A while back I interviewed my colleague Ruth Waterhouse about her use of the Betty Smithers Design Collection. Ruth (newly retired) taught Sociology and felt that integrating objects in her teaching brought another dimension to her discipline.
Here are my written up notes:
Ruth W first used the Design Collection to support teaching at adult education level outside of the university, particularly for a course where the changing nature of women’s fashion was discussed and put into context with the culture of the time. She first used garments for illustration purposes only to show the changes in fashion in a chronological way.
As the garments came from a handling collection, she also encouraged handling and this turned out particularly successful in a session with older women groups when discussing World War II and connected fashions. The tactile experience of the handling seemed to trigger memories of the participants’ own experience, in the first instance particularly through materials. As the group was made up of women who could remember similar garments, they were very knowledgeable about using these materials. Ruth states that she got a better response in this handling session than she got from lecture-style talks, because the garments triggered an emotional response and stimulated reminiscence. The participants were delighted in being reminded of these objects, not just visually, but through a tactile exploration, and this in turn stimulated discussion which contained a lot of oral history. It created a unique atmosphere and engagement.
The success of this session gave Ruth W the idea to use the Design Collection resources more at the university level and she included it in the ‘Dedicated Followers of Fashion’ module which is an option on the Sociology degree at Level 5 (she has used it in this context for the last five years). To begin with there was one session done by Ruth Brown, at the time keeper of the Design Collection, which publicised it and told students about how they could use it themselves. However, in following years they began tying it into the subject matter more, with Ruth W doing a lecture that was immediately followed by a session with Ruth B with a rack of fashion that gave a spread from the earliest items in the collection through to the 1990s.
At one occasion Ruth B dressed up in Edwardian garb, turning the clothes from the hanger into a worn dimension, and the students were asked to reflect on the role of clothing and what it reflected in life.
Ruth W states that sociology is often a very abstract subject. Examples make it more concrete. Touching items and feeling the weight of them make it easier to ask yourself what it would have been like to wear them. It makes it easier to explore whether they might have been constraining or constricting. Examining their construction close-up allow a judgement of their quality, their price and the effort it takes to maintain a wardrobe at the time, for example making it easier to understand how Edwardian clothing sustained a servicing class through the laundry, mending and pressing that was necessary to keep them wearable.
While it is very successful to use the objects from the Design Collection for that particular module, Ruth W thinks that it is the only one of the ones she teaches and knows of, that it would be appropriate. Her colleagues in sociology don’t use it as far as she knows, although she says there might be material that could be found in the archive’s collection of magazines that could relate to the ‘Deviant Bodies’ module which is concerned with sociology of the body. She states that it would have worked much more in the context of sociology of culture, which doesn’t run at Staffordshire University anymore. She also says that a collection of this nature would be useful to sociologists of popular culture; of the body and of subcultures, especially youth cultures. The use of the collection is somewhat restricted at Staffordshire University because of the options that are currently offered, but she strongly feels that aspects of the collection could be linked into theories of consumption and identity and would resonate with many other aspects of sociology.
She says that only a minority of students take the opportunity to check out objects (she remembers a student researching shoe fashion for example). She thinks this little take-up might be due to finding the time. However, she says that even if students don’t use the collection itself, using it in class encourages them to use what they have themselves. It inspires them to ask more questions and to use objects as well as secondary sources for their research. It has freed students up from thinking they have to deal with textual material, the abstract. This is reflected in the work they put in, the subjects and also adds another dimension to their work. For example, they present their work in a more innovative way. The assessment criteria stipulate a portfolio that Ruth W interprets widely and she encourages students to utilise their visual sense, etc, alongside the written text. Almost half take this up, it gives them permission to go broader than just writing things up. This feeds their imagination, it is outside of the straightjacket of theoretical sociology, makes theory meaningful, they make sense of society through exploring its objects.
She attempts to stress that sociology is also about imagination and should be within the arts to build those bridges (at Staffordshire University sociology is located in the Faculty of Arts, Media and Design rather than linked to psychology or the sciences, which means it is located in a different academic culture) – is it narrowing its focus by being too concerned about its image? Using the Design Collection, which has mostly everyday objects in it, encourages them to use material objects from their cultural world as a starting point.
Asking whether she could recommend strategies of using the BSDC, her top tips are:
• Think more explicitly – she wonders whether her approach is a bit hit and miss, and thinks that it needs to be articulated carefully what you want, possibly in the learning outcomes.
• Use more widely – maybe she uses it in a fairly narrow way, so there needs to be a closer investigation of what is on offer (for example political magazines) and investigate its potential and content more thoroughly
• Don’t be worried about incorporating tactile stuff, the smell, move beyond just the cognitive, rather employ a full range of senses, not just thinking about stuff.
• Collaborating across disciplines is important, against pigeon holing
Ruth W states that the handling collection is vital, as it is different to a museum and the interaction that is in its centre is very important.
A big part of its importance and usefulness is a matter of personality, Ruth B is very approachable, accessible, willing to engage, helpful – can this be replaced by a data base? NO! the ad hoc nature, not preselected apart from showing the Everyday-ness of everyday life.
Items are not precious, this makes them more valuable in an educational context as it has the capacity to stimulate, trigger stories, the mind, recollections – encourages students to become experts of their own lives by interrogating them rather than just living them.