This essay details the evolution of an interdisciplinary course at a university with proximity to Baltimore, Maryland. The original course relied entirely on experiential learning via field trips. During these trips, students conducted analyses of museums as rhetorical and political spaces. As a result of the pandemic, the course evolved into one that relied entirely on students making virtual field trips for cultural organizations and for those at home. In both courses, students focused on issues of social justice as they pertain to museums: issues of access (who is able/encouraged to visit the museum?), issues of diversity (which artists/works of art are featured and who is offered positions of power within the organization?), and issues of engagement (does the museum offer exhibits/programming that is relevant to the public they serve?). In the revised class, students (1) virtually met with museum representatives to discuss their needs; (2) researched the types of resources, events, and objects that can be found in the different locations; (3) learned how to use technology such as Nearpod as multimodal composing platforms; and (4) created a virtual field trip to be used by that organization for educational and promotional purposes. By creating material for specific audiences, students not only learned the rhetorical skills of composing for diverse groups but also grappled with issues of equity, access, and engagement. While the revisions were made out of necessity, this essay details the transferable methodology that can continue to be employed in online classes and integrated into in-person learning.
I teach at the University of Baltimore, a city campus with easy access to a number of cultural organizations. The course, Arts and Society, is housed in the Integrated Arts department, but it is open to all majors and serves as a general education elective. The course is designated as a writing intensive, and we are paired with a writing fellow. Prior to my hire, the course was taught as a somewhat traditional art history course. From a beginning-of-the-semester survey in 2018, the department learned that many students were feeling uncomfortable as a result of racial tension in Baltimore. Unsurprisingly, my students of color reported feeling very disconnected from the city. In fact, 75 percent of students reported never going beyond the campus buildings to venture into the city itself. Fifty-two percent of students surveyed revealed they had only ever been to one museum in their lifetime, and only then as a result of school field trips.
This is especially troubling considering that Baltimore is an ideal field trip location for those within driving distance of the city. Historically, educators and students could have access to resources such as the American Visionary Art Museum, the Chesapeake Shakespeare Theater, the Reginald Lewis African American History Museum, the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Walters Art Gallery, the Peabody Library, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, and more. Even though many of these places are free or reasonably priced to attend, as the students indicated on the survey, these places do not always feel comfortable to the public they intend to serve. The tension reported prompted discussions of revision of the course goals, and the in-person course shifted away from an art history framework and evolved into a much more interdisciplinary course.
The course was adapted so that students were asked to think rhetorically about a museum's role in society. Specifically, they were asked to consider ways that museums privileged certain stories while excluding others. They were asked to consider how museums could evolve as more inclusive spaces. To encourage this dialogue, the university helped us to arrange trips to six museums and critiqued each space with three criteria in mind: issues of access (who is able/encouraged to visit the museum?), issues of diversity (which artists/art is featured and who is offered positions of power within the organization?), and issues of engagement (does the museum offer exhibits/programming that are relevant to the public they serve?). The writing assignments for the course include six rhetorical analysis papers (one per museum). For each assignment, students read the museum for that week as a text; they examined the art, the artists, the demographic profile of employees, the information included in plaques, the advantages and disadvantages of the physical space, and the demographic profile of the patrons in order to determine the degree to which each space could be considered inclusive. When taught in-person, students created business proposals for the museum representatives, detailing ways that a particular exhibit could be revised. Students also created visual representations of the spaces (dioramas or digital renderings for those who had that ability). As a final activity, representatives from museums came into class to discuss the proposals, and the class held a competition for the project that best fit the parameters of the assignment. This new version of the course has been taught for the past three years.1
When shifting to virtual learning, the original plan was to maintain as much of the framework described above as possible. In the drafting stages of the course, it was assumed that different museum representatives would conduct virtual field trips and students would still evaluate each space as if they were there in person. However, it quickly became apparent that most museums would struggle to grant this request as a result of low staffing, furloughs, and the reduction of hours. In fact, a survey by the American Alliance of Museums (AAM), an advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., shows that more than 40 percent of museums in America lost staff during this time (Miranda 2020). At this time, cultural organizations did not need suggestions for how a museum might revise a certain space or make other structural changes in the same way that it needed engaging educational materials to disseminate to the public and to be used by those learning from home. Thus the curriculum was revised yet again. The students would (1) increase the public's access to museums via virtual field trips, (2) design these experiences with the intent to celebrate minority artists, and (3) attempt to engage a public that might not otherwise enjoy the museum/art/artist in focus.
