As an educator, I’m approached by students, alumni, colleagues, administration and outside parties through email…a ton. In fact, a big part of my after hours is spent on replying to all sorts of issues. Some big. Some small. Never anything in between, interestingly enough. But, the big-issue emails are the ones I’m most proud of because they usually provide a platform where I can address a significant issue (or issues) that relate to important matters regarding what this glass thing fully entails.
I see these emails as small essays in the form of correspondence; emails that - should a student of mine ever take interest in this blogspot - provide a teachable moment that happens behind-the-scenes of what's going on in studio and addresses a very real issue within the realm of glass making, glass thinking, glass teaching, and/or glass learning. An indirect form of "mentoring" by example...but in digital space.
I put a lot of care into every thing I do and, although trying to be informative, my secondary intention with these well considered emails is to impress upon my students the power of words and the value in articulating thought through written form. EMAILS THAT KICK ASS are a collection of such correspondence, cut and pasted directly from my Outlook box, but with names changed to protect the guilty...
*Coalesce* is a series of thoughts in conversation with Andrew Page, Editor-in-Chief with Glass Quarterly. He had said that he'd been watching the glass education community come together through shared ideas and correspondence as the field moves to online education. He reached out and asked if I had a few thoughts and insights to share for an upcoming blog piece on what the shift has been like for us here in RIT Glass and our students
This conversation was towards the front end of teaching/learning from quarantine and reflects a genuine optimism about the moment and what's been observed so far. All of which I still believe in (as it is May as I write this introduction)...but a lot has been learned after this experience of remote studio instruction to reveal how to make it better if studios will have to remain closed in the Fall....and, surprisingly, certain things had been discovered that should've been part of the in-class experience along the way already. Perhaps an essay to tackle later on...
The blog that had featured a few of my thoughts can be found here.
1. When did you learn that your classes had to migrate to online only?
I learned of the possibility of the need to create academic instructional continuity on March 4th...hard to believe that it was less than a month ago. I was asked to be part of small, ad-hoc committee of faculty/staff/admin within the College of Art and Design introduced to a possibility of campus closure in early to mid-April and to begin developing strategies in how we might develop plans to see the term through in the event of COVID-19 disrupting the term. It was all hypothetical at that point…and no real sense of urgency to take it super seriously yet. The next few days we all strategized and submitted various templates to HR and various directors in our College.
About a week from that meeting, on March 11th, all RIT employees received an email from our President that things have taken a turn regarding the virus and it would impact the rest of our term’s schedule....which is a lot sooner than the the early to mid-April hypothetical we were strategizing for. Our semester dramatically unraveled over the rest of that week…day by day new emails revealing new and big information about the pandemic’s impact on RIT’s scheduling…and what we were hypothetically brainstorming/preparing for as a potential disruption with maybe 3 weeks of class was, instead, an abrupt reality that would ultimately interfere with half the term left to navigate. All very sudden.
The good news is that this speculative task force I was on helped plant some seeds about what was academically necessary to adhere to for our students to successfully meet all our course learning outcomes. The bad news was that the obligation to re-design an online method of delivering content to our courses/programming came at us a lot quicker than we were expecting; it demanded more of a curricular re-design than we were anticipating; and asked for a turn-around time of re-designing a remote studio course in a much tighter window than anybody would’ve liked.
However, if you ask me, nothing worth doing is done without the element of struggle in play. The RIT Glass faculty rallied together, rolled up our sleeves, and, ultimately, did extraordinary work in figuring this thing out. Aside from me, we had a dream team of Suzanne Peck, Brendan Miller, and Gracia Nash solving this problem out together.
2. Were there any special challenges to create meaningful lessons without hands-on learning, such as introductory or skills-based classes?
A little bit "yes" and a little bit "no." Aside from the obvious reliance on studios, we didn't really identify any other special challenges for us to create meaningful curriculum to a hands-on course without hands-on learning. We're exceptional at adapting our needs with what's available. There's also the fact that we had half a semester of studio experience under our belts before lockdown that we could further contextualize in this remote learning experience...
