Skip to content

I don't quite know how to explain what I am seeing in my classes with male students, particularly football players, when I employ a type of game in a class.

I am teaching my introductory art history survey course in a hybrid manner. The students access the content of the course online; they watch videos that are ably created and narrated by two art historians which can be found on The students then comment in discussion boards about what they read. The are also required to write papers and carry on reflections on their learning in journals in Blackboard. When we do meet F2F in the classroom, rather than lecturing or quizzing them, I have an active learning scenario planned.

We just finished the module on Greek art, and the active learning technique I employed in the F2F portion of our class was a debate/game mechanism on whether or not the Elgin/Parthenon marbles should be returned to Greece. I gave out roles via email. I had one day F2F in class where students mingled in character at a "party" at the Acropolis Museum. Then we had the debate.

The students that I expected to do well, did. But six of my male student-athletes in the class, who quite frankly have been fairly lackluster so far this semester, really stood out. Their speeches and their comments and questions hit it out of the park. Five of them happened to be football players. If you have been following my blog, you will know that this is becoming something of a theme.

What is it about changing the dynamic of the class that brings about those students who ordinarily fade as much as they can into the background (often, literally, sitting in the back of the room) suddenly rise up and are the stars of the class? I saw it again with this class activity.

I also had a colleague of mine run a focus group with the five football players from my fall 2015 semester of Roman art in order to start to gathering some data about what is happening in my classes, not just with Reacting, but with the other forms of active learning that I employ. I hope to post that information sometime soon.

But this short game in the introductory class provides another piece of evidence that changing it up, what I call "activizing" the classroom, can bring new students to the fore, and have them actively participate in class. They find their voices and they find their power for learning. If we can find a way to shake it up, I find students, some of whom, I would not expect to do so, will rise to the challenge.

I posted this to Facebook last night, and I decided to add it here, to my blog. It was inspired by a win by our McDaniel "Green Terror" Football team, after a very long non-winning streak.

I believe it is largely my responsibility to engage my students. I believe that students in the middle of the pack often get the shaft. Faculty tend to gravitate to those students "like them" - the high achievers. And I love those students, too. And students with extra needs tend to get a ton of attention. And just ask SASS how often I call them to help a student.

I view myself as the Champion of the Middle. Football players tend to be in the middle. They are not the best, nor the worst, students I encounter. I had six of them last fall in Roman Art and decided I was going to make them love the course. By the middle of it, they did (and I have assessments to prove it thanks to Peggy Fosdick). I followed their horrible zero win season last fall, tweeting "My Romans," as I came to call them, before every game to support them. They even inspired me to propose a talk at an international art conference that has been accepted: "A Tale of Six Football Players (and others) and Roman Art."

I have six more players this fall and they have lost three games this year. BUT TODAY THEY WON! I simply love them and their dedication and am so happy today I could bust. This is why I teach. The BEST PART OF MY YEAR (and yes I did just go to Greece) was standing at the top of the stairs, waiting for each of them to come up. A few of them started up the stairs, and looked up when they heard me yell their name. In a few cases, their faces lit up when they saw that I was standing there. I hugged every sweaty one of them, still in pads and uniform. My heart swelled and it was The Best. It made me remember why I do what I do and how much I LOVE IT. I can't wait to go to Homecoming and cheer them on again and greet them at the stairs again, too.

Can't wait to continue to find ways to engage students in the coming days, months, and years.



I have been asked to share some thoughts with the faculty and administrators who will be starting the second CIC Online Humanities Consortium, funded by the Mellon Foundation. We just finished the concluding workshop of the first consortium yesterday. I've gathered some thoughts.

We carried out assessments of about the efficacy of online learning with the great folks at Ithaka S+R. One finding was that students say that what they liked best about their online courses was flexibility. This was their number one issue.

I will admit that this made me a bit sad. I scoured the internet for digital information and projects to enliven my course – to make it collaborative and up to date and exciting. And for that I get a “thumbs up for flexibility?!”

But I also understand this. The demographics for college students have changed even since when I started teaching more than 15 years ago. Students are busier than ever; they have jobs, or two or even three. They often have obligations to family. And they may not be the magical age of 18-22, which we sort of assume the students will be. So, sure, I can see how flexibility may be the main issue for them. But that also doesn’t mean it’s the only reason we need to offer these types of courses.

At the first Consortium's concluding workshop, we talked about how our digital/online courses introduced students to how to use media/the digital for something other than selfies and social media exposure. I believe that these type of courses help us to harness the digital world and make it work for education and student learning. These are skills that are essential for our students. And I completely reject the notion that they are “digital natives.” They are “digital consumers” like most of us, but they - like the rest of us - need to learn how to harness the power of the digital world for their future jobs and lives. From my experience, being IN an online course can help students learn these lessons.

Thus, I believe it is imperative that faculty become familiar and comfortable with digital pedagogy. This online consortium, and through it my work with Steve Kerby, who is an Instructional Technologist/Guru, has taught me a few things that I find are influencing my teaching, in all its formats:

START WITH LEARNING OBJECTIVES. Everything is about that. Not content – not topics. It’s about learning objectives.

Think about the learning objectives and "chunk" the course into modules that make sense together.

Then think backwards:

  • Make sure you have the right activities for students to do/read/watch to get to those learning objectives for that “chunk” of the course?
  • Make sure there is adequate time to reflect and THINK about the module. They may need time to circle back after answering a question, but then reading others’ comments on the discussion boards.
  • Make sure you have adequate and appropriate assessments to see if they learned that which you hoped/intended.

I now approach every class this way: what do I want them to learn from this course, from this topic, from this reading, from this particular class meeting period. And I then build accordingly. I think it's made me a better teacher, and I'm very grateful to the CIC and my colleagues that were part of the first consortium for teaching me so much.

What are your thoughts on online teaching?

[ssm_form id='346']






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:

Screen Shot 2016-07-17 at 3.09.07 PM

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.

Screen Shot 2015-10-11 at 11.54.30 AM

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!