Ezerae Ham is a rising senior Art Major at McDaniel College. I invited her to conduct research with me for an (eventual) digital history site on African American Art and Artists. This is an entry that will find its way to that eventual site. Feel free to comment on her work.
Betye Saar's The Liberation of Aunt Jemima
by Ezerea Ham, McDaniel College
Betye Saar is an African American artist who pioneered the idea of using found relics to reconstruct stereotypes of African Americans through her art. Most of the relics she found and used were originally created to accentuate common stereotypes and further push those ideas on the American society. One of these stereotyped figures is the “mammy” figure, which is a stereotype used to describe the Black nursemaids of the old South. This stereotype is so deeply engrained into our culture that it is present in one of the most recognizable breakfast brands: Aunt Jemima. Betye Saar and other revolutionary artists had a lot to say about the use of this stereotype to sell and promote a pancake mix.
The Liberation of Aunt Jemima is arguably Saar’s most influential and groundbreaking piece of art. Angela Davis herself deemed this art piece to have started the Black women’s movement. Saar took this figurine that she found in a flea market- whose original use was to be a notepad and pencil holder for housewives- and armed it with a couple of guns and a multitude of Black Nationalism symbols that give her a sense of empowerment. This strapped up Aunt Jemima figure is a direct opposite of the warm, loving, cheerful nature of the stereotypical mammy figure. By juxtaposing these powerful symbols with a submissive stereotype, Saar is making people look past the docile role these nursemaids had to take on and realize that they are actual women with emotions and needs.
The Aunt Jemima brand and image was actually inspired by a blackface minstrel comedic show rather than being based on a real Black woman. The creators of the brand went to one of these minstrel shows where the song, “Old Aunt Jemima” was being performed by a blackface comedy team dressed in aprons and red bandanas- which was reminiscent of the traditional Southern cook. The creators decided to use this name and stereotype for their brand in order to better appeal to housewives.
Marcus Sessoms is a rising junior Kinesiology Major at McDaniel College. I invited him to conduct research with me for an (eventual) digital history site on African American Art and Artists. This is an entry that will find its way to that eventual site. Feel free to comment on his work.
by Marcus Sessoms
Continuing from the spring semester and over summer, I have researched on the topic of African American stereotypes. I focused on the role of watermelon as a stereotype involving the idea that “every black person loves watermelon.”
In my research I have discovered that this connection between black people and watermelon stems from the time when slaves won their emancipation during the civil war. After the war, free blacks grew, ate, and sold watermelons. That is one way that freed slaves made their own money to provide for themselves and their families since they could not get any real jobs during this time, especially in the south where they were newly emancipated. Watermelon grows well in the south because the soil is very dry. Watermelon also needs a hot and humid climate. Because it was easy to grow in the south, many newly freed African Americans turned to this crop to make money and feed their families.
Thus, watermelon became a symbol of their freedom. Southern whites, threatened by the blacks’ newfound freedom, responded by making the fruit a symbol of black people’s perceived uncleanliness, laziness, childishness, and unwanted public presence. The racist trope of grinning, cartoonish blacks eating watermelon exploded in American pop culture, becoming so pervasive that its historical origin became obscure. In America, watermelon came to symbolizes uncleanliness because eating is so messy. Through stereotyping, the watermelon also came to be equated with laziness, since growing watermelon is so easy, and to eat and enjoy it, you must sit down to consume it.
The stereotype about watermelon did not just describe former slaves and African Americans. At the height Europeans’ emigration to America in the mid to late nineteenth-century, the typical watermelon-eater was an Italian or Arab peasant. Furthermore, in Egypt in 1801, the British occupiers noted that watermelon was a poor Arab’s feast and a meager substitute for a proper meal. In the port city of Rosetta, a British soldier is recorded as saying he saw local peasants eating watermelons “ravenously… as if afraid the passer-by was going to snatch them away.” He further noted with some disgust at how watermelon rinds littered the streets.
