Visual arts professors teach dedication by example

This fall, art students will have to reserve studios during scheduled access times. Pxhere

“Be all in.”

A few months back I penned a piece on what it looked like for teachers and professors to continue teaching art during the initial lockdown in early spring. Unfortunately, it turned out that many simply did not continue. Robert Truszkowski, a professor in the Visual Arts Department, explained that intermediate students didn’t yet have the skill set to complete their projects properly at home, and the senior students were at the point they needed the use of their studios to complete their projects and that was no longer an option.

Over the Spring/Summer 2020 semester, faculty and administration worked diligently to come up with options to have available for visual arts students in the fall semester. A “Return to Teaching” subcommittee was created to construct a plan that would allow some students to return to campus while allowing others to have the option of completing their coursework remotely. Risa Horowitz, the Visual Arts Department Head, said the subcommittee had made their decisions by looking through all the visual arts courses while considering factors such as which courses are required for various degree requirements, which would be the best courses for students to learn remotely, and which would require studio time on campus for students to properly learn the necessary techniques.

This resulted in a wide variation of approaches that could be used by professors, though each individual course’s procedures were adapted specifically by the professor teaching the course. For the courses being taught remotely, there is generally a mixture of instructional videos and scheduled Zoom meetings so students can share their work and receive critiques from their professors in real time.

In addition to using Zoom meetings for feedback, professors will be instructing students on the proper methods to document and share their art digitally. Normally, students are taught this later in their programs as they construct their portfolios and consider applying to galleries online, so students earlier in their degrees will have a bit of an advantage going forward due to this professional instruction.

In her course on Prairie Landscape Photography, Horowitz will be using Zoom meetings and some online instruction, and has added in five scheduled field trips to offer her students some variety in material as well as the opportunity to test out the skills they’ve been practising independently. Sylvia Ziemann’s Introduction to Sculpture course will be exploring how to construct something with meaning from whatever material and space they have available – a very useful skill to hone early on.

An unexpected silver lining to the remote teaching experience was mentioned by Truszkowski: “…my own teaching, both live via Zoom as well as in my recorded demos and lectures, can only improve as I stop to carefully consider how I communicate with my students.The technology literally slows me down, which seems counter-intuitive, but as a result it forces me to pause to assess my message.”

The courses that are occurring on-campus are, as was expected, going to look quite different from previous semesters. The studio spaces that normally could be used by students practically any time will now only be available to students during Scheduled Studio Access (SSA) times. With the current SSA format no more than six students will be booked into a studio room at a time, which allows the students and staff space to properly socially distance at all times. “This will be the most challenging change for them,” said Truszkowski when asked about the altered studio procedures. “Art students are used to having pretty unfettered access to the studios here, but unfortunately they will have to adapt to a more rigid scenario for the time being.” This particular scenario will necessitate more flexible schedules, more understanding from all sides as we trouble-shoot this system on the fly, and a hell of a lot of sanitizer.

David Garneau, a professor in the visual arts department, mentioned that he was pleasantly surprised by enrollment numbers this year. “I thought more students might wait COVID out, but I am pleased that most feel safe about returning.” Garneau will be teaching Senior Painting, Senior Drawing, and Graduate Group Studio all on-campus this fall, and is hopeful that (aside from the SSA arrangement changing studio times) he will be able to teach his courses as he normally would.

Horowitz reported that so far this semester her arts students are just as hungry to learn as ever. Her advice for this semester can be wrapped up in three words: “Be all in.” Both professors and students are being forced into an unfamiliar routine right now with what can feel like daily policy changes and constant revamping of schedules. The simple truth is that we can’t expect much of anything to go smoothly this fall, and we can only prepare so far in advance – we can only control how we react to these circumstances.

“I want students to feel good about themselves and continue to evolve as artists,” said Truszkowski, “understanding that life and art will hurl challenges at them at every step, and how they respond is what will define their success.”

Here’s my two cents on how to best succeed this semester regardless of your program or position: try reacting to problems with curiosity rather than frustration. When you get sucked into thinking about what’s not going your way and how negatively it’s impacting you, you’re not in a position to change your circumstances. It’s like rocking in a rocking chair – mulling over every inconvenience will give you something to do, but it won’t take you anywhere. When you approach things with curiosity you start asking why things aren’t functioning or what can be done to better a situation, and you train your brain to work around unforeseen problems rather than being knocked down and winded by them. The bottom line is we’re all improvising from here on out, and if we all commit to making sure this show does go on we’ll make it through one way or another.  

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