Teaching with Objects, Part 1

In this four-part series, Departmental Teaching Fellows Anita Nikkanen (Comparative Literature), Erin Blevins (Organismic and Evolutionary Biology), and Meredith Schweig (Music) reflect on the why, how, and what of teaching with objects. These reflections grew out of “Teaching with Tangible Things: Museum Collections in the Classroom,” a workshop they offered at the Bok Center’s 2012 Winter Teaching Conference.

In today’s post, Meredith Schweig addresses some of the pedagogical theory behind teaching with objects.

As instructors at Harvard, we have an embarrassment of riches at our fingertips: remarkable libraries, expert faculty, and spectacular instructional support.  Our Winter Teaching Conference session, however, explored a set of resources that are, for the most part, underused by TFs at the College: our fantastic museum and research collections. Anita Nikkanen, Erin Blevins, and I discussed the benefits of incorporating material objects into our teaching, provided a whistle-stop tour of some of the amazing stuff available to us at Harvard, identified strategies for collaborating effectively with collections staff, and worked through some sample exercises.  Our goal for the workshop was to encourage participants to take advantage of these resources and to consider how working with collections can open new and exciting avenues for critical inquiry.

For those teaching in disciplines that do not traditionally focus on objects—Music, Literature, Philosophy, or Economics, for example—the reasons for bringing material things into the classroom might not be immediately obvious.  At our workshop in January, I explored the benefits of teaching with objects through the four main points made in John Hennigar Shuh’s 1982 article “Teaching Yourself to Teach with Objects[1].” I brought in a Chinese musical instrument called a guqin to anchor the discussion and really drive Shuh’s points home:guqin

“Objects are fascinating”

People love things!  Although we are surrounded by a world of objects every day, we do not often take the opportunity to engage in focused observation of them.  I would add to Shuh’s thoughts that objects emit a unique kind of energy, one that draws students in and encourages active learning.  At the workshop, I laid the guqin on the table and watched as participants leaned in to pluck its strings, turn it over, and knock gently on its hollow body.  They were attracted to the guqin and visibly curious about it—they asked questions about its provenance, construction, and musical capabilities.  We often rack our brains for the kind of warm-up question that will spark our students’ interest and get them thinking about how the day’s topic connects with their own experience.  Objects are fantastic conversation starters!

“Objects are not age-specific”

Shuh makes the excellent point that, regardless of age or stage of conceptual development, students can always “see an object and engage in an educationally worthwhile discussion about it.”  I would add to this that objects are not discipline-specific—people with different disciplinary orientations will respond to them in different ways.  For example, a music concentrator might comment on similarities between the guqin I showed at the workshop and other zither-like instruments; a physics student might have interesting insights into the guqin’s acoustic workings.  Focused observation and handling of objects can draw out these kinds of diverse perspectives and help make the classroom a more inclusive space.

“Objects help us to document the history of ordinary people”

Although our museum and research collections include many rare and precious objects, they also include artifacts of everyday life.  Shuh suggests that working with these kinds of materials can lend critical dimension to the study of history, which has often been dominated by the stories of socially and economically privileged individuals who bequeathed to history ample documentary evidence of their achievements.  Those whose voices do not as readily emerge from such sources nevertheless left behind artworks, scientific instruments, religious implements, musical instruments, and other kinds of ephemera.  Incorporating these objects into our teaching can help bring their stories to light.


“Using objects helps students develop important intellectual skills”

In Shuh’s words, working with tangible things can help students to “develop their capacity for careful, critical observation of their world,” which is in and of itself an important intellectual skill.  By bringing the guqin into our session, I invited participants to really stare at it and to touch it.  They got a sense of its sounds, smells, and tactile qualities.  Their investigations prompted them to ask questions about details that would not have been as readily apparent from a photograph—Why is it made of this particular kind of wood?  Are the strings silk or metal?  The sticker on its underside says “Shanghai”—did it come from a factory there?  Through engaging in careful, critical observation, a host of interesting facts and theories about the guqin emerged.

For my part, I would add to Shuh’s list the idea that teaching with objects can be valuable because curating is its own kind of critical thinking.  Asking students to consider the relationship of one object to another, to question the stability of the categories to which they might assign an object, and to interpret an object for others can be a tremendously edifying and empowering experience.

[1] Shuh, John Hennigar. “Teaching Yourself to Teach with Objects,” Journal of Education Volume 7, Number 4, 1982: 8-15. 

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