On one hand, it could easily be argued that each studio course’s stated learning objectives for learning safe and competent material engagement had been fulfilled up to the point where campuses closed. Not to its fullest potential by any stretch of the imagination…nor would any student say that they are satiated by only half a term’s worth of hands-on experience/exploration of material and process. (And…as educators, none of us were either.) However, the course learning objectives that address issues of critical assessment, thinking, and dialogue regarding glass, glass making, and glass ideas were still ripe for the picking in this remote way through various projects that could be done from home…
It was important that the new content be built with student flexibility in mind and that it was applicable to where we left off, what we were working towards, and what the course description and syllabus held us accountable to.
It was also important to create a new approach to our class content that (1.) supported students in fulfilling the current requirements of each course, (2.) that continued to nourish their growth and spark curiosity, (3.) that helped maintain a sense of connection within the student peer group through synchronous engagement online, and (4.) remained compassionate and cognizant that this weird academic shift isn’t just a challenge thrown at us by our administration just for fun, but due to a highly stressful and concerning global pandemic. So standards of excellence in designing a remote approach to our studio instruction certainly had to be measured against circumstances of care and concern for what our students are capable of handling as they face the unsettling mystery of this fucking virus in their personal lives.
So, questions about what is necessary to bring the course to finality without access to a studio became key. Perhaps that’s a "special challenge" in and of itself....the question you asked about in the first place. Especially for programs like ours who host educational experiences in studio to about 80-85 students within a term...students at various points in their development...
For instance, designing a remote strategy of academic instructional continuity to the introductory student calls for an approach that looks and feels a certain way that’s relevant for them; designing a strategy for the intermediate student calls for another approach; and, of course, designing a strategy for the advanced and/or graduating student calls for a different one altogether. In fact, the real bummer of this moment specifically impacts the latter group of student in this scenario...
The disappointment for graduating Seniors and Thesis Grads who will no longer have that thesis exhibition experience they’ve been working so hard towards has been DEVASTATING. Equally heartbreaking for faculty on their behalf, too. Quite honestly, to go back to the original question, if there have been any "special challenges" it has been in figuring out how to develop some sort of alternative to the cancellation of their shows…and in a way that would hopefully have the graduating student maintain some sense of pride and integrity in how the culmination of their educational experience with us wrapped up.
3. What inspired you to reach out to other educators?
I talked casually with a few glass educators on the phone and through email exchanges, but they were more or less social calls with a globally relevant talking point (!). I mostly circled up with my teaching colleagues at RIT (glass and non-glass) to see if there were areas of consistency in what sorts of things we felt convicted to uphold/relinquish in an online approach to teaching a studio-based course.
4. How has the response been so far?
Response by other educators? Seems like a mix.
I line myself (and my online strategies) on the side of studio educators who are navigating the remote learning experience thing with compassion and flexibility in what they designed. And a desire to make sure course content is relevant to the course's overall goals and objectives. Most of us are united in this way. But I’m noticing another group of educators who are making the mistake of amplifying the work load and see this remote learning moment as students having extra “free time” needing to be filled up. And there’s a smaller group of educators making an even bigger mistake who seem to see this as an opportunity to make themselves look just so, so “innovative” to their peers and colleagues in tasking students in frivolous, educationally-irrelevant busy work disguised as remote curriculum genius in a time of crisis. There is a noticeable dog-and-pony element definitely motivating the impulse to "share" what some educators are doing...from what's posted online posting and in Zoom faculty meetings.
5. What have you found most useful about this crowd-sourcing?
I haven’t needed to utilize it, but I like the essence of what it’s aiming to do. The notion of sharing and community through the these crowd-sourcing efforts is not only resonant in this moment, but reminiscent of what the Studio Glass Movement was essentially built on. This seems to be a digital echo of what was essential in our origin story several decades ago.
6. Has this lead to any unexpected collaborations?
No, but I like what the question is introducing. Perhaps next pandemic…!
You know, it’s interesting…I see this inconvenience of translating several weeks of a studio learning experience to an online method of delivery as something comparable to constricted writing practices…of looking for new potential for meaning in the residue of a conventional system dismantled. Once I have the brain space, I might take the time this Summer to assess what new and unforeseen potential this constrictive studio teaching moment had (and still has) to reveal.
