Mary Adeogun (L) and Elizabeth Koehn (R) in conversation.

This past summer, Bard Graduate Center partnered with the Alliance of HBCU Museums and Galleries to offer a
one-week course focused on research through objects to current undergraduates and recent graduates of Historically Black Colleges and Universities. The course, which was held virtually, centered around presentations from and discussions with a variety of visiting professionals, including conservators, artists, scholars, curators, and archivists. Mary Adeogun (MA ‘22) and Elizabeth Koehn (MA ‘20, current PhD student) worked as teaching assistants for the course. Recently, Adeogun and Koehn reflected on the curriculum, the students, and their experiences as first-time TAs.

Hi Mary!

Hey, Elizabeth!

I’m so glad to have this opportunity to reconnect about our experiences working as teaching assistants for the HBCU summer school program. I can’t believe that was almost six months ago now.

Yeah, I took some time to look back over the syllabus and my notes in preparation for this conversation. Enjoyed being able to reflect back on the experience.

Same! In looking back over my notes from the daily discussions, it’s really awe-inspiring to see how the students took the central topic of the course—which was the concept of research—and spun it off into so many interesting dimensions of their own. I know the idea going in had been to have students select an object at the start of the course, and then write a paragraph or two every night about how the themes discussed in the day’s workshops might relate to the kind of research questions they could potentially ask of their object. And they did present these reports in our final session together, and that was really great. But in looking at my notes from our evening TA sessions with the students, what stands out to me is how they really went above and beyond simply connecting the content of the workshops to their chosen objects. There was some discussion of that, of course, but the students were also proactively taking the day’s themes and applying them to a wide variety of larger topics and issues relating to their own interests and work.

I think it was a really good decision to kick the course off by having them read the BGC publication, What is Research? (the published transcripts of three conversations that Dean Peter N. Miller moderated in 2020 between scientists, artists, and humanists, all MacArthur Fellows). Because it really set the tone for how diverse the scope of research, as we were looking at it, was going to be. Whether scientists, artists, historians—I think this was a really important way to underscore from the get-go, that these types of research are complementary to one another. So many of the students in the group were artists themselves, and I think reading these conversations between an artist and, say, a volcanologist, was a good way to open the door to the possibility that even if one of the speakers’ or other students’ backgrounds wasn’t immediately relevant to a student’s own interest, there was still a sense that that we could learn from each other, and have our own approaches to research inform each other’s practices.

Mary: Having as loose a topic as research really allowed people to kind of run in whatever direction interested them. And we saw that in the program, where some students responded to specific topics more than others. Do you remember the session we had with botanists, curators, and researchers from the New York Botanical Garden? There was a moment where one student was completely in the zone. Based on his line of questioning, the conversation took multiple directions: from the different plants they preserve in the herbarium, to plants as a healing and spiritual tool, with psychedelics being used to treat PTSD and depression. You could really see that the topic resonated with him. Then, I think there was a similar response from a few students who are artists to the Artists Doing Research talk, which had Tomashi Jackson, Richard Tuttle, and Vanessa German all come and talk about their work—what it’s responding to in this world, and how research informs it.

That was such a special session—Vanessa opened her part of the talk by going through the list of participants and giving voice to every single person’s name. That really set a tone for everyone. I think you could see that they felt that sense of reciprocation with the speakers. And I agree with you, that that one definitely was an extremely popular talk. But in looking back, I want to commend all the speakers, and Peter for organizing them. Because all these people are experts in their fields, doing such amazing things, and they were absolutely generous, and willing to engage with the students, take their questions really seriously. There was a lot of respect going both ways, and I think that contributed to making it a successful program.

For sure. And that also sometimes meant questioning the information being presented. For example, in the investigative journalism session with Nicholas Lemann from Columbia’s journalism school. There were a lot of questions from students, especially around the more undefined boundaries of journalism. Some of the students were wondering, so can anyone just say anything? Which is a fair question, it’s a great question to ask. Questioning things was another way students’ interests showed through.

Elizabeth: It’s a good point you raise about the journalism session, because I remember that was one area where we, as TAs, actually felt like it was important to push back on some of the student responses—I remember students in our evening session expressing a lot of skepticism about notions of journalistic truth. And I think a lot of that was stemming from the recent political discourse around what constitutes “fake news,” but I also think we saw them applying some of the critical points raised by historian Marisa Fuentes, in her session from earlier that day—where she discussed absences in the archival record—to their understanding of journalistic objectivity. Fuentes’s session was one where I really saw students responding to the ideas that she raised about narrative construction, and how it is contingent on the information that is preserved. And how you always need to be aware of the facts and perspectives that are left out of the record. So even if that emphasis on criticality that she raised sort of took a direction in our group discussion that we felt we needed to correct a bit when talking about journalism, it was still interesting to watch how the students were synthesizing and drawing points of connection between the various topics and approaches raised by the different speakers throughout the week.

