Wednesday, March 10, 2021

How the College of Fine Arts survived—and even thrived—as we redesigned teaching and learning in a pandemic

Illustration of a student working at home on a laptop.

Words by Alicia Dietrich, Mariane Gutierrez and Cami Yates
Illustrations by Misa Yamamoto

Artists are natural problem solvers, but the pandemic of 2020 offered one doozy of a challenge: How do you safely teach disciplines that rely on collaborative, embodied teaching models? Areas of study where in-person teaching is most valued—acting and choral singing, for example—also present the most risk in terms of aerosol transmission of the coronavirus.

How could students possibly learn dance, painting, acting, game design and other areas of study through a Zoom screen? College of Fine Arts faculty members and leadership dug deep into their creative reserves to rise to the challenge and pivoted at a rapid pace to adapt to a whole new world of teaching and learning.

In late March, Dean Doug Dempster appointed Julie Schell to a new role in the College of Fine Arts: assistant dean for instructional continuity and innovation. Schell, who has a palpable passion for teaching pedagogy, dove into the new role with gusto, offering webinars and one-on-one consultations with faculty members from across the college to support them in adapting to teaching through Zoom and creating positive, effective and safe learning experiences for students.

During the fall, the college worked to add more hybrid and in-person opportunities for courses where possible, though more than half of the college’s classes were taught in fully online formats. We share a few snapshots of how different programs across the college adapted to teaching in 2020. 

Jump ahead to vignettes about

An illustration of an Acting student filming a monologue on a cell phone on a tripod.


For actors, human interaction is at the core of their artistic practice. But when the pandemic forced classes to move online, the Acting division worked hard to innovate and create new learning opportunities for students.

To teach storytelling and acting in a pandemic-driven world, Assistant Professor Quetta Carpenter shifted her focus from the rules of the stage to prioritize camera work. She said focusing on the language of film and camera work alongside acting empowered students to become storytellers and allowed for more self-generated artistic expression.

During the fall, Carpenter offered her acting classes in a hybrid format. Five students at a time attended in person, and the rest joined remotely. An external webcam allowed students who joined class online to view those acting in person, and a TV in the classroom allowed in-person students to view their remote peers.

Acting sophomore Carina Ramirez said the in-person sessions allowed her to experience a somewhat normal class after having to log in to Zoom almost every day.

On days when she attended class online, Ramirez said she explored body exercises by taping short films on her own time that would later be shown during virtual class time. By doing this, she and her peers gained filming and editing skills in areas they might not have if classes had not gone virtual.

Carpenter held a session at the beginning of each class in which students discussed their thoughts about issues with assignments, asked questions and spoke about their day. Ramirez said this dialogue kept her grounded and offered consistent communication during a time when that is difficult to find.

For students and faculty members who are used to live performances, switching into a technological medium required some adjustments, but they practiced connecting virtually with partners through screens by imagining a world where performance is virtual.

“The future of art and technology is changing,” Ramirez said. “I’m glad to say there have been some positives about being an Acting student in isolation with just me and my computer.”

— MG

An illustration of a student dancing


What does it mean to be a dance artist without a studio or a stage?

Associate Professor Gesel Mason asks this question of her Dance students, forcing them to think about what it means to have agency over their own training. Without the physical spaces and dance studios they are used to, what does the absence mean for them?

Many students struggled with the lack of space as they danced in their apartments or dorm rooms. Even Mason has had issues with the space she created for herself to teach students online.

“I've hit my ceiling fan a few times,” Mason said. “Even broke a light. One of the things we've been asking the students to do is also to take account of your space. I'm already saying, hey, change your facing so that you can continue to do the dance combination. You have some freedom. I'm giving you and encouraging you to take the freedom to do that.”

Now that they’ve been teaching online for a semester and a half, Associate Professor Leah Cox wonders what it will feel like to return to the studio after she and her students have been dancing in far more stimulating environments this year.

M.F.A. in Dance student Erica Saucedo performed in an ensemble dance piece outdoors at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. Watching that performance made Cox reflect on the scenery, wondering why dance has been limited to a dark stage when it should be about the human experience and the unlimited space dancers have if they put their minds to it.

“I've learned how much we think we need as dancers to do what we do. And how little we actually need,” Cox said. “Everyone just has to dance with where they are and what they've got. And I think it's really good for the form because it teaches us that we don't need the things we needed and that we can reimagine what dance can be and where it can be and how it can be.”

