Musings on Teaching Social Science to Art and Design Students

Image taken from EPFL:

I am a sociologist by training, and I have been on the faculty of an art and design college in the southern part of India since 2017. My doctoral research sought to understand the work of photographers and the making of the photographic image, and I am inclined towards research on visual and material culture. In this article, I will draw on my experiences of teaching social sciences to aspiring art and design practitioners as a sociologist who is interested in the sociological aspects of art and design. Through a close examination of a course taught, I will go through the class schedule and the assignments that are set for students with a diverse skill set. I would like to state that design is not just the literal design of things and spaces—it is also embedded in and has wide application in the institution I am part of. It is encouraged and applied in the design of pedagogy and curriculum. In line with this, the teacher-student terms get replaced with facilitator-aspiring practitioners. In another instance, while deciding on the name of the course, it was suggested to me to include a verb in the title to make it more imaginable. Even though an abstract accompanies the title, adding the verb makes the course title feel more actionable to students.

A course I have taught in one form or another over the years is Thinking Through Things, which was titled Introduction to Material Culture before introducing the verb. The aim is to get the students to learn about the relations that are formed and maintained with the giving and receiving of objects, the tools of craft, museum objects, musical instruments, toys, technological objects, artwork—the list is endless, really. Students are encouraged to think about and articulate their relationship to the tools they use and the objects they associate with. I have also taught a similar course, though much larger in scope and online, during the pandemic called History@Home, which I co-taught with two colleagues, Dr Indira Chowdhury and Dr Srijan Sandip Mandal, at the Centre for Public History. We brought together three different topics and braided them together in the course: history, material culture, and oral history. Reflecting on these experiences, I hope this piece can illustrate our approach to teaching social sciences in a creative space and the coming together of social science, humanities, and design.

The School Itself

The institute started training art and design students in 1996. When I joined, those of us with a degree in social science or humanities were grouped under the School of New Humanities and Design which offered Master's level (M.A.) courses like Public History and Heritage Interpretation, Technology and Change, Digital Humanities, and the like. Faculty in this school also offered General Studies (GS) courses to the undergraduate students. As of today, the school does not exist. However, what I teach is still classified under GS, which is a broad term for the courses offered to provide a holistic education to art and design students. The official website of the institute envisages GS as follows: “Functioning at the borders of art, design and technology, the General Studies Program cross-fertilizes learning approaches from the humanities and liberal arts along with the sciences and design thinking.” A detailed overview can be accessed here.

It is mandatory for a student to enroll in one GS course each semester, during the first through the third year, while in the fourth year they integrate this learning and write an academic paper on a topic of their choosing of 2,000–2,500 words. Students select courses based on a title and an abstract of around 250 words that is shared with them before the semester. The maximum intake for each course has been around twenty-five to thirty students. It is taught once a week over a semester and carries three credits.

There are some points I want to stress to show the aspects of teaching social sciences in a creative space that made me reconsider my approach to teaching, including the reading and writing assigned to students, and the merit in collaboration between disciplines while teaching. I am also coming from the conventional public university space in India where teaching of social sciences is done in a lecture mode, usually for a shorter duration of forty minutes to an hour. The assignments are in written form and assessment/grade is based on the year/semester end examination. This may be the best mode given the large class size in public universities. Most of this gets challenged, or that is how I saw it, when the social sciences are to be taught in an art and design institute with limited number of students in class and the longer duration of each class.

The Class Schedule

The class schedule follows the ‘studio’ design model, which means that classes are held for three hours. Each day has only two classes: 9:00 am to 12:00 pm, and 1:00 pm to 4:00 pm, with an hour-long lunch break. Three hours, perhaps more, are needed for art and design courses to practically apply their learning into making. However, a GS course cannot be a lecture for three hours, and I am constantly thinking of an activity that can be included. The in-class activities also help in illustrating concepts when students draw from their own experiences. Reading in class is another regular feature as previous attempts to get them to read prior to class have proven ineffective. At the start of the class, a concept or a thinker or a reading is introduced to the students. This takes place in the lecture mode and lasts for up to an hour. After an introduction, either the students read the text, or they are divided into groups. Both are then followed by a class discussion. Group activities aim to get them to think about a concept more closely, in discussion with their classmates and drawing examples from their own experiences. The exercises have also been tweaked to accommodate online teaching during peak pandemic and the lockdowns that forbade offline classes in 2020-21.

The History@Home Activity

Now let’s go back to History@Home, in which the students had to select an object in their homes and conduct an oral history interview, ideally with an elderly member of the family, and construct a narrative. Since the course was co-taught by three of us, we divided the teaching into sections so that the students were gradually introduced to the concepts of the different disciplines that we, as facilitators, were bringing to the classroom. The course began with a discussion on the relevance of historical context in understanding a time, a place, or even a life. My colleague, a historian, illustrated this with an example from his own life, from the memories of his grandfather, and the portraits of communist leaders of the world hanging on the living room wall and the library stacked with literature by them. It was much later that he understood the presence of those objects (photographs, books) and his grandfather’s membership in the undivided communist party of Indiaand how it gave him a sense of what was happening in India and the world at the time, and his grandfather’s involvement in it. Students were then introduced to the oral history as a qualitative research method, along with understanding how it is different from other kinds of interviews that are widely used in social science research. They gradually went through the process of conducting an oral history interview, beginning with creating a timeline of important dates around the life of the person they wanted to interview. In the timeline, they made linkages with events that were historically important, locally or globally. This was followed by preparing an interview guideline that had a list of potential questions that could have been asked during an interview. Within this, the students were paired up and asked to do a mock interview with each other to see the kind of response the questions elicited, and to go back to rethink the way questions could be asked, if needed. The students learned to handle the recording device and were introduced to the process of transcribing. Finally, aspects of material culture were introduced, and students were asked to select an object in their home. They read articles on material culture, which brought out the connection between the object, social relations, and rituals. We discussed how objects can be act as triggers of memory in oral history interviews, what objects tell us about homes and families, and how such discussions connect to the local and global historical context. It was promising to see the variety of objects that the students selected, some of which included quotidian household objects like photo albums, fine china crockery, jewelry, a chess board, and a grandfather’s mallet. Between the objects they analyzed in their homes and the interview with a member of the family to expand on this, the students became very involved in the process.

