S2E20 – Virtual Speaks Volumes

Artists are trained to look, to examine the world from different perspectives, to notice the smallest detail and appreciate the big picture. Maybe that’s why sculptor, installation artist, and Professor of Art and Design, Rebecca Hutchinson, saw that it was entirely possible to teach studio arts, including ceramics, in a virtual classroom… and to recognize this opportunity for expanding her learner audience a decade before a global pandemic demanded higher ed faculty see online instruction through a different lens.

 

Rebecca teaches using a collage of instructional formats and technologies that allow her to connect with learners, and facilitates their connection to each other.  By combining asynchronous communication and sharing, real-time activities to build observation and resourcefulness skills, virtual co-working periods for project development, and one-on-one weekly mentoring sessions, students in Rebecca’s class may be geographically distributed but they’re not creating in isolation.

I’m demonstrating online how to physically make, teaching from my studio to theirs. I’ve learned that’s a really special connection. #highered #onlineteaching #virtualclassroom

TRANSCRIPT

KIERAN: Hello, I’m Kieran Lindsey…

DAN: … I’m Dan Marcucci, and this is Wired Ivy.  We have combined 20 years of experience in the virtual classroom.

KIERAN: Dan lives in Pennsylvania, I live in Missouri, and we work for a university in Virginia. As part of a geographically distributed team we know from personal experience that online faculty and staff benefit from having access to their peers.

DAN: You may have been teaching online for a long time now or relatively new… you may have been thinking about a move to online or suddenly find yourself doing it… regardless, you are welcome in this virtual salon.  

KIERAN: Our goal is to create a collegial community for real academics working in virtual classrooms… a safe, supportive space where we can learn from one another and share what we’ve figured out.

[MUSIC]

KIERAN: Artists are trained to look, to examine the world from different perspectives, to notice the smallest detail and appreciate the big picture. Maybe that’s why sculptor, installation artist, and Professor of Art and Design, Rebecca Hutchinson, saw that it was entirely possible to teach studio arts, including ceramics, in a virtual classroom… and to recognize this opportunity for expanding her learner audience a decade before a global pandemic demanded higher ed faculty see online instruction through a different lens. 

Rebecca teaches using a collage of instructional formats and technologies that allow her to connect with learners, and facilitates their connection to each other.  By combining asynchronous communication and sharing, real-time activities to build observation and resourcefulness skills, virtual co-working periods for project development, and one-on-one weekly mentoring sessions, students in Rebecca’s class may be geographically distributed but they’re not creating in isolation.

Are you striving to design an artful online learning experience for your students? Then you’ll want to bookmark our website, wiredivy.org, to more easily access show notes, transcripts, guest bios, and links to referenced resources. While you’re there, you can leave us a message, ask questions, suggest topics, and subscribe to the Wired Ivy newsletter to receive an email alert each time a new episode drops. 

Now it’s time to roll up our sleeves…

[sculptor’s chisel]

…and make something happen!

[Transition]

DAN: Wired Ivy’s guest today is Rebecca Hutchinson. Rebecca is a ceramic artist who has exhibited work around the world. She currently has an exhibit of large sculptures at the Danforth Art Museum in Framingham, Massachusetts. For over 20 years, Rebecca has also served as Professor of Art and Design at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. Rebecca has long experience teaching studio art online, which has only intensified during the pandemic. Rebecca, we’re so excited to have you on Wired Ivy today. Welcome.

REBECCA: Thank you!

KIERAN:  We’ve been looking forward to meeting and speaking with you!

REBECCA: Yeah, good to meet you both. 

DAN: So I, we gotta start in the deep end here and try to figure your life out a little bit. 

REBECCA: Sure.

DAN: You’re a sculptural artist as a creative professional, and then you’re also a university professor. Let’s start with the basics. Your university’s in Massachusetts. Is that where you are now?

REBECCA:  Yes.

DAN:  I know you have a studio in Montana as well. How do you split the time between the two places, or where do you do your teaching from? How does that all work?

REBECCA:  Yes, I am a sculptor and installation artist. I am interested in making large-scale works that are responsive to observation of ecosystems. So I’m actually looking at plant motifs, and plants, and how plants thrive. Conceptually, that kind of roots where my work is coming from, where my research is coming from. 

Large-scale is where the work is the very best. That is both large-scale that can go into domestic and public settings but also I’m doing large-scale museum site installations.  I’m invited to the museum and actually building five, six days on site. 

