior level the basics of visual arts writing, but also how to do research in the field. They are taught the basics of visual analysis and also wrote several art exhibition reviews based on the gallery shows that we have in our college art gallery.

But the main assignment was research on a work of art of their choosing that was written in the form of an exhibition entry. The entries spanned the middle ages to the Futurists. Their exhibition can be viewed here.

Another part of this assignment was a wikipedia edit on their work. More will be written about that in a coming post for Wikipedia that I will  link here.


The semester is coming to a close, and I am thinking a lot (as usual) about teaching. This semester I taught a 2000-level course on Roman Art and Architecture. This course is, essentially, a general education course, with students from a variety of majors taking it for a requirement. I had a few majors in the course (I think two and I recruited one). Thus, the majority of my students were majoring in subjects other than art history. I like it that way. But it does bring about some problems, namely that since they are not already invested in the material as their choice of majors, I feel that I have the responsibility to make the course engaging.

And this is where I am finding that I differ from some of my colleagues. It has me thinking: what is my responsibility in terms of engaging students in this course? What is the individual student’s responsibility? Where do these responsibilities overlap, if they do at all?

I want an active classroom. From my reading and research, I have come to understand that students learn more by doing and not from passively listening to a lecture, no matter how captivating the lecturer might be (and I would like to think that I am pretty engaging). This is not a condemnation of the lecture model, however, it is a statement that some will take to be controversial. I am not sure why. Except this: in saying that lecturing is passive, some will feel that it’s enough, that they don’t have a responsibility to make the course interesting, and that they feel it is the responsibility of the student to be engaged.

I’m not sure I agree that it’s up to them because I am not sure that students know how to be engaged. I say this in part because I have some students who are “middle of the pack.” They are C/B students. They don’t have great skills at writing/reading. They have to do those things in my courses, but they are not among the top 10% of students. How do I engage them? Don’t they deserve the same chance at engagement as the student who can read and write well?

I had a couple of experiences in my Roman Art and Architecture class that showed me I am on the right path for student engagement. I had an activity planned for which students had to use material from assignments that were to be completed prior to class. Sometimes, to set up that activity, I lectured for a short period. After that lecture, I sorted them into different groups and asked them to figure a problem out. Examples from this class include certain scenarios that I pre-arrange, such as: you have limited funds and must rank and prioritize five infrastructure projects (roads, aqueducts, walls, etc.) to the Senate and be ready to justify your request for funding in the order you determine. Another day they were advisors to the new emperor Vespasian and had to help him determine the style of his official portraiture. There was a Reacting to the Past game that seemed to be the favorite activity because they played an actual Roman character alive at time the game is set.

The papers I graded this weekend, however, demonstrated to me the deep engagement that the student had this semester. It was my “Daily Life in Ancient Rome” assignment. For this assignment, students choose a socio-economic class that they come from by choosing a slip of paper out of a box. I pre-determine the percentages of how many patricians, plebeians, freedmen and slaves there are vis-à-vis our class enrollment. They choose an identity randomly from the box and must research that socio-economic class and write a paper that talks about where they would go, what they would see, and what they would do in a given day. They usually write in first-person for this assignment, and they can choose the time period in which their day is set. Having just graded those papers, I was amazed at the level of research this year, which demonstrated to me that they were engaged not only in this particular assignment, but the class as a whole. There were references to topics and monuments we had discussed earlier in the semester, as well as new research to bolster their “daily walk around Rome.”

Another assessment of the learning through active engagement this semester was during the class that I held prior to our trip to the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, MD. The Walters has excellent examples of Roman art in their collection. While it’s not an extensive collection, the pieces are excellent examples of the different periods of Roman art, ranging from the Republic to the later Empire. When I showed them a sampling of the art monuments that they would see, I asked what sub-period from which each work came. They were spot-on for each work of art I showed them: Republican head; portrait of Vespasian; portrait of Augustus. They named them all. Combined with the “Daily Life” papers, I am convinced that I had a class engaged in the material, but most important to me, I had a class that learned.

I don’t want engagement for the sake of engagement. And I often worry that even when I see them engaged, I don’t know if they are learning. I don’t give a mid-term exam that requires memorization, as I believe that method only tests lower-level learning. I’m not interested in that, because I don’t think that will “stick.” And what is the point if they will just forget that information after they graduate, if they even remember it that long? I do have a final exam, but it, too, is not based on memorization. It asks them to provide what they learned by asking them broad questions about themes from the course. For instance, we talk a lot in this course about the propaganda messages that the emperors were attempting to make with their art and architecture programs. On the final exam I ask them: what propaganda messages through art/architecture do you think was most effective and why, and then I ask them to think about the ones that were ineffective and why. This requires them to know the material, but to think about it in a way that doesn’t require massive memorization of images on a flashcard, which was the way I learned art history.

Am I teaching to the middle, those students who may never have another art history course? Maybe. But I am engaging them, too. My gut tells me that. But my assessments actually prove it.

Fellow college educators, what do you think about your role engaging students?

Last year my institution, McDaniel College, entered into a consortium with nineteen other liberal arts colleges (SLAC) that are members of CIC: the Council of Independent Colleges. Thanks to the Mellon Foundation, CIC was awarded money to fund this project that examined new online models of education and how they might work in a SLAC environment. I was one of the two faculty members from my institution who taught a course fully online. My course was entitled Ways of Seeing Byzantium.

My course was mentioned in a blog post by Bryan Alexander, who is a consultant on the project, helping faculty to find technological tools to support their pedagogical and learning goals for their online classes. You can read his post here. As he says, these are not "MOOCs"; if anything they are the antithesis. I will say this about my online class: I saw deeper engagement in the material because there was more time for students to think about their responses than the immediate and rapid fire expectation that a F2F discussion often requires. Even students who were concurrently enrolled in my F2F classes indicated to me that they liked the online class for different reasons, one of them being longer time to read, consider, and draft their comments.

This coming spring I teach the course again, this time open to students at the other nineteen institutions. I'm looking forward to what those students will add to our discussions.



A friend of mine sent me think link about a Digital Humanities project based at Stanford University by Professor Josiah Ober. This article explains the site and within the article is a link to the DH site itself, called POLIS.

This has me thinking about issues related to my own barely nascent project:

1. A lot of the data that Ober is using was previously published. Ober is well-versed enough in the ancient Greek world to realize that if that very data were put in a new paradigm, different questions could be asked and new answers generated. From the same published data. I think that is very cool.

2. Graduate students helped enter this data. I don't have graduate students and I teach at a place that doesn't have Stanford's resources (to even put my institution and Stanford in the same sentence is nearing silliness). I am just about to embark on a digital project, but this gives me pause. I recall the gurus of my DH for Art History summer workshop, Sharon Leon and Sheila Brennan, noting that we should start small and keep the data "tidy," but I am still feeling rather daunted by what was done with POLIS. My own Italo-Byzantine painting site won't be nearly this large in scope - it's going to be an iconographic project and focused, for now, just on Tuscany in the thirteenth century.

My main question: do people out there have suggestions for someone at the beginning stages of a digital project?