And, although I never want to be in this position educationally again, the limitations the pandemic has put upon the notion of the studio learning experience has really opened some doors to what the internet can fully be in service of. It’s quite an extraordinary tool that I’m only now realizing I’ve used at a minimum in my teaching. Aside from the stocks of BlueJeans and Zoom presumably soaring sky-high as a result of this concentrated moment of synchronous college course delivery, the notion of video conferencing and connecting with other programs, artists, and/or art entities (glass or non-glass) as being a regular component in our curriculum seems like a no-brainer now. Same with file sharing by way of Google Drive. These platforms as being simple and effective modes of exchange and crossover were just too obvious for me to notice before they became a mandatory part of the current teaching experience.
7. Do you feel that the various glass degree programs are competitive with one another, and does this collaboration perhaps change the dynamics in any significant way?
I do...and I think even in our most collaborative of spirits there’s always been - and going to be - a competitive edge between various Glass programs. But I don’t see it as unhealthy. Although certainly capable of going down adversarial paths, I think the competitive spirit between our programs is an effective means of bringing out the best in each of us in a call and response sort of way…for programs to see other programs make something happen educationally that ups the game a little bit. And, in turn, those of us that bore witness to whatever the “other program” just did feeling the need to keep pace and respond with something that ups the game a little bit more. I can even see a little of that at play with what’s being put forward in some of these online exchanges between educators that you've referenced earlier.
But, in general, I don’t consider the crowd-sourcing as collaborative as much as I do a communal …an effort to problem solve, share (in all sorts of ways), and make suggestions that others may find useful.
8. What are some things you learned about your own teaching practice as a result of this experience?
It's a good question and we'll all need more time to identify those things.
But one of the first things that comes to mind is related to the video conferencing component of synchronous online teaching. The capabilities of Zoom are revealing some new approaches to group discussion. It's been great to host group critiques from afar and - as folks are responding to the work - other folks are able to type in comments/ideas/thoughts/reactions in the chat feature ...even able to surf the web looking for links to things that seem relevant to the conversation and post them there. At the end of the discussion, the content of that chat bar can be converted into a document that can be emailed afterwards...everybody gets a bouquet of feedback and references to look into further that somehow seems more robust than what's given and received during critiques/conversations in the flesh. So developing thoughts to student work verbally and then also developing thoughts that can be fruitful through chatroom shorthand seems to be a new method of providing feedback in my teaching that I'm really fascinated with.
9. Do you see any new initiatives to collaborate with your colleagues at other programs as a result of this?
Hard to say. Conceptually, yes, it sounds cool and good and fun and enriching and all the positive things program crossover facilitates. But, truthfully, I’m not really thinking much about next academic year at this point. In fact, I hope we have one…
At the moment I’m putting all my energy into seeing this term reach a point of finality for all of our students in a way that looks and feels as educationally fulfilling as it possibly can for them under these remote learning circumstances. And, putting the teaching component of this moment to the side, the administrative duties of managing a Glass program has amplified in ways that have (and still are) exhausting on their own. I haven’t spoken much above about how overwhelming a task it has been to work with our Chair, Dean, and upper Administration to tackle all the bureaucratic aspects of this new academic frontier following a campus-closure. In all honesty, the headaches and hassle of re-designing and launching our educational programming was rigorous enough on its own. But re-learning and re-designing the managerial aspects of the what’s behind the curtain in maintaining a program in one last-minute email request after another from Admin has tripled the amount of work for faculty. The executive duties, processes, and protocols of running a program in this remote way legally (in the eyes of the State) and procedurally (in the eyes of NASAD) is an entirely different animal than what we’re tasked to do as educators…and adds a lot more to the faculty workload on almost a daily basis. So, YES, I see potential for crossover with other programs, but my mind is so, so far away from dwelling on anything that isn’t related to any of the dozens of plates we’re asked to keep spinning in this moment.
10. What has been the feedback from students? What will be the impact on their educational experience of glass?
The student response varies by the level of glass courses they are enrolled in…
The introductory student was mostly curious how any “learning” can possibly continue to happen without being in studio (which we knew would be a thing already…). However, after interacting with them in this first week, some are showing signs of being good sports about what’s been designed for remote learning without the studio. And the others, at worst, will shoot for doing the bare minimum of what’s asked. Both approaches are understandable in this moment… and I’m interested in seeing how they might take to these various assignments over the next few weeks. I anticipate that they might accidentally realize that they enjoy the way in which we’re asking them to contextualize the studio experience from home. If we’re able to get through this (and if we indeed have campuses open by next academic year), this level of student will more than likely repeat the course for credit simply because they enjoyed the studio experience they had so far and want another go at it.