— CY

Photo of a kit with advanced sensors, precision motors and Arduino, an online prototyping platform


As the Department of Arts and Entertainment Technologies (AET) weighed options for teaching formats for this year, they opted to offer all of their courses in an online-only format.

David Cohen, assistant professor of practice in the Game Development and Design Program, team-taught Foundations of AET during the fall. Because students no longer had access to equipment and labs on campus, AET mailed out kits containing a suite of advanced sensors, precision motors and Arduino, an online prototyping platform. The kits served as a tool for robotic learning, where skills such as programming and problem-solving were combined to create engaging experiences and prepare students for future opportunities.

Assistant Professor of Practice MJ Johns’ teaching style adapted along the way. Johns converted the learning environment into a “flipped classroom,” where students watched prerecorded lectures outside of class hours and used class time to ask questions and work on assignments. Johns took advantage of this approach to create games and activities that actively engaged students.

Cohen said that with the lack of human interaction, he needed to prioritize community building in his classes. He used the chat feature on Canvas for students to provide feedback to one another, share tips about computer issues or just have conversations. Despite the struggles, students and professors found ways to make remote learning work.

“It is wonderful to see how students are ready and willing to help and support one another,” Cohen said. “This transition has opened my eyes to the potential and benefits of online learning.”

— MG


Studio Art offered more in-person instruction options than any other division in the college during the fall, but that also meant instructors had to be especially nimble in their instruction mode as COVID-19 cases came and went in the student population.

While many Studio Art classes have taken advantage of the open lawn spaces near the Art Building for en plein air drawing and painting sessions, Associate Professor of Practice Megan Hildebrandt organized sketching meetups at Mount Bonnell and Lady Bird Lake for her hybrid Core Drawing class of first-year students. Between online sessions, Hildebrandt also invited the students into the studio in small, socially distanced groups for a live figure drawing assignment that would have been impossible to replicate over a flat Zoom screen.

In one class, she asked students to each bring a piece of fruit or vegetable to the studio to create a life-like drawing. She then had the students set up a banquet table with their produce so they could observe and sketch the offerings as the food decayed over time.

“So we had this whole plan, and we had one day of drawing it. But then one of the kids got COVID, and I had to come back three weeks later and clean up this disgusting, rotting mess,” said Hildebrandt, with a laugh.

Lecturer Katy McCarthy taught all of her classes in an online format, and she also spearheaded a virtual translation of “Halls & Walls,” a pinup space in the Art Building that normally displays student works along the corridors. Using software skills in Unity and Blender, she collaborated with a group of students to build virtual gallery spaces online where users can navigate through the spaces using their computer keyboards to view student works on the walls.

For an early assignment in her hybrid Core 3D class, Professor Beili Liu chose cardboard, a material easily accessible to students learning remotely. The students were asked to transform cardboard into something exciting both visually and physically, a process Liu calls "breathing magic into the mundane."

With an assignment like this, Liu said, “There is a directness. It is encouraging, especially for first-year students. They get their hands into a simple material and quickly realize, ‘Oh, I can make use of anything to create. I can transform any basic and commonplace material,’ and it is exciting and just magical.”

— AD

An illustration of two violins metaphorically connected by a string.


Where there’s a Will, there’s a way.

This is the name of the chamber community seminar that William Fedkenheuer, associate professor of practice in Violin, taught during the fall. While the title is a play on his name, the course aims to help chamber music students explore a diverse array of career pathways open to them.

“The intent with the course was to tackle larger issues that I see a lot,” Fedkenheuer said. “As music students, we see fairly defined paths. The course focused on how musicians show up in the real world.”

Fedkenheuer created the course after the pandemic hit for the fall semester. It replaced the chamber music course in which student musicians would rehearse and perform together in small ensembles.

Olivia McCartney, a graduate student pursuing an M.M. in Oboe Performance, said that this class wouldn’t have existed without the pandemic.

“The class is nothing like chamber music in person. We aren’t making music,” McCartney said. “But I don’t think I would have gotten to hear so many prominent people speak about how they got to where they are in their careers without this class.”

The course also helps students realize that it is OK to forgive and love oneself during a time of uncertainty. Violin Performance junior Dongsub Jeoung expressed how Fedkenheuer has greatly helped with his mental health.

“He has taught me how to address and be clear about how I'm feeling at the moment,” Jeoung said. “We were able to explore together the solutions to help us stay creative and have those experiences be much more enjoyable as a result.”

