Something changed on North Campus about four years ago. At the beginning of the fall 2002 semester, the incoming freshman class of 2006 entered a whole new School of Art and Design.
Dean Bryan Rogers and Associate Dean Mary Schmidt had come from Carnegie Mellon University two years before, and with them, they brought plans to create more opportunities and spaces for student exhibitions, attract better speakers for the school’s weekly lecture series and do more with alumni donors to improve facilities and programs for students.
Sounds like a great idea, right?
But there was one more improvement that Rogers and Schmidt wanted to make when they got to the University. They had a plan, developed with the school’s faculty over two years, to revamp the school’s curriculum and degree requirements. The new curriculum would introduce freshmen and sophomores to the basics of a wide variety of media while they learned to develop thematic ideas in their art. It would also allow freedom for juniors and seniors to choose the classes in the various disciplines they wanted. Above all, emphasize conceptual development over rote learning practices – intellectual exploration over set academic paths.
Students were to have the school’s wide range of faculty and facility resources at their disposal when they were young. Later in the curriculum, after experience working with a variety of media and developing their own conceptual tendencies and ideas, they could take advantage of relative freedom and openness later. For each student, the program would culminate in a year-long project – the Integrative Project, which would be developed, created and completed over two semesters of six-credit independent study during senior year. A sizeable donation from alum Penny Stamps also created individual studios for each senior to work on IPs in the Art and Architecture building.
The change was to take effect with the new Art and Design undergraduates entering the first semester of the 2002 school year. After a four-year transitional period – after students who had entered the school under the old curriculum had graduated – the linear arrangement of courses into disciplines under the old curriculum would be a faint memory. The fact that the school once offered majors within the Bachelor of Fine Arts program would be nearly forgotten.
Rogers and Schmidt had both worked at Carnegie-Mellon, when a similar change had occurred. Both anticipated problems; they thought that they were ready for the rocky transition that invariably comes with a change of this magnitude at such a large, prestigious university.
But when the class of 2006 showed up to start the new curriculum, the students who made up the classes of ’03, ’04, and ’05 – who were still following established programs from the “old” curriculum – didn’t just go away. Some of these students were told that the switch wouldn’t affect them negatively, but time proved otherwise.
After a few years, some students under both the new and the old curricula had problems with the transition. Younger students who hadn’t known about the curriculum change when they applied hadn’t anticipated the requirements of the new program. Some saw the relative smattering of information they received in the seven-week Tools, Materials and Processes courses in media like metal, paint, clay and video as pointless because the courses were too short and students couldn’t progress past a relatively basic skill level. Others protested the lack of choice presented in the new curriculum’s first four semesters.
Other students – those who were sophomores and juniors when the new curriculum was put into effect – had problems, too. When courses that students had anticipated taking, courses that were part of specializations that students were following – became scarce to make room for the new curriculum’s courses. And when these students brought what seemed to be very practical problems to the administration, many felt that the administration reassured them without taking steps to create solutions, or that their problems were flatly ignored.
But a lot of students did something about it: They transferred to other schools of the University or to other universities altogether. They banded together and formed groups like the Art Students League and the Society of Art Students. Others formed unofficial groups and attempted to contact deans and other high-ranking University officials to make their positions known. But even though the administration made a few adjustments to work out unanticipated kinks in the curriculum, some students felt their grievances and ideas for improvements were ignored.
At the end of April 2006, the students who have been the “guinea pigs” under the new curriculum will be the first class to graduate under the new program. And while many of the old curriculum students have already graduated, some of those whom the change affected the most are fifth-year seniors, often dual-degree students or students who transferred there during or just before the change occurred.
Now that the transition is almost over and the new curriculum will have been solidly instated, it’s time to ask a few questions.
The administration’s take
Dean Bryan Rogers and Associate Dean Mary Schmidt had a vision for the art school when they cane here from Carnegie Mellon in 2000. The ideology behind many of the changes and improvements the deans planned to make was based on a combination of practicality and conceptual development.
“No 17-year-old should have to choose what they’re going to be when they’re 17 years old, and a curriculum like this gives (students) so many new experiences that – in the first two years, it allows their tendencies to – emerge,” Schmidt explained.
After their sophomore review, students are allowed to choose their own classes “to create a focus that’s not medium-specific, but that’s thematic.” She gave an example of a focus that could be accommodated with the new curriculum: art that concerns social issues. “Where in the old curriculum would that have fit?”
While Schmidt said that she and Rogers that they’d lose some students as they had at CMU, she acknowledged that, “There’s always fallout (with a curriculum change). It was natural that we did (lose students).”
Schmidt also understands that many freshmen in 2002 didn’t realize what they were getting into. “A lot of the students who applied for and were admitted for the class (of 2006) had old information at their high schools and from their friends. They came here feeling like we had baited and switched, and that was a legitimate feeling.”
However, many students didn’t see such understanding from School of Art and Design’s administration when the transition was in progress. Student groups proposed amendments to the curriculum that didn’t fit into the vision that the administration and faculty had worked out together. The administration did make some adjustments – such as creating half-semester studios that met twice a week rather than semester-long studios that meet only once a week – but some students under both the new and old curriculum believe that the administration wasn’t concerned with their problems during the transition.
Still, Schmidt stands behind the new curriculum, and she believes that the adjustments the administration did and didn’t make were for the best. “I think it’s human nature,” Schmidt said of the protests that went on after the switch.
