The Fashion History Timeline: Rethinking Student Research as Public Scholarship
For a long time, I have been frustrated that student research and writing is so often lost—effectively erased from the scholarly conversation. After all, thousands of undergraduate and graduate students take art history courses and write papers every year. Yet often the only audience for that research is the class or even just the professor. Students repeat topics year after year and few benefit from their efforts. All this intellectual labor is being performed, but not preserved. Yet, with digital papers and projects, this doesn’t have to be the case.
Three years ago I started teaching art and fashion history at the Fashion Institute of Technology, a SUNY community college where nearly half the 10,000 students take art history courses, but we only have about 50 art history majors. Most of my students don’t consider themselves to be writers, but instead think of themselves as artists, designers or business professionals. Yet their creativity and keen eye for detail mean they are, in fact, often excellent at analyzing images and garments, but simply lack experience with writing. So I began to think about how to make standard paper assignments like artwork analysis essays more easily attainable and appealing to students, while still achieving the same learning outcomes.
Online publishing seemed an ideal way to preserve student research and share it with the world, while also teaching students valuable digital publishing skills and serving the field and the public. Indeed, by transforming a standard paper assignment into a digital one, you can harness student research for the greater good, reach a wider audience, and imbue it with a longer life beyond the professor, the class, and the semester for which it was created. I encourage students to pick unique topics that build on previous contributions and students benefit from both the content and the model that earlier scholarship provides. At the same time, I, along with my students, was frustrated that few open-access, reliable sources for fashion history research existed online. This gave a natural focus for the students’ research in line with their interests and course content. And thus the Fashion History Timeline was born.
About the Timeline
The Fashion History Timeline is an open-access source for fashion history knowledge, featuring objects and artworks from over a hundred museums and libraries that span the globe. The Timeline website offers well-researched, accessibly written entries on specific artworks, garments and films for those interested in fashion and dress history. Started as a pilot project by FIT art history faculty and students in the Fall of 2015, the Timeline aims to be an important contribution to public knowledge of the history of fashion and to serve as a constantly growing and evolving resource not only for students and faculty, but also for the wider world of those interested in fashion and dress history–from the Renaissance scholar to the simply curious. To date, 261 student authors have written 462 essays for the Timeline; they hail from 39 different majors at FIT. Fourteen classes, taught by seven different instructors, have participated so far. More than 50 scholars outside of FIT have contributed or are in the process of contributing essays since the site’s public launch in February 2018. We envision the Timeline as a global hub for fashion research and eagerly welcome contributions from students and professors at other institutions and from independent scholars.
Accurate knowledge of dress and fashion history is vital to the practice and study of not only art history, but also archaeology, classics, history, literature and visual culture. Yet analyzing and understanding dress can be daunting to scholars and students who have not been trained in fashion history. The Fashion History Timeline is intended to demystify dress and fashion, offering the academic community and the public an easily accessible starting place for their research. Decade and century overview pages offer visual examples of period styles, a visually rich fashion dictionary defines key terms, and hundreds of examples of dress analysis from antiquity to the present day model the complicated task of discerning whether something is fashionable or merely everyday dress, as well as the historical implications of that distinction. The Timeline equips students and researchers with essential facts, vocabulary, and models of analysis. Content on the Timeline to-date has focused on Western fashion from the Renaissance to the 19th-century to honor the priorities of our generous supporters at the Samuel H. Kress Foundation. In the future, we plan to add expert-written overviews of period styles from prehistory to the present, biographies of 18th- and 19th-century fashion designers, and coverage of non-western fashion.
In addition to all its original content, the Timeline also aims to act as online nexus for fashion history research, aggregating and curating existing print and digital research sources. It features a searchable Source Database of reliable academic publications on fashion and dress history and a much more extensive Zotero database (5000+ sources and counting!) that students and researchers can search and explore (and that automatically populates the suggested research sources on decade overview pages). The Timeline aims to index the wealth of digital resources for primary fashion history research online that otherwise require specialized knowledge or luck to discover, offering links to digitized manuscripts, fashion plate collections, fashion periodicals and etiquette books held by libraries and museums across the world. Lists of relevant online primary and secondary resources are featured on each decade overview page on the Timeline; if you know of others, please contact us! Century overview pages also include filmographies for those interested in seeing how the dress of a historic period has been translated to the screen. The Timeline’s blog aims to not only highlight NYC-area fashion history exhibitions, but also to serve as a forum for announcing new publications and digital resources. An overview of all the types of content on the Timeline can be found on the How to Contribute” page. In the six months since we launched, we’ve become the number four Google result for “fashion history” and are visited by more than 650 people a day.
Along the way, I’ve learned some lessons that I’d like to share, as well as offer some practical advice for transforming existing assignments into digital projects that bolster student engagement and serve the public good. Free online platforms like WordPress, which powers the Timeline, can attractively showcase the research and analysis skills students gain in art history courses and raise awareness of its importance at the institution and beyond. These (not-so-original) lessons will perhaps help guide those interested in undertaking a similar project:
- Pick a platform wisely,
- Provide models,
- Show each step and scaffold skills,
- Simplify whenever possible,
- And finally, accept that nothing is perfect.
Pick a Platform Wisely
Always pick a platform wisely when embarking on a digital project with your students. Migrations are painful, if you decide, as I did, that you need to switch digital publishing platforms. I wanted to get started quickly so I initially opted to use the free Google Sites platform provided by the college, without considering its limitations. While Google Sites did allow students to essentially paste in their text and upload their images to easily create digital papers, it didn’t offer the editorial control or allow for draft versions that I soon came to appreciate would be essential. [Note: I was using the old version of Google Sites that looked like a 90s version of Wikipedia; the new Google Sites may offer some of these features now]. Students had complete authorial control over their pages, which resulted in wildly different formatting and a very disjointed site experience that was immediately made public.