I am a professor. I love that I’m a maker and that I’m teaching young makers to be makers. I do split my time between the academic year, I’m here on the south coast of Massachusetts teaching in the wonderful historical town of New Bedford at UMass Dartmouth. For the academic calendar I am working with students both remotely, online, as well as face-to-face. I do have a home and studio in Helena, Montana, or near Helena Montana. I’m on the Rocky Mountain front, quite high up in the mountains. The reason that I’m there is I was invited after graduate school to attend a residency at the Archie Bray Foundation. World-renown center for ceramic arts. The work definitely found strong roots there, but also, my husband and I fell in love with the area and we actually bought a property. The academic life has allowed us to move back and forth — being on the East Coast as well as being a part of the Western landscape.

KIERAN: Let’s talk about teaching, because it’s always helpful to get a sense of what it’s like to teach a variety of subjects virtually. Who is your audience–undergrads or graduate students? Do you lecture or do you only teach studio classes? Give us a sense of what your teaching life is like.

REBECCA:  Because I’m having contact with both undergraduate and graduate students, there’s an online component on every level. I actually have a six hour class, every Friday, working with freshman. They are all over the region. For the most part I’m teaching on Zoom but I don’t exclude all, all other formats, to be perfectly honest. I, I’ll have a tutorial on Skype, and they’re moving the camera around their piece, you know, with their phone. 

The freshmen foundations class is so interesting because it’s their first year, it’s their first experience, and they’re developing a visual understanding, a visual literacy. Practicing the basic elements of design. 

But remember, I’m in a component where I’m teaching physically. Actually moving the camera down on my work table. right here, where I’m talking to you from, demonstrating online. So I give a weekly homework in Blackboard format and they know to read an article. They know what we’re going to do that day, but then I’m actually spending intense time with them on the camera, talking to them as a group, 16 to 18 students. And we’re working through cultural supportive information, looking at artists, looking at an article and that we’re getting right down to the making. By late morning, I’m actually demonstrating. I frame it that I’m teaching from my studio to theirs. And I have learned that that is a really special connection.

I tell them I’m in my studio, I’m doing this with you. They’re creating a studio. Perhaps it might be the kitchen table, it might be the shed, it might be the attic room, but they’re carving out a space. They’re developing not only the space to work, but they’re developing a schedule to make, they’re developing the skills to make.

KIERAN:  I find this approach fascinating because it’s so different than my experience when I first started college as a 17 year old art major. The studio was not mine, it was the university’s, or maybe I thought of it as the instructor’s space. I didn’t have my own space. I was the guest. That reinforces the instructor/student hierarchy.

REBECCA:  Having that, that relationship of evenness — I’m in my studio, they’re in their studio.

KIERAN:  Mmmhmm. And even if their space is one table in the attic or out in the shed, you are acknowledging it as a studio, validating it and them as a maker… There’s a mutual respect inherent in that set-up.  I’d imagine there are other challenges and opportunities. They don’t have access to the equipment and tools in the university studio. How do you navigate that with a dispersed set of learners?

REBECCA:  I’m trying to teach them to be resourceful. Okay. So you don’t have that piece of equipment there, but let’s look in the kitchen drawer. Let’s find four tools in the kitchen drawer that are going to be very helpful for you to make this object.  We’re carving out what we need. We’re not seeking it, but we’re looking to see what we can use. So, yes, I think eliminating the hierarchy is so good. I tell them I’m a professional artist.  You’re an emerging professional artist. Let’s talk about how I might solve that, but let’s hear how you might solve that. That’s a very good component with the online remote distance learning. 

KIERAN:  Well, it may not be obvious but when you show up at the formal studio on campus, to do a workshop or a class, your options are limited there, too. It’s a curated space. But by asking them to think creatively about what they have, rather than what they don’t have, you’re encouraging them to get past the idea that they can’t proceed without a walk-in kiln, for example.

REBECCA:  Absolutely. Using their resources is empowering. 

The other thing I really love to do is in the Zoom, I love turning my screen to them.  Like I love the screen-share. I love that! I’ll tell them to go use their phone and take five pictures — quick! — around your surrounding area. You have 45 minutes.  Run around. Take pictures of volumetric forms. I want to see your best examples of volume. And then we’re going to get back on the screen in 45 minutes, please bring your top two images. 

And I turn the screen over to them. They put their images up from their phone and they talk through and they’re in a transparent mode, right? Everybody’s hearing what volume looks like according to their eye. We’re able to engage as a whole group in that sort of transparent way. Turning the screen over is also wonderful method that I’ve learned to get out of the role of control. Let them take that control, and be a part of that responsible learning and sharing.

