Talk About Teaching and Learning
October 16, 2012,
Volume 59, No. 08
Teaching with Facebook
It is difficult to get through a social gathering these days without the conversation at some point turning to Facebook, and in these situations it never fails to raise an eyebrow when I mention that I’ve set up a Facebook page for one of my classes. This began as a modest experiment three years ago in my Classical Studies course, “Scandalous Arts in Ancient and Modern Society,” when I sensed that many of the students were peeking at Facebook in class anyway instead of focusing on Plato or the Sex Pistols as they should have been. If I could find a way to make their academic world occasionally pop into their private life, I thought, surely that would be progress of some sort. It was for this reason that Facebook seemed a better bet than Blackboard, the traditional web-based course interface that most of us already use. Blackboard feels too ‘official,’ too tied into the instiutional formalities of the course, and it’s not really a place where one can post photos next to a syllabus—which is exactly the ‘feel’ I was after for this course.
“Scandalous Arts” is a medium-to-large class, usually enrolling around 75 students, taught in seminar-style despite its size. It concerns a set of perennial, fundamental aesthetic questions, which ramify in turn to cultural, political, and religious realms. The class studies comparatively the scandalous arts of Greco-Roman antiquity and more recent eras—the literary and visual arts, that is, that push boundaries or transgress prevailing norms of taste or, in some cases, law. At the same time, it asks what it means to ‘classicize’ a work of art, why exactly calling something ‘classical’ detoxifies what otherwise might be considered scandalous elements. Why do we only smile at the obscene language of a poet such as Catullus or Martial, while in our own time we take novels to court, or impose fines on public media for using similar language? Modern media has much to offer a class such as this; there are plenty of YouTube videos freely available of artists and writers at work, documentaries, movie clips, images of ancient art, performances of ancient drama, not to mention scholarly commentary in the form of academic writing, blogs and assorted think-pieces.
Our Facebook page does little more than act as a repository for such material, organized chronologically to follow the flow of the course. Every year, as I (and the students) discover new material relevant to the class, I can add it to the Facebook page. In class, I can call up the page at the beginning of class, and I immediately have access to any of this material if I decide to use it that day. Much of it is simply supplementary to the classes—we don’t have the time to watch all the interviews out there of Nabokov discussing the scandalous Lolita, or to view an entire performance of a salacious comedy of Aristophanes, but it’s all there in one place for students to consult at their leisure, either for further study or to share with friends who may have nothing to do with the course. Best of all, I have the settings such that the Facebook page allows not only members of the class, but even the public at large to view and interact with the posted material.
This last point is what tends to startle people the most, precisely because it embraces for the classroom the very aspect of social networking that even its champions often think should be segregated from an academic setting, namely its very public nature. This is hardly the kind of forum I would like to encourage for every class I teach, but it’s exactly what I want for this one. For the issues we confront in this class, I think, go far beyond history lessons and aesthetic taste. Artistic material in any culture that scandalizes some portion of its populace forces everyone to think about even larger questions—about free speech, religion and state, demographic pluralism, class, gender—indeed the very enterprise of assessing the arts from a moral perspective.
These are not discussions that should be limited to the classroom, it seems to me; they are discussions everyone should be having with each other daily. In the real world, when the time for debate is over real decisions with real consequences have to be made about controversial art. When, for example, the Corcoran Gallery famously decided against hosting an exhibition of Robert Mapplethorpe’s scandalous photographs in 1989, it could do them no good to wring their hands about the difficulty of such a decision. They could either host the show or not, but either choice is to take a stand. All our students will one day find themselves confronting similar dilemmas, whether as decision-makers themselves or as members of a public who from time to time will have to take a stand themselves on art that disturbs or offends. The more opportunity we have to think philosophically and historically about such matters when we’re not being forced to make practical decisions about them, the better equipped we’ll be to do so when we are.
The conversations one has on Facebook about such topics are often impressionistic and unnuanced, but they are ‘real’ in the sense that they reflect the ways in which people actually talk about them day to day. With enough people joining the conversation from far and wide, one learns to react to the scrappiness of such discourse by objecting, correcting, reformulating—even if only offline, or to oneself. The various conversational threads posted beneath video clips, interviews, or links to articles, were usually just brief, sometimes aphoristic, comments, but they were often provocative and prompted more full-scale discussion in the classroom. One thread of this sort that comes to mind concerned a posting I added to the Facebook page about a retrospective show in Paris last spring of the photographer Helmut Newton, a controversial artist whose predilection for the female nude was legendary. This was actually not something I had planned to address in the class, but it seemed relevant at the point in the semester when we were considering ancient attitudes towards nudity and pornography, so I added it to the Facebook page as a last-minute comparandum. That posting alone prompted a memorably nuanced discussion in class about gender and aesthetics, which I now plan to replicate in future iterations of the class.
When it comes to topics as complex and intractable as scandalous art, I have found the virtue of Facebook to be its ability to bring in the fragments, squeaks, and rants of voices from unexpected places, which I could never anticipate or plan for within the ordered context of the classroom. As a teacher, I certainly privilege academic rigor and coherence as much as I always have, but Facebook has shown me that there is sometimes pedagogical value in the random and scrappy.
Ralph M. Rosen is the Rose Family Endowed Term Professor of Classical Studies and
Associate Dean of Graduate Studies in the School of Arts & Sciences
and a recipient of the 2002 Ira Abrams Memorial Award forDistinguished Teaching for Faculty in SAS
This essay continues the series by the Center for Teaching & Learning that began in the fall of 1994 as the joint creation of the College of Arts & Sciences and the Lindback Society for Distinguished Teaching.
See www.upenn.edu/almanac/teach/teachall.html for the previous essays.