Deciding on a Delivery Method
It's worth noting that even prior to the pandemic, in-person field trips to museums have been on the decline despite the established effectiveness of such experiences. This decline followed the 2008 recession; according to “a 2015 report on survey responses from school administrators conducted by the American Association of School Administrators, only 12 percent of the 528 administrators surveyed reported bringing their field trip numbers back to the pre-2008 rate” (Lewis 2020: 2). On the other hand, multimedia presentations known as virtual field trips (VFTs) have gained popularity. Leila Meyer (2016: 23) defines a VFT as an opportunity for students to visit other places, talk to experts, and participate in interactive learning activities without leaving the classroom. Furthermore, VFTs are used in K–12 education, higher education, and career preparation and training, across disciplines (Palmer 2013; Wang et al. 2014). Virtual field trips have common benefits, such as overcoming budgetary limitations (Lukes 2014) and alleviating the logistical barriers of traditional field trips (Krakowka 2012). Jan Zanetis (2021) notes that, historically, many individuals have been wary of virtual field trips, but “resistance has all but melted away as the pandemic has mandated at-home education for the past year and counting.” However, while there is no shortage of enthusiasm for these types of resources, there is a struggle to create experiences that are educational and engaging since “virtual field trips are not inherently effective instructional tools” (qtd. in Lei 2015). Furthermore, the stress and anxiety of the pandemic created additional goals, and obstacles, for what a VFT could accomplish.
The class determined that several factors were necessary for an engaging field trip. First, there needed to be a specific agenda for a given space. The class unanimously expressed frustration with instructors who gave links to virtual spaces with instructions to “look around” and “find something interesting.” The field trip should not attempt to show a visitor a space in its entirety; it needed to focus on a certain artist, a specific theme, or a specific story to be told. With the emphasis on social justice in mind, the field trip should either feature underrepresented artists/narratives or try to access audiences who would not or could not typically access the materials featured. For example, one student created a field trip that focused on a sleep-themed exhibit at the American Visionary Art Museum featuring Romanian-American artist Noche Crist, self-taught folk artist Sam “The Dot Man” Macmillan, and sculptor Adrian Kellard. Another created a trip that focused on an exhibit at the Reginald Lewis Museum of African American History called Making Good Trouble, which featured posters used for peaceful protests. Yet another student focused on YouTube videos of spoken-word artists who had performed at venues in Baltimore. For this content portion of the field trip, the class worked with what the museum or organization had available: 360-degree views, online collections, object galleries, videos, and/or fully immersive spaces that allowed a user to “walk through” a museum or exhibit.
The field trips also offered places to check in with a “visitor” for understanding and to provide opportunities for interaction. This section of the trip included elements such as polls, mini quizzes, matching activities, drawing exercises, and so forth. As discussions evolved, the class addressed the weight of screen fatigue as a result of pandemic learning. Thus it was requested that the field trips incorporate ways to access other sensory modes of experiencing without requiring expensive add-ons. For example, to add sound, students could either find or make playlists to be used in the background during certain parts of the field trips. To incorporate taste, students found inexpensive recipes that were thematically connected to the experience. The field trips also included off-screen activities in the form of small crafts that were thematically connected to the field trip content. Many students discussed the loneliness of learning from home and were excited to include activities that encouraged them to invite their families/roommates/neighbors into the process of these hands-on activities. Finally, the field trips were tailored to create the feeling of a shared experience with their classmates. To create this social component, students determined that there should be not only a place to visually showcase crafts and recipes but also a place where they could hear the thoughts of others.
