Introducing Students to Professional Practices: Running a Mock Academic Conference
I am constantly experimenting with new activities in the courses I teach, which are largely surveys of art history. In fact, introductory surveys are some of my favorite courses to teach, because they give me the opportunity to mold the very basic approaches that beginners to the discipline take. One of my most successful experiments recently has been guiding my students to conduct a mock academic conference. During the semester in question (Spring 2012), I was spending an inordinate amount of the time traveling to conferences in order to present papers related to my research and teaching. It occurred to me as I was planning out the semester: If this is what I, as a professional, am doing with my time, shouldn’t my students be doing it as well? If this is a fundamental aspect of my experience of my discipline, shouldn’t beginners to this discipline also be exposed to it? The answer I came to was an emphatic yes. Modeling real-world experiences and practicing transferrable skills within classroom activities are what make art history relevant to the students in my courses, regardless of their majors.
In this assignment, students presented pre-recorded, ninety-second commercials within the context of topic-centered panels. Their commercials condensed their own written critiques of articles found in The Art Bulletin, effectively “advertising” the papers that they had written for the survey course. Like an academic conference, the organization and juxtaposition of these panels helped the participants draw connections between each other’s work.
This project can be broken down into steps that are manageable for both instructor and students. I outlined each of these steps, and the benefits of the project as a whole, in a presentation at CAA this past spring. (From the student perspective, here are the assignment guidelines that go into detail for each step.)
Step 1: Students each pick an article on which to write their critique, and have it approved by the instructor.
• Article must come from The Art Bulletin.
• Article must be less than 30 years old.
• Article must apply directly to course content (i.e. not regarding Ancient
Egypt, if the course begins in the Renaissance).
• Article must be a “bona-fide” article. (i.e. not a book review, etc. See the
assignment guidelines for more on this).
• Article approval can take place via email or on Piazza. (Like so many other
course activities, Piazza makes this process a whole lot easier. It allows
students to collaborate on choosing articles as well as to see how other
students succeed at getting articles approved.)
Step 2: Students each write critique papers analyzing their approved articles.
• Papers are 3-5 pages, double-spaced.
• Brainstorming questions for how to critique an article are included in the
• Critiques ask students to delve deep into the processes of art historical
argumentation, moving well beyond “coverage” of course content to understand
how evidence and argumentation operate in this discipline, giving a reason why
course content is interesting and important.
• The rubric that I use to grade these papers can be found here.
Step 3: Students each create a 90-second commercial “advertising” their critique
• What will be presented in class must be prepared ahead of time.
• 90 seconds leaves no room for rambling.
• Students can use technology as basic as Powerpoint or as advanced as their
video editing skills can take them.
• Other options for creating videos include Jing, smartphones, and webcams.
• To give students practice creating a video with narration, earlier in the
semester they create their own Smarthistory-like recorded conversation.
• Students upload their videos to a hosting site such as youtube or vimeo. All
they submit to the instructor is a URL. Thus there are no bulky files to
manage in email or on a learning management system server.
Step 4: Students present their critiques in a mock conference in class.
• The “advertisements” are organized into 3-to-4-student topical panels.
Students may be responsible for coordinating this.
• Topics from our mock conference included “Leonardo da Vinci,” “Patrons,” and
“Bodies (and their parts) in Florentine Religious Sculpture.”
• Student presenters come to the front of the classroom and sit on their panel.
(Chairs can be placed at the front of the room, or a large table. As we tell
our students, architecture matters!) Videos are played. A moderator (either
the instructor, or a designated student moderator) conducts Q&A.
• Students have the opportunity to view each other’s work and dialogue about it
in meaningful ways.
• Grading for the commercial and conference participation is pass-fail. What is
critical with this aspect of the project is completion and active engagement.
This multi-step assignment tackles some of the major problems that we, as professors, often face when assigning research papers in undergraduate courses. Students often struggle to manage information chaos or turn to the most basic and easily accessible resources for writing a research paper. With the parameters of this project, chaos is averted because there is a limited selection of articles in The Art Bulletin from which to choose, and each student must focus on just one. This makes the project more manageable from the students’ point of view as well as from the instructor’s. With these papers, one is never faced while grading with the mind-numbing prospect of thirty papers about the exact same topic, nor with having to discourage students from using Wikipedia as a reference. Additionally, this assignment is designed to make plagiarism harder than doing the assignment itself. Students work with a single, easily-searchable online source, and in order to create 90-second commercials in their own voices, as well as to speak intelligently about their work during the mock conference, students must be intimately familiar with the arguments made in their papers.
This project is designed to make the completion of the assignment itself be the easiest way to finish the course successfully and to avoid losing face in front of peers.
Because the commercials are pre-recorded, for students who have done the work themselves, the mock conference becomes a relatively low (or medium)-stakes engagement to celebrate what they have accomplished for the semester. But for students who have not done their own work, the mock conference could potentially become a very high-stakes engagement to disprove purported authorship. While no assignment can prevent a student determined to cheat from doing so, this project averts many of the easy ways by which students often intentionally or unintentionally plagiarize.
• This project placed students intellectually and experientially within the
context of serious academic research.
• The project improves upon the type of communicative literacy fostered by
conventional survey papers by engaging skills involved both in “old literacy”
and “new literacy.” The traditional skills of literacy that are needed to
analyze text sources and to write carefully crafted papers are not abandoned,
but students must also engage with “new literacy” modalities of manipulating
digital images, video production and delivery, as well as reputable e-research.
• Students develop skills of summarization and logical argumentation, applying
basic disciplinary knowledge and frameworks to analyze complex readings.
• Students participate in a low-stakes engagement speaking in front of their
• Students model institutionalized practices of information sharing, gaining
first-hand experience of the intellectual community-building that occurs during
• Students gain broadly-transferrable skills and experiences that build their art
historical knowledge through tasks that make that knowledge meaningful and
applicable, building cognitive structures that will endure beyond the final