Were you familiar with Fuentes’s work at all prior to this course? [The class read an excerpt from Fuentes’s book Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016) prior to meeting with her.].

Mary: Not Fuentes, but I had encountered Dr. Saidiya Hartman’s work on archival silences, critical fabulation, and the creativity required to address those silences. Fuentes acknowledged Hartman, Deborah Gray White, and several other mentors whose labor paved the way for this work.

Elizabeth: I just want to add here that I think it was important that so many of the students that we were working with were either artists and makers, or studying art history, because the connection between creativity and imagination, as it related to research and the kind of creativity you have to use in generating questions, really seemed to be a resonant spot for a lot of them.

Mary: True, though I want to be careful about how I’m using “creativity” here, because Fuentes made it very clear that she does not make things up. I love that she brought up that distinction, stressing that you can’t just run away with the idea of creativity in the archives as we imagine things that weren’t documented. It’s a very rigorous exercise of understanding what the possibilities are given the bounds of the archive, and then connecting the dots in the midst of that. But also, acknowledging where you don’t have enough information, and letting the silence linger, while still acknowledging that something was there. That’s powerful.

So all of that is to say, I hadn’t encountered Fuentes’s work, but the topic and the scholarly attention paid to archival silences is so pervasive and important in academia, especially in relation to communities, groups and histories that don’t fit cleanly into a Euro-American academic version of archive.

There are many possibilities within and outside of that. That’s why I really enjoyed Mpho Matsipa’s talk on our final day, when she talked about research as a way to destabilize Euro-American claims to knowledge about African cities and public spaces. For example, the project African Mobilities being a scholarly portal where theorists and creative practitioners across the continent can come together, access their histories, and imagine their futures on their own terms.

Elizabeth: That’s such a good point. It brings to mind our visit from Tammi Lawson, from the Art and Artifact Division of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Some of my notes are students saying, “I didn’t think that would be in an archive.” That visit was such an important way to alert people to the fact that various types of archives exist, and that if they haven’t in the past, people are working to remedy or reorient our notion of what should be preserved. And she was a great speaker. She was a lot of fun.

Mary: The expanded understanding of archives, and the bodies of knowledge that are within archives, was explored by so many of the speakers. I’m thinking of Professor Thomas De Frantz speaking on Netta Yerushalmy’s Paramodernities 3 [the third installment in a six-part performance series], where he talked about how the work honors the archive of memories, and the Black experiences that live outside of books.

Memory is a really powerful archive, and that resonated with me, because it made me think of oríkì, which is a Yoruba concept of a being or family’s story, their epic, that is passed from generation to generation, often orally. [In Yoruba Art and Language: Seeking the African in African Art, scholar and art historian Rowland Abiodun notes that oríkì is not passive, but active. Pronouncing an oríkì invokes or summons the subject into action. And though I refer to oríkì that’s spoken, it can also be invoked through art, spaces, dance, and so on.] One can record it through an audio device or in writing, but it doesn’t necessarily have a history of being passed down in that way. To me, it’s one of the most precise archives because to speak it correctly and pass it down to the next person, you’ve got to have that thing down pat. It always struck me that among this community it’s considered archival, but among other communities, it’s not.

I think over the course of the week, it was striking to see the connections in what we each recognize as “archive” and how a lot of these lecturers in their practices have either defined that on their own terms, or found ways to address the gaps in whatever definition of archive they’re working with.

Elizabeth: That point you raise about different forms of knowledge and specifically archival knowledge, and how information can be passed down through families and oral histories rather than being recorded in official documents, I think that was reflected also in many of the objects that the students chose to research. I’m thinking of a few students who chose to research family heirlooms, such as a grandmother’s jewelry box, Guyanese gold bracelets passed down to firstborn daughters, or a pillow made by a mother for her baby.

So many of them were objects that were deeply embedded in their familial histories and relationships. And I think that point you raise about the validity of these different forms or sources of knowledge is so important in this regard, because it was something that came up in our discussions, and really emboldened a lot of the students in the final conclusions that they were making about their objects: “Yes, this is a story worth telling, even if it wasn’t written down in a newspaper. This is my family’s story and it’s expressed, not through text, but through this object that I now have in front of me and I’m looking at and I’m holding and I’m asking questions about.” For me, watching the students expand their notion of research, whether that meant broadening their understanding of the kind of sources worthy of being consulted, or how to look critically at those sources, or reassessing the types of subject worthy of research, was the most fulfilling part of being a TA.

