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Art and World History


Art as a Mechanism for Engagement in the Online Classroom

Michael Laver


     When I first started teaching, I did what I knew in terms of writing assignments: I made my students produce a research paper of 12 to 15 pages using a variety of secondary sources comprised of academic articles, monographs, and book chapters. Students would choose their topic, have it approved by me, produce an outline along with several sources to make sure they are staying on track, and then turn in a draft for peer review before handing in their final work to me at the end of the semester. This is the age-old model of writing in history courses, and I still do follow this model for upper level college courses where students are expected to produce a research paper. However, I consistently found this approach lacking in my lower level courses, and in particular my introductory courses such as "Modern Japan," "Modern China," and "An Introduction to East Asian History." This is because I teach at the Rochester Institute of Technology, which does not have a history major, and so I cannot be confident that students have had any real exposure to historiography or the methodology of doing history, and we don't have a lot of time for this in introductory courses.

    The solution I seized upon in these lower level courses was a series of four writing assignments rather than a single research paper that encompasses the entire semester. And beyond that, I try to make these writing assignments varied in their focus and as interesting as possible for students. I quickly found that works of art are particularly effective in these types of assignments, perhaps because works of art are designed, by their very nature, to be interpreted by a third party. Also, because students are reading fairly extensively out of textbooks, primary source readers, and other sources, they already have a solid background within which to situate their objet d'art. And finally, because I teach at an institute of technology, assignments in which I ask my students to write about modern depictions of Japanese culture in video games, manga, or anime are particularly effective, and the results are usually not only good from a writing standpoint, but quite interesting to grade from my vantage point (see Appendix for some specific examples).

Works of Art in Online Discussion Assignments

    My university, Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) began a program of putting general education courses online a few years ago. The aim was mainly to help students with what we called "on-time graduation." Because many of the STEM students at RIT are required to complete forty weeks of cooperative education before they graduate, there is very little wiggle room in the curriculum, especially in engineering, which already requires its students to graduate with a maximum number of credits. Thus, if students can take online courses in the summer, they can get their general education credits out of the way while completing their "co-ops," and graduate on time. There also tends to be a generous discount on summer online courses because of the lack of financial aid outside of the school year. All of this conspires to ensure that there is a steady demand for general education courses online, and to partially meet this demand I offer an online section of HIST 265: History of Modern Japan almost every summer. One of the challenges of teaching general education courses online, however, is getting the students to interact in ways that allow them to use their critical thinking skills and to build a rapport with the other students in the course. I have found that using art-based "discussion" assignments are excellent tools to achieve these goals. Two particularly effective discussion assignments have been a discussion around a range of woodblock prints and film.

Woodblock Prints

    James Huffman recognizes that whereas historical anthologies usually contained primary sources in the form of documents, in fact, woodblock prints are just as much "texts" as are excerpts from any primary source written in prose (or poetry for that matter).1 Leaving aside the fact that some woodblock prints actually have texts embedded within them, these prints can be read just as surely as any prose and can tell us just as much about the period of their creation, as a recent exhibition of American woodblock art can attest. This is particularly true of Japanese woodblock prints that reproduce famous scenic spots along travel routes. These tell us a great deal about the nature of early modern Japanese society, as do woodblock prints depicting the first encounters with Americans in the 1850s. The sheer variety and longevity of these prints, the fact that so many of them have found themselves into major museums around the world, their near global public familiarity (due to the genius of Hokusai Katsushika,2 among others) combined with references/analysis of them in virtually all world history textbooks, make them an ideal medium for study in the classroom and thus render them employable at almost any level of instruction without specialized knowledge on the part of the instructor as can be seen in the four examples that follow.

    Students are asked to study a couple of woodblock prints that have been pre-chosen for them. Examples of such prints are prints in 1854 that depict Commodore Perry's steam vessels.3

Figure 1
  Figure 1: Image source: MIT Visualizing Cultures (  

    Students are asked to comment on the print, write about what stands out to them about the print, and then to situate the print within the period we are studying in our course. Students are then required to engage other students' comments on the same woodblock print. Another example of such a woodblock print is entitled "Illustration of Chinese Generals from Pyongyang Captured Alive." Students are asked to comment on what strikes them about the print, perhaps the depiction of the western-style Japanese troops jarringly juxtaposed with traditionally garbed Chinese generals depicted in a strikingly subservient pose.

Figure 2
  Figure 2: Image Source: "Illustration of Chinese Generals from Pyongyang Captured Alive" by Migita Toshihide, October 1894. Collection of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.  