Note from Gretchen McKay
In future summers, I hope to build on this work by Marcus and Ezerea, by highlighting how some artists confront the stereotypes by using them in new ways, such as this assemblage by Betye Saar from 2002. Ezerae's post highlights this. And I hope to have more work shown and researched by artists who embrace the narrative to change it, such as this article from the Chicago Tribune from 1991 that discusses an exhibition in which artists face these stereotypes.
I finished setting up my three asynchronous classes for the spring semester of 2021.
To be fair, one of them, the second half of the art history survey, was copied over and updated. But I had to change the assignments because what I did last time was connected to the face-to-face meetings I had interspersed throughout the semester. For the most part, the links and discussion prompts did not change much. However, I did make some changes to the course in order to fit in more decolonized and diverse material.
The other two classes, African-American Art and Art of the Medieval World, had to be built from scratch. I had to rethink the course objectives (though I had devised them for when I proposed the courses), decide on what they needed to watch (from smarthistory) and read, and do, especially in terms of written or verbal assignments. I've got a pretty lively assortment of options for students: games, debates, critical analysis papers, pilgrimages updated to the modern world, and blog entries on African-American artists.
I was thinking, however, that while I will need to check into each class during the semester as we roll, and I have to grade all those "lively assortments" of assignments, the classes are all done. I might have to put up some videos to explain concepts that aren't clear to students as I read through their discussion posts and learning journals. But the content is up. It's there. The intellectual ideas with which I want them to wrestle are set up and ready. I'm just waiting for students!
This strikes me as very different from how we normally prepare for the first day of classes or how we make up a syllabus. The syllabus tends to be the skeletal bones of the semester. Then, as the semester rolls along, we add the organs, the muscles, and the skin to the bones. In asynchronous teaching, I have the full "bodies" of my classes already done. Except for the actual teaching. The table is set, to use a different metaphor. It feels good. It feels different.
I wonder, though, if this kind of preparation for a semester is so foreign, so different than the way syllabi are traditionally created, that some faculty don't take to the online asynchronous class design.
In my last blog post, we talked about the role of structuring an instructor's presence in asynchronous online classes. Today we will talk about how to develop a sense of community among students.
For some instructors, having students get to know each other in a face to face class might not be a goal, but it is for me. I teach at a small school and was vexed when, years ago, I was talking to a student who did not know "Joe" in our class. This, despite that "Joe" talked a lot in class, and I call on students by name. After that conversation, I set as a goal for every class that I teach that all students interact with each other and get to know each other. While it might seem like in an online asynchronous class that would be harder to achieve, I have found the opposite to be true.
My classes always begin online with a "get to know you" week of introductions. The discussion boards for that week include prompts to get students to introduce where they are from, their major, and why they took the class. While this is not the most robust of conversations that I'll likely read during the semester, it sets the tone.
I tell my students that they must show a "sustained and persistent presence in the course through their posts in the discussion boards." They must answer the discussion prompts for themselves - their idea - and then also comment or ask questions of each other in a way that shows their engagement both with the content of the course and with fellow students.
I have had many faculty ask me - and students ask, too - if there is a "minimum" requirement for this. I resist this. I know that this is the Age of The Rubric and that assessment has ruled our teaching plans for many years. But I think it makes for a more authentic discussion when students are led by their interest and curiosity in their posting and commenting. I want them to keep coming back to see what so-and-so said in response to what someone else said. I want the discussion to keep moving forward. I don't see how it can do that if a student says "well, I did my five comments; I'm done." I explain all of this in videos and in a READ ME FIRST course guide that explains my ideas. Generally, once that explanation is given students understand and accept it. Sometimes they ask me if they are "doing enough," and we have a conversation about that in the learning journal area. And some students complain. But I hold my position, and last fall, I had robust and wonderful conversations among the students in all three of my classes. Sure, a few of them do not participate as much. They are graded accordingly with feedback about how they could improve.