The intermediate student is a mixed bag… strong with duality. These folks are either really interested in what we’re asking of them in these remote learning objectives or significantly disinterested. These are students who we’re asking to connect some theoretical dots to the studio experience they’ve had so far…to pair up their development in making with a development in thinking. These also happen to be students that have a confidence level in their material relationships and a budding artistic identity that lends way to a super strong craving to be in studio…which normally would be great, but, in this moment, some of them view the inability to access studio for the rest of the term as something disruptive to their education/artistic momentum. The stone-cold makers will look back at this moment with a chip on their shoulder. Those who will truly excel following graduation will look back at this moment as being pivotal in their development from glass enthusiast to artist.
And the advanced/graduating student is ultimately accepting of this moment, although heartbroken to finish in this way. They are hungry to converse about the research components of their requirements to graduate…and surprisingly ravenous for synchronous interaction with their faculty and peers. This student group is noticeably unlike the other student groups in that they are at a place of maturity in their work and research…so much so that they want to continue connect their making to bigger conversations within contemporary art through further research prompts and online video meet-ups. None of them are really chomping at the bit to finish their degree in this way, but they are showing a grace and dignity in seeing this semester through even amidst these unfortunate circumstances.
If you don't mind, Andrew, I just have a few more thoughts I'd like to end this chat with that may or may not be useful to you. But I'm thinking a lot about this moment and have just so many big-picture observations popping up as we're moving further and further into this online territory...
Ultimately, it’s clear that everybody is disappointed with how this term has rapidly shifted…how it compromised our hopes and aspirations in finalizing all the work we’ve done together in studio. And, for some, how it also compromised the punctuation mark they wanted their final thesis exhibition to be upon graduating our program. All our students have our full understanding on that front. We’re heartbroken about it, too. But part of our job has been to remind students that the only way to move forward from here is for them to develop ways in making this unsavory circumstance useful for themselves. In fact, this abrupt denial to the standard closing of the semester has allowed us to remind our students that making adjustments in the face of limiting circumstances is perhaps the biggest part of an artist’s job description. We gave them permission to be disappointed, but not to lament...to not let the bummers of this moment interfere with recognizing all the personal transformation that has been happening for each of them during this past term. Even this past year. And for those who are about to graduate, even the past several years. But we're also asking them to not ignore the fact that further transformation is yet to come with what we have designed for them to accomplish in the next few weeks if they allow themselves to be open to it…where ever they might be. It won't be a world-changing educational experience. But it will open essential doors for them walk through as they move on to whatever's next after the Spring has concluded.
I’m proud of the RIT faculty and instructional staff…Susie, Brendan, and Gracia. We did a phenomenal job of accepting and tackling this very bizarre educational challenge. As of yesterday (Friday the 27th), we completed our first week online in the effort to reach a sense of finality within our studio coursework in a variety of remote objectives. Ones that indirectly teach perhaps one of the best lessons the studio has to offer: that an artist is not defined by what one can do, but in how one can adapt. Perhaps surrendering to this piece of wisdom alone is worth the cost of tuition this year …maybe that’s the underlying lesson this moment is gifting us. (Those who are willing to receive it, at least.) In that light, the hope is that our students can open themselves to a broader understanding of what it means to learn about learning in this time of uncertainty and limitation.
Of course, no one is thrilled with the new method of “learning” that many Glass studio programs are currently implementing without having a studio to provide, but I’ve always felt that the essence of the job that the artist is tasked with is to make something meaningful out of any given moment. Whether with things or circumstances. Especially when in less-than-ideal conditions. That’s been the motivating factor for RIT Glass faculty to get to this point over the past two weeks…and if we can get at least a handful of students on board with that very difficult notion by the end of the term, I’ll feel incredibly fulfilled.
Let me know if you’d like to talk further. Keep safe… and stop touching that face (!).
All my best to you and yours right now,