This professor’s LARP videos bring art history into the 21st century—and help students see the relevance of past works to their future careers.
Associate Professor of Art and Design, Grand View University
MFA in Photography, BA in Studio Arts
During the first few minutes in Rachel Schwaller’s Survey of Art History I course, Grand View University undergraduates might wonder if they mistakenly walked into an acting class—or an airplane cabin. That is because this professor begins the semester with a safety video that mimics the preflight instructions provided on airline flights prior to takeoff. However, the woman on the screen is not a flight attendant: It is none other than Schwaller, dressed in costume and acting every inch the part. The sound of an airplane engine hums in the background as she addresses the camera:
“Ladies and gentlemen, I want to welcome you to class this semester. You may experience slight turbulence as we take off, but with hard work and dedication, you should find this trip an enjoyable one, with a successful arrival time of 16 weeks from now.”
Schwaller’s Class Safety Update video is a perfect example of using live-action role playing (LARPing) as a teaching method. LARP videos are no fad, having surfaced in the 1970s; they have continued to grow in popularity and have been used for a variety of purposes, from business and education to personal amusement.
What better way to capture the attention of a generation weaned on DVDs, video games, and reality TV? Even more importantly, Schwaller’s first-day-of-class LARP video sends a very clear message to her students: If you think this art history class is going to be boring, fasten your seatbelt!
Challenge: A subject often seen as irrelevant and boring
Schwaller knows that many students today do not think of art history as applicable to their education or future careers. “The majority of my students are interested in being graphic designers, photographers, art teachers, and studio artists,” she says. “They see themselves as ‘doers who make things,’ and they don’t see the value of viewing images. They struggle with finding art history relevant.”
Schwaller sees art history as very relevant, since it offers a timeline of Western civilization and because so much of our history is visual. There were very few writings in our earliest eras, but there has always been art. What is more, today’s art can be informed by yesterday’s styles.
“[The art that] students will be making does have a history and a lineage—what I call a family tree,” she says. “What if a future client asks you to create art in the Baroque style, and you have no idea what that is? Art history gives you context and a wider understanding about what will work. It offers a greater palette of choices.”
Her goal is for students to see that the class can be engaging and applicable to their career paths. “Art history isn’t just something I, or they, study,” she says. “It’s something we can use every day.”
Innovation: Modernizing art history lessons with LARP videos
Before Schwaller can convince students of the relevance of art history, she knows she must grab their attention. “By providing visual stimulation, especially a peculiar visual, the information will stick with the students more than me handing out a syllabus,” she explains. “I want what I share to be memorable.”
After five years of sharing the same syllabus with its traditional first-day jargon, Schwaller knew it was time to shake things up. She credits her love of popular culture with helping her innovate, using LARP videos: “I remember seeing a LARP video on a different topic several years ago, and it sparked me,” she says. “I didn’t know any other teachers who did this, but I wanted to be bold and different.”
In addition to Class Safety Update, Schwaller plays other videos throughout the semester. Midway through, for example, she shares her LARP video titled Used History. In this one, Schallwer plays a used car salesman. Modeled after TV commercials, she created her own ad (of sorts) to sell her students on the ideas and concepts related to art history.
“I never know what will inspire me to make my next LARP video,” she says. “That makes the process fun for me, too.”
Course: ARTS 231 Survey of Art History I
Frequency: 90-minute meetings, 3 times per week for 16 weeks
Class size: 28–30
Course description: The course traces of the development of visual art in Western culture from prehistory to the present day. The fall semester will span the beginning of documented art works through the Gothic age. Its intention is to aid the student in an understanding and appreciation of the breadth and depth of creative expression in Western culture through developing a sense of art’s place, time, context, and development.
In her words: “In my art history class, I don’t teach stuffy things from the past and focus on references from some irrelevant time period. I teach my students connections throughout history that they can then apply to everyday life and, eventually, their careers.”
ARTS 231 Survey of Art History ISee materials
Lesson: How to create an engaging LARP video
Schwaller's Art History LARP Videos
In a LARP scenario, a person physically portrays a character in a fictional setting, acting out his or her character’s speech and movements just like actors in a TV show. Like many LARPers, Schwaller goes all-in for her videos, including wearing wigs, makeup, and costumes and creating a background setting, too.