Another issue is: should you, as the instructor, comment on students' posts? There are many ways to deal with this, but for me, I don't. The reason for this is that I want it to be their community space. If they go off the rails on a topic, I will sometimes post an additional question. I keep that to one or two per module, and I don't always need to do it. If there is something weird being discussed I don't want to "pick on" one person, so a rephrased question can often do the trick. Sometimes a short video correcting the discussion is needed. I had to do that one year, when students started talking about the "unicorns" in cave paintings in southern France. I was like, "Unicorns? Where did they get that idea?!" Because, of course, and sorry if this is a spoiler, there are no unicorns! I finally found an image on the official site of the Lascaux cave that called the painting "l'unicorne." Clearly the quotation marks had no effect. The students took this image tobe an image of a unicorn. This is important since the main point of the cave paintings is that these people were representing elements found in their environments to elicit some control over their lives. And if there are no unicorns...
Discussion boards are the heart of any asynchronous class. Some faculty hate them because they can not "hear" their students. But to that I say, in a face to face class, how many students do you really hear from during a discussion? Five? Six or seven? Ten? Unless you work something into the class to make it happen, you likely do not hear from everyone.
With discussion boards, you do hear from every student. Every single one. So "Sue," who sits in the back and doesn't often answer because it takes her longer to formulate a response, has just as many contributions in the class as another student who can think on her feet much faster.
To me, this equalizes the class and doesn't favor those who can think and speak more quickly than others. Discussion boards are not perfect, and it's important to design questions or prompts that will get a robust conversation going (quick tip: no yes or no questions!). But it's worth it. Because for me, hearing from every student one of the best outcomes of an asynchronous class.
In my last post I talked about the importance of grouping material into modules. It helps organize your class and students can more easily navigate where they are in the course. If you go by weeks only, it can seem to a student that it's endless and they might not see the cohesion you have planned.
After setting up the modules and goals for those units and the course as a whole, you need to think about different "presences." Today we will talk about Instructor presence. How do you, yourself, connect with students In an asynchronous course when you are not "live?" Since you will not be requiring all of your students log onto their computers to gaze at you in a box, you have to find other means to engage with your students and to be present with them. The good news is that you can.
Yesterday I was talking to a student who had one of my classes in the fall and is in another one this coming spring. I told him I'd teach it the same way, asynchronously. He tilted his head back and said, "Thank GOD! I wish other faculty would stop making us Zoom!" So take that for the anecdote that it is.
In any case, I plan to make my presence known in several ways. After deciding on the content of the module, I will figure out what is lacking or what ideas or images are particularly difficult, thorny, or if there just isn't enough information out there to fully cover the artist. Unfortunately, I am finding that is the case with many African-American artists from the nineteenth century (like, no smarthistory.orgentry on Edmonia Lewis!? Come on, now!). Thus, I plan to make a narrated PowerPoint presentation on some artists for whom I have not found enough material to cover completely. But most of the content IS found on smarthistory.org and other educational sites. There is a lot of content out there, for free, if you take the time to search for it.
I will also record videos of myself introducing the course and each module. I also end each module with a wrap up, but do not record those until I see what comments students make as the class begins and rolls. These videos are a way to get your personality across and connect with your students.
But perhaps the best way to connect with your students is through the learning journals. I find that this is one of the most important elements to an asynchronous class, especially at the undergraduate level. This is a space where students reflect on their learning, ask questions, or just comment in general on how their experience in the class is going. Last semester I had many students on my evaluations (yes, I know, I still read mine) talk about this feature as very important to feeling connected to the class and to me. I offer a few prompts, but usually I want students to set the tone and the topic. I want them to feel free to write anything - and I mean anything. It can be content; it can be personal. And I answer every single entry. Every. Single. One. It's a lot of work, but since my classes are completely ready to go on Day 1, I don't have to "prepare" for each day the way I would for a more traditional face to face class. My time is taken up with responding to these learning journal entries. I learn so much about my students in this format; it's so important! If you have not tried this element of an online class, I urge you to do so, but you must make the commitment to write back to the students. Otherwise, your presence will not be felt.