DAN:  I love this sort of innovative — you make it sound almost casual, I’m sure it is not casual — use of all these new technologies. I mean, you’re talking to them via the Internet. You’re using software such as Zoom to be able to communicate, two ways, not just push things out but, rather, to collaborate two ways. They’ve got their phones they can go use to take pictures and get the pictures uploaded right away. There’s this challenge of being facile with whatever tools or technology is out there to get the job done. And I think that that is a lesson. Right there.

Are your courses, do they tend to be largely synchronous, half synchronous, eight? What’s the blend between synchronous and asynchronous, uh, the way you manage it?

REBECCA:  Yeah, I think generally most things are… well, I’m using every format. 

One of the things I struggled with this freshmen group… I felt concerned about not being, uh, having touch with them when we weren’t together for that six hours. It’s a, it’s a long Friday class but, nonetheless, what happens between Sunday and Friday? Like, what’s going on. So I have also found that I have used Instagram — they know I’m on Instagram cause I’m showing and I share that with them and I tell them instant message me your, your progress. Text me your progress. I want images, midweek. 

There’s also wonderful immediacy about a quick check-in. I’m using every format that they want to use. If they want an email an image, email an image midweek. If they want to text it, text it. If they want to Instagram instant message me, send it.  I give them the thumbs up or the quick response so that they know I’m connected to them through the week as well.

Each class has different needs. So, with the freshmen foundation, it’s synchronous. We’re, we’re together, we’re on Zoom, and, and to be honest, like where, when they’re doing their work sessions, two and a half hours where they’re just building, I have them leave the camera on, and all I do is watch the 16 bubbles. That’s all I do!

KIERAN:  I have a quick technical question. When you tell students to aim their cameras at the piece they’re working on and leave it on… don’t they have to stop what they’re doing? They can’t hold the camera and also work on their piece at the same time, can they? Do you have to provide them with a list of technology requirements for the course on the syllabus? A smartphone and a stand?  How does that work? 

REBECCA:  I tell them they have to have their laptop set up.   

KIERAN:  Oh! I see–they’re using a laptop… and so are you! I get it!

DAN:  Mmmhmm, mmmhmm.

REBECCA:  I don’t interrupt them but I’m looking and watching and then I’ll come back and I’ll say, “If you’re an earshot, you might consider moving the piece down lower at this level because you’ll get more rise on the edge over here. I can interact, but there’s so much observation.DAN  00:00  There’s a whole theme in your life, I can tell, about boundaries and why they exist. I’m not trying to put it in a box, but the way I asked the question kind of was, was putting it in a box. Is it synchronous, is it asynchronous? It’s like, well, it depends on the day, right? Or it depends on the class.

REBECCA:  And what their level is and what I need to get to.

DAN:  Yeah, the learning objectives. I have this vision, if your department hasn’t done it yet, then maybe they need to, like, supply you, where you can send all of your students before the semester starts a GoPro and they can just wear a GoPro on their forehead. 

KIERAN:  Oh, yeah!

DAN:  And you can just see what they’re seeing and see their hand. Have your learners used GoPros yet?

REBECCA:  Yes, but not in the classroom or for the classroom. I mean, my, my graduate students have used GoPros when they’re setting up their installations. They’ll turn it on, capture the whole installation, and crunch it down to, you know, a minute. Definitely it’s happening, but haven’t used it in terms of class experience or classic expectations. That’s a great idea.

DAN:  It would be fun. I mean, my field is, is landscape, so it’s experiential in a different way. Listening to some of the things that you’re talking about with large installations or sculpture makes me think, oh, you know, you could really expand the toolbox for communicating the experience of a landscape better.

KIERAN:  How do your graduate courses different from those freshman fundamentals classes? It’s a somewhat different audience, with different goals? 

REBECCA:  Sure.  The upper level classes are so different because there’s that expectation, as should be, for mastery. I teach a large-scale ceramic class. They have to build three projects the size of their body. And this breaks out all the norms and all the preconceived notions of ceramics, because there’s such cultural baggage that ceramics fits on a table. 

There’s a zillion ways that I show engineering. I use zoom to literally demonstrate in my studio the ways to engineer with the material while giving them lots of freedom of conceptual parameters. I really literally just take the camera and the, the computer and point the camera to my work surface.  Or if I’m working really large scale, I’ll set it in a position and then I work for my demonstration. I may lecture and demo to the whole group…

KIERAN:  Synchronously? 