“When you have set in motion plans and you know all the things you want to do and you can only do one at a time, you keep adding them in and you keep moving forward,” Schmidt said of the furor. “You deal with the backlash as it comes, but you keep moving forward. You don’t ever let negative vibes or criticism stop you from moving forward – because you know – that the things you’re doing are the best for the education of the undergraduates.”
The administrative runaround
But how did the change affect the students who were in the old curriculum and lived through the switch?
“I spent two years in the College of Engineering,” said Adamo d’Aristotile, an Art and Design fifth-year senior. “I had always had a love for art, but I never took it as a practical career choice.” D’Aristotile transferred into the school as a part of the new curriculum, but since then, he’s found it increasingly difficult to complete his goal of graduating at the end of the winter 2006 semester.
D’Aristotile began his art classes glad that he had made the transfer from the College of Engineering, but now, the curriculum’s flaws have become more apparent. “The first two years, they don’t prepare you at all for your sophomore review – None of the classes really stress a good work ethic; it’s all very lax, it’s just very laid-back,” he explained. “Some of the classes, they have deadlines, but (in) most of the classes, it’s just like, ‘Get things done when you can.’ “
“For me personally, they could have made the curriculum more adjustable, simply because I’m a transfer student,” he added. Shifts in requirements throughout the past few years have made it more difficult for d’Aristotile’s plans to go smoothly.
While d’Aristotile acknowledged that the variety of media that students work with in the first two years, as well as the practical applications of the work he’s been able to do in graphic design has helped him with his own work, he still experiences difficulty when dealing with the administration.
“What’s happened is a lot of times I’ve kind of gotten the runaround,” he said. “Every time I’ve approached them about something, I’m constantly going from one person to the next to the next.”
Amy Wahlfield, an LSA and Art and Design fifth-year senior who transferred from the Residential College under the old curriculum, echoes d’Aristotile’s sentiments about the administration.
“People would try to contact (Dean Rogers) – and no one could ever get an appointment with the dean,” she said.
A problem that many old-curriculum students experienced was a lack of classes that fit the programs they had been following. When old curriculum classes were replaced with new classes, students would often be shut out from classes they wanted or needed to take. After bringing a scheduling problem to the administration, “I walked out and felt completely tricked,” Wahlfield said. “It really was like they didn’t care about the old curriculum people any more.” While it was sometimes possible for requirements to be waived under difficult circumstances, “at the same time, you didn’t learn anything.”
Wahlfield feels that students had more opportunities to learn applicable skills under the old way. “They’re training people to be starving artists. They’re not giving them any practical skills whatsoever to go out and survive and make a life.”
“In the end, I feel like I came out okay, but only because I fought, like, the entire time,” she explained. “Everything I had to do was a fight; it was a battle. However, you can make it work.”
The new constitution
The transition from one curriculum to the other may not have gone as smoothly as it should have. But now that a few of the kinks have been worked out, how do new-curriculum students feel about the program?
LSA and Art and Design junior Mollie Bates has a unique perspective on the change. As a leader of the University’s chapter of the American Institute of Graphic Arts, Bates has had to deal with student concerns about the curriculum. But she has found a way to make it work for her and provided resources to help other students.
“It’s almost to the point with me and others where it’s like, ‘The transition has been made, things are ok,’ ” she said. While she agrees that “the seniors got a little screwed and the fifth-years definitely did,” Bates is realistic about the switch. “The major changes that (groups like ASL and SAS) were proposing to the curriculum were not feasible. And the deans – have a purpose.”
While Bates believes that the administration has done a lot for students, such as creating the senior studios in which to work on their IPs, she emphasized that personal responsibility is what makes good students in the new curriculum. “You go to art school to learn how to conceptualize, think big, be a leader and have these awesome ideas,” she said. “The whole concept of this school is you’re on your own, make your own way, figure it out for yourself. You’re an adult now; you’re in control of your education; take care of it.”
Art and Design senior Kevin Tudball didn’t realize that the change had been made until he showed up for school in September 2002. “I’m not too disappointed – I was able to get where I needed to go.”
He assessed the positives and negatives of the curriculum change. “With any change, there’s going to be that shakiness,” he said of the adjustments to the curriculum. “There’s always the crossover period. It’s been kinda cool to be part of the process of making it better, and there’s been frustrations, but they’re usually pretty easy to overcome – (The curriculum has) definitely made me better-rounded.”
Art and Design freshman Devon Russell went through two years in LSA before transferring. He has mixed feelings about the variety of media that students are required to sample as freshmen and sophomores.
“It’s pretty rigid, unfortunately. There isn’t a lot you can do, as far as some of the other colleges go,” he said. But “everybody should have a pretty broad understanding of art going into it, not to mention the fact that having a bunch of dilettantes once they graduate isn’t a bad thing…some of it’s irritating, because not everybody likes paint, not everybody likes clay, so it’s hard because you don’t get to always necessarily play to your strengths,” he added.
One student whose work reflects many aspects of the new curriculum is Art and Design senior Lauren Hughes. She’s combining skills she’s learned working with clay, paint and design during the twelve credits she’ll have this year to create her IP, which will consist of religious artwork on clay tiles and an accompanying book.
Although six credits per semester is a lot of work, “I don’t think (the IP) has been too much.” Still, she admitted, “This is all I’m working on – It’s taking up all my time.”
Even if she and her class may have been “guinea pigs” for the new curriculum, Hughes has made the most of it. “I liked taking all those different classes. I wanted to do that; that’s why I came here,” she said.