    Another example of another type of woodblock print is one that shows Japanese people in a variety of westernized settings. For example, the 1887 woodblock print by Hashimoto Chikanobu depicting the Imperial Family in western dress in front of a western style building is an interesting example of a print that clearly shows western influence but retains a significant amount of traditional Japanese sensitivity in the aesthetic. The same is true of dozens of other woodblock prints depicting topics as diverse as the first train from Tokyo to Yokohama, the emperor reviewing Japanese troops, or the harbors of treaty ports such as Yokohama.4

Figure 3
  Figure 3: Image Source: Lyon collection, Kansas City, Missouri:  

    And finally, there are a number of woodblocks whose purpose, or at least one of whose purposes, was to educate the Japanese public about new and doubtlessly strange institutions being created in Japan. Perhaps the most cited example of this type of print is the "Illustration of the Imperial Diet of Japan" by Gotō Yoshikage. This is not only a visually stunning print, but also serves to educate the public as to what the function is of the various people depicted. The print also, no doubt, serves to render visually the fact that Japan has joined the advanced, western nations of the world. It is as if Fukuzawa Yukishi's essay "On Leaving Asia" is translated into picture in this wood block print.

Figure 4
  Figure 4: Image Source: "Illustration of the Imperial Diet of Japan" by Gotō Yoshikage, 1890 Sharf Collection, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston  

    The value in these exercises is manifold. First of all, it is difficult at the best of times to give online students an opportunity to engage with the subject material and with one another, so providing them with a concrete, discrete object to discuss facilitates this interaction. Second of all, the students are given simply a series of woodblock prints with no accompanying explanation. Students are required to do a bit of research on the print in order to speak to the background as well as to find out when and where the print was created. From there, students are required to use the knowledge they have gained through the lectures and the textbooks to comment on the significance of the print. Other exercises could go deeper by, for example, requiring students to discuss the prints in a material culture framework. So, for example, what was the purpose of the print under discussion? How was the print made, and for whom? What is the significance of the subject material of the print, and what is the overarching message the artist is trying to convey with the image? This exercise could also be used in the context of art history by requiring the students to examine the prints critically for their form, their artistic depictions of the subject material and the colors, designs, and materials used in the construction of the prints.

    My own personal preference is to ask students to examine these woodblock prints to answer the fundamental question of what the creator(s) of the prints were trying to convey to the observer. In the case of the woodblock prints that depicted the new, western apparatus of Japanese political life, one might concentrate on the desire of the artist to convey the concept of bunmei kaika (civilization and enlightenment). For the woodblock prints that depict the Imperial Family in western style garb against a backdrop of Japanese cherry trees, one might consider the artist's attempt to depict visually the concept of tōyō dōtoku (Eastern Morals; Western Technology). In these prints, symbols of westernization are quite prominent, including classical style administrative buildings, western clothing, including school and military uniforms, and sometimes other western objects such as musical instruments, furniture, and paintings. The beauty of this exercise, of course, is that in most cases we can't really know what the creator of the prints were thinking, and so in many ways the students are being asked to synthesize what they have learned about early modern or modern Japan and use that knowledge to analyze the woodblock prints critically. In the end, this is exactly what one of our learning objectives for our students should be. The importance of this objective is illustrated through the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, whose very first criteria under "design and delivery of the student learning experience" states that all programs must "foster a coherent student learning experience and… promote synthesis of learning."

Film in classroom writing exercises

    While woodblock prints offer an interesting and readily available source of writing and critical thinking exercises for the classroom, other forms of art also serve a similar function, and each offer their own unique opportunities. For purposes of brevity, I'll confine myself here to mid twentieth-century propaganda films (resources for the use the propaganda poster and films in gerneral are readily available as an alternative).5

    Propaganda films present a particularly timely opportunity since students today often face a barrage of news items such as "fake news" and "Russian infiltration of Facebook." While there are a number of films that fit this bill from a number of different countries, for ease of availability and for access reasons I have limited the films I use to English language films. In the case of my History of Modern Japan class, I have used both "Why We Fight: The Battle for China" and "Our Job in Japan." One could also identify a number of other films such as Germany's "Triumph of the Will" and "Jud Suss," or Japan's "Momotaro: Sacred Sailors." In the films I use, both are in English, and both are from an American perspective, and so students are usually in a position to comment more on them.

    The exercises I ask my students to engage in are almost identical to those of the woodblock prints. That is, students are to watch the film closely, do some basic research about the film in terms of who directed it, when it was released, and so on, and then try to identify the elements of the film that make it a propaganda film. For "Why We Fight: The Battle for China," students usually comment on the blatantly fallacious way that the Chinese are portrayed. In one memorable line, the narrator assures the audience that China is a country that has never known war, a peace-loving civilization that was suddenly and cruelly attacked by Japan. This, of course, serves to outrage the American public at the perfidy of the Japanese, and thus enlists the public support for American activity in the Pacific in general and in China in particular.

