Trying a Millennial Time Capsule with Basic Writing Students

I brought back an old time capsule assignment from the San Francisco State University Broadcasting Department (I never did it as student or taught as a teacher).  It is basically just Semiotics 101:  explain why something is a symbol of its time and culture.  I made it a low credit final because I didn’t know how well it would work.  The problem, from the standpoint of my more pragmatic teacher friend, is that I am asking my exhausted students to make do research which may not be exciting and compelling enough to inspire hard work following a major take-home essay. But the alternative is to require another essay test which further deadens. The original assignment was for college juniors or seniors, and I was trying to adapt it for community college freshmen in a basic writing class with a theme about how visuals create meaning.

Without attempting a genuine retrospective, I think the time capsule was a winner.  After I showed a few YouTube videos about time capsule burials and openings, students seemed intrigued and I asked them to fill in a grid sheet of possible millennial time capsule artifacts, decide on an area of interest, then join together with at least 2 other students, and quickly write up a narrowed list of several artifacts/ documents in that area. Outside class each student was to web search and read about one artifact by the next class meeting.

This was a class with middlin’ morale, and I was not sure if most students would arrive at the next meeting ready to “show and tell” about their artifacts. Although most of them did not post about their artifacts on the class’ Moodle page, enough did to model the process to others and they did work with their topic groups in the computer lab, enough to, by the last class meeting of the semester, practice presenting about their artifacts, displaying them physically or digitally if possible.  It worked so well that I was able to stand back and give minor feedback. Students owned their artifacts. The presenter had to answer questions from classmates, and the class took on dialogical character.

As a composition instructor, I felt self-conscious about organizing an exam based on a verbal presentation, so I had students write a one page justifying why the object should be part of the Millennial Time Capsule, and write a summary of a short reading about the millennial transition from printed page to screen, and from linguistic to visual dominance, and hand it in at the time of the exam.

Each of these tasks pushed students to the very edge of their abilities to generalize, explain, and abstract from item to culture.  Talking and writing fell short of what I had hoped for; the explanations of how an artifact represents a time and a culture were only occasionally asserted. But I had known it would be hard, and that I had never taught such an assignment before. I also knew that during the semester students had worked repeatedly on topics that engaged them to think critically on how images create meanings differently from language. But during the final exam, the class came together in dialogue and created fragmented but somehow cohesive notion of the culture of their childhoods.  I am encouraged to try this again.

EXCERPTS of assignment below: from 12/2/12

“Final Exam Assignment—Millennial Time Capsule:

Representing ‘Our Time’ in Artifacts and Documents”

(Creative adoption of assignment  by Berger 79-83.   Full MLA entry:

Berger, Arthur Asa.  Media Analysis Games: Simulations, Activities, Games, & Exercises.  San Francisco: 1986, Narcissus Press. Print.)

In the Random House Dictionary of the English Language: The Unabridged Edition, a time capsule is defined as “a receptacle containing  documents or objects typical of the current period, placed in the earth or in a cornerstone for discovery in the future.”  Implicit in the notion of the time capsule is the belief that objects, artifacts—what anthropologists often call “material culture” – reflect a given era accurately and that later generations, which open the time capsule at some future date, will get an idea of what life was like when the time capsule was filled and sealed.

The Task:  collect a series of artifacts and documents that reflect American culture and society at the beginning of a new millennium, from ten to fifteen years ago (roughly 1994-2004), to give future generations an idea of how we loved, entertained ourselves, what we wore, and what fads occupied our attention.

Popular Cultural Topics:  This time capsule will focus on representation of mass media culture, rather than political representation, or religious representation.  How do you select from millions of artifacts only the most important and representative examples and exclude material of minor significance?

The Problem of Representation:  This is the main problem we face.  How do we give future generations an accurate idea of how we lived?  How do we avoid giving a partial and biased view?  In suggesting artifacts and documents for each category, try to distinguish between items for each category that may have been very popular, but were not important or representative, as opposed to items that were popular AND significant.

Sub-topics:  In some cases you will have to divide topics into sub-topics:  TV includes dramas, reality shows, situation comedies, and so on. These topics are all quite large and you may have to leave out items that are important because the time capsule is only so big and can take only a small number of objects (1 for each student for exam).  You will want to include artifacts that are from different sub-topics to have a certain breadth of cultural representation.

Ranking: After the presentations, one more task remains.  We will decide which 5 of the 20 or so items presented are the most important.  This ranking is not based on the student’s presentation, but on which items we feel best reflect and represent American society and culture at the turn of the millennium.

If there is argument on the artifacts and their ranking, that suggests some deeper issue is coming up that we’ll need to study in the future.  This is a classroom learning exercise, but as you know people actually do make time capsules and engage in fascinating and enjoyable arguments about what should go into them.

This entry was posted in Greatest Hits, Teaching Visuals: with, about, through, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

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