After extensive research on the various platforms available for this type of experience, Nearpod was chosen as our delivery platform. Nearpod is a free software. Similar to PowerPoint, it seamlessly incorporates interactive components such as slides that can be drawn on, live polls, timed quiz games, and collaboration slides where students can answer questions and upload images to be viewed by the class in real time. Nearpod presentations can be offered as live synchronous sessions in which the instructor controls the pacing, or they can be completed asynchronously with the participant as the “driver” who is then responsible for pacing. Furthermore, Nearpod has the ability to integrate with platforms such as Flipgrid (a video platform that allows for short, recorded responses). As an additional bonus, Nearpod can be used on either a computer or a phone, increasing those who can access the final products. Notably, someone could achieve similar results with PowerPoint or Google Slides by providing external links to interactive activities, but the appeal of Nearpod is being able to have all these features housed within one platform.
Addressing Issues of Equity
To identify the gaps they can address with their field trips, the class researches issues of equity on several levels. For two of their first readings, they examine Maurice Berger's (2020) famous essay “Are Art Museums Racist?” and Linda Nochlin's (2015) “From 1971: Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” Both essays point to the lack of diversity in the selection of artists featured in these spaces and the lack of diversity of museum employees and board members. The class considers whether progress has been made since the publication of these essays by looking at more current data. For instance, a 2019 Williams College study (Topaz et al. 2019) reports that in major US museum collections, 85 percent of the work is created by white artists and 87 percent by male artists, while only 1.2 percent of the art is created by Black artists. A 2018 survey conducted by the Mellon Foundation revealed that only 16 percent of curatorial staff members are people of color (the term used in the data); a 2017 survey (Westermann, Schonfeld, and Sweeney 2018) conducted by AAM shows that 89.3 percent of museum board members in the United States are white. They also read about Chaédria LaBouvier, who made history last year as the first solo Black curator of an exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. LaBouvier speaks about the discrimination she has felt in museums: “You cannot authentically connect with a diverse public if you hold contempt for people of color and fundamentally do not think that they are as human, worthy, good, creative, brilliant or qualified as you are. . . . That disconnect and dislike are things the public can pick up on. . . . It's why these spaces feel so unsafe and unwelcoming to people of color, as workers and museumgoers” (McGlone and Smee 2020). After reading this material, students comment on their own experiences in a Flipgrid discussion post. They respond to a prompt that asks them to articulate their own comfort levels in museums and whether they feel that museums have art that reflects their own identities/interests, and to identify at least one tangible thing a museum could do to make them feel more welcome. By inviting museum activists into class and by providing literature from activists who are fighting to change the ways museums operate on a systemic level, students are better equipped understand how materials like virtual field trips can contribute to this larger mission of inclusivity and diversity.
As a class activity, students examine museum mission statements and visitor demographics for Baltimore museums. If this information is not obvious, students look for press releases or interviews that would indicate if their chosen museum has taken recent steps to make itself more diverse and accessible to the public. The class explores the goals of those working for change by reading the mission statements for organizations such as the American Alliance of Museums, a group that is meeting regularly and working to call for change. On a collaborative slide, they copy and paste some of their favorite lines from museum mission statements and explain why the excerpts they chose are in line with their own beliefs or values. Furthermore, at home, they read or listen to interviews by activists such as LaTanya Autry and Mike Murawski, the cofounders of the “Museums Are Not Neutral” campaign; members of this campaign aim to bring attention to museums as places that falsely embrace “a myth of neutrality” that prevents them from becoming “relevant, socially-engaged spaces in our communities, acting as agents of positive change” (Murawski 2021). To understand systemic inequity, the class reviews resources such as the Equity Audit, created by the nonprofit organization Beloved Community. This thorough set of questions is meant to help a museum decide if their planning for the future is equitable. Then the class explores how this history intersects with our current moment.