    Students are certainly asked to comment on the macro level aspects of the film, such as the director (students are invariably pleased to learn that Dr. Seuss was the creator of "Our Job in Japan"); the era in which it was produced; and the filming techniques that were used. They are also asked, however, to note more substantial aspects of the film, such as the mood of the film, how the subjects in the film are portrayed, what historical data is presented as basic assumptions, and what collective understanding does the audience share culturally and historically. All of this, of course, is simply the starting off point for class discussion, either in class or online. I have found that these exercises are particularly successful for online courses as students do not usually have any real opportunity to interact with each other. While limited, such exercises can serve to build a sense of a cohort where before there was simply a seemingly random collection of online entities orbiting around a common electronic syllabus.

    Any collection of material culture can serve as a starting point for these types of assignments. I have asked students to explore online baseball card exhibits at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY, woodblock prints at the Freer-Sackler Gallery, and online Library of Congress exhibits and comment on particular artifacts as a way to foster discussion and critical thinking. Local exhibits can also be an exciting and memorable source of material for writing assignments, and, indeed, often local history is even more interesting for students as there is an immediacy to these artifacts that may not exist for other, less local artifacts. Virtually every town and city have historical societies, art galleries, and even university galleries that can serve as rich fields for exploration. No matter what the provenance of the artifacts, I have found that these types of assignments have not only been more interesting and thought-provoking for my students, but for me as well. This is no small consideration as we grade scores upon scores of essays or sift through dozens of online discussion threads.

Michael Laver is an associate professor in the Department of History at the Rochester Institute of Technology. He holds a PhD from the University of Pennsylvania in East Asian Languages and Cultures, specializing in early modern Japanese Foreign Relations. He is the author of Sakoku Edicts, Politics of Tokugawa Hegemony, and two volumes of esoterica entitled Japan's Economy by Proxy in the Seventeenth Century.


The following are a few examples from various courses:

  1. Lafayette College has a number of digital images in their archives, including a large number of postcards.6 Please choose one postcard from the collection and, using at least one academic source and as many non-academic sources as are needed (if any), write an essay on the postcard. For example, if the postcard that you choose has as its subject the Meiji Emperor, you may, using the postcard as a starting point, choose to write an essay on any aspect of the Meiji Emperor, although I would prefer if you were able to comment on the postcard in some way in the essay, although it need not be the focal point of your essay. (From HIST 160: History of Modern East Asia).

  2. Please choose a feature length film about any aspect of modern Japan, excluding documentaries, watch the movie, do some research about the film, whether it was based on a true story, and so forth, and write an essay on that film. Pay special attention to the main point of the film (the moral, as it were), what larger message the film is trying to get across, and any other salient details that you can think of. The film may or may not be a "Japanese" film, although if you have not seen many foreign films, I would encourage you to see something from a Japanese studio. Please avoid documentaries for the simple reason that fiction films often tell us more about the "human condition" within a given society than do documentaries. Thus, we arrive at the conundrum in which a work of fiction can be truer than a work of nonfiction! (From HIST 265: History of Modern Japan).

  3. Jesus Christ has been the subject of many works of art, from film to oil painting to sculpture. Your assignment is to choose one of these depictions and write a 3-5-page essay about what you observe. I encourage you to stretch yourself beyond the "classic" depiction of Jesus in western portraiture. Please feel free to be creative. Any medium will do, just make sure that there are certain "knowables" about the object you choose, such as the artist and the rough date of creation (From HIST 369: Histories of Christianity).

  4. The samurai are depicted in a variety of modern media. Choose one of these (video game, manga, anime, or some other medium aside from feature length films) and write an interpretive essay. What aspects of traditional samurai culture is preserved? What stereotypes are present in the chosen work of art? How are the samurai used to comment on modern culture? Be creative! (From HIST 465: Samurai in Word and Image)

  5. The Library of Congress has an online exhibit site entitled, "Voices of Civil Rights" that you can browse at your leisure.7 Please familiarize yourself with this website, choose an exhibit and write your paper on the exhibit of your choice. Please use at least one external, peer-reviewed academic source in your essay of 3-5 pages. (From HIST 302: The Sin of Racism).


1 James Huffman, Modern Japan: A History in Documents (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).

2 For images of woodblock prints by Hokusai, see for example, the Ronin Gallery website at Accessed August 28, 2019.

3 An exceptionally useful resource for this assignment is MIT's "Visualizing Culture" at Accessed August 28, 2019. This website provides students with an introductory resource for how to view and assess images, as well as several lessons/curricula for teachers.

4 The Library of Congress has a specific subset of woodblock prints entitled "Pictures of Yokohama" at Accessed August 28, 2019.

5 For poster art as propaganda, see Marc Jason Gilbert, "Paper Trails: Exploring World History through Documents and Images: Poster Art and World History," World History Connected, Volume 1, no. 2 (May 2004), available at Accessed August 28, 2019. For the use of film in he world history classroom, see the articles on this subject in World History Connected, Vol. 16, no. 2 (June 2019) available at

6 See the collection at Lafayette College,

7 See the Library of Congress website, "Voices of Civil Rights Online Exhibition" available at Accessed August 28, 2019.

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