Many of his students struggled with motivation to keep playing when they could no longer meet in person, and Fedkenheuer’s biggest piece of advice to students is to just get started. “Starting often is the biggest first step,” he said. “Once you get that instrument out, or once you get that book out about music theory or music history, and start diving in, that, in itself, can automatically connect you to something, to a part of your spirit.”

— CY


Be flexible. Be generous.

Department of Design Chair Kate Canales shared these guiding principles with her faculty and students as they all scrambled to transition to online learning last spring. The department opted to offer all classes this year in either an online-only format or in a hybrid format, with optional in-person experiences.

Design is, by nature, a hands-on and collaborative discipline, and the Design faculty worked hard to adapt collaborative exercises to a digital space, using new digital tools and software such as Miro to replicate the common experience of gathering around a white board with Post-its and Sharpies.

In Assistant Professor of Practice Kelcey Gray’s Typography I class, she collaborated with design lab manager Henry Smith to give a virtual letterpress demonstration from the Design Lab over Zoom. In the demo, she and Smith printed with different letter forms from the Rob Roy Kelly American Wood Type Collection, while sharing digital equivalents of the typefaces that students could download online to build their own versions in InDesign.

“I wanted my students to understand and appreciate the context and history of typefaces,” said Gray. “I also wanted them to understand the immediacy of contemporary design software, which is in extreme contrast to the practice of hand-printing type. For example, if you wanted to change point size, you had to open an entirely different drawer of little wooden or metal letters. If you wanted an italic, that’s another drawer. What used to occupy cabinets and rooms and buildings now fits on a desktop.”

Gray and Smith worked with the students to design and print a crowdsourced poster, with a mix of different typefaces and phrases selected via voting in the Zoom chat box. The final poster’s message? Give me a truth before night falls.

In Assistant Professor of Practice Jose Perez’s 3D design courses, he’s adapted to losing access to the department’s fabrication spaces. He introduced his students virtually to the digital fabrication lab by using 3D software to create new three-dimensional mockups of tools to explain their capabilities and how they work. 

“I’ve had to return to the basics of product design and low-fidelity prototyping,” said Perez. “Students are using readily available materials such as cardboard packaging from Amazon or leftover cereal boxes. Students learn a lot from making with their hands, and I teach them not to be dependent on tools they may not consistently have access to.”

Regardless of materials, Perez makes sure his students understand that the design process stays the same: research, 2D and 3D sketching and a multistep process for prototyping and fabrication.

— AD

An illustration of a student participating in a Zoom call at home.


As faculty members in the UTeach Fine Arts program transitioned their classes online, they knew it created an important teachable moment for their students: future teachers in visual art, dance, theatre and music.

“It's become pretty clear that our students need to know how to teach virtually as well,” said Associate Dean of UTeach Fine Arts Roxanne Schroeder-Arce.

As Schroeder-Arce observed her own teenage daughter’s online classes, she was dismayed to see how little interaction and embodied learning were included in those classes.

“Something that we all have in common in our disciplines in the College of Fine Arts is the idea that the arts are about connecting,” said Schroeder-Arce. “Art is about expression, and in a pandemic when we're all having so many feelings, our students need opportunities to connect and express themselves and to think about what's going on. The arts can really help with that.”

So she and other faculty members in the college worked diligently to model embodied learning methods for their UTeach Fine Arts students. In one exercise, as students entered the Zoom room for class, Schroeder-Arce played music in the background as she moved her arms and body. Students knew from previous classes that their job was to mirror their professor, and seeing a grid of Zoom boxes with students making the same movement turned out to be a uniting force for the students in the class, creating a sense of connection, even in a virtual space.

On top of scrambling to transition their own classes online last spring, the UTeach Fine Arts faculty members had to grapple with an added wrinkle for their student teachers in their final semester. With strict requirements from the Texas Education Agency (TEA) in place for how many hours a student teacher must teach in a physical classroom to earn a teaching certification, what would happen to all the student teachers who had been sent home when school districts shut down their in-person classes?

The TEA ultimately did relax the rules to ensure student teachers could complete their teacher certification requirements last spring, and Schroeder-Arce and other UTeach Fine Arts faculty members continue to advocate on behalf of students to make sure that the unique needs of arts teachers are addressed in the agency’s policy changes.

Ultimately, Schroeder-Arce hopes that students can look back on their experience from this year and see how it made them more creative, more adaptable educators.

“I know that eventually, with reflection, it’s going to be incredibly meaningful for our future fine arts teachers to have been going through this program right when the pandemic hit.”

– AD

Back to top