Can COVID-19 Reinvigorate our Teaching? Employing Digital Tools for Spatial Learning

By Tracy Chapman Hamilton, Virginia Commonwealth University, Affiliate Elizabeth Lastra, Vassar College, Assistant Professor

Screenshot from Stephanie Yang’s Artsteps Islamic Chinoserie exhibit

Using the time-tested mnemonic of the “Memory Palace,” twenty-four-year-old Alex Mullen was the first American to win the World Memory Competition in 2015 (he has since won twice more). Four-time champion of the USA Memory Competition, Nelson Dellis employs the same technique, explaining that one should place “images for those words [you are memorizing] on a route around your house,” to create one’s own memory palace. Mullen and Dellis’s techniques exemplify the power of the combination of place, movement, and image in the functioning of our brains, which can be creatively leveraged in the (virtual) classroom.

The use of the visually mapped locus that Dellis describes has been an essential element of pedagogy since antiquity, as Francis Yates spelled out for us in The Art of Memory (1966) and Mary Carruthers developed in The Book of Memory (1990). Driven to action by COVID-19 and the “digital turn” required of so many of our colleagues, we will introduce several digital student projects across a series of posts, beginning in this post with assignments involving spatial learning.

Rather than aiming to structure memorization like Mullen and Dellis, the spaces explored and built by our students encourage the global contextualization of the art and architecture we study in the classroom, push research and visual analysis to greater depths, and build critical thinking and compositional skills. These are pedagogies we have employed with success for years, long before the pandemic, and we hope that some of the ideas we introduce here invigorate your classes for the present moment and also become part of your repertoire once back on campus across the years to come.

Screenshot from Tracy Hamilton’s Spatial Exploration Project User Guide

What Tracy calls the Spatial Exploration Project is an early- or mid-semester assignment to encourage consideration of the larger “where” of the objects and monuments being studied in class. The assignment asks students to find three-dimensional views using Google Maps, Earth, and Street View and re-consider these monuments. Walking the sites virtually, students become more familiar with their artistic details within the context of their physical siting and surrounding geography and topography than they are able from photographs alone or through professor-directed media. The onus is on the student to explore and discover. Students can also analyze the sites and surrounding landscapes through a VR (Virtual Reality) headset (such as a viewfinder, Google Cardboard, or any of the VR options available today). In short written reports on the process, students share views that were personally impactful and explain the ways in which these augment understanding of the monument/place/site/object itself, beyond their readings or what has been discussed in class. And never more apparent than when teaching at a large public university such as VCU, most often to a disciplinary mix of students, the opportunity of “free” travel helps to level the field and provides more inclusive access to these sites worldwide. With travel largely on hold for the foreseeable future, virtual access to these sites now becomes everyone’s reality.

Screenshot from Stephanie Yang’s Artsteps Islamic Chinoserie exhibit

As Liz has elaborated in a Tool Talk for the Medieval Academy of America, curating virtual exhibitions as a semester project promotes spatial thinking and organization, and is facilitated by the free and user-friendly platform Artsteps. (The Tool Talk lives on the Middle Ages for Educators site, along with a variety of others, including a great talk by David Wrisley on storymapping, another digital tool discussed below.) In designing their exhibitions – a task which involves planning the shape and configuration of a space, selecting works to include and their positioning relative to other pieces, and writing research-based wall labels – students tell a story through space and movement.

The goal in many ways is not so different from a research paper, but in building the paper in digital brick and mortar, its framing becomes visible. The often complicated task of organization, easily lost in a student’s pages of text, is exposed for her or him to consider carefully in guiding a virtual visitor. Moreover, example selection, crucial to the construction of an argument, becomes the crux of the assignment in that it is these punctuating works that activate the space and serve as evidence for the perspective of the show. See students Stephanie Yang and Charlie Shen in Liz’s 2019 Islamic Art and Architecture class explore interactions between premodern China and the Islamic world in their exhibitions Islamic Chinoserie and Islamic Art in China up to 1600.

Screenshot from Naomi Edmondson’s Cartographic Countering in “Historic Charleston” storymap

Two other highly useful (and free) tools for visualizing a research exhibit or topic, Esri’s ArcGIS StoryMaps and Northwestern University’s Knight Lab StoryMapJS, enable the creation of a media-rich spatial narrative. In class we frame assignments using these tools just as we would a research paper, requiring the study of primary and secondary sources and engagement in deep visual analysis, while also considering how the materials interact within a geographical or visual space. The process of creating a simple-to-build storymap forces students to grapple with their research – and then allows them to visualize it – in a way not possible in the traditional research paper.

As you can see in the examples below, geographical mapping is just one option for playing out that narrative. Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights is a gigapixel image whose components have been visually mapped using Knight Lab’s StoryMap (see their many other tools as well). Esri’s platform allows for a similar variety as shown by Mildred Lane of the Kemper Art Museum, as well as students from Tracy’s Digital Art History class in the spring of 2020: Naomi Edmondson, Cartographic Countering in “Historic Charleston”; Damon Reed, From Modernity to Degeneracy (using image analysis and no geographical map); and Madelyn Shelbie on Edward S. Curtis.

Like premodern teachers and students before us, as well as memory athletes today, spatial learning provides exciting possibilities, unhindered by remote learning (and perhaps unbound by it?), combining the brain’s natural aptitude for spatial thinking with the contextualization possible through virtual environments. Art historians have the best memory palaces—from the Alhambra to the Forbidden City—let’s use them.

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