Next time we will talk about how to create a community presence among students through discussion boards and how to make them work and function well.
This is the first post about how I design my online classes for asynchronous delivery. This coming Spring semester of 2021, I will be teaching all three of my classes online and will deliver them asynchronously. I will be teaching a 1000-level History of Western Art II (from the Renaissance to Modern), as well as a 2000-level class in Medieval Art and a 3000-level class on African American Art. This last is a new class for me; I have never taught it before at all so it may be the one that gets the most posts about the course design.
However, all three classes will begin with the establishment of learning goals. While that may sound like someone who has been dipped too long into the waters of the River Styx (also known as the Waters of Higher Education Assessment), they are key to establishing a sound online course. I learned about this when I took my first online course - which was about best practices in online teaching - back in 2013. It had a profound influence on how I approached ALL of my courses, whether face-to-face, hybrid, or online. I started to think more about WHY we were covering the topics. For instance, it was time to teach the art of Emperor Augustus in Roman Art, but what is the key to teaching him? What is the most important element about his art that I want to get across? The answer to that question becomes a learning goal: students will understand the propaganda that Augustus was communicating through his sculptural and architectural works in the city of Rome.
Learning goals for a course come at different levels. There are overarching goals for the entire course, as well as for a class. We have a "Multicultural" requirement in our general education plan, and those courses must consider marginalized groups in the US, analyze the factors that led to that marginalization, and study the culture of these groups. My African American Art course will do all of that, but it's important to break all of that down into specific goals for each module.
Yes, module. I know that many of us have designed syllabi by the week. That made sense, I guess. But it's not the only way to design a class. In online courses, it makes much more sense to group topics and unify them for students with a theme. Thus, while the overarching goals remain, I come up with learning goals for each module that I will create with content, discussions, and assignments. I will have about 6 or 7 modules for my 14 week class. Module 1 will consider the roots of African Americans. The learning goals for this are to: 1) consider of the time of enslavement and its impact on the making of art; 2) examine the art made by African Americans; 3) examine contemporary black artists reference themes from the time of slavery, reconfiguring them to say new things.
For this module there will be links to a site called Smarthistory, which was started by a grant from the Mellon Foundation to create an online free video art history "textbook." The videos and written pieces are shared by art historians from all over the world and always growing. Here is one of the videos I will use in this first module of this course: a Face Jug from Edgefield county, South Carolina, c. 1860. We will consider more than this one piece in order to have students think about the realities of living as an enslaved person.
For the contemporary exploration of these themes, we will consider Kara Walker's A Subtlety which you can read about here. The term "subtlety" refers to confections made in Europe and were, essentially, edible art. In the seventeenth century and the early American colonial period, the increased desire for sugar led to an increase in enslaved laborers in the sugar fields. The slave trade was fueled, in part, by the demand for sugar, which is discussed in this video which will also be a featured assignment in my class module. Walker's piece explores all of these themes. It was constructed in the late spring 2014 in a defunct Domino Sugar warehouse in Brooklyn, NY. It was as big as a football field and five stories high. Our class will look at this piece, after looking at pottery, quilts, and other works of art uncovered in archaeological digs to achieve the goals of this module.
Now that we have established the learning goals for this module, I can start to think about what students will do: what will they read? Watch? How will they engage with me? With each other? What assignments will they create? These will be discussed in future posts.
For now though, consider this. How could you rearrange your class into modules? What learning goals could you establish for them?
Please leave a comment if you'd like to have a conversation about these ideas.
This was a tough semester. For students, for faculty, for staff. For everyone involved in higher education. However, I am convinced that learning happened. While many might not consider this the most rigorous of assessments, many students in my classes noted in their own reflections, unsolicited, that they were amazed at how much they learned in courses they took with me this fall semester 2020.
