Pandemic teaching practices bring Fine Arts faculty together through pedagogy

Wednesday, September 1, 2021
A Zoom grid of participants faces, photos and video feeds

Assistant Dean for Instructional Continuity and Innovation Julie Schell leads an online workshop for College of Fine Art faculty members.

By Alicia Dietrich

The global pandemic threw a major wrench in teaching plans for Fine Arts faculty members, but it also brought a silver lining as it connected faculty members with their peers across disciplines who are passionate about teaching and exploring new and innovative ways to teach in arts and design.

When faculty members pivoted to online teaching overnight in March 2020, the need for support for instructional continuity was clear to College of Fine Arts leadership, and learning design expert and Assistant Professor of Practice Julie Schell was appointed into a new role of assistant dean for instructional continuity and innovation. In her new role, Schell has created more than 30 learning modules to support Fine Arts faculty in transitioning to teaching online and hybrid instruction.

“Julie helps us to also grow in our creativity and teaching because creativity and art is different than the creativity of teaching creativity,” said Honoria Starbuck, assistant professor of practice in the Department of Arts and Entertainment Technologies. “Teaching is more like improv, where you have an audience and you can be alone with yourself and be very creative, but you're in front of an audience and being creative in your teaching. That’s where Julie has been supporting us.”

Schell’s new office became a hub that connected arts and design disciplines and brought together faculty members from every department in the college. As faculty members gathered for the virtual teaching workshops, they explored common challenges and shared real-time feedback with one another on how things were going as they tried new technologies and new ways of teaching.

The mission of the office is to mobilize extraordinary arts-based teaching and learning experiences by creating a vibrant, collaborative culture of effective and innovative pedagogy. Schell said that the first strategic priority for the office is to foster and lead a collaborative culture across the college to ensure educational transformation for our students. The office also focuses on transforming teaching and learning and inspiring the next generation of academic artists through graduate teaching initiatives.

“Julie’s office created a new community of people who are really interested in teaching and who want to want to improve and want to get better,” said John Turci-Escobar, assistant dean of undergraduate studies for the college and an assistant professor on instruction in the Butler School of Music.

While all faculty members are experts within their discipline, they were excited to tap into Schell’s specific expertise in the science of learning. Schell said that while interdisciplinary research is quite common in higher education, interdisciplinary teaching—where faculty members are learning from other people in different fields in ways that push their teaching forward—is still quite nascent.

Schell invited graduate students to participate in the workshops as well so that they could have access to pedagogical support and training. These students will have a leg up on the competition in the job market, and their students are also going to benefit dramatically from having people who are teaching based on established approaches in their fields rather than just teaching the way that they were taught, Schell said.

In a college where departments are spread out across five different buildings, the geography can make spontaneous interpersonal communications challenging. Associate Professor of Practice in Design Jon Freach had met his colleagues in the School of Design and Creative Technologies, but as he started attending the training sessions Schell offered, he had an epiphany.

“I started to realize that, ‘Oh yeah, we're all in the same college!’” Freach said. “I started to meet more people from theater and dance, and it's just like a light bulb went on. I realized, ‘This is fine arts, man!’ I have a degree in this. You’re my people, and we're actually not far from each other.”

This summer, Schell launched the inaugural Transformative Teaching in the Arts Summer Institute, with a blend of synchronous and asynchronous modules on topics ranging from creating belonging in your classroom to student motivation. Faculty who joined the sessions earned certificates to document their participation for their promotion and tenure files. Schell saw highly engaged participation, and in the live sessions, she found faculty wanted to linger long past the end of the session to talk shop about teaching.

“When you get someone who teaches bassoon and someone who's teaching 3-D prototyping in design together, sharing ideas about how they support autonomy in their students, or how they create communities of belonging for their students, that's when the sparks really come off,” Schell said. “Serendipity followed by innovation happens through these kinds of interdisciplinary mashups. We start to not just have a community, but we have a community of practice around teaching fine arts that's innovating together and pushing teaching forward. That's really exciting to be part of and to facilitate.”

You can read more about the Office of Instructional Continuity and Innovation on the website or learn tips and tricks for teaching on Schell’s teaching blog, Take5.

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