Remote Learning Amongst COVID-19

Emma Duehr

Winter term concluded with uncertainty. Over spring break, news surfaced that spring term would be taught remotely; this affected me both as a student, educator, and as an artist. My first independent teaching opportunity was about to begin, teaching Introduction to Sculpture at Portland State University. I never questioned if teaching sculpture online was possible; I was excited about offering tactile experiences, using everyday materials, and offering new skill sets from the comfort of home. Looking back on my education, I always felt empowered and inspired when I utilized the techniques I learned at school in my daily life. Twelve students enrolled in the class; I began by sending a survey to learn about their situations, desires, and accessibility. I learned that everyone wanted to work with clay, apply various building techniques, and work together; I designed my syllabus in response to the feedback.

I talked with various faculty across multiple universities and departments to discuss the possibilities that this time held. Collectively, we jumped into the term aware of our shared emotions, restrictions, and dedication to our fields. I learned that many sculpture classes were cancelled due to material and space restrictions. Critiques were addressed with various alternative approaches. Individual meetings became more frequent, and education became more individualized to student needs. Physical learning experiences became more focused on verbal communication. Adjustments were made on a whim and the majority of classes responded in the moment. 

Internal dialogues between myself as a student and as an educator have impacted my experiences navigating online learning environments immensely. As a student, I am able to experience multiple different approaches to remote learning and respond to what is working and what may not be. I was able to shape my own class in response to my experiences in multiple online classrooms. 

As a student, the term began quite overwhelmingly. I felt concerned about what I would be able to get out of school without being present with my cohort. As an educator, I wanted to do anything I could to assure that taking our online class would not affect their educational path and program curriculum. Being in both of these roles simultaneously influenced one another. The dedication and motivation I see in my students aided in my own motivation for my own homework. 

Since our critiques rely heavily on documentation, I used this opportunity to focus on the importance of quality documentation. Students were creating strong sculptural work from their homes and I found it really important to consider presentation and place. Some students incorporated their homes as an essential element to the work and some students camouflaged their homes to provide clean backgrounds. 

Drue Kutka is a second year student pursuing their BFA in Art Practice. They have shown great enthusiasm, dedication, and innovation during the stay-at-home-order. Within the following conversation, Drue and I discussed the decisions behind a recent project and the challenges and benefits of working creatively from home.  

Emma Duehr: Throughout the course of our term together so far, you created a couple works in response to COVID-19 safety restrictions. How has the coronavirus impacted the work you are creating?

Drue Kutka: The Covid-19 pandemic has influenced my daily life to the point where it’s impossible to not think about it over the course of the day. When I leave the house it isn’t just keys and wallet, there’s a mask on that checklist now, too. I think that the coronavirus has impacted my work the same as any event within my life would have, it’s just one of the things I think about most right now, so I’ve aimed to express my thoughts and feelings surrounding it through some of my art.

ED: Can you share the inspiration for your work in our most recent body casting project? What was this process like for you? 

DK: The body casting process was one of trial and error. The overall process of creating the cast is one I feel I learned a lot from that will be applicable when thinking about how to use a 3-D space. Given the chance to cast a piece of myself I found it fitting to create a piece that focused on how I was feeling, it felt very personal to use a copy of a part of me. I wanted to create something that looked so much bigger than it actually was, in order to describe the feeling of being trapped by the garbage I create. That pose of reaching up evokes a sense of helplessness, one where people can feel the body’s inability to escape, reaching out of something is a last ditch effort crying out for help. The garbage used in the piece is all garbage I created and chose to use as I found the single use items present throughout the piece to be overly wasteful. I don’t think it would have read the same had I used garbage I didn’t create. ( See Image )

ED: What are some of the challenges you have faced over this term due to Remote Education? What are some of the benefits?

DK: Other than that I’ve found this term of remote learning to be much more beneficial than not, it has allowed me to create larger pieces than I think I would’ve been able to had I been going between two locations. I’ve enjoyed the chance to work at more of my own pace. Having the space I live in turned into the classroom has allowed me to continue working on projects at times that class would not have, whether that be first thing in the morning or after campus buildings would have been closed. Although, it can be tough to really focus on classwork when home is the classroom setting, sitting down and working on a project or assignment for a couple hours can feel nearly impossible when you’re the only one in the space working on something. In addition, tutorials on how to use materials can prove difficult, it has been interesting to try new materials and not be able to ask questions as I am doing so. 

With three weeks left in the term I continued to reflect, notice, and respond to the situation and changes happening daily. Below are questions I asked various educators and their responses.

Why is education important during this time we are currently experiencing? For yourself and for your students. 

Lucy Cotter: I couldn’t imagine forging ahead with ‘education’ right now if that meant teaching a preconceived curriculum with little or no space for the particularity of this moment. This pandemic will no doubt have an impact on our lives, on our educational institutions, and on the sectors in which we work for several years, and in some cases permanently. I appreciate that education provides a forum and platform to digest the changes as they are happening, to look forward collectively, and to break what is for many people a time of social isolation in positive and constructive ways. Teaching is always meaningful, but now more than ever. 

Artist Michael Bernard Stevenson Jr.: I think education is always important, however I find that this time is maybe… less important to focus on traditional education outputs. I think we have an opportunity to rethink what we want education to look like, but I feel like the importance of maintaining it during a pandemic is maybe less important.