I’ve now transitioned to WordPress as it allows for finer control of different roles on the site and also incorporates drafts, which only I as editor can authorize to publish publicly. It also, thanks to the Zotpress plugin, seamlessly and dynamically integrates the site’s Zotero library into the decade and century overview pages. I initially hadn’t worried too deeply about aesthetics, but soon came to appreciate how important the look and feel of the final project would be to generating student enthusiasm and creating a sense of credibility. I’ve found that if the result is attractive enough, many students will become excited to participate. If it’s not, they tended to see the digital product simply as extra work.
The generous support of a 2016-2017 Samuel H. Kress Foundation Digital Resources for Art History Grant funded the redesign the Fashion History Timeline as a WordPress site. Continuing support by Kress in 2018-19 will further strengthen the site’s size and scope. [Foundation support has sped our redesign and growth, but it should be noted that virtually all the technology underlying the site is free and open-access. We have paid only for our theme (Extra by Elegant Themes), the pro versions of a few WordPress plugins (PublishPress, Profile Builder, and Portfolio Posts), and for domain names—all of which are optional enhancements and not required for the basic running of the site. Hosting is covered by FIT’s existing WordPress host, WP Engine.]
While this should perhaps go without saying, it is essential to provide models for student work. I always do the assignments myself to gain a sense of potential pitfalls or problems that I can then warn students about. Students will also have a clear sense of what is expected of them and an example to model their own work on. Of course, after a semester, you’ll have many examples of students’ own work to point to. Perhaps most importantly, give clear instructions about citing and plagiarism as the digital nature of the work will make students especially tempted to simply copy online sources into their own work. Many students will do whatever is easiest, so it’s essential to have clear guidelines and suggested sources for credible research information easily accessible. Examples of correct citation practices should be reviewed in class and a graded draft version of the assignment assigned so that you can flag any errors in citations before the final version is submitted. I find stressing the public nature of their final project also seems to promote more ethical behavior as students perhaps realize others will be able to see and potentially detect any plagiarism.
Show Each Step & Scaffold Skills
A related lesson that is particularly important for digital publishing projects is that you need to show each step and scaffold skills. Most students resist reading instructions closely. To combat this, in addition to written instructions for the assignment, I create brief screen capture videos using Quicktime that I upload to an unlisted YouTube channel demonstrating each step of the process. I also allow time for working on projects in class, so I can demonstrate anything that is particularly tricky and then also troubleshoot and answer individual student questions. [In my 45 hour class (3 hours/15 weeks), I dedicate 3 one-hour sessions to lab time, each focused on training the students in a new research or digital publishing skill]. In my experience, you shouldn’t assume any tech literacy on the part of students—even things like uploading images or formatting text may be unfamiliar to them. With this in mind, I created a few smaller assignments like defining a term or finding an image, which teach the students the research and digital publishing skills they need for their final artwork analysis assignment, thus scaffolding the skills.
Simplify Whenever Possible
The fourth lesson I’ve learned is to simplify whenever possible. To create a professional look and feel, use templates that students simply have to fill in with their own information. I also suggest automating formatting whenever possible. For example, I created a form the students fill out that automatically formats their image captions in a standardized way. I also teach the students how to use the free citation tool Zotero, so their bibliographies can be all perfectly formatted in Chicago-style without their having to know the details. While grading I copy and paste from a list of common mistakes and how to fix them so I don’t have to keep typing the same comments over and over again in my revision letters to students. Templates and automatic formatting allow me to focus my comments more on the content of the student writing rather than its form. I recommend using Airtable to track assignments as students can submit the information about their assignment themselves via a form and then it appears neatly categorized and sortable in a spreadsheet database. For example, here is a table showing the final paper topics of students in my spring HA 301 “Fashion & Impressionism” course that was entirely generated by the students submitting their topics via a form. This way the students can also see what everyone else is working on, collaborate to find sources and, of course, not choose the same topics!
Accept Nothing is Perfect
And finally, accept that nothing is perfect. For students and instructors, it’s a slow process of gradual learning both how to write and how to work in a digital environment. Students will make mistakes and will break things in ways you can’t anticipate. Few will be perfect at the start, but with a slow scaffolding of assignments their final projects will likely surprise you. But if they don’t, I remind students that not everything is publishable as scholarship after only a semester. Students sign release forms authorizing possible publication of their work, but also authorizing subsequent editing and revision by other students in the future. I stress publishing as a scholar requires being open to revision and rethinking when new information is discovered. The student satisfaction in seeing their work appear professional and their pride in the result makes all the work worthwhile. They have a sense of having added to the world’s knowledge—that what they have discovered and written matters—and appreciate having a polished piece of writing and digital publishing skills to include in their resumes.
Rethinking student writing as public scholarship requires more time and technical engagement than traditional paper assignments, but brings with it a host of rewards. Imagine never reading the same paper twice, learning from your students as they learn from each other, and building an enduring body of student research and writing that serves the field and the public.
This post is adapted from a presentation I gave as part of the Community College Professors of Art and Art History (CCPAAH) session,“Championing the Relevancy of Studio Art and Art History in the Twenty-First Century: Stories of Success and Advocacy,” at CAA 2018 in Los Angeles. Thanks to Walter Meyer and Susan Altman for organizing the session and including me in it.