Alternative assessment methods
In 2022, the Royal Albert Memorial Museum (RAMM) in Exeter presented a collection of 14 alternative blue plaques created by students who were part of the Global Lives: Multicultural Geographies module taught by Professors Nicola Thomas and Ian Cook. The module’s assessment method aims to explore the persistence of colonial ‘race’ relations in the UK and how these legacies fail to give the country’s diverse population a sense of belonging in urban and rural spaces.
The module’s assessment was developed based on a previous iteration in which students explored the hidden colonial histories of Exeter. One student submitted an alternative blue plaque, which inspired the development of a new assessment based on guerrilla memorialisation. Students have to create eye-catching and provocative plaques out of pizza boxes, stick them up with Blu-Tac, and take photographs. The project allows students to learn by doing and researching, and the creativity involved in creating the plaques can be mischievous, making the project enjoyable for all involved.
The RAMM selected 14 of these plaques for their In Plain Sight showcase, which highlighted arguments for and against transatlantic slavery in Exeter, offering alternative perspectives and challenging the city’s authorised heritage. Before the pandemic, an exhibition of the plaques was celebrated with visiting speakers or local historians coming to talk about the students’ work, creating a more welcoming and diverse space at the university.
The Global Lives module encourages students to find hidden heritage in the city, rethink its official heritage, and engage in playful heritage activism called guerrilla memorialisation, challenging the authorised ‘British’ heritage that includes and excludes, celebrates, and marginalises the nation’s white and black populations. Creating and placing alternative blue plaques is a way to artistically intervene in the urban landscape of the city. The Global Lives students are given a series of tasks to complete. Initially, they are instructed to research Exeter’s colonial ties using various websites, including Telling Our Stories, Finding Our Roots, and Legacies of British Slavery. Secondly, they are tasked with selecting an individual from their research whose involvement with the British Empire has left a mark on the city and then delving deeper into their lives using academic and archival research. Thirdly, the students are asked to use their research to “culture jam” a traditional blue plaque in a catchy manner that draws attention to their chosen subject’s role in the transatlantic slave trade and/or other aspects of the British Empire. They must also include the individual’s residency, burial location, or other relevant details on the plaque. Finally, the students must place their plaque in or near the location where the individual “lived,” “traded,” “spoke,” or was buried, photograph it in situ, and engage with anyone who enquires about their project. The plaque and accompanying essay is then exhibited at the Devon and Exeter Institution later in the year.
The project demonstrates the value of innovative and critical approaches to assessment, particularly in addressing complex and difficult issues such as colonialism and its legacies. By engaging students in a creative and thought-provoking way, the project encourages them to become more aware and informed citizens, capable of challenging the dominant narratives and creating a more inclusive and just society.
The success of the project highlights the importance of collaboration between educational institutions and cultural organisations such as museums, providing valuable resources and opportunities for students to engage with their local communities and histories. The Global Lives module and the In Plain Sight showcase serve as models for how education can be a transformative experience that empowers students to think critically and act creatively in the world around them.
This case study was developed by Jo Sutherst following an interview with Professors Nicola Thomas and Ian Cook
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Nicola Thomas is Professor of Historical and Cultural Geography and Head of Geography at the University of Exeter. She has developed a body of work around craft geographies, situating contemporary and 20th century craft practice within the broader creative economy. Her approach addresses the intersection of material, historical, cultural, social, political and economic contexts through an exploration of craft makers livelihoods and the spatial dimension of their labour. Her research always attends to the historicity of cultural production and consumption, bringing a historical sensitivity to critical understandings of the cultural and creative economy.
Ian Cook is Professor of Cultural Geography. He’s interested in ways that academics, filmmakers, artists, activists, musicians and journalists try to make tangible the lives of those who make and grow everyday commodities. He runs the spoof shopping website followthethings.com which curates, and researches the making, discussion and impacts of over 80 examples of this work. Once the 100th has been researched and added to the site, he’s planning to write a handbook of ‘follow the things’ activism to inform and hopefully inspire new work in the genre. For those who cannot wait, live reporting on the ‘follow the things’ project takes place on its blog, and on twitter, facebook and flickr. Within Geography at Exeter, Ian is Senior Lead (mentoring & promotion), UCU union rep and coordinator of the Cultural and Historical Geographies research group, a hive of fun-based productivity involving artists, academics, postdocs, postgrads, masters students, alumni and guests approaching geographical research, teaching and public engagement through collaborative, creative practice.