I saw a real development from our first orientation session, where the students were asked to introduce their object and speculate on the types of research that they might be able to undertake on them. At that point, most of the participants were approaching research as a way to discern specific facts: “I could look into when it was manufactured and I could look into what it was made out of,” that kind of thing. And those are of course very valid questions. But towards the end, in the questions that they ended up presenting, I think many of them had begun to widen the scope of their potential research to take into account the more abstract or emotional aspects of their objects: beyond the more concrete research questions, there were also questions about what an object might have meant to someone’s grandmother, or what someone’s mother was thinking when she made this object for them, and how that compares to how they view it, and also how she views it now. These types of questions were being looked at as worthy of inquiry, as ways to capture perspectives and knowledge that other more formal sources of information might not. And that was a really powerful shift for me at the end of the week, to see them embrace that type of knowledge in a different way.

Mary: I hear that.

Elizabeth: Can we talk a little bit about holding the course over Zoom? I know I was intimidated to be teaching virtually, rather than in-person. But in a lot of ways, this course actually seemed to benefit from meeting on Zoom. I was so amazed by how the students really made it their own.

Mary: 100%.

I personally had never been in a class on Zoom where people used the chat function in the way that the students did—they were posting responses and questions to the conversation happening in the main Zoom in real time. But even though it took me a minute to get used to toggling my brain back and forth between the conversation happening in the Zoom and the textual conversation flying back and forth concurrently in the chat, I thought it was so cool how the students were engaged in that way.

The chat became a site in and of itself for sharing resources, for affirmations and cosigns, for pushback and challenging perspectives in a way that was maybe a little lower stakes than pausing discussion to interject. I just loved watching the chat box go—it was like everyone was involved. I mean, I was reading back the chat log, and there are some spots where, for example, the students who were about to go to grad school were sharing GRE prep resources with students who were just starting to think about applying. And then there’s one moment where one of the student artists in the group was sharing emergency grant resources for artists. And then, Tomashi Jackson, who was one of the artists who spoke in the talk on Artists Doing Research. I mean, she had resources on resources on resources.

Yeah! That was amazing.

She was just like, look into this, look into that. She brought up Nia K. Evans and the Boston Ujima Project, and so many other things for students to walk away with. To me, the chat box was the perfect encapsulation of the week. And then we tried to gather all the links and references, and send it out as a resource sheet at the end of the program.

Right! Which we were really able to do because Zoom allows you to save chats, so it was all of this incredible information that wasn’t just dissipating into the air—it was something that people could take with them and use, and I hope that they have. We also included contact information, not only for the participants, but also for the speakers, who all were so unbelievably generous in sharing those details and really encouraging the students to reach out. You’re absolutely right—the chat became this really essential way to have the course live on beyond the one week that we had together.

I think in hearing what you said, it made me realize that in some ways the chat represents the culmination of the course’s message about questioning research and how it informs what we know and the questions we ask. In some ways the chat kind of became a representation of that as students processed these things in real time, responded to them, responded to each other. It really became this absolutely integral tool for driving the points that were being raised by each of the speakers home and then allowing the students to do their own research and say, oh, that reminds me of this, I’m going to put this in the chat. And it really deepened the goal of the whole enterprise.

I also just want to take a second to shout out how amazing these students were, because this was an extremely rigorous curriculum. They were in class from 9 am until noon, hearing speakers but also engaging in good, rich discussions. Then there was a lunch break, and a second session with speakers and discussion in the afternoon. Then they met for an hour on their own to rehash the day (no professors or TAs allowed), before taking a dinner break, and then met with you and I for an hour in the evening to go over questions and reflections on the day’s presentations. And then of course they also were doing the reading and prep work for the following day’s seminars, and writing their nightly paragraph relating the day’s topics to their chosen object.

So, again, the way they engaged on the chat was amazing, but the students were also engaging directly with the speakers by raising comments or questions in the space of the video call. They were all just unbelievably active and engaged, throughout an extremely intense week.

Mary: I mean, now that you list out the daily schedule, I’m like, I don’t know how they managed that. I could barely keep up, and I remember suggesting to Dr. Caryl McFarlane (a co-founder of the Alliance of HBCU Museums and Galleries) and Dean Miller in our daily check-in that we cut down on readings. But Dr. McFarlane mentioned that this was the standard for the Alliance’s summer programs. And in some of the sessions hosted by other institutions later in the summer, it was even more reading. Given that, it’s definitely a testament to the students that they took on the workload, stayed engaged in lectures, and still had time to work on their objects.

Agreed. This was my first time ever having real teaching experience, and I just feel so grateful that it was with a group of people who were so willing to be present, and call things out, and raise their voices, not only to support each other, but also to ask questions, and to challenge things.

Definitely. It was my first experience as a TA, too, and I learned so much from the students, including through the constructive feedback they gave us when the program had wrapped up. One piece of feedback that stood out to me was, to better balance the interests of students who benefit from a bit more structure in the evening session with those who benefit from a looser structure. I guess, to that point, I’m curious. Did you do any preparation? How were you thinking about it, from the perspective of a TA?