REBECCA:  Yeah, absolutely. Then I have one-on-one time with each upper level student. Everyone gets 30 minutes of undivided mentorship with me a week.  Their choice… for the remote students it has to be by Skype or Zoom. That’s my connection with them. They’re moving the camera around their piece that they’ve worked on all week. We’re talking about it. We’re talking about where the engineering is failing or where it’s succeeding and what the possibilities are.  The face-to-face students, they can choose whether they want to talk to me on Skype or I hold regular office hours where I actually can be available with them. 

But what’s wonderful about this situation for me is all of a sudden the communication between the groups. Because then I can start pairing the student from Colombia to the student that’s from Fall River. And they’re all of a sudden critiquing each other’s work at midterm and looking at each other’s work and having dialogue. So we are totally flattening the lines in terms of communication. We are totally connecting.

DAN:  Do you find that the students are immediately comfortable with that form of communication? Or do they have to warm up to it a bit?

REBECCA:  No, I think, well, critique generally can be sometimes a little intimidating. I actually teach critiquing. It’s not about judgment of the person. It’s about looking closer at the object. When we have some parameters of healthy critique that usually takes all the intimidation away. 

They’ve already met the remote students because from day one, I’ve introduced everyone together, so we’re on Zoom day one. So they know each other faces and names and they’ve been on every email thread on Blackboard, where their homework assignment comes out.

DAN:  You said that is always posted and worked on through Blackboard.

REBECCA:  I usually use Blackboard. I mean, it could be email or whatever someone’s comfortable with, but I use Blackboard because, you know, I might even put several links to look at artists and so on and so forth. So I do use that format. They’re all consistently receiving the same communication. It’s just their mentorship, whether it’s face-to-face for 30 minutes or whether it’s by Skype for 30 minutes, that’s where there’s difference.

KIERAN:  Do you ever have them record what they’re doing, rather than live stream video? Because recording is only going to become a greater and greater component of how artists present and promote their work in the world, right? I’m guessing the ability to use video–live and recorded, is feeding both your teaching and your visibility as a professional artist, yes?

REBECCA:  Absolutely. I mean, in terms of documentation, that’s a whole other level to teach is documenting well. Like bringing the best light to the work, but also bringing accurate light so that we can actually understand…what is the impetus of this work? What is this intention? Seeing the piece well, helps the viewer understand what that intention is. So recording, taking good photographs, sending the, the photographs. That all has to be a part of teaching this way. Because, again, I’m a sculptor, I’m teaching with materials, and I’m teaching emerging professionals how to use those materials. So it is a visual, visual experience.

DAN:  I’m curious to know what your students’ responses have been to learning online? Are they surprised that that’s how the course is going to be delivered? Are they reluctant? Are they, do they run into it full steam? How’s that work?

REBECCA:  Yes, I felt like the freshmen newbies took a little bit more warm up time. I spent more time sharing and connecting with them at the beginning to really make the bridge. But different kinds of needs from freshmen to say my seniors, and my PBCs, and my MFAs. Complete different needs. But I will tell you, I’m at midterm now. I am already hearing positive things, I’m really enjoying the class. 

The upper level students… completely different. They’re so comfortable with technology. They’re on Instagram all the time. They’re texting each other all the time. I’ve never had anybody say, Oh, I really hated this online format. I don’t have those comments. 

KIERAN:  We’ve definitely heard from guests and colleagues that one big problem with video conferencing is the disappearing student… they login but aren’t really there. They’ve turned off their video camera — and in some cases due to true issues with bandwidth but in other cases students have checked out. The instructor thinks she’s lecturing to a full house but then asks if there are any questions or comments and… dead air. Of course, students do that in a face-to-face classroom, too, especially for lectures. They may appear to be taking notes but they’re answering email, or they actually fall asleep.  Anyway, I doubt that’s a problem in your studio classes, though! 

REBECCA:  Right. For my field that’s less of an issue because there’s much less passive listening to be perfectly honest. So hands on there. So making, and like I said, I’ll have him point the camera right down to their work network space, and I want to see how it’s progressing.  Then I’ll check in with them, last 10 minutes.  Alright, put your camera on. Let me look at the project. Let’s see where you’ve come from. So I can see that there is, you know, there’s actually movement. 

So, Dan, I don’t know, I don’t know that I’ve had a lot of negative feedback. I don’t know that I’m a good person to ask for that because my classes are not huge. I don’t have 50 students in a class. My largest classes are 18.