This learning happened despite a compressed semester comprised of two 6.5 week sessions crammed back to back with one day in between. Students were encouraged to take no more than two four-credit classes each session, but some couldn't help but have more than that, especially seniors who had less choice in what courses they needed take. I heard more stories of stressed out students than ever before in my twenty-three year teaching career. COVID, lack of regular social interaction, the presidential election, as well as the compressed semester itself all contributed to the angst.
And yet learning happened. I am more convinced than ever that the asynchronous approach to online teaching is the way to go. Yes, students noted that they missed in-person classes, but I also heard from many about how Zoom wasn't like in-class either. My students who told me how much they learned in my classes also recognized that the discussion boards allowed us to hear from everyone - unlike in a Zoom discussion or in a face to face classroom. Please do not get me wrong; I can't wait to be back in the classroom again. But rather than teach in a classroom with students physically distanced from each other and masked up, I will continue to design and offer asynchronous classes for the coming semester.
Many people have asked me what I do or how I approach course design, and I have decided to blog about the steps I take to create my classes over December and January. Our semester begins on Monday, February 1. If you or your colleagues are interested but also flummoxed about how to teach asynchronously, feel free to pass these posts on to them, or ask them to sign up on my blog to get my new posts.
I am not saying I have all the answers. But my students were very positive, some enthusiastically so, in sharing their thoughts even when they were not solicited. I think I am doing something right and want to share in case it could be helpful to others. I have benefited greatly from faculty development opportunities that my college has made available. I feel that posting my course design process may help others who were not afforded the chance to learn about online teaching until recently, or at all.
I will be blogging about how I build three classes for the Spring 2021 semester: History of Western Art II, The Art of the Medieval World, and a new class for me, African American Art. I'll be designing them all for asynchronous delivery.
The last time I posted to this blog was the Fourth of July in 2019. Wow. A lot has happened since then, huh? Yeah. A lot.
In 2019, the Art History major was eliminated at my school and only the minor remains. One of my colleagues in the department was let go. Another retired. I am the last Art Historian standing. Odd that.
And then: 2020. The Pandemic. I was on sabbatical for the first months of 2020, but it was still all weird. I wrote a book during the first six months of 2020. It's now being read by peer reviewers. I should get some comments back in early winter. The book, not surprising to blog readers, is about how Division III institutions can better support their student athletes.
Classes have been completely online since the fall term began, for me, in the middle of August. I teach them asynchronously (which I will talk about on this blog in future posts).
In the middle of October I joined the Department of History. As I am now the only Art Historian at my college, a colleague who knows me well reached out to ask if I would be interested in teaching in and building a Public History program. And I was. So, we are now the Department of History and Art History. I'll still keep my office, but I am excited for this new role and teaching these new courses. There are exciting overlaps between art history and public history and I look forward to exploring them all.
And what about those student athletes? Well, as at many places (Notre-Dame and Clemson not withstanding), there are no sports on our campus this fall. Some of the teams were finally able to start practicing together a few weeks ago. But there are no competitions. Will there be some games and matches in the spring? I hate to say it, but I'm not holding my breath.
And I miss them. I miss the players. Zooming with them is not the same. Not Tweeting them Friday nights before their games is sad; it's a ritual I miss. And Saturdays? Oh, don't even get me started on the first crisp Saturday afternoon when I realized I would not be traveling to campus for a game. It hit me like a brick. I finally watched an NFL game later that weekend, and I found myself stuffing my feelings with wine and Dorito's. It was a sorry sight. I knew the football team had become a big part of my life, but having it gone? It was really and very truly difficult.
So, that's news. I'm craving connection that Zoom can't bring. I'm hoping to use my voice, my words, my blog, to make some new connections and remind everyone who follows this blog that I am still out here, even if it has been radio silence for awhile.
And this is also to remind everyone that like the football team and student athletes everywhere, we need to continue to develop and demonstrate the resilience that they show every game, every practice, every season. Even in this crazy year, when they are not playing at all.
When did everything change to be so individualized and about money?
