'There’s really no good alternative': Transition to online classes presents challenges for fine arts students

Sunday, March 29, 2020 - 2:23pm

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Design by Cara Jheng

The University of Michigan’s transition to online classes has presented unique obstacles for fine arts students, who have had their recitals impacted, face issues obtaining necessary materials and experience difficulty practicing their disciplines remotely.

The University announced plans to move to online classes on March 11 amid an outbreak of coronavirus in the state. As students transition to attending lectures, discussions, office hours and lab meetings on online teaching programs such as Zoom and BlueJeans, students in the School of Art & Design and the School of Music, Theatre & Dance said their departments have been particularly impacted by the end of in-person learning and events. 

Music, Theatre & Dance senior Cole Abod said the change has added further uncertainty to students in his program. 

“There’s just a lot of instability being piled on top of an already uncertain field where you’re jumping from freelance job to freelance job,” Abod said. “It is just an incredibly unfortunate situation no matter how you slice it.” 

Abod said he was unable to perform his senior recital in-person because of the outbreak.

“I’m losing out on a senior recital and a premiere of an original theatrical work that I wrote,” Abod said. “The senior recital is required for me to get my degree, and I think the handling of that was not ideal — originally, we were all told that we had to hold our degree recitals throughout this while central administration was telling students to go home … My department has given us the flexibility to hold live stream recitals or create some other senior project.” 

Music, Theatre & Dance senior Johanna Kepler noted that with a physical discipline, virtual instruction is a significant change of pace, but noted that the dance department has kept its students informed during this period of uncertainty. 

“It's been a big challenge,” Kepler said. “We do such a physical daily practice and taking a dance class online is nothing like being in a room with other dancers.” 

In an email to The Daily, Music, Theatre & Dance Dean Mark Clague outlined how the administration planned to mitigate the disruption and noted things are going better than expected. He said the school is constantly searching for ways to adapt to remote learning.

“We’ve had a sequence of faculty conference calls to share ideas, tips and discoveries about how to make remote instruction in the arts successful and we’ve shared online resources and provided technical support to individual faculty,” Clague wrote. “Things are going better than I would have imagined. I’ve even heard from some of our students that online ‘studio classes’ work really well, because the online chat and discussion forums allow for even more student participation.” 

Clague said faculty have been reviewing their assignments to ensure they fit this new teaching model. He said he hoped the University’s move to the Pass/No Record COVID grading system for this semester would help mitigate stress for students.

“We want all our students to continue to grow and to make great use of their time and opportunity to work with faculty,” Clague wrote. “SMTD’s goal is to give all of our students the very best educational experience we can.”

Clague noted that online classes present unique challenges to fine arts students. However, he said the school has been working to find virtual alternatives to events that were previously completed in-person. For example, he noted the #SMTDPerforms ensemble project, which is a collection of individual videos.

“Remote teaching is more disruptive for some forms of instruction than others and studio dance is a good example. When one form of teaching is impossible, however, we are finding alternatives that give students different but hopefully still really special learning opportunities,” Clague wrote. “All of us definitely wish that our concert halls and theaters would be able to reopen, but we’re exploring the positives and learning some new instructional approaches that will no doubt impact our teaching, even after we get back to normal.” 

Similarly, students enrolled in the School of Art & Design have also felt the impacts of completing fine arts coursework through remote learning, including Art & Design sophomore Muriel Steinke.

“For a hands-on major like Art & Design, education is definitely a challenge,” Steinke said. “For classes such as ceramics or printmaking it is a total loss. There’s really no good alternative.”

Steinke also mentioned that as a sophomore she would typically be required to complete a semester-long project called the Sophomore Year Review. According to Steinke, this project has not yet been canceled or postponed. 

“We obviously can’t use the facilities, which is really limiting, but it’s also really difficult to be working on such a massive project and not having a community to effectively critique it,” Steinke said. “It’s chaotic to say the least.”

Despite the challenges, Steinke said Art & Design faculty have been accessible to students during this transition. 

“All of my teachers have been very understanding and accommodating,” Steinke said. “I had one professor call every student in our class just to check in and see where their head is at. That kind of thing has been very encouraging.” 

Brad Smith, Art & Design associate dean for academic programs, told The Daily in an email that the administration is in the process of reviewing its requirements as students transition into virtual learning. 

“Stamps is adjusting its milestone sophomore review administered to all second-year students,” Smith wrote. “To be responsive to the difficult circumstances students are facing and because of the range of time-zones and internet accessibility available to students, the deadline for the reviews will be adjusted, and the reviews will be conducted using asynchronous means that can accommodate minimal bandwidth and limited access.” 

He also noted the school’s academic advisers are open to students via email to help support them through this time. Smith also said the faculty and administration are working together to send kits of supplies to students.

“Stamps operates in an active ‘making’ culture which requires students to use specialized equipment and materials to achieve learning objectives and advance their academic progress,” Smith wrote. “The school is supporting and encouraging instructors to reimagine how course assignments can be modified to address the most critical course learning objectives. When specialized equipment is no longer accessible, important principles associated with learning objectives can still be addressed through study and critiques of existing works that can be shared online.”

Daily Staff Reporter Sarah Payne can be reached at paynesm@umich.edu.