#teachingrenaissance: on sticking, glueing and paper clothes

In a previous blog post I have written about a seminar on Renaissance clothes where students sew clothes for teddy bears in order to get a better understanding of the way in which  clothes are layered in the Renaissance. Dressing the toys in bespoke outfits made there and then also offers students an opportunity to explore ideas about how clothes fashion a persona, and also,importantly, ways in which clothes manipulate shape through wiring, padding and lacing. The seminar I am blogging about today offers a variation on this theme of learning by making, and the exploration of haptic learning styles, and substitutes working with actual textiles with paper. In essence, we are talking about making a collage, and more specifically, a collage that showcases dress as a means of establishing an identity.

The seminar is taught against the background of a module on gender and history in the Italian Renaissance (with occasional diversions looking at especially Elizabethan case studies) in general, and set readings on sumptuary legislation in particular. For the seminar, the brief given to the students is as follows:

you are marketing a lavishly produced Hollywood movie featuring a Renaissance woman as a key character. Your task today is to design -and mock up- her signature dress.

Bear in mind that her dress gives us a clue to her character. Be ready at the end of the seminar to introduce and explain your design.

For this task, students are provided with a range of coloured card and coloured paper (it is amazing what you can find in a department’s stationary cupboard…), A3 white paper, glue, scissors (I use crafts scissors such as these ), and then odds and ends I collect, such as the ever useful colourful chocolate wrappers from Roses or Quality Street tins which provide both coloured metallic wrappers as well as transparent plastic ‘glazes’ and are simply ever versatile and indispensable for crafts tasks in seminars! Its important to have a range of paper and materials available in order to allow the students to emulate the layering that characterises Renaissance clothing, and yo give free reign to their imagination. Some copy their design from actual paintings, other groups devise their own, and it is always fascinating to watch them at work.
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Groupwork is an essential part of this activity; in fact, the seminars are characterised by laughter, and by students talking who rarely engage in a different format. On a slightly different note, it can be fascinating to observe the exchange students in sessions like this. Some engage , often for the first time, as equals with the home students, while others persist in working on their own, but often produce stunning, thoughtful, wonderful images, which then do the talking for students reluctant to speak. One comment I often hear from Exchange students studying at Nottingham for a semester is how distinctive this approach to small- group teaching is, and how valuable for their learning experience as it allows them to engage meaningfully with their peers. There really is nothing like bonding over glue sticks and glitter glue….

20140315-180907.jpgWhat is also interesting is the way in which students engage with the brief: it is always pleasing to see when copies of the reading set for the class come out, but what is most interesting is the use of technology on view. Ever increasing numbers of students bring internet- enabled devices into class, ranging from laptops to tablets  to smartphones, and many make excellent use of this technology. So, for a task as the one outlined above, you often see students turning to the web to research texts but often images, which then serve as a basis for the task. I have also seen students trace an image off a laptop screen (which is backlit, so no problem), while on one occasion, students used the classroom computer and projector to trace an image. Watching such a class in operation certainly emphasises that technology can enhance any teaching context, and can add quite distinctive elements to a class.
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20140315-181012.jpgMaking the images though is just part of the task, because without interpretation and analysis making paper collages is just a satisfyingly fun task. These are tasks assigned to University students though, and it is a crucial part of the class to tie the making of the objects into the analysis and discussion of them, and here I introduce a presentation element. The group of students who have made the objects are tasked with explaining their design decisions, choice of materials, choice of colours etc to their peers. For that, I need access to a visualiser/ documents camera hooked into the projector, so we can project the works crafted by the students straight to the screen for the entire class to see. These are adhoc presentations the students can’t script, as they develop out of their crafting, but having made the objects, they are always able to talk through these choices. The students stand in front of a class, delivering unscripted material, working with a partner, bouncing ideas off them, feeding off each other- and often, students speak who would usually shy away from this element of public speaking.

My role in this seminar? I don’t need to speak much- the students do the talking- but really, I am the facilitator, in charge of fetching scissors and glue sticks, offering advice where asked. And  probably my most important job is creating a relaxed and chatty atmosphere. Which is when I dig into my music collection, and bring out some Thomas Tallis or William Byrd. Renaissance Gesamtkunstwerk? Yep.

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