Schwaller suggests that any teacher considering how best to incorporate a LARP video into their class should follow these guidelines:
Choose a relevant subject
If you are just into LARP for a lark, you are missing the point, says Schwaller. “The videos are fun, but they aren’t just silliness,” she explains. “Each video is purposeful and intentional in terms of the content you want to convey.” For example, Schwaller’s Class Safety Update video spells out what her students can expect from the course, including how to reach her, submit assignments, and access class resources. In fact, none of her videos are tangential; each one supports the content of a particular aspect of her course.
Get into character
“Take yourself out of your normal personality so you can bring a different perspective to whatever content you’re trying to convey,” says Schwaller. This has a benefit that she says is twofold: First, putting yourself in another person’s shoes is akin to students putting themselves in another time period—a practice you can share with them. Second, seeing things from different perspectives is a huge part of art history.
Do not overthink the production values
You are not making a Hollywood film, and Schwaller says that students will recognize and appreciate even an amateur effort. “I used my phone and iMovie editing software to make my videos,” says Schwaller. Though she does the whole thing on her own—writing, costuming, hair and makeup, scenery, and filming—she notes that some people may prefer seeking help from a friend or colleague. “You don’t need a big budget,” she adds. “Just be creative and smart about the basics.” Specifically, she suggests keeping the background blank or uncluttered, and being sure your face is well lit, ideally with sunlight.
Keep your LARP videos short
When writing your script or editing your video, be concise and focus on capturing students’ attention. “I aim to make my LARP videos 60–90 seconds,” says Schwaller. “Less is not only more, it also forces you to be clear about your content and how to most efficiently share it. Professors tend to talk a long time, so keeping [videos] short keeps us in check.”
Hold an advanced screening with “critics”
Schwaller advises holding an initial screening for a few trusted friends or colleagues, then asking whether the video is communicating its message effectively. “They can also keep an eye on making sure content is appropriate,” she adds.
Follow up with a post-screening class discussion
Once you have created and shown your LARP video, you need to follow up with an explanation to the class. “I share why I made each video and how it fits with the course content,” says Schwaller. “The video breaks the ice and gets students engaged and relaxed, and then my talk brings home the key messages [that] I specifically want them to learn.”
Schwaller acknowledges that her LARP video approach may not be for everyone. To create these audiovisuals, an educator must be comfortable with showing creativity and performing. (OK, to just say it: It helps if you are a bit of ham.)
“If you are scared of being vulnerable or imperfect, it might be a struggle to do something like this,” she says. “My videos are awkward and uncomfortable, but I bond [with students] through the vulnerability. No one ever taught me that teachers could be vulnerable, but doesn’t being vulnerable make me more authentic? And if I am authentic, won’t students connect with me and this subject matter in a more powerful way?”
“How do I measure student learning outcomes for this class?” Schwaller asks. “First, I see when students take more risks in class and their work reflects that. Then, if students continue to talk about how my LARP videos have helped them connect to the course materials, I feel the videos have helped me teach effectvely.”
Schwaller says her school loves the LARP videos, especially the positive reaction the films elicit from students. Still, none of her colleagues have followed suit with LARP videos of their own.
“They continue to ask me how I create my videos and are clearly intrigued, even if they aren’t there yet,” she says. “Maybe next year we’ll see a few of them creating their own.”
Schwaller laughs when she thinks back on students’ immediate reactions to the Class Safety Update video. “They always look like deers in headlights when I show them a LARP video on the first day,” she says. “They are stunned. They’re not used to teachers putting themselves out there.”
After they get over their initial shock, though, most love it.
“Students tell me they enjoy the videos,” she says. “They say things like, ‘I thought they were kind of crazy. But they were very effective and made what I learned more memorable.’”
Schwaller’s student evaluations are very positive, and recent comments from one of those course evaluations include the following:
- “It was honestly one of the most informative and enjoyable courses I’ve ever taken.”
- “I hate history. I always got C’s. I absolutely love it now.”
- “I was nervous for this class originally, but your art approach and sense of humor made the class very fun and inviting. I knew on the first day with your introduction video that this wouldn’t be a normal art history class. Thanks!”
A few students have even come back to her long after class has ended to ask if they may share her LARP videos with parents or friends, because they think the concept is fun and cool.
Based on student feedback, Schwaller is planning to make new LARP new videos in the future. Who will she portray next? A rodeo clown? A firefighter? A rock star? A nun? We—and her students—will just have to wait and see.