Art or Propaganda?

WRIT 138  •  Erin Royston Battat

Three black-and-white lithographs: One of a man chopping wood; one of a horse running next to a pond; one of a fire in a barnyard

Three lithographs by Thomas Hart Benton displayed in students' online exhibits for this course. Left to right: The Woodpile (1939), The Race (1942), Fire in the Barnyard (1944). Original artwork held by the Wellesley College Davis Museum and Cultural Center.

My first-year writing course, “Art or Propaganda?”, examines the political art of the 1930s. With support from the Mellon Blended Learning Initiative, students created digital humanities projects that showcased their research on works from Wellesley College’s Davis Museum. Each student chose a work of art to study, researched its historical context and critical reception, and wrote an original essay. Each student then showcased her research using Omeka, a multimedia presentation tool. In order to assess the effectiveness of blended learning, I conducted a second section of the course without the digital element. The “non-blended” section presented their research in a more conventional oral format using posters as visual aids. My goal in comparing the two sections was to assess the role of audience as a motivation for writing with clarity and purpose.

The comparative study indicated that student learning did not vary significantly in the blended versus non-blended sections. In fact, students seemed to be more motivated by a live audience of peers and instructors than an anonymous virtual audience. Although the papers were of comparable quality in both classes, the in-person oral presentations were more polished and engaging. The lesson I learned was that technology can be used effectively to enhance learning, but it should augment rather than replace real human exchange.

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