Making (Art) History With the Help of the DSI
Amy Lyford, Associate Professor, Art History and the Visual Arts, applied to the Digital Scholarship Institute last summer with a variety of classroom and research goals in mind. Now, only a few months after completing DSI, a group of her students have used online resources to share critiques of a landmark building. Others have contributed to an international geospatial web project that’s not only helped improve their research and critical thinking skills, it may help to bring much-deserved credit to a little-known African American architect. Lyford came to the institute with some familiarity with the digital technologies she wanted to use. What she needed was further clarification and incentive to begin experimenting with these tools. “I feel like the DSI gave me ideas or pushed me to try out ideas I had already considered. It was almost like a jumpstart,” she says. When she enrolled, Lyford had already heard about OxyConnect resources, such as email, website building and shared document storage that make it easy for individuals to work together on a single project. She somehow hoped to use these Google tools to “upgrade” a previous class assignment. That assignment had required students to analyze the Casa De Adobe in terms of a “Spanish fantasy past.” (Although it may appear that the Casa De Adobe originated during the Rancho era, it was actually erected in the 1910s by people who were fascinated by the California’s Mexican heritage). The students were to use photos and other historic resources to create a collaborative research project presented in visual and written form. The results were a bit uninspiring. Most students defaulted to producing simple PowerPoint presentations. With the advice of DSI leaders, Lyford rethought the assignment and challenged another class to work together to combine their presentations on a group Google site. They were also asked to comment and give feedback on one another’s work. Jay Yip, Instructional Technologist in the Center for Digital Learning & Research, taught the class how to construct a Google site. Although most again relied heavily on PowerPoint for their final presentations, feedback from their peers and friends made students more mindful of their content and design. The quality of their work improved. “It forced them to recognize that a presentation is a really serious thing. That’s something we talked about at the DSI institute,” says Lyford. Another technology that had intrigued Lyford for a while was the Hypercities project. She had first heard about the project a few years earlier during a talk by Daniel Chamberlin, Director of the Center for Digital Learning and Research. Hypercities is a multi-dimensional, multi-decade mapping program based on Google Earth and Google Maps. It allows any contributor to place video, photos, comments and links about a particular place onto a 3D exploded map of the region pinpointed at a particular time period and location. Scholars are welcome to contribute to the massive, growing rich media database. Chamberlain had worked with the creator of the project, so Lyford approached him about it during the institute. “He gave me a sense of grounding and brought me in,” she says. He also helped her train classes to use the hypercities platform to visually explore the career of a talented but little known African American architect named Paul Williams. “Not much has been done on Paul Williams – which my students realized. In fact, the University of Memphis is one of the first institutions doing an exhibition of his work,” says Lyford. Instead of limiting himself to a single style, Williams tried to alter his buildings to suit the tastes of the clients, she explains. “He was very diverse in his approach to architecture.” Lyford asked each student to research a particular building designed by Williams, find a photograph of it and write about it, then post the result to the appropriate hypercities map layer. (The results can be seen at Hypercities. Select Los Angeles, set a timeframe between the 1920s and 70s and click on the Paul Williams folder under ‘collections.”) Lyford says using the Hypercities platform gave students a sense of focus and importance. “I told them, ‘You’re not just turning this in to your teacher. Anyone in the world could look at your work if they wanted to. This is a representation of your abilities as a scholar,” she says. Lyford hopes eventually to combine the notes her students made with overlays from another Hypercites project showing where African Americans were historically restricted from buying homes in LA. The result would be a revealing map of neighborhoods where Williams was paid to build structures for others, but wouldn’t have been allowed to live himself. During the institute, Lyford discovered that expressing her needs and hopes to the CDLR staff was nearly as important as learning about the new tech. In depth-discussions meant they could better understand how to assist her in implementing course work and preparing research plans. “Because of the DSI, now they know who we are, they’ve heard us talk and they understand what we are trying to do, so they can help us in the future” says Lyford. One of Lyford’s future research goals is to create a virtual rendition of an arts project that was never completed in real life - a multi city “drive” visiting important sites in the WWII Pacific Theater. Conceived in 1946, only a limited number of the planned monuments were actually built. Lyford imagines an online site showing which monuments weren’t built along with a roadmap of existing sites. Lyford knows that regardless of how ambitious her plans become or how long it takes to realize them, the CDLR staff will be there to help. “They said, ‘Look, you’re here for the summer but our goal is to work with you all year long,’” she says. “I’d love to attend another institute,” she declares.
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