DAN:  That’s the size of mine. I mean, I think, I think everyone’s experience is valid. I’m I, you know, I’m interested in, in how your students have been responding to the, the structure and the expectations that you clearly embed right up front in the class.

One thing that comes to mind is — Kieran and I have talked about this — we really have a role as a curator of information. We’re setting up a structure of, of themes, of topics. So we’re setting up a structure that the learners really need to come and, and build, and fill out. The other thing is, we’re living in the information age. So there is so much more knowledge out there than I could possibly get my hands on. So there becomes an important part where the student really has to become active very quickly.

KIERAN:  Right. For example, you can ask students to find and share work by artists in their community. Ask them, “Who’s doing work that interests you?” Since the Internet has become a network of information bubbles, we think we’re seeing the entire expanse but we’re only seeing what’s been curated for us by a search engine algorithm. The fact that you can say to students, “Let’s crowdsource this. Why would we limit examples to what I’ve found? Who’s doing exciting work in your community?” Well… everyone in the class, including the instructor, would lose out on that  if you stick to a top-down approach.

REBECCA:  Absolutely. Ultimately, we are refor… reinforcing their strength, their vision, their navigation, and having them choose and be in control and be responsible for their education, being asked to be resourceful, right? 

KIERAN: You know, there’s often stretches of time when university facilities are not used or are under-used, including dorms and teaching laboratories… I assume art studios follow a similar trend. I suspect that, once online reaches a kind of inflection point of acceptance, and as the audience for higher ed keeps moving toward the growing adult learner demographic, universities are going to recognize those spaces for their untapped potential. A way to bridge the in-person and the virtual that is feasible for this population of learners.

REBECCA:  I’m really interested in, like, low-residency components. So I’m already thinking about other certificates that I would like to develop… predominantly remote, but then why couldn’t there be this wonderful two week resident piece to it where they can use the equipment in a specialized way, where they can do something larger than their tabletop at home could provide, where they could take advantage of the university resources for a limited two week time.  I’m really interested in that actually. 

KIERAN:  Rebecca, what’s your online origin story… how you went from, I’m assuming, a much more traditional approach to teaching, both lecture courses and very place-based studio courses. Were you enticed, incentivized? Or maybe pushed into it by a departmental need to grow enrollment?  How did this all unfold? It’s important to ask because everyone shifted so fast, recently, from volunteering, primarily, to being drafted.

REBECCA:  Especially because now we’re all in the mandate to teach online. For me it was by choice. I was never pushed and I was never even asked. I, I did see the resources through the support of the university, if you’d like to initiate an online course, there’s resources here to help you develop it, help you advertise it.  

KIERAN:  You’ve been doing this a while now, online. Right?  When did you get started?

REBECCA:  Ten years ago. I started with a ceramic history course. It felt like the right format for me, because it’s about looking at so many images and cultures around the world. Once I started lining up the immensity of information, I was like, wow, this needs to be available to anyone who has an interest.

And so then I started looking at schools. Okay, who teaches ceramic history? Well, there might only be a dozen schools that are teaching ceramic history and I realized, wow, there’s a special opportunity here. That was so easy to segue into my, my studio classes. So for the last five years I’ve been teaching studio classes, hybrid, or I’m offering just a remote online section.

KIERAN:  Say more, if you would, about the studio courses.

REBECCA:  My large scale class is interesting because it is made up of both UMass Dartmouth students, where I actually do meet with them, and it’s a hybrid situation, but I have invited world students to join that class.  So I have, so to speak, half students remote, half students traditional within the university system. And my remote students… when I started doing this, when I realized that there was interest around the world to take the classes it was a no brainer. I just needed, you know, kind of the format and the permission and the administrative support to go ahead and do that outreach.

And I just literally blend the groups of students, which is fascinating. So I’ll have a student in England, I’ll have a student in Australia, I have a student in Columbia, but they’re in class with the face-to-face traditional university students. 

KIERAN:  The technology had to catch up to make that possible, right? Ten years ago the average person didn’t have a smartphone in their pocket, with a decent camera to take photos, videos, to be able to Skype, to join a Zoom meeting. Have you found your teaching evolves along with the technology, as you see it open up possibilities for you to do more?

REBECCA: Yes, I would say yes, my course 10 years ago looks really different than the way I’m teaching now because it was basically Blackboard.  It was all formatted where all the images were compiled by sections, by chapters, by weeks. We could all go in, we could all view, we could all use discussion, we could all use chat format. I could engage with the students that way. 

DAN:  When that proved successful you initiated a certificate program with the same delivery structure, correct? Tell us about that.

