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Arts classes prepare for switch to online learning

Professors and students weigh in on the transfer to online classes

For departments like Studio Art and Drama, the change to online learning comes with a unique set of challenges.
For departments like Studio Art and Drama, the change to online learning comes with a unique set of challenges.

When the University announced the switch to online classes for the foreseeable future due to the coronavirus outbreak, professors and students from many different disciplines expressed apprehension about how smooth the transition from in-person to digital learning would be. Now that classes will be online for the remainder of the semester, professors and students must plan for the rest of the term. For departments like Studio Art and Drama, the change comes with a unique set of challenges. 

“The way I teach is very interpersonal,” said Neal Rock, assistant professor of Studio Art. “It relies quite heavily on one-to-one mentorship and group participation — the group is very important, being together is very important.”

In Rock’s painting classes, he said he often mixes “practical, material-based exercises as well as history and conceptual tradition” — but for a medium like painting, the switch to online learning will present new challenges. Students will now embark on more independent study, along with class readings and written assignments, to work on projects outside of a traditional class setting. 

“There’s issues with regards to access, what materials they have access to and whether they can paint or not,” Rock said. “But ... they can upload images to Collab or show them on Zoom when they’re doing a conference call.”

Both Rock and Bill Bennett, an associate professor in the Studio Art department who teaches sculpture classes, plan to have students pursue projects on their own while checking in and maintaining a group dynamic, particularly in class critique situations. Bennett emphasized the importance of using available resources creatively when he spoke about how his classes will be conducted. Even without access to the industrial machinery available on Grounds, students can still create a space for artistic undertakings.

“I will be assembling material and tool kits for my entry level students,” Bennett said. “I will be asking them to create their own studio spaces to enable them to create their sculptures. This could be a garage, basement, outside picnic table or corner of a kitchen table.” 

In addition to the difficulty of maintaining normalcy in a studio art context, classes and programs centered around performance have also struggled to adjust to an online sphere. Classes such as Musical Theatre Performance, which relies heavily on live performances and immediate workshopping, require unique ideas about how to preserve the learning environment without face-to-face interaction. 

“Because data transmission latency will prevent me from providing accompaniment to a remote performance, students will be submitting videotaped performances of their songs in advance of our class meeting, where they can accompany themselves, sing to a track, ask a friend to accompany them or simply sing a cappella,” Musical Theatre Lecturer Greg Harris said. “We will then watch these performances as a group in a Zoom session and offer feedback online in the session.”

Harris’s class typically features five to seven live performances from students, which receive immediate feedback from himself and his graduate assistant as well as peer feedback from classmates. Without the ability to provide accompaniment or perform live, the students lose some beneficial aspects of the class.

“My musical theatre class isn’t the same done online by sending videos, because we lose all the live aspects of theater that make it spontaneous — your classmates watching you perform, Greg accompanying on piano to your tempo, instant feedback from your teachers and classmates and utilizing the energy and space of the room in your performance,” second-year College student Karen Zipor said. “Our final was going to be a musical theatre recital but now our final is a written essay, which is just not the same.”

Despite these difficulties, Harris also noted room for new opportunities in the online format. In addition to building up skills for a cappella or “alternative accompaniment” — such as karaoke tracks — performance, Harris said that the digital setting would allow for more exploration of how “the performances of others can inform your own performance work.” 

“With performances videoed in advance and existing as a Resource on Collab, students will have the ability to watch performances as often as they want, which is not something that otherwise happens in a live classroom performance,” Harris said. 

In classes that require more large-scale performances, some theatre students have not only been required to adjust to an unfamiliar online format, but have also been forced to cancel these long-term projects. The Drama Department’s spring production of “Once Upon a Mattress,” which was set to open March 26, was cancelled in accordance with the University’s policy regarding COVID-19. For students working on the show for months, the cancellation was a difficult process, especially in consideration of the course credits associated with production.

“[Associate Professor of Drama Marianne Kubik] said that the cast members would be receiving an email from her any day now about fulfilling requirements for course credit in lieu of performing the play,” second-year College student Micah Rucci said. “We have yet to be told what exactly that will look like, but I do know that nothing could ever be as fulfilling or as meaningful as the show we were creating. Hard, hard work. Four hours a night, six days a week. Because of COVID-19, we have done all the work for no reward, and don’t get to see the project come to fruition. It’s really a shame.”

Amongst a whirlwind of unexpected stress and disappointment, the reality of online classes will soon manifest. Questions about long-term viability and practical considerations abound, but professors and students in artistic fields will still work to create — a sentiment which struck Bennett as he was reminded of something he thought about at the beginning of the semester. 

“I establish a motto or principle as an overriding theme for the Sculpture classes,” Bennett said. “The Motto for Spring 2020 was and is E Pluribus Unum. One of many U.S. mottos meaning ‘Out of Many, One’ … We are many, and we are now spread out, but look forward to becoming ‘One’ through the common practice of sculpture, as we enter this new reality.”

As arts classes adapt to new class formats, the poignance of becoming one of many is a striking reminder of the creative expression that can happen, even in the most uncertain times. 

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