The growth of Digital Humanities has been one of the most exciting pedagogical developments in my field over the past decade. Access to texts, manuscripts, and artifacts via numerous databases has revolutionized the study of antiquity. I’ve used many of these resources in my teaching, but after learning of a colleague in Modern Languages, Dr. Katie Ginsbach, who has used VR in her courses to “send” students to places, I became intrigued about trying something similar with my students.
This semester (Fall ‘22) I was teaching my Origins of Monotheism course. This is a wide-ranging course that interacts with numerous cultures from the ancient Levant: Babylon, Ugarit, Israel, Greece, and Rome. Specifically because the course focuses on religious practices, there were ample opportunities for learning about artifacts (e.g., statues of deities) places (e.g., temples) and rituals. There are, fortunately, relevant 3-D scans of artifacts, site reconstructions, and videos available on YouTube, Sketchfab, and elsewhere. Prior to the beginning of the semester, I spoke with Molly Lucareli and Krissy Lukens and, in addition to these already available scans, ITS loaned me an Insta360 Action Camera which I took with me to Italy in July where I was on a research trip. While there, I took some 365 degree images of the Pantheon in Rome and numerous sites in the ancient Roman city of Pompeii.
We used VR technology four times throughout the semester. Students downloaded the YouTube mobile app to their phones, along with the Open LMS app. They could also have downloaded the Sketchfab app, but that wasn’t necessary. The VR experiences were divided into three different areas of focus.
First, we looked at two specific places. Here there were two sites we “visited” using VR. One was a detailed 3-D scan of a model of Iron Age Jerusalem housed at the Bible Lands Museum in Israel. This model was used alongside roughly contemporary biblical narratives in 2 Kings and Ezekiel describing Jerusalem at the end of the Iron Age on the eve of the Babylonian destruction of 586 BCE. Students were able to “synch” details in the narrative concerning specific places in Jerusalem with the model and, more importantly, the topography and area of the city. The second site was the Pantheon in Rome, which used a 360 image I had taken this past July. In addition to the fact that the building is both an architectural marvel and the best preserved Roman building in the world, we looked at it specifically as an example of a “recycled” holy place–a former temple to deified Roman emperors that had been converted into a Christian church dedicated to the Virgin Mary and Christian martyrs. This is a phenomenon we see over and over again, the “stickiness” of a site’s sacred nature, even to adherents of different–and even hostile–religions.
Next we focused on a specific object, the so-called Cyrus Cylinder, an inscribed object from ca. 539 BCE (housed at the British Museum) whose text we also studied extensively. Students carefully examined a detailed 3-D scan of the Cylinder with the aim of connecting the material medium of the text with its contents. Too often, we read ancient texts in a vacuum–words floating in space come down to us from the past–when in fact the material nature of the text offers important insights to its interpretation. In this instance, the Cyrus Cylinder is a foundation deposit, a particular genre of Babylonian text whose uses and types are designed for specific purposes which dictate the kinds of things that these texts say (n.b., I have written extensively on this particular inscription elsewhere).
Finally, we placed ourselves into a specific religious experience: the Holy Fire ceremony at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. Here we used the brief, but intense, YouTube video, Jerusalem’s Holy Fire Ceremony in 360 video – BBC News, which we watched after a detailed historical and archeological overview of the extremely fascinating and complex site of the Church and a viewing of the short documentary on it, Holy Fire. Here we were examining several ideas (appropriately, at the end of the semester) including the phenomenon of recycled sacred places and contested religious spaces within a religious tradition self-described as monotheistic. The students were very taken with the video and many watched it several times in a row. An unintended but welcome pedagogical outcome was that the students were exposed to different, older forms of Christianity than the European practices prevalent here. Seeing non-white Christians worshiping in Arabic and engaging in a much more frenetic liturgical ceremony raised the students’ awareness of Christian worship as encompassing much more than bowed heads, lowered eyes, and the singing of slow hymns.
Evaluation and Next Steps
At the end of the semester I administered an anonymous, four-question Google Forms survey. Out of 27 students in the course, 24 responded to the survey. Four of the respondents had used VR in the classroom before. In response to the question, “How did the VR activities add to your learning?” many students pointed to an enhanced understanding of course materials because they could experience it in three dimensions. Here are two representative comments:
It was interesting to see the objects in which we were discussing in a “tangible” form. For example on the Cyrus cylinder, it was less about reading the text off the page and more akin to seeing the state that the text was left in after time had eroded it.
It helps to create another way of relating to ancient material. It was cool to see the Jerusalem reconstruction and the Cyrus cylinder in a more concrete way. It puts things into perspective better. Also, it’s hard to understand the feel of the Holy Fire ceremony without an experience like what the VR provided. On all three accounts it helped cement the material in a cool new way. Those are three things that I’ll definitely retain for longer.
Responses to the question, “What suggestions do you have for the next time I use VR in this course? How can your experience be made better?” were replete with concrete and extremely helpful suggestions, most of which called for more involvement from me while students were interacting with the digitized material. I thought that this would be intrusive to their individual experiences, but in retrospect–and moving forward–I will start, for instance, the tour of Iron Age Jerusalem with a group overview before having people go off on their own. Another extremely helpful suggestion advised
Continue to reference back to the VR activities or look at them again. I think that would make the content seem more coherent and would create an overall better connection to the course objectives.
Again, in retrospect this seems intuitive, but in the moment I was still unconsciously separating the VR experience from “ordinary” class time. This tells me that I need to continue to work on being conscious of how integrated these activities are.
Will I continue to use VR in this course and implement it in other courses? Absolutely.