At this moment (2019–21) the class explores how the pandemic and the murder of George Floyd revealed or even exacerbated the institutional racism that exists in many of these places. Essays such as “Coronavirus Shutdowns and Charges of White Supremacy: American Art Museums Are in Crisis” in the Washington Post help to outline the intersectionality of finances and racial inequity. Peggy McGlone and Sebastian Smee (2020) refer to this moment as a “double pandemic” in that “many art institutions have been rocked by a national moment of reckoning and increasingly vocal calls to acknowledge their racist histories and adopt anti-racist practices. Some activists have even suggested completely dismantling museums, echoing demands to defund or abolish the police.” Students read about how many of the attempts to remedy this problem have come across as tone-deaf or empty. For example, Lisa Harris Jones (2020) of the Baltimore Sun notes that, while many museums display art by Black artists in today's world, “museums fail to purchase their work,” rendering the displays as “mere tokenism—a facade of equity where none exists.” Similarly, as an article from Vanity Fair (Drew 2020) outlines, many museums began to use Black Lives Matter hashtags next to works of African American artists, and while “in an ideal world, this show of solidarity would be powerful,” these “institutions with historic ties to colonialism use a slogan rather than admit to their own roles in the ‘race problem.’” The class again practices the importance of examining data to explore how these issues intersect with the pandemic, noting that, while there have been long-term issues in terms of which museums receive the most funding, the pandemic enhanced the gap. Laura Lott (Miranda 2020), president and chief executive of the American Alliance of Museums, notes that financial strife correlates with systemic racism in museums in regard to furloughs, layoffs, and cutbacks: “People of color are being disproportionately affected.” Hannah McGivern and Nancy Kenney (2020) provide an excellent overview of these numbers in “Museums 2020: The Year of Crashing Revenues and Anti-racism Disputes.” For a more general overview of progress (or lack thereof) in this area, the class reads an article by Nancy Kenney (2021), “Exclusive Survey: What Progress Have US Museums Made on Diversity, after a Year of Racial Reckoning?” Kenney observes that, when surveying twenty-two museums about what they have done to diversify staff, collections, and audiences, she did not receive replies from nine of them. For museums that did reply, notable efforts had been made to include under-represented voices, but “outreach to new audiences is faltering.”
Finally, to provide an example of a museum that has handled these issues well, the class invites a virtual guest speaker from the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) to discuss the controversial but effective choice to sell several key pieces of art in order to allocate $3 million to diversity and inclusion initiatives. During this talk, the speaker also gives examples of the types of art and programming now featured at the BMA to showcase how it looks when a museum embraces these initiatives. The class explores the BMA's new website as an example of an online resource that aligns with an organization's mission. For the Flipgrid discussion post for this week, students consider which population they'd like to target when making a field trip.
Reaching out to the Public
Notably, Baltimore cultural organizations that were initially emailed to see if they wanted to work with students this semester to make virtual field trips were interested but anxious: How much time will this project need? We don't have a digital collection; can you still work with us? We don't have a virtual rendering of our space, is that an issue? We only have one person working right now, how much support will you need? Will we need to pay for any kind of software or subscription to be able to use the field trips made in the class? Will those at home need to pay for something? With these questions in mind, the project was designed to make us as autonomous as possible in the field-trip–making process. This was the email we sent to Baltimore organizations:
Thank you for your interest in working with my students. We know that your organization is facing unprecedented challenges at this time. We also know that there are many educators and individuals at home who are in need of educational resources. My students and I are offering to make virtual field trips that will showcase events and objects that are featured at your organization. We are including the specifics for this product with this email as well as a link that features model field trips (link omitted for author anonymity). If you'd like to collaborate, we'd like to meet with you for one hour on zoom. During this session, we would like to use breakout rooms to talk about the needs of your organization and the needs of the public you serve. Ideally, if there is a special exhibit or event you would like to see promoted, you could provide us with a link to a digital archive, a website giving us more information, or a document that lists ten objects and their descriptions. Please let us know if any of the following dates work for you. We appreciate your consideration and look forward to hearing from you.
The Product Sheet can be found below:
What a (Field) Trip!: Engaging Diverse Audiences with Virtual Experiences
Overview: For this activity, students will create an activity that will take approximately one hour for a chosen audience. This experience will incorporate both on-screen and off-screen activities as well as an opportunity for the audience members to interact with each other and to provide feedback to an organization. The experience will be clear in objective, educational, and most of all, fun!
Part 1: The Field Trip
Slide 1: Identify your intended audience and include directions for what a participant can expect during your experience and what materials they will need. Be especially aware of how the presentation can showcase arts or artists that are typically excluded and/or how your presentation can assist and engage populations/organizations who are especially in need.
Slide 2: Your virtual field trip (virtual tour, online gallery, curated set of 360 views, 360 view videos, etc.)