Roz Cruz: I’m finding that people are learning new things that might not have been possible before. The kids I’m working with are spending way more time with their parents, learning about their habits and rituals in a way that wasn’t possible when k-12 school was in session. I really like that.

Michelle Illuminato: The truth of the matters is that this is a time where I am doing everything I can to keep students in school because of this situation. If they’re in class, there is creative activity and a group of people outside of their family that cares about what they’re doing. I’m there to give another layer of support. This is a time that I really feel that I am shifting some of my approach by saying, “What can I do to help you?” If we can help the students to be successful, in whatever way that means right now, that is what is important. 

Do you think the forced term of remote education will have a long term impact on your teaching and art school structures?

Jason Stecklein: I have been forced to use many forms and tools for teaching that I never would have if not for this situation.

MI: I am thankful I got this glimpse into a very different way of teaching, a different perspective, especially one that is so directly opposed to my normal mode. It’s very personal too, being at home. Students see me in my living space. I see theirs. I feel like I know them more personally. I have been doing short individual meetings each week. These are more productive than my individual meetings in the classroom, and I might just keep doing them this way. I’m also learning new ways to create community, like Zoom chat rooms and Flipgrid for students to share and critique their creative work. 

LC: I do think it will have an impact on art school structures. Businesses are currently noticing that they have cut costs by having workers work from home. As the educational institutions grapple with their own financial insecurity, it is likely that some of the current “temporary”. structural changes will remain for the longer term. I will certainly remember this period of teaching, but it’s too early to tell whether or how it will impact my teaching in the long term.”

AMBSJ: I think for me I’ve really realized that education is an exciting avenue for me and if teaching remains online, or not, I have a strong presence in an online format and am looking forward to seeing what kinds of opportunities I can leverage that being the case.

RC: Yeah, I think so. I’m not teaching at the college level right now, but I started teaching an online drawing class for people between the age of 3 and 150. It’s taught me that I don’t necessarily need the institution to do what I want to do…so I’m pretty excited about that.”

Have you altered your expectations from your students?

RC: Definitely – I never really cared about grades (I went to a college without grades), but now I’m more adamantly opposed to the grading system. I believe it’s truly harmful, and I think the process of grading is way too motivated by a teacher’s egos.

AMBSJ: I had always intended to subvert the traditional structure by telling all the students they were getting A’s in the class, and that it was their responsibility to show up to class and help to build the collaborative community. I think that I approached it exactly the same, but everyone has realized how important it is to help hold the space of class. I have been intentional to be direct about expectations and how they are NOT designed around fulfilling the assignment. How they’re specifically designed to help them in their own practices and that their investment.

LC: I’ve been very aware of the heightened mental health challenges brought about by the quarantine, which has altered my approach to my students somewhat. I see that some students need extra support and material to work with to help keep up their motivation, and others may not be able to achieve the mindset to do focused work. I have tried to make space for these different states of mind and to provide individualization as well as group learning to make even more space than usual for individual concerns and questions.

From your experience so far, how has COVID-19 affected what elements of life to bring into the class? How has remote education expanded or reduced the conversations? 

AMBSJ: The shift to a completely online format is certainly different than what was originally planned for my class “Object and Social Context,” however we’ve been able to stay engaged as a class and produce meaningful connections and new work. The format for how the work is being produced has shifted slightly and opened broadly to center the individual making practices of all the different students in class.

LC: I have consciously expanded conversations to allow more space than usual to address how this moment in time produces the conditions in which we discuss, consider ideas, and engage with materials. I feel that this has expanded the conversation in a number of ways. However, not meeting new students in person has also had its limits. The things which do not happen as a result are more elusive but still palpable to me as an experienced teacher and presumably also to the students themselves.

What alterations have you made to your curriculum that are creating an exciting alternative? How has this time affected your prior approach? 

RC: Everything is much more open-ended than I would do in a university setting, and I think I’ll bring this back into the university with me when I return.

JS: The videos that I produce can incorporate interesting simulations and visualizations that we would not have easily had access to in in-person classrooms.

LC: I have introduced some topics that would normally not be an area of focus in my classes, which I feel are important facets of the pandemic and quarantine experience. I have also tried to acknowledge my own challenges during the quarantine to keep the frame of conversation as horizontal as possible. In my view theory necessarily comes from daily life and always remains in dynamic relation to the everyday. As we are in the midst of a phenomenon that is unprecedented it’s exciting to make that fact especially palpable for the students. We all know that the thinking we are doing has not been done before. Theory is unfolding as we think through this experience and try to articulate it to ourselves and others. 

I am really grateful for the opportunity to teach a class remotely, as it may have never been an experience I would have been offered from an institution. My experience throughout this period will impact future teaching opportunities. Of many, one major take-away from this experience is experiencing the importance of community within the classroom. Nurturing the community between people in a class has cultivated intimate connections through this period. Responding to our situations together has helped build deeper connections with classmates, students, and educators. 

The Social Forms of Art (SoFA) Journal is a publication dedicated to supporting, documenting and contextualising social forms of art and its related fields and disciplines. Each issue of the Journal takes an eclectic look at the ways in which artists are engaging with communities, institutions and the public. The Journal supports and discusses projects that offer critique, commentary and context for a field that is active and expanding.

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