Going beyond an essay
For Amy Milne-Smith, a history professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, assigning just the conventional essay for her third-year late-Victorian crime, sex and scandal course wasn’t enough. Instead, she let her students revisit their artistic side and asked them to create dioramas depicting major cases in the late-Victorian period — an uncommon addition to the typical university class.
“The basic assignment was to recreate a Victorian scene of crime, sex or scandal, and then to produce a five page essay, putting that event in its context,” Milne-Smith explained, adding that her students went beyond her initial expectations. “I was just struck by the fact they put so much extra research in.”
To add a competitive flare to the assignment, Milne-Smith set up a contest for the best diorama.
While she noted that some students exerted competent and creative artistic abilities, the assignment wasn’t solely graded on the quality of art.
“I kept telling the students it wasn’t about artistic merit, because a lot of them were worried. It’s not an art class,” she said.
Third-year history student Sabrina Brown, whose diorama was a re-creation of the Bermondsey Horror of 1849, won the contest and had glowing feedback for the rather non-traditional assignment.
“I gave the prof lots of kudos because I thought it was a great way to incorporate the learning into what we’re doing,” said Brown, adding that the class was really engaged in the assignment.
With all this discussion revolving around the current quality of the education system in Canada, Milne-Smith stated that non-traditional assignments are effective if done under the right circumstances. “I think the key is to have some type of balance and to mix it up, because if in every class you’re doing the same assignment, you kind of get into a rut,” Milne-Smith added.
She noticed that many students put in more time and effort into this particular assignment, more than what she thinks would have been for just an essay. Even though it went smoothly and was well-received, she said it wasn’t necessarily the easiest to assign.
“It looks silly and fun — but it’s really difficult to come up with a non-traditional assignment that was rigorous and that everyone will like and is using the right skills,” she said, noting that traditional assignments still have considerable value. “It was the first time I ever assigned it, so it was a bit of a gamble, so I’m glad it worked out.”
To make things a bit more fun and arguably a bit easier for non-artistically inclined students, Milne-Smith made them use yellow marshmallow Peeps for their diorama figures, “The Washington Post every year does a diorama contest using marshmallow Peeps, and I thought it’s just funny,” she continued.
“And that meant that people didn’t have to worry about artistic skills to make the central characters, and you just stick the sad little chick in there in these grotesque, imaginary scenes.”