REBECCA:  It’s what we call a PBC, a post-baccalaureate certificate. It’s a one year graduate certificate, nine credits, completely remote. It’s for people around the world that want the graduate experience but can’t move but they have their own studio. And these are people that might be lifetime learners, but also may be lifetime makers that just didn’t have the opportunity for a graduate program. So that really encouraged me to develop that certificate. And that’s been just a win-win. 

KIERAN:  Ok, so you’re doing this phenomenal work bridging the space between your studio and your students’ studios… are you an anomaly in your department, in your college?  Or is this something that has become the norm at UMass Dartmouth? Do you have colleagues who are bringing this same approach to their courses and media?

DAN:  Or if not at your institution possibly colleagues elsewhere, other sculptors, painters, fiber artists… 

REBECCA:  Yeah, that’s interesting. I mean, given, given our pandemic, we’re all teaching online. Whether my colleagues are seeing or using similar language of teaching from my studio to theirs, I don’t know. I haven’t heard that or… I have shared that in, in faculty meetings, but I haven’t found that there’s really a consortium of unity around that. 

KIERAN:  That’s one of the main reasons why Dan and I started at Wired Ivy. So many online educators, even those on a physical campus, often feel kind of isolated. We’ve struggled to find each other and benefit from hearing what others are doing, the way our colleagues often share ideas and struggles over lunch or happy hour. I guarantee, Rebecca, someone is going to hear you talking about teaching sculpture online and they’re going to think, “Well, if she can do that maybe I can do this!” If we don’t have a space to bounce ideas around and see where they land it’s going to take us so much longer to get to the next breakthrough. 

REBECCA:  Yeah. I, I feel like… having taught this way for 10 years, but intensely for the last five years, for remote students. I think I could teach anything remotely now. I’m pretty much convinced that it could be cooking, you know, it could be pretty much anything.  I do know all teachers are gifted in their own way. And I think if we can keep using our strengths, and finding our strengths through the avenue of the technology, then we’re doing really great things with students and for students.

KIERAN:  It’s wonderful to hear you put it that way because we hear how educators feel that their experiences teaching online have made them better at what they do in any teaching space. And what you’re saying, that now you feel you could apply your approach to any subject… that’s why we need these conversations. Most of us who teach at universities have had little to no formal training in how to teach. We’ve been in a lot of classrooms ourselves, though, so we mimic the teaching we observed, as students in a classroom. If we’ve never been online students ourselves we don’t have a template for how to do it. 

REBECCA:  Take your strength of what you do in your teaching and find the right application with the technology. So I know that I’m a good listener. And so I use that format of listening every chance I can, because I can hear them say things that they’re not saying, and I can give it back to them in a little fuller picture so that they can then say to me, “Yes, I agree with this, this, and this. I’m not sure about this.” I reward them for that — excellent, you’re identifying your point of view within all of these parameters.

So just be mindful that we’re not all good at everything. We have to use what we are good at and find the right format. For me, that was using, you know, the Skype and moving the phone cameras around the pieces. Again, we’re not all good at it, you know, everything so we have to use what we are.

KIERAN:  I’m having such a sense of deja vu!  There are so many similarities between what you’re saying you do in a sculpture class, and what our guest in Episode 19, Chastity Warren English from North Carolina, A&T does in her Agricultural Education classes — using cameras so students can demonstrate their work. Completely different disciplines at different universities, but the two of you would be deep in conversation in a second, I’ll bet!

REBECCA:  Fantastic.

KIERAN:  That brings me to a question I’ve been asking all of our guests this season. The work you’re doing, teaching sculpture online, is one example of some of the creativity that educators have brought to their online classes. In part, that’s been fostered by the fact that online instruction has often been left to find it’s own way in higher ed. Now that all eyes on on the virtual classroom I can’t help but wonder what the impact of all that attention will be… greater acceptance? A larger number of courses taught in some hybrid format, once face-to-face is no longer a public health issue? Or a push for greater conformity in course design and delivery to align with the traditional in-person format, which could limit creativity?  I’d love to get your thoughts on that.

REBECCA:  I think that could be true. The pandemic has changed things for us, hasn’t it? The only thing I can think about that, I guess, a possible negative outcome, is if we get too scripted, if we get too over-structured about how remote learning has to be.

KIERAN:  Standardized. Yes, that’s my concern.

REBECCA:  There you go. That, that’s my concern as well. If we can keep in that pioneering avenue, where we can keep bringing our strengths and keep finding ways to use the technology, to utilize the teaching strengths that are present… that would be my hope.

