Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Our Collective Practice of History

“ID History” is a mandatory course for junior ID majors. As such, the course is an integral part of the RISD-ID department’s educational philosophy of learning by doing. For example, we all know that in the metal, wood, and advanced studios, students learn to be designers through practice. By analogy, the ID History TimeLine assignments are a device for teaching the tools of critically engaged historical thinking about the incredibly diverse discipline of industrial design. After all, this is a field with no secure canon of landmark monuments, or even a consensus of when the field’s history began. (See the course Reader.) The 80 students in this course come to an ID major with the most diverse interests, from crossovers with engineering to conceptual art to socially responsible design to the craft of a machine shop culture. Thus, my approach to this history course is motivated by the goal of delivering to each student an enduring skill that they can take with them and apply with flexibility to the diverse kinds of problems they will have to face in a rapidly changing world. This course emphasizes practical skill building in the methods of thinking about history more than a concern with the conveyance of factual content. Why? Because the topicality of the specific examples covered will be rendered out of date or out of fashion within a decade. But a student well trained in the tools of historical thinking will be able to use and build on this skill for a lifetime.

So far this semester, each student’s practice required them to engage in three given topics in ID History: dealing with the past; technology and design as exemplified by lighting history; functionalism as a design philosophy of overwhelming stylistic importance, and distinct from the adage “form equals function”. The three TimeLine assignments asked each student to choose 5 objects that illustrate some theme or point of view that interests them. One can immediately notice that none of them were the same and thus the 80 TimeLines x 3 topics generated a collective history of expertise among the class, which we were able to share among ourselves and with the entire ID Department (since many people stopped by to engage with your work displayed in the ID Gallery). This dynamic is an important one, since now the teacher becomes a reference point and guide, and the class members are empowered to connect among themselves as historian/experts on their specific case studies and developing/evolving points of view. This offers a way of forming the next generation of industrial designers who will already be practicing with their peers an engaged critical thinking about their discipline.

The three TimeLines visualized each student’s research in a way that could be easily and quickly shared. Also, it was a kind of visual outline that instantly revealed if and how a written essay with a point of view could be developed from the work presented. This leads us to the midsemester review that will be a way of taking stock of where we are as a class, who is developing this opportunity in the most exciting ways, and who needs help understanding what is possible here. In a parallel universe, we would be preparing for mid-term exams and 5-10 page papers at this point. As a teacher, I have read these exams and papers and wondered what of lasting value was gained for either party. So we have here an opportunity and a freedom built on the expectation that RISD students will approach their work with passion, analytic rigor, and the sense that something that matters is at stake. It requires you to believe in the practice of history writing, and thinking about the field you have chosen as a profession – a field I am assuming you will embrace as something more than just a job. Something like a calling you go to with conviction.

The midsemester review asks you to develop your three TimeLines in two ways. First, the TimeLines are visual outlines with interesting information that can and should be shared. The larger community of sharing here will be the “blogosphere”. This is a new kind of populist forum that can be banal and “blah blah blah”, or a new and potentially amazing communication tool that you need to learn to master for the good it can offer. Secondly, it is my expectation that the TimeLine as visual outline should lead to an analogous kind of short critical essay that one would expect to do for a rigorous Liberal Arts course, which this ID History class is as well. It is this piece that I will discuss more as we go over where we are as a class. It appears that I am not communicating this aspect o the assignment as clearly as I had hoped. But we will spend time and make sure everyone understands by the end of class Monday.

To conclude, you must send me the link to your blog so I can post it on the main site, which is You must post your 3 TimeLines in either the original format and/or as well as in the way you have transformed them to the new presentation medium of a blog. It is my expectation that you do more than write captions for 5 objects x 3 timelines. Please demonstrate a critical engagement with the big questions each or all of your TimeLines lead you to consider. How you develop this is up to you. This is RISD, after all. I look forward to seeing where we are as a class on Monday. Who is doing something we might never have imagined? Who are you each as critical thinkers? How will the class generate themes and cross-connections and avenues for future research projects, from books to projects to clearly articulated visions of what an ID History, landmarks, method, and all, are for each of you. Interestingly, none of your approaches will be exactly the same. It will be great to be immersed in a community of such potential richness and sharing.

MidSemester Grades:
A-B: 3 TimeLines developed for new communication medium of blog and the requirement to take the TimeLine seen as visual outline to the next level; that is, critical thinking in expanded writing about what this material means.
C: blog linked by Sunday Oct 19th 6pm, with 3 basic TimeLines that accurately addressed 3 original assignments, up and posted by Monday Oct 20th 6 am.

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