I thought about this as I took my bike ride tonight. I get very nostalgic around the Fourth of July, because when I was a kid, I often spent the Fourth and a few weeks on either end of it with my now-deceased grandparents in their house outside Pittsburgh. One of my most vivid memories was the year we had a cookout of hamburgers and hot dogs and then walked down to a park - that seemed very, very far away - to watch the fireworks with other local people. Then we trudged back home, scratching our mosquito bites in the humid, but cool, night air.
Tonight on my bike, I noticed how many people were setting off fireworks in their own yards. It's not a communal activity anymore. And in my current state of Pennsylvania, we can buy them now and shoot them off in our own yards. A communal activity is now individualized. For money that someone is making.
I remember when movies were talked about for how good a story they told, rather than how much money they made at the box office. It was truly about the experience rather than the bucks. Sometimes I think back to the subjects I learned in high school and college that have stuck with me. They are not very valued now, perhaps because they aren't easily monetized. Hatshepsut fascinated me in the ninth grade. Maybe I am just not resilient or entrepreneurial enough, but I have yet to find a way to make a buck off of her and my interest in her pharaonic reign. But I'm happy with that. Too bad so much has changed even in college that nearly everything is evaluated by how one can turn it into cash.
I'm glad I grew up when we all collectively listened to the car radio. There were no individual airbuds to plug into our ears. Instead we collectively turned up the volume on Boston, Zepplin, and American Top 40. I liked it when the collective buzz was all about Star Wars, not because of the money it made, but because the story just blew our minds. I liked that we all collectively went to the movies and watched it, and did not individually queue it up on our own Netflix accounts.
Forgive me if I'm a bit melancholic and nostalgic tonight; since my grandmother and last remained grandparent died two years ago, I find myself unusually wistful on this holiday. I realize the Fourth of July is not usually a holiday in which one battles emotions. But I do.
I wish everyone a Happy Fourth, and I hope you're enjoying and celebrating with lots of people - in a community of friends and family.
This is a post about Joy. The year was long and hard, but as I look back on it, there were many moments of joy. In my reflections since the semester's end, I realized that many of my most joyous moments involved my students. So, this post is my post of Joy.
The picture that sparked this post was this one below: a student sent me a picture in front of a painting we studied over the past semester. And he sent it while he is still in Paris (below, Ben Igo in front of Raft of the Medusa by the French Romantic artists Géricault).
Another current moment of Joy was seeing a text from student with whom you are currently working over the summer. It's joyous to see his excitement - and maybe even joy? - for the opportunity:
Then there is the Joy of graduation, which is the culmination of changing students' lives and helping them to achieve their dreams. It is always my most cherished day of the year. This year it was especially full of Joy. It was the first group of students graduating who I was privileged enough to help as the mentor to the football team.
John Chamberlin (with me, Left) finally mastered human physiology and his hatred of tests to get his degree. And Trevon Haynes (below, with me Right) finally beat FRENCH to earn his degree and go on to graduate school in graphic design. Félicitations, Trevon!
Then here is TUCC!!! Former center, Mike Martucci will be missed. He struggled having changed majors and yet he made it! He took my class in 2017, too, which was a joy. And seeing his senior Sociology poster was also an honor, and that picture is here, too (below Left).
And then there is the Joy of Angelo Payne. I am proud of all of them, but Angelo is super special to me. I saw his mother when I entered the gym where we hold the graduation exercises. She grabbed my hands and joyously cried, "He made it!" And I know I helped, and that is a huge joy. He presented undergraduate research at a conference this semester also, which is just amazing. He has big dreams and I know he can achieve them.There are frustrations as a professor. Students often don't read. They do not come to class prepared. They take your classes "only" for the requirement. But you know what? It's true that they might take your class "just" for the requirement, but they also might end up in the Louvre, snapping a picture to send to you. They might become better writers and end up presenting at a conference, even if it's not your field. They might go on to coach other players, or they'll go on to learn more.
But my truest hope for them is that they will go on to a life full of Joy. They brought Joy to my life and my sincerest hope is they experience Joy many times over in theirs.