KIERAN:  So in your department, in your experience in the higher ed studio arts, has that always been a more innovative space, a more welcoming space for innovation? Have you been encouraged to be creative about how you deliver courses or have you faced resistance?

REBECCA:  I’ve met every level of response. I have colleagues that feel offended by the remote learning because it doesn’t allow the tactility to be experienced the same way. That’s what I hear anyway. But when I say, “Hey, move your camera down to your hands,” and when they do, then I can feel the way they’re touching the material. I can see how they’re positioning the piece. So I actually work really hard and find connection through that tactility.

But I have her, I have met so many different kinds of responses. You know, the traditionalist saying absolutely not, you cannot teach, weaving online, you cannot have that tactical material experience. 

I, I think until you do it and you have a positive experience, maybe you won’t change your mind. But for me, I haven’t felt that same concern. I haven’t felt that, that a missing link or. You know where I’m robbing something in my curriculum or there’s something missing. I haven’t felt that.

KIERAN:  There’s another aspect of distributed delivery that many on campus don’t see, or don’t see as competitors… which they may come to regret, in my opinion. Because online has allowed other educational options to emerge — everything from Khan Academy for math, science, and history, to SkillShare, which offers courses on drawing, painting, photography, creative writing, etc. Not for college credit, naturally, but that’s not why students enroll. How do you see these online, asynchronous, ready-when-you-are courses impacting your discipline, if at all? 

REBECCA:  Kieran, I love your comment, cause I’m also teaching workshops around the world. I think you are absolutely right. There is just so much independent, non-credit, non-university-related online learning that is about skill-building, is about mastery, is about trade. Very effective and incredible business plans, like, with 110 participants. A four-part seminar bringing in, you know, $64,000 per class. I can give you many, many examples like that.

So there is an incredible business opportunity, entrepreneurship, that’s happening, you know, a long, you know, besides university outside the university. You’re right. I think we have to be smart in higher ed to see that learning can happen in all ways, and that business can be conducted in creative ways.

KIERAN:  I think we’d be wise to recognize there are some career paths where the employer or the client is less worried about credentials and more interested in someone’s ability to demonstrate competence or mastery.  Higher ed has grown accustomed to being the educational gold standard, the credentials gatekeeper. But the Internet is extremely good at dispatching gatekeepers, as we’ve seen in publishing, the news media, music and the performing arts, and to an increasing degree in education. 

REBECCA:  Absolutely, absolutely. When someone comes and applies to the MFA program, and they’ve told me they’ve done four courses on their own, that are non-credit situation, and they were online and they, they sought out the teachers they want, I mean, it’s incredible how people are piecing the pieces together to get where they need to be. And I’m totally supportive of that. 

KIERAN:  That’s a potential unintended consequence of teaching them to be resourceful, right? They’re not going to limit that way of thinking to their studio space… they’re going to apply it to their educational choices as well. You’re releasing the genie from the bottle.  Yeah, say more about the workshops you offer.

REBECCA:  They are basically master classes where I’m hired to come and teach my specialty, whether that’s at a, a university or whether that’s at a nonprofit, whether that’s at a, an art center, it’s, it’s a variety of circumstances. It’s always a wonderful experience, whether it’s three days or five days or two weeks, those are my formats. 

Recently, everything is online. I’ve found a way to adapt to that so that people can still have the information, still have dialogue.  I’ve actually started having an assistant read the chat room, ‘cause I couldn’t keep up with reading the chat room fast enough. That was so brilliant! So she could read the chat room and I could keep answering the questions so that I was utilizing the time really well, because of course I’m demonstrating at the same time.

KIERAN:  We discussed that very logistical issue with our guest in Season 1, Elizabeth Hamin Infield of, interestingly enough, UMass Amherst. The fact that, in the early days of distance learning, it was standard operating procedure to have someone acting as director/producer for a synchronous streaming course… you know, pulling up visuals, monitoring virtual comments and raised hands, while the teacher taught… lectured, mostly.

But as the technology advanced to the point where we can lecture via Zoom from our laptop or tablet, that instructional support went the way of dial-up… even though there’s a really good case to make for keeping it, at least for synchronous courses. It’s not a limitation of the instructor to need that assistant, anymore than it’s a limitation of the instructor to need a camera to teach a synchronous online course. It’s a requirement of the delivery channel, the same way you need seating in a brick-box classroom.

REBECCA:  Right.

