Self Portraits from Isolation: Early Steps Toward Taking Special Collections Instruction Online

When Boston College shut down in March in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and announced that the rest of the spring semester and all summer classes would be moved online, BC faculty and staff went to immediate planning on how to transfer our favorite parts of in-person teaching to a remote, asynchronous format.  Prof. Caleb Cole, from the Art, Art History, and Film Department, reached out to the Burns Teaching Librarians for a discussion about how to keep the BC Libraries component of an established, in person class (Introduction to Digital Art) in this new teaching format. The assignment—draft two symbolic tarot cards, one a recognizable self portrait, and the other a design of the student’s choosing—remained the same, designed to meet the class goal of using a computer to develop technical, conceptual, and aesthetic images. 

Using the by now ubiquitous Zoom meeting, we met to draft a class plan that would both present the concept of symbolism in art and model visual analysis steps so students could develop their assignment proposals, outlining why/what they mean/how their symbolic images tie into their overall messages.

Nina Bogdanovsky, Senior Research Librarian / Art & Architecture Bibliographer, recorded and narrated a presentation on symbolism in art. Prof. Cole and Burns Teaching Librarians Kathleen Monahan and Katherine Fox captured a short Zoom call in which they modeled how to look at images critically, how to look for symbols within images, how to look symbols up in reference sources, and how to realize that the meanings of symbols can and do change across time and cultures. We also provided a list of diverse symbolism reference titles available through the HathiTrust, the Internet Archive, and other digital options on the class platform.

Prof. Cole was pleased with the results, reporting that the students “definitely ‘got it’” and several referenced the videos in their proposals. Even far away from campus, BC students continued to come through with creative and carefully thought-out artwork. We present the student’s output below. How do you think they did?

Cups: Lone figure at table at night, lit by laptop, surrounded by glasses; Hermit: solitary figure walking by dark window, lit by cell phone screen

Sean Ahearn, BC ‘23

The star: portrait with background of stars, eagle, dove, butterfly, and golden bird; The High priestess, praying figure with crown of roses and book, against background of star and moon

Ashley Antico, BC ‘22

Sun: portrait with halo against strong, geometric background, with celestial images; Moon: Phases of the moon with stars, Irish Harp figure, and triskelion

David Bligh

Crosslegged figure, with face in hands, looking at various emojis on floor: Prosperity: Figure in lotus pose atop earth that is being cupped in hands

Jocelina De Pina, BC ‘22

Magician: Portrait of Dr. Strange (as portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch) with portal, against celestial background with phoenix and lightbulb; Fool: Joker (as portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix) against background with fireworks, fireball, and

Jose De Romana Palacios, BC ‘22

World: portrait over image of world, with compass rose; cardinal points have butterflies, ordinal points indicated with lotus flowers; Moon: Image of moon weeping/vomiting into water/waves

Sofia Geocadin, BC ‘23

Emperor: Image of seated Buddha, wearing a necktie and holding a blue ball and scales, against background of throne, water, and clouds: Hermit: portrait of artist in a hoodie, against a window, holding

Colin Guan, BC ‘21

Lotus: Skeleton wearing a blue cloak with lotus flowers and carrying a lit lantern, against dark background with crescent moon and 4 stars; Vulnerability: Blindfolded figure above scales, with cup (decorated with a heart) full of eggs and a lion with facial markings and a

Alicia Lam, BC ‘21

Fisherman: figure hanging from hook, holding a fish, with forked lightning against a blue background: Ignore: 2 figures on stone surface, with fiery shadows, with a orb encircling a shamrock

Alexander Ronan, BC ‘21

The Sun (portrait against mountains with sun, chain, and phoenix); The Moon (howling wolf agains mountains, trees, mountains)

Yujia Shi, BC ‘23

Untitled: the bottom half of 8 red balloons, filled with water, float in sky with Buddha figure and clouds background; Death: bottom half of a single while balloon, filled with water and a skeleton torso/head, with a buddha figure imposed over a sun

Grace Yang, BC ‘22

While Prof. Cole believed this necessary approach was no substitute for actually visiting the library in person and working with original format materials, he feels confident that we will be able to work something out for his fall class—either in person or synchronously online—because we managed to make this work so well this summer. 

The Burns Library Instruction program, through collaboration with faculty and other community members, supports intellectual inquiry and scholarship through an active engagement with primary and historical resources, in both original format and digital. We are happy to encourage wider use of Burns Library’s unique materials for teaching and research, and will work enthusiastically and creatively with faculty, subject liaisons and others to develop customized classes, activities, assignments, and out of classroom experinces around syllabus topics, course objectives, and primary source literacy standards

Instructors interested in using special collections materials to enhance the learning outcomes of their courses and/or research assignments should complete the Burns Library Instruction Support Request form as far in advance as possible. 

  • Katherine Fox, Head of Public Services & User Engagement, Burns Library
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