Slide 3: 3 interactive activities that go along with your field trip (i.e., time to climb/quiz, matching, draw-it slide)
Draw-it slide for high school students (fig. 1):
Baltimore graffiti art matching slide for elementary students (fig. 2):
Part 2: Off-Screen Related Event
Slide 1: Recipe that correlates with your theme. Please make this an easy snack or drink that would not require elaborate or expensive ingredients.
Ex: A Bedtime Green Smoothie recipe that pairs with American Visionary Art Museum's Sleep Exhibit
Slide 2: A craft or project that corresponds with your theme. You can create a craft or find one (Pinterest is an excellent resource). Provide your participants with a finished product so that they have a model. Again, keep the cost of materials in mind.
Ex: DIY plastic bottle plant holder for a trip to Costa Rica focusing on environmental sustainability
Slide 3: A collaborative board (found in Nearpod) or a link to Padlet (an academic version of Pinterest) so your participant can post images of their craft and recipe.
Ex: Choose a cause and design your own peaceful protest sign with materials around your house for a trip to the “Make Good Trouble” exhibit at the Reginald Lewis Museum in Baltimore
Slide 4: A link to an Alexa playlist, YouTube channel, or Pandora/Spotify station that would pair well with your activity to have playing in the background.
Ex: The Best Jazz of All-Time YouTube Channel for a trip to New Orleans Jazz Museum
Slide 1: A collaborative board so your participant can post images of their craft and recipe.
Slide 2: A Flipgrid slide for participant feedback.
Slide 1: include citations for all of your resources including your images
The email concludes with a Doodle pool determining when and if organizations were willing to meet with us. Of the twenty-two organizations we contacted, fifteen agreed to collaborate.
Take a Trip before You Make the Trip: The Importance of Modeling
The next three weeks of class are used to model virtual field trips before asking students to design their own. Using Nearpod, I developed field trips that again included the following elements: the virtual field trip itself (a live or recorded tour of a space, an interactive virtual space, an online gallery, a set of 360-degree views or a 360-degree video), three activities that corresponded with the field trip, a craft, a recipe, a collaboration board for posting finished products, a link to a playlist that participants could have in the background while completing their off-screen activities, and a slide for feedback.
To create model field trips, I worked backward to think about locations about which I already had some prior knowledge to be able to create the virtual experiences. For instance, I had been following a Baltimore artist, Amanda Burnham, on Instagram. Her work explores the idea that visual representations of space can evoke other senses. By rendering highly complex and detailed paper sculptures of city neighborhoods, her work inevitably circles issues of poverty, overcrowding, and the disparity of wealth in the city. For instance, in the work represented here (see fig. 3), Burnham recreated a street corner in Baltimore using only paper, paint, cardboard, tape, and lighting. As part of the exhibit, the audience was invited to add Post-it notes to her sculpture, encouraging collaboration between herself and Baltimore residents. Through her rendering of collapsing and crowded structures, Burnham captures the feel of city living, especially for those displaced or living in close quarters with their neighbors.
Throughout her presentation, we included interactive slides such as a draw-it slide that asked students to circle places or signage that looked familiar to them, a short quiz about Amanda's process, and collaborative slides that asked students to consider other ways that an artist could evoke other senses in a visual representation (i.e., an apple pie for smell, a waterfall for sound, color schemes for certain emotions). For a recipe, students were asked to either purchase white grape juice or vanilla cupcake mix and food coloring. Then students colored the cupcakes/juice with different colors. They were to ask an unsuspecting participant to guess which flavor was in each item and record the participant's accuracy. For the next sensory activity, I included a link to three YouTube soundscapes: (1) library sounds/study ambience; (2) rainy-night, coffee-shop ambience; and (3) open-window New York City soundscape at night. As their craft, students were asked to reproduce their pandemic quarantine locations using cues to indicate how their spaces not only looked but also felt, smelled, and tasted. Students used objects around their homes to create dioramas, and some students used digital spaces like those you can make in a popular game called Animal Crossing to create their renderings (figs. 4–7). They posted their spaces for others to see and to comment on. The Flipgrid prompt for that week asked them to report the results of the taste experiment and to discuss which soundscape was the most effective for them while working on their projects.
