Teaching with Objects, Part 3

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, Erin Blevins brings a fish to class.

Case Study 1: Bringing Objects to Class 

Beyond the objects showcased in Harvard museums, many materials lurk behind the scenes in the research collections.  These collections are not open to the public, but they are available to Harvard students!  Collections managers are often enthusiastic about helping you borrow specimens for class or arrange a collection tour—not only do students get to see different objects than those displayed in the museum, they catch a glimpse of the “working materials” used by real researchers, which are often filed away on shelves and in drawers rather than in shiny cases under the spotlight.  I invited Curatorial Assistant Andy Williston to introduce us to one of Harvard’s collections, the Ichthyology Collection (that’s fish to you) at the Museum of Comparative Zoology.  Would you have guessed that there are over a million fish in the basement of the museum, carefully preserved and catalogued, and visited by researchers from all over the world?  Fish in Harvard’s collection come from miles beneath the sea, or from tiny mountain streams; some were collected last month, some 200 years ago; some are the “type” specimen used to define their entire species.  When students walk through the collection’s four rooms, they stroll through fish diversity and millions of years of evolutionary history—this physical journey, with its sights, sounds and yes, smells, can drive home the reality of concepts from the classroom and the work done by real humans to study them.

The logistics of museum or collections trips usually makes them a once-a-semester deal, but bringing objects into the classroom can happen as often as you’d like.  Students work with text in almost every class, every day.  Confrontations with physical objects are a great wakeup call—and let me tell you, the jaws of a great white shark will get anyone’s attention!  But teaching with objects is not all about “wow” factor; during our session, I presented participants with two innocuous little fish (Mexican tetra Asytanax mexicanus, for ichthyophiles in the audience), modeling an exercise I’ve used in biology courses with concentrators and in GenEd.  As Meredith Schweig mentioned in our earlier post, “The Why of Teaching with Objects,” objects can engage diverse groups with different levels of expertise, so a similar exercise can be fruitful in upper-level classes, with freshmen, or in my teaching conference “class” of graduate students from across GSAS.  As everyone observes the fish and consults the specimen labels, they notice that the two fish are the same species, but have some striking differences—one of them is blind.  Why is it blind?  Where is it from?  Is it just a one-off mutant?  Have I made you curious to know?  In class, these questions lead into a discussion of adaptation and evolution, tying into Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and current researchStudents may hesitate to dive in and discuss complex ideas or big-name authors, but anyone can make observations about objects sitting right there, whether they’re commenting on a fish’s shiny scales or a painting’s big brush strokes.  Curiosity about the object will get you started…basic observations will get everyone talking…and as Matthew Mugmon discussed in his post about our session, concepts emerge organically.  From two little fish, to evolution.

In the aftermath of our session, a challenge I’m issuing myself—and you—is to think more broadly about the kinds of objects I bring to class.  Sure, I’m a biologist.  Working with animal specimens (fish, lizards, frogs) in a biology class is an obvious choice, but it’s not the only one.  What about historical scientific instruments?  What about artwork?  My fellow grad student Glenna Clifton opens a discussion of proportions and scaling during growth (often a dry topic) by showing her students paintings of “ugly Renaissance babies”—ugly, because the babies are often depicted with adult proportions, and it just looks wrong.  As I plan future lessons, I hope to push myself past the familiar fish, drawing on a broader range of Harvard’s “tangible things.” And if you’d like to bring a frog to your Comp Lit seminar, I’m happy to help.

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