Material Culture through the Lens of Forms

Lesson Name: Material Culture through the Lens of Forms

Primary Museum Pedagogy: Materiality and Narrativity

Course Title and Description: English 110 (Composition I), The Visual World of Childhood (theme)

Lesson Overview: In this lesson, students will analyze objects they find on a museum’s website (or some other large repository of images of art) using a lens theory, and then present their findings to the class.

• Students will apply a theory about form to objects they find, allowing them to practice engaging with secondary sources
• Students will zero in on objects/aspects of a text that are interesting to them and investigate their properties
• Students will apply ideas about close reading to objects

Pedagogical Considerations:
• This lesson is good to use with a research paper assignment at the end of the semester, or earlier on in a course where you want to foreground strategies for looking at objects.
• The idea of this lesson is to use the graphic novel, Paper Girls, to scaffold a transition from analyzing texts (be they literary or visual) to analyzing objects. This is because we began this class by analyzing literary/visual texts.
• English 110 focuses on methods rather than content, so any content could be substituted here. For the theme given here, “The Visual World of Childhood,” care should be taken to expose students to texts marketed to or used by children–perhaps with a few examples at the beginning of class. By this time in the semester, students will also have read texts depicting children and young adults (in our class, we read Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian). Students should also be exposed to visual texts, and have already thought about what makes these texts different from purely verbal texts. The idea is to build up a group of guiding questions for analyzing a text that students can return to again and again, creating cohesion in the course.
• English 110 is 1:50 minutes long, but this whole lesson plan is 90 minutes to allow for the fact that many instructors have shorter classes.

Content Objectives:
• Students will be able to understand how to analyze the visual properties of objects as well as texts.
• Students will be able to make an argument about a visual object in the context of how it might be used by or marketed to children, or how it depicts children.

• A copy of Caroline Levine’s Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network. This activity uses Levine’s concept that there are certain formal properties of any object that allow one to better understand how that object functions as a subset of a form.
• Board markers
• A projector
• Scanned panels from Paper Girls, a sci-fi comic (or any comic or graphic text you choose) to display as an example on a projector
• Access to the Internet to access the Met’s website
• Students also need Internet access and laptops or a computer lab

Lesson Sequence:

Free write (10): Write about a topic you are generally interested in that you might want to investigate more for your research paper. This should not be a specific text, but a general disciplinary area (art, literature, sociology, history), or a kind of object (painting, graphic novel, comic book, kind of jewelry, ad campaign)

Panels from Paper Girls: (10) How would we read this? Preliminary responses? I will write your answers on the board. (I projected several panels on the board).

Review Close Reading process –
1. Annotate (anything strange, or that strikes you as interesting or important to the text’s larger meaning)
2. Find patterns
3. Formulate thesis (statement of your opinion about how the text makes meaning)

Group activity (20): Focus on one of the following elements:
· Panel size
· Light and darkness/color variation
· Scale
· Kind/shape of border
· Shape/angular or curved forms
· Textures/level of detail
· Character positions (where characters are in relation to each other and within panels)

Sharing responses (sometimes I also walk around the classroom to groups and try to find responses that are solid to pull out and tell the class as discussion starters) (10):
Open sharing time

Activity: Discuss idea of forms and apply it to art objects: (15)

Read portions of handout on Levine’s definition of forms together (or beforehand for homework):

Handout on forms: Important Ideas from Levine’s Forms
Form is not just literary: Literary theorist Caroline Levine uses the idea of form to think about how one can think of forms in a much larger sense than just literary forms (like the novel, a type of poetry, or a short story). She thinks about how forms can also be used to think about varieties of social experience (Levine 2). In the same way that a novel organizes words so that we have a frame of reference for understanding them, a line at the grocery store or boundaries such as state lines organize people and try to say where they belong, helping us make sense of experiences (3).

Affordances: Levine also discusses the idea of affordances–an idea from design theory that thinks about objects and texts in terms of the “potential actions or uses are latent in [their] materials and designs” (6).

Examples: “Glass affords transparency and brittleness. Steel affords strength, smoothness, hardness, and durability…Specific designs, which organize these materials, then lay claim to their own range of affordances. A fork affords stabbing and scooping. A doorknob affords not only hardness and durability, but also turning, pushing, and pulling. Designed things may also have unexpected affordances generated by imaginative users: we may hang signs or clothes on a doorknob” (6).

Application to non-literary forms: “the advantage of this perspective is that it allows us to grasp both the specificity and the generality of forms–both the particular constraints and possibilities that different forms afford, and the fact that those patterns and arrangements carry their affordances with them as they move across time and space. What is a walled enclosure or a rhyming couplet capable of doing? Each shape or pattern, social or literary, lays claim to a limited range of potentialities. Enclosures afford containment and security, inclusion as well as exclusion. Rhyme affords repetition, anticipation, and memorization” (6).


[Lesson resumes here]

Museum activity (I did this with the Met’s website, but you could also do this with an art database or another museum’s website that has a lot of different kinds of objects and a lot of examples of each kind.) (25)

• Choose a form of making (basket-weaving, oil painting, arms, textiles, or any other category the Met lists)
• Find an object that is part of it that interests or impresses you
• Attribute significance to the form based on the following considerations.

Consider the following:
• How does this object impress you? Why did you choose it? What seems strange or interesting about it? What needs explaining?
• Materials: What affordances does this object have because of what it was made out of?
• Design: What affordances does this object have because of how it was designed?
• Social use: What can you infer from the info on this website (or a small bit of basic research) about how this object was used, and/or by whom?
• Historical information: What can you infer from the info on this website (or a small bit of basic research) about when this object was used, and how it might compare to earlier examples of its kind (you might look elsewhere on the website and compare)?
• Form: How does the form of your object differ from that of other objects? What can it do that other objects couldn’t? Why do you think it was made the way it was?
• Form: How is your object different from others in the group? What do you make of this?