Rhodes College
Mellon Innovation Fellowship Program

The Digital Architect

Miriam G. Clinton
Assistant Professor of Art and Art History
2016-2017 Fellow

The goal of Professor Clinton's Mellon project was to create a course applying project-based learning to architectural history in a digital world. The course envisioned, “The Digital Architect,” will introduce students to common digital applications in studying architecture. Rather than simply studying architecture theoretically, students will complete hands-on projects, making 3D models and publishing the history of structures around Memphis in both traditional paper format and an interactive augmented reality application.

“The Digital Architect” is a project that came out of Professor Clinton’s desire to find a pedagogically appropriate application of project-based learning in art history, which is often seen as a traditional, lecture- and memorization-based field.  She is a proponent of student-directed learning, and she already integrates alternative pedagogies into her courses.  She finds, however, that juggling the practicalities of traditional art history classes and the expectations of students makes it difficult to flip the classroom.  She sees this course as an opportunity to create something new – an interdisciplinary studio, art history, and computer science class. She will need to draw on the experiences of teachers already in the integrative learning community in designing the course.  Her hope is that outside traditional disciplinary boundaries, students will be ready to try something new.  The course will be a proving ground for project-based learning in art history, and she will see what aspects work, so that she can apply them in traditional classes.

The genesis of this course is Professor Clinton’s work in integrating digital and traditional methods of archaeology; she is currently heavily involved in producing 3D models for archaeological architecture in Greece.  Although students involved will not use her research directly, they will be developing the skills needed to develop scholarship in her field.  She hopes that some of the students she trains will later help her publish the architecture from her excavation in Greece.

Thus, Clinton conceived of the idea to create a course called “The Digital Architect” to introduce students to common digital applications in studying architecture.  Rather than simply studying architecture theoretically, students will complete hands-on projects, making 3D models and publishing the history of structures around Memphis. The data for their projects will come from the students’ archival research and work with an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, or drone.

Students will  use a drone to photograph a building in Memphis and process the photos into 3D models in various softwares, including VisualSFM, Agisoft Photoscan, Autodesk Maya, and more.  At the same time, they will use archival research in facilities throughout Memphis to understand construction history and find plans and descriptions.  They may need to conduct oral histories with community figures.  Finally, the students will build a complete 3D model of the structure that they upload into an augmented reality cell phone application for public access, bringing all sources of data together.  Throughout, the students will track their process through metadata, and in the end they will write architectural papers on the structures to share with the community.  An important end result will be students who are skilled at research, interested in digital technology, and engaged in connections with Memphis.

The course is designed to integrate academic work with the community.  Students will select a Memphis structure as the focus of semester-long projects.  Even before selecting structures, students will familiarize themselves with Memphis to determine their interests.  Students will choose a structure based on those interests, which might include, for example, African American heritage in Memphis, the history of Rhodes College itself, or the development of the Midtown area. After engaging in the community of practice among the Mellon fellows this year, Professor Clinton has also realized the value of more formal community partnerships.  She intends to explore the possibility of working with Memphis Heritage and the West Tennessee Historical Society, in addition to the community groups with whom students will conduct their research (which will be determined by their own interests).

The goal is to teach the course in a future academic year, perhaps 2018-19.  Mellon student fellows, including Aylen Mercado and Kirkwood Vangeli, as well as a student fellow in the Visual Resources Center, Lana Theriault, worked throughout the 2016-17 academic year to build a database of Memphis architecture with original photography and basic documentation, as well as resources for additional research and even a library guide accessible to the Rhodes community generally but also meant specifically for this course.  Not only did they personally learn about Memphis architecture, but their work already is public-facing and searchable by the wider Memphis community.  In addition, they are presenting their architecture database at a national undergraduate research conference.  Thus, although the course has not yet run, there is already substantial preparation to enable to it succeed, as well as significant student and public engagement.

Professor Clinton has already used some of the approaches she has planned for The Digital Architect in other art history courses, especially her Spring 2017 Pompeii course (ART 353:  Art and Life in Pompeii).  The course aims are not merely for the students to learn about Pompeii, but also for them to learn how to present the ancient world to the public.  Thus, grading is based on four projects.  One is for each student to lead two classes on a subject of their choosing; another for each student to design their own introductory college course on Pompeii; the third is to work with a student in a studio art course to create an accurate model of something in Pompeii; finally, her students will commission their partners in the studio course to create a public digital artwork inspired by and sharing something important about Pompeii. The course on Pompeii does not involve formal community engagement, but it does involve training students to think in ways that could be presented publicly.  Simply being in the mode of considering innovative pedagogy already has changed Professor Clinton’s approach to her classes, inspiring her to try new project-based learning strategies.

Professor Clinton’s Pompeii students are working in partnership with ART 216 (3D Animation and Virtual Realities) students who are learning these technologies in a studio art environment.  Thus, although art history students are not formally learning the skills of digital modeling, they are learning what information is needed for a valid model to be produced and some of the capabilities and limitations of the software.  In fact, they are learning how to present art historical information publicly in such a way that a student without their specialized knowledge can learn from and use the data. They are also learning to compromise and create a joint vision that incorporates the best of both perspectives – the researcher’s and the artist’s.  Professor Floyd and Professor Clinton have even discussed their hope that some of the art produced might be purchased and displayed publicly by Rhodes.

Professor Clinton very much looks forward to bringing The Digital Architect to fruition as a class in the future, but it has already helped her to achieve her personal goals of developing innovative and digital pedagogies for art history teaching. She looks forward to applying the lessons learned in other courses in the future.

Miriam G. Clinton
Assistant Professor of Art and Art History

Dr. Clinton's research focuses on the art and archeology of the ancient world, especially Bronze Age Greece.