Eight Fine Arts faculty members receive COVID Transformational Online Instruction Contributions Awards

Tuesday, May 11, 2021
Composite photo of headshots of faculty members who received 2021 TONIC Award

From top left, Eli Durst, Tony Edwards, Erica Gionfriddo, Kelcey Gray, MJ Johns, J.E. Johnson, Eric McMaster and Honoria Starbuck were all honored with the 2021 TONIC Award for their teaching innovations during the pandemic.

Eight faculty members in the College of Fine Arts recently received COVID Transformational Online Instruction Contributions (TONIC) Awards from the UT Provost’s Office. The awards acknowledge the impressive efforts of our professional (non-tenure-track) instructional faculty and staff and are intended to reward innovation and excellence through the creation of impressive pedagogical resources, systems or programs for the transformation of online instruction in response to COVID-19.

“I have had the privilege of witnessing these eight College of Fine Arts faculty members, who represent all four of our academic units, using their innate creativity to transform Fine Arts education during the pandemic,” said Julie Schell, assistant dean for instructional continuity and innovation. “The projects are highly original and scale beyond each awardee's individual classroom. Our TONIC Award winners demonstrate that our college is a hotbed of pedagogical innovation in music, art and art history, theatre and dance, and design and creative technologies that will live beyond the pandemic.”
  • Eli Durst
    Assistant Professor of Practice in Studio Art Eli Durst adapted his photography class for an online format. Normally, students make heavy use of the darkroom and digital printing facilities on campus, but Durst and his Photography & Media colleagues created a setup for students in his and other professors’ classes to drop off their film to be developed and scanned by lab technicians. Durst also adapted his pedagogical approaches for an online environment. By utilizing the Zoom breakout rooms feature, Durst saw deeper engagement and more participation in discussions by his students. He also created a series of in-class creative modules with “mini-challenges” for his students that made use of their environment, no matter where they were learning, to be completed during the class period. For example, students were asked to balance household objects on top of one another and photograph it on their iPhone for a sculptural challenge.

    “While previously I might have considered activities like this low stakes, I’ve discovered that fun assignments like this are especially helpful in relieving the stress and zoom-fatigue that many students are currently experiencing,” said Durst. “A year ago, I could not have imagined teaching analog film classes entirely online, but with the support of staff and faculty, pedagogical flexibility, and a little ingenuity, I have developed modules and strategies that will be extremely useful to me even after resuming in person classes.” 
  • Tony Edwards
    Assistant Professor of Practice in Percussion Tony Edwards adapted an existing online platform that was created for the Percussion Studio in the Butler School of Music. The platform was initially created for recruiting and to supplement in-person instruction. When the pandemic forced UT to move in-person classes to online learning, Edwards quickly adapted the platform and added resources to it to support students in a completely remote environment.

    “Not only has the platform been a life saver for our studio during this pandemic, it has also created a sense of community for our studio,” said Edwards. “All students could participate regardless whether they were physically on campus, scattered throughout town, or the country. I am not sure how we would have continued with our responsibilities without it. I feel quite confident we will continue to use it even after the pandemic has finally ended.”
  • Erica Gionfriddo
    Assistant Professor of Practice in Dance Erica Gionfriddo drew upon cyborg, queer and embodiment theories as they adapted classes to an online format and sought out ways to “hack” existing technologies to create better and more human-centered learning experiences for students. This highly original project lent a framework for understanding that engaged students in the difficult topics of intersectionality, identity and inclusion.

    “I believe my transformational contribution in this time has been a philosophical framework in which to navigate our human-techno entanglement” Gionfriddo said. “What I bring forward is not additional technology but rather a comprehensive, experiential methodology for living as a hybrid creature in both physical and digital space.”
  • Kelcey Gray
    Assistant Professor of Practice in Design Kelcey Gray experimented with many new digital tools to find ways to create great learning experiences for her students, from new software to setting up her phone as an extra camera above her workspace to offer a birds-eye view for sketching demos. She reconsidered what materials her students really needed in the class and made adjustments, both to save students money and desktop space since many were working in unusual learning environments. Moreover, Gray organized and led an all-virtual guest artist series for the entire Fine Arts community that served to demonstrate how to decolonize graphic design education.