Good question. I was mostly just trying to get over my sheer terror at being in a position of authority, which I’m not used to. And it was really important to me, as a teacher, to be really honest about my intellectual background, and the things that I know but more importantly the things I don’t know. For me, that’s a really radical, feminist act, of acknowledging what your limitations are, and not feigning authority for the sake of preserving that teaching role. In that regard, it was really helpful for me to be in an environment like this, where students were so willing to engage one-on-one. It validated for me, that that is a really legitimate way to approach teaching; not as an authoritarian, but as someone who really can go in learning from other people, as much as they can learn from you.

Obviously, you want to make sure people are getting what they need, and point them to resources that you might know of, that they can use. But I think it really affirmed my point of view, working with these students, that teaching should really be more of a dialogue than a unidirectional vector. What about you? How do you feel like it impacted your approach? Or how did you prepare?

Mary: Well, let me just first say, responding to what you’re saying. Have you ever read or heard of Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed?

I have not.

Mary: Hearing you talk about the educational style that resonates with you reminds me a lot of this book, which talks about education needing to move away from this kind of “students as blank slates, with information being deposited into them,” from a top-down, authoritarian point of view. It’s like, “Nope. You’re a blank slate. Just take everything I’m telling you.” And that keeps things going the way that they are, especially in situations of oppression, versus this other mode of learning, which acknowledges that people come to a situation with their own set of things that shape their experiences, and that they can contribute to a conversation. There’s room to digest knowledge from others, but also to challenge, to make connections, to think and do for oneself.

And so in that situation, the teacher is not necessarily a pitcher of water, pouring into a student, but really more so a facilitator, kind of bringing something to the table, but also engaging with what the student already comes with. And in that way, there’s a dialogue, and less so of top-down. I’m also not very experienced when it comes to teaching, but as a student, I find that the moments I’ve been able to participate in a learning experience that feels a little bit more dialogical, I’ve gained so much.

And so, to answer your question, “How did I approach it?”, I started out very nervous and scared. I think I didn’t want to say the wrong thing. I did not want to send anybody in the wrong direction. But to the earlier point, that incorrectly assumes that students don’t already have their own processing power to filter through what’s BS and what’s real. You know what I mean?

I called up my cousin, who is a college student, and was like, “Give me all the tips.” And she did! But when I got to the program, and first of all, started working with you, and then also Dr. McFarlane, and then started working with the students, it calmed me down a bit. I remember getting to the end of it, and feeling like I’d learned so much — from the lecturers and administrators, from the students, and from the experience of being a TA. My bad, I’m really good at rambling. So, I think I’ll end with that.

Elizabeth: I think that’s actually the perfect way to end this conversation, unless you have more you want to add. I appreciate you saying all that, and also giving me that amazing reference, which I am going to look up as soon as we get off this call. And you also reminded me of the other person I really wanted to thank and shout out in this conversation, which is you. I just so enjoyed working with you, and learning from you, and the perspectives you brought to the table and how you were able to get so much out of the students. And I just wanted to thank you. This was really a pleasure, and I hope we get to work together again.

Mary: Likewise. Thank you, Elizabeth. It was a pleasure working with you, and seeing you embody the educational principles that you value.

With thanks to the Alliance of HBCU Museums and Galleries, the Bard Graduate Center, and each student who participated in the program: Amanei, Barriane, Jade, Janelle, Justin, Kaelin, Kadeer, Kaleizhanae, Meaghan, Shamica, Shon and Torri.

Mary Adeogun is a second-year MA candidate who studies textiles, garments and dress culture. For the past three years she has focused on the Yoruba dress culture and textile practices that she grew up with, learning from conversations with stylish aunties about lace and aso oke, interviews with adire collectors and scholars, a brief apprenticeship with a kampala artist in Abeokuta, and beyond. Other interests include natural dyeing techniques and documenting everyday dress habits in the United States.

Elizabeth Koehn
is interested in architecture, design, and consumer culture across the twentieth century and through to the present. She completed her MA at Bard Graduate Center in 2020 with her qualifying paper, Designing Destruction: Archizoom Associati’s Superonda Sofa as Radical Critique, in which she examined the formal and material qualities of Archizoom’s 1966/67 seating design in the context of the group’s theoretical projects, essays and archival materials questioning the relationship between design and consumerism. In 2019, Koehn interned in the design, architecture, and digital curatorial department at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, where she worked directly with the museum’s Rapid Response Collecting curator on new acquisitions. Prior to her studies at BGC, she held positions working with artists at the New York-based galleries Gavin Brown’s Enterprise and David Zwirner after earning her BA in history and art history from Oberlin College in 2009.