After completing two other field trips that I had made, students were prepared to begin thinking about how they might create their own.
The first eight weeks of the course are dedicated to context and modeling. The remainder of the course is a scaffolded process for making the field trip, receiving feedback, and revising. The time line for making the field trips is as follows:
Week 1: Brainstorm and meet with Baltimore organization. For this week, we conducted the Zoom meeting with the artists/organizations who had agreed to work with students. I created breakout rooms in advance so that I was able to form the rooms quickly. In these virtual spaces, students and organizations were able to talk through their hopes, goals, and ideas for the field trip. If materials had not been shared in advance regarding the facts/objects/art that an organization hoped to see featured in the field trip, they were shared in this session.
Week 2: Find two articles that help you understand more about your chosen population (elementary school students, the elderly, college students, etc.)
Week 3: Find three online resources that could supplement your field trip (i.e., 360-degree views, a recipe, a craft, a playlist)
Week 4: One-on-one conferencing with instructor with outline/draft of field trip
Week 5: Peer review of field trip (partner completes field trip and creates a Flipgrid response of strength and weaknesses of the experience)
Week 6: Week to revise/meet virtually to obtain feedback from organization partner if possible
Week 7: Submit final project with reflection paper documenting (1) who the field trip is intended for, (2) why you chose the art/artist, and (3) how your field trip reaches a population who might otherwise not be able to access or enjoy this material.
The criteria for the Reflection Paper can be foundbelow:
Para 1: Are you typically someone who enjoys going to museums? What obstacles have prevented you from enjoying them? (consider diversity of art, museum staffing, physical issues such as lack of seating, hard to read labels, etc.). What activities from class have made art feel more accessible, inclusive, or engaging for you? Incorporate evidence from at least two articles in this paragraph.
Para 2: How does the Nearpod you created address an issue of access? Who might be interested in your Nearpod that would not be able to attend in real life? Think of financial reasons or physical issues of access that are made better through use of your Nearpod. Incorporate evidence from at least two articles in this paragraph.
Para 3: How does your Nearpod address an issue of inclusion? Think of how you are showcasing those who might not otherwise get the spotlight or think about how your presentation might cater to a population that might not otherwise feel comfortable in a museum. Incorporate evidence from at least two articles in this paragraph.
Para 4: How does your Nearpod engage an audience? Think of which activities (Nearpod activities, recipes, crafts) are especially fun to complete.
Para 5: What was it like to work for a real client? Did it increase your investment in the project? Why or why not?
Para 6: Can you think of other ways that technology like this can be used? Should we continue to incorporate virtual field trips even after the pandemic? Why or why not? Any other suggestions for the project?
Closing the Loop and Future Considerations
The finished projects from the first iteration of the course have been emailed to the cultural organizations. We are in the process of conducting interviews with each organization to determine whether they were able to use the products we made for them and, if so, where they made the products available. We are also determining what changes should be made for the fall semester. A major change is that I have put out a call on a popular Facebook group, Pandemic Pedagogy, to educators who would like to collaborate with my students to make a field trip for educational use. Only one day after posting the call, I received sixty-three messages from interested educators. Finally, we are discussing whether the students’ field trips made the museums think differently about the types of resources and programming their organization offered.
When returning to in-person visits, students will continue to make virtual field trips based on the level of enthusiasm offered for this project during the pandemic. Instead of exploring museums virtually, however, we will return to our in-person visits so that students will be able to interact directly with the staff and have a better idea of what each museum has to offer (especially since, with the exception of the Walters, Baltimore museums only have select artifacts available for viewing). I anticipate that, instead of just focusing on particular exhibits or a particular artist for their field trips, students will be able to create more thematic events when they are able to walk from room to room. For instance, I could see a student creating a virtual field trip themed on motherhood that would connect artifacts from several different spaces.
While certainly the changes made to the curriculum were intended as a means to adapt as a result of the pandemic, the results were beyond my expectations. The students were consistently engaged and excited, and the class extended beyond my reach, as many of my students invited family members or friends to participate in our weekly activities. After all, while museums were closed for most of the world, for my students, museums were truly open for the first time.
This version of the class can be further explored in my essay (Zeleny 2020).