Steal This Assignment! Reflections on the Teaching “MakerSpace” at the 2021 GSA Conference

What if we stopped just talking about teaching innovations at the German Studies Association annual meeting and actually used the conference as a way to carve out time and space to integrate these ideas into our own courses? That was the question that led the two of us to propose and convene our 3-day seminar at the most recent GSA conference. Under the somewhat unwieldy title, “Steal This Assignment!  Hack your German Studies Course with the Teaching MakerSpace,” fourteen masked Germanists gathered in a room at the Indianapolis Marriott Downtown in early October to participate in the experiment.  We organized the seminar around three different assignment formats which the Teaching Network had highlighted in panels at previous GSA conferences: (1) online social annotation (Perusall,, (2) digital mapping (Clio), and (3) Avatar projects — an umbrella term for various historical role-play/learning simulations. The first day was devoted to introducing each of the assignment formats; five “facilitators” (1 or 2 per format) demonstrated how they used the learning tool in their courses and outlined specific ways to tailor the format depending on the assignment’s learning goal. Claudia Lynn and Sibel Sayili-Hurley explained how to use social annotation software, Chris Fojtik demonstrated Clio, and the two of us walked participants through the processes we each used in creating our own course-specific Avatar projects. Days 2 and 3 were devoted to individual assignment development: We reserved the second half of Day 3 for sharing and reporting what each participant developed.  Those of you already familiar with THATcamps or “unconferences” will immediately recognize how we modeled our seminar on that kind of format.  Our overall goal was to foster productive, non-hierarchical collaboration —  in other words, to create useful things while working together.

 We encountered some obstacles right away. First, we needed more space. With the help of Charles Fulton (the GSA’s veteran AV Consultant) at the conference desk, we commandeered a neighboring room with enough round tables and nearby electrical outlets so that we could sit together in small groups — laptops open and each participant’s seminar materials laid out — and easily share ideas, materials, and how-to tips. Second, we needed more time. Even three morning sessions was not quite enough time to fully construct new teaching assignments from start to finish. Third, the barriers to entry for each assignment were high.  Participants would have appreciated more time spent on demonstrating the programs and technology that each format used. Registering for educator accounts and going through the steps required to integrate the learning programs with Canvas or BrightSpace took more time than expected. And, of course, learning goals shifted and assignment parameters evolved as participants developed new ideas within the just-in-time format of our seminar. 

And yet still the seminar felt like a success. It was a genuine thrill to create a space for active collaboration at the conference. We had never been in a room at the GSA in which scholars helped each other make things. The tensions, anxieties, posturing — the pressure to perform–that permeate many panel presentations were gone, replaced instead with eagerness, genuine curiosity, and group camaraderie. The sharing of ideas flowed in all directions, not just from facilitators to participants. Moreover, the space was truly interdisciplinary.  Scholars from history and Germanistik swapped models and materials across their disciplines. 

The process yielded some surprises. For example, some who chose to develop Avatar projects created a new variation on the model that we demonstrated. Historians tend to understand Avatar projects as simulations in which students are tasked with researching and constructing an historically-plausible — yet fictional — character or “Avatar.” Assignments then require students to respond to different historical events or situations “in character” and effectively role-play or simulate what they think their Avatar would have done (or said or thought). As facilitators, we demonstrated how we used them in teaching the histories of twentieth-century Germany and the Global First World War. (You can check out Lauren Stokes’ avatar assignment for postwar Germany in the Collaboratory’s Teaching Hub.) It was admittedly harder for the two of us, both historians, to envision how avatar projects might work in German literature classes, but several seminar participants solved that problem. They opted to have students write in the voice of different characters who appeared in the novels or short stories assigned in the course — specifically choosing characters who were peripheral or marginalized within the readings — and recount the action from that different perspective.  How would a different character see things and why? This innovative new approach to the Avatar project has obvious advantages: the assignment not only requires students to demonstrate how much of the original narrative they understand, but also to analyze and re-tell that story from another angle in a different voice and vernacular.

The benefits of collaborating as scholars and teachers are immense, but our institutions and disciplines often lack the spaces for doing so. This is a problem that we can solve. If we want spaces for collaboration, we should just make them. 

Andy Evans, State University of New York at New Paltz

Heather R. Perry, University of North Carolina at Charlotte