DAN:  I heard you say on the studio tour that was recently posted to Vimeo — and for our listeners, we’ll be sure to have the link in the show notes — you kind of characterize the season of, of Covid as a bit of chaos. I’m wondering if you still feel that way? And how that is sort of affecting people’s approach both to art and to learning?  

REBECCA:  Yes, I do think it’s… not for everyone and I don’t want to generalize, but I do think there is chaos. I do think there’s a bit of unhinged-ness, a bit of unanchored feeling. What’s next? The unknown.  What will life be like? Will we be still wearing masks at eight months? How long is Covid going to last? How is this going to change my opportunity to get a show after I graduate? All of these unsettling, unanswered uncertainties.  

Of course. It’s present in the studio, it’s present in learning. I, I tell them all the time, I’m facing the same uncomfort, but I trust that I like what I do every day I wake up. I love what I’m doing, and I know that I’m engaged and, hopefully making beautiful things, hopefully being provocative and working with people that really want to also make beautiful and provocative things. 

Art is about reflecting of our culture. It is about reflecting of what we’re living. So of course that’s present, of course there’s chaos.

KIERAN:  Yeah.

You know, My guess is that even educators who’ve been teaching online… well, if asked “what comes to mind when you think of a subject well-suited to a virtual classroom, I suspect sculpture would not be the first topic that comes to mind, right? 

REBECCA:  Fair enough [laughing].

KIERAN:  Well, Rebecca, I think your approach to teaching this kind of hands-on skill development is going to be, not just eye-opening to listeners, but mind-blowing. So often, we all hear from colleagues or business, industry, the public, that there are subjects you simply cannot teach online. And yet we keep finding examples of people who do teach those subjects. It’s like that old saying about how a bee isn’t aerodynamic enough to fly but the bee doesn’t know that so she just goes ahead and flies. [laughing]

DAN:  I feel that we could continue talking for hours and still have fresh material to talk about. It’s just great having you on Wired Ivy today. Thank you for joining us. And next time I’m up in New Bedford, and there’s not a pandemic, and all those other things…

REBECCA:  You’re more than welcome to stop by the studio or the classroom. It’s been a pleasure. Thank you both, and thank you for your work. 

KIERAN:  This has been wonderful. Thank you for being so generous with your time.

[TRANSITION}

KIERAN: Now we want to hear what you have to say!  Send us your questions, comments, and suggestions.  You can record a voice message, send an email, or leave a comment on our website, wiredivy.org.  And help Wired Ivy grow by sharing, subscribing, rating, and reviewing us on your favorite podcast app.

DAN: Wired Ivy is wholly owned by Kieran Lindsey and Dan Marcucci, and we are solely responsible for its content.   Views expressed in this podcast and affiliated media are those of Kieran, Dan, and our guests, and do not represent Virginia Tech or any other institution.

KIERAN: Our audio engineer is Star Path Images, and a license for our theme music, Breakfast with You, was purchased from SmartSound.

DAN: Until next time, this is Dan Marcucci…

KIERAN: And I’m Kieran Lindsey. 

KIERAN and DAN: Let’s stay connected!


I love the screen-sharing feature in Zoom! Turning the screen over is wonderful. I let them take control and be a part of that responsible learning and sharing #highered #onlineteaching #virtualclassroom

CITATIONS AND REFERENCES

Rebecca Hutchinson’s sculptural work has been shown in diverse venues across the United States, and internationally in countries such as Belgium, Italy, South Korea, and Taiwan. She currently has an exhibit of large sculptures at the Danforth Art Museum in Framingham, Massachusetts. For over 20 years, Rebecca has also served as Professor of Art and Design at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. Rebecca has been a pioneer in online instruction, with more than a decade of experience delivering both lecture and studio art classes using synchronous, asynchronous, hybrid, blended, and 100% online formats. 

Resources:

We welcome your questions, feedback, and suggestions for future episodes. Join our Wired Ivy LinkedIn Group, tweet us @wiredivyor look for the bright blue Talk to Wired Ivy tab on the right side of this screen to leave us a voice message!

What’s wonderful about teaching online is that I can pair a student in Colombia to a student in Fall River. We are totally connecting and flattening the lines in terms of communication. #highered #virtualclassroom

Wired Ivy is wholly owned by Kieran Lindsey and Daniel Marcucci, and we are solely responsible for its content.   Views expressed in this podcast and affiliated media are those of Kieran, Dan, and our guests, and do not represent Virginia Tech or any other institution.  Our audio engineer is Star Path Images, and a license for our theme music, Breakfast with You, was purchased from SmartSound.

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