The Art Department Focuses on Essential Skills for Online Learning Efforts

This Spring Term, the challenge of online, asynchronous learning has been particularly difficult for the Visual Arts department, since teachers traditionally rely on hands-on work with materials and equipment that many students only have access to on campus. As a result, art teachers have had to adapt to making architecture, sculpture, painting, and weaving lessons possible online.

“We’re kind of having to strip things down to their essential elements, and that’s a really helpful experience for teachers to think about… I think when the rug is pulled out from under you, you have to really think about, ‘Okay, there’s a lot we can’t do, so what are really the essential skills here,’” said Rafael Kelman, Instructor in Art.

Kelman has looked to find ways to conduct his Art-309 class without the supplies that are normally needed. He expressed that art can still be made with what students have available.

“There are several students who are just going to be shooting on their phones. [What] we need in any case are the essential skills. I have never felt my job in a video class is to teach ‘How do you use this specific model of camera really well?’…The really essential skills are skills like viewing digital media critically, how do you tell a story in visual media, how do you think about the rhythm in editing in a way that’s dynamic and effective. All of that is still possible even with reduced technological capacity,” said Kelman.

While Kelman works mainly with a digital medium, giving him an advantage with remote learning, other teachers have had to rethink their teaching goals. Anthony Lawson, Instructor in Art, has decided to place a greater emphasis on the theories behind the practice of architecture and has created a virtual art sharing space in order to create a “shared understanding.”

Lawson said, “It’s really about creating a space around the students where they can just explore art and music and architecture as much as possible in as pressure free a way as I can achieve… [it’s] not necessarily, ‘You’re going to build a building, and it’s going to be well thought out and perfect.’ We’re going to explore the techniques, ideas, and concepts that will allow for a really complex, rich and nuanced architecture to be created.”

According to Lawson, the technical and manual instruction that is usually crucial to learning how to produce art is, to some degree, irreplaceable online.

“I think the greatest disadvantage of online learning in general is [that] you don’t have the personal contact with the students. Say a student is struggling with a skill…It’s one thing to do a video demo, but it’s another to be able to watch a student doing something in real time and to see the mistakes they’re making,” said Lawson.

The department’s approach has shown some signs of success with students. Art-225 student Zori Warren ’23 has expressed that being outside of the classroom has created a less stressful learning environment, though the unavoidable loss of face-to-face instruction has posed challenges. Photography student Audrey Hsieh ‘23 sees a silver lining, however, in the variety of environments available to be captured.

“I think one thing that we can take away, especially for photography, is that we’re all in different environments, so by being in different environments we are able to capture different elements of our lives… At school, we are all in one location and experiencing very similar things, whereas online and with everybody at home, we are able to show a wider array of situations and really embrace everybody’s different cultures,” said Hsieh.