Attached is our general course plan with the activities and topics covered each week: Plan for History Home 2020

A Broader Course Project and Assessment

A requirement of the assessment at the art and design institute I teach at is that it must be divided into three consecutive assignments spread over the duration of the course. Each assignment is given weight so that one assignment is not overwhelming and does not determine the entire grade of the student. To this, I make it so the first assignment leads to the second, and together they progressively comprise the final submission so that each is not a standalone. This helps in directing them towards one output while focusing on the theoretical perspective that the course hopes to introduce.

The first assignment for the students was to create a detailed timeline related to the life of the family member they chose to interview and to prepare a set of questions on different themes around the life of the individual that would serve as a guide for the interview. For the second assignment, they conducted and recorded the interview, and they were asked to share a recording and a transcription of a part of the interview. They were also introduced to taking informed consent of the interviewee on record before the interview and to follow this with obtaining a written consent at the end, stating clearly what the purpose of the interview is and how it may be used later. Within the framework of oral history interviews, I asked them to include questions on the selected object. Building up on the two first assignments, as a final assignment they could select the final form that they saw their work take. Many creative outputs emerged as students made zines, diary entries, journals, and photo essays depending on their strengths and preferences. The objects, with a history and materiality of their own, also served as a trigger to memory and coupled with interviews brought forth family history, history of a town, or made a connection to the larger national or international context. These assignments also entailed incorporating and articulating the concepts into the process and the final work. They were encouraged to use the concepts that were explained in class as they articulated their positions during class discussions and wrote object essays as part of assignments.

Over time I have come to see value in assignments that encourage individual learning and that play to student strengths. This began as an experiment for me, but subsequently I have moved on to give more options to the students to let them decide what form their final output will take. Certain learning objectives are assigned for each kind of course, and the assessments are based on these capabilities. For example, courses under the GS program seek to develop capabilities related to reading and writing. This has made me see merit in integrating these requirements into my teaching goals, even while accommodating the creative approach of the students. These include getting students to build capabilities around doing a close and intense reading of a given aural, textual, or visual material. They must progressively improve at comprehending, contextualizing, critically reflecting, analyzing, and synthesizing any given material. They will, over time, be able to communicate persuasively with clarity and structure in the written and oral form—and eventually, their own creative practice will integrate their learnings, regardless of the form it takes.

The students brought their understanding of oral history and objects together, and the course design enabled the integration of theory and practice. The weaving together of memory and material understanding of the object they studied led to new understandings of family history. Two of the student essays from this particular course have been published by the in-house journal and can be accessed here and here.


Teaching, in general, demands learning and adjusting to make the course relevant, but I felt this need even more so while teaching in an art and design institute. One of the first things I found was that as faculty we had complete freedom in deciding what to teach and how to teach it, which also opened me up to the idea of giving the students options to decide the final form their work would take. Through teaching social sciences to art and design students, I have evolved as a facilitator by rethinking and redesigning pedagogy and incorporating in-class activities and reimagining assignments beyond the written. The latter helps students to think of different ways of expressing and presenting their final work. I have experimented with class presentations, short response pieces, reflection essays, photo essays, social media posts, podcasts, and so on. Over the years, I have let the student decide what best meets their capability and gives their learnings from the course a final shape. There is a need to experiment with the conventional ways of teaching social sciences to make it relevant for not just the aspiring artists and designers, but within the social sciences, too. The relevance of social science to art and design students did not come from making a case for theory or by prioritizing critical thinking over all else, but from when students see the benefits a social science education can provide to their creative work—that it can contextualize their work in the social, cultural, and political space it emerges from and provide concepts and the vocabulary that will help in the vocalization of their work.

In our class discussions, I often mention the value that the social sciences add to their art and design practice. As I see it, this value comes particularly when students contextualize their work; as the context, often, will come from the social sciences. I illustrate this point with examples of artists or members of the faculty who are artists and whose practice is elevated because they are locating and contextualizing their work socially, culturally, or politically. Also, what is art or the design of a product without the context from which it emerges? I have, over the years, realized that social sciences also provide the important vocabulary that helps explain concepts that the artists and designers may be contending with in their work. A colleague who is a graduate from another design institute said that during her student days, she found value in what the social sciences courses taught to her, adding that her own practice emerges from it and that she is constantly in dialogue with the social sciences in all her design work.

I began writing this essay a few months ago, and in one of my classes I asked the second- and third-year students, who have been through at least two GS courses over the past few years, what they think of the GS courses and how they fit into the students' overall learning. This was important because they are aspiring designers and artists, and it was also important for me as a facilitator. Their responses pleasantly surprised me: some said that GS provides them the space to read and engage with theory; one said that the other courses are about the process of making and GS provides a break from that; another said that it helps her practice writing because many assignments’ expectations are a written essay; and one also pointed out that over the years she has come to perceive GS as a space where students are expected to read and write. I will admit that there is much to learn for aspiring practitioners and for me as a facilitator, to ensure that social sciences find relevance for those not working towards a degree and career in the social sciences. I hope this post can serve as a step forward in that process.