    “Remember when iCal used to look like a spiral-bound notebook? Eventually, digital designers began to accept that these digital facsimiles just weren’t the same as physical. And thus, they liberated themselves from the attachment of trying to make a digital thing look like a physical thing,” said Gray. “I take a similar approach to teaching design online. I could try to recreate what has, in the past, been a physical or analog practice. But, if that doesn’t serve the student in our current circumstances, why force it, when it could be an opportunity to innovate?”
  • MJ Johns
    Assistant Professor of Practice in Arts and Entertainment Technologies MJ Johns adapted their class for completely remote learning by launching three new initiatives: Johns created an online “Help Forum” where students could submit their questions asynchronously, and either Johns or their fellow students could jump in to answer questions when they were available. Johns also created “Digital Scavenger Hunt” assignments and adapted a VR class so that students could create content using Google Cardboard VR sets using their cell phones when they lost access to expensive VR equipment on campus. MJ also shared these innovations with faculty this summer as part of the American College and University Educators Fellows program and with UT faculty as part of Online Teaching Days.

    “All three of these transformations build community by encouraging student collaboration and giving them opportunities to communicate with each other in different ways,” said Johns. “The Help Forum in particular supports asynchronous interaction and can effectively be used from a phone, which reduces the technology barrier for students coping with issues of computer trouble or poor internet access, and bridges the technical divide. It also benefits students who struggle to keep up with a synchronous session (or who miss class) so they can get help outside of class time. My students have also been using these forums to sync up for study sessions and game nights, and I feel that a true community of learners is developing right before my eyes.”
  • J.E. Johnson
    Theatre and Dance Lecturer and Scenic Studio Supervisor J.E. Johnson was scheduled to teach a class titled Performance Robots in fall 2020, and the class was created to design and build robot characters for a Department of Theatre and Dance production. When classes moved online and the production was canceled due to the pandemic, J.E. and his co-teacher Karen Maness were still on the hook to teach a class about performance robots. They pivoted to partner with Metz Elementary School to co-create internet-connected robots with children. The children designed the robots, and the UT students built the robots using a platform that allowed the children to control them remotely and see the robots performing the commands they gave through a Zoom screen.

    “Performance Robots was not a single transformational contribution,” said Johnson. “This course was the result of a mindset that has been cultivated over many years by facilitating connections between existing faculty, staff and resources and the learning goals of students. This experiential and community-centered approach can be applied to any discipline but it does take time and a willingness to take the leap into the unknown. If this teaching practice can be undertaken amidst the uncertainty and danger of a global pandemic, I’m confident that even greater transformations can be undertaken when faculty and students return to our campus.”
  • Eric McMaster
    Associate Professor of Practice in Studio Art Eric McMaster runs the Fabrication Lab in the Department of Art and Art History. When students went remote, he and his team overhauled their processes to make them accessible, equitable, safe and efficient for students to continue fabricating objects from afar. His team moved to floating software licenses to limit out-of-pocket costs for students, and they allowed students to submit their files that required heavy processing to the lab so they didn’t have to do heavy-duty processing on their older home laptops. This innovation had far-reaching impact across the department and the college.

    “The results have yielded better and quicker comprehension of demonstrated techniques,” said McMaster. “Students can access the software at all times, so they use it more often. The class as a whole is learning at a relatively accelerated rate. In fact, had it not been for canceled classes, we would be ahead about one or two class days compared to previous semesters.”
  • Honoria Starbuck
    Assistant Professor of Practice in Arts and Entertainment Technologies Honoria Starbuck is a working artist with a Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction, and her valuable blend of skills proved to be invaluable to her department. When the pandemic struck, Starbuck put on her student learner hat and engaged with as many professional development opportunities as she could and then brought those learnings back to her colleagues through a blog and a Discord channel. Starbuck consulted with faculty as they worked to articulate learning objectives and to look for new ways to assess online projects.

    “As an artist with two advanced education degrees this dramatic and tragic Covid-19 emergency has provided an opportunity for my combination of passions and skills to be especially useful,” said Starbuck. “Integrating design thinking with instructional design to help my fellow faculty build innovative online learning communities is the highlight of my professional career.”

Most of the TONIC Award recipients will be speaking this week at the 2021 Technology-Enhanced Learning Symposium on May 11–12. Other speakers from the College of Fine Arts include Assistant Dean for Instructional Continuity and Innovation Julie Schell, Associate Dean for UTeach Fine Arts Roxanne Schroeder-Arce and Art History Professor Louis Waldman.

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