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Breck Smith on Living as an Artist: Teaching in the Time of COVID

Updated: Aug 24, 2020

Like many artists, I have a day job to support my art addiction. It is university teaching. For over 30 years I was head of the Art Department and just this year I have finally stepped down to just plain old teaching – with its attendant advising, committee meetings, faculty college meetings, faculty orientation, and more time eaters. But I must admit, most of the time I love teaching, too. But since the first lockdowns five months ago, things have changed. I, due to risk factors, obtained permission to teach fully online this fall. My wife, Stephania, is still overjoyed. Or maybe just joyful, not over joyed. In order to be able to do this online I had to take a course in Blackboard, an online teaching platform which from everything I can tell so far was not designed for lab or studio classes or anything that involves hands-on learning as opposed to sitting down learning. I need to be able to have students show me what they are drawing or painting, and then show me the progress of their drawings or paintings during class time. I had initially thought I might be able to do this on Zoom, since in theory the students could simply point their computers or iPads at their easels or drawings and go to work. I would have multiple screens to view, and voila! Problem solved. Not so. The university will not support Zoom.

There are several possible ways students could share subject matter and progress on Blackboard. One is they could upload photos of same onto the Discussion Board. However, I was told that the Discussion Board can only hold so many megabytes, and this method (50+ students uploading 3+ photos per class all term) will likely overload the system. Another choice is to use an “Assignment” function, but so far students are having to go through extensive machinations (15 steps, including getting kicked out of Blackboard entirely and having to log back on) in order to upload one photo. Since they need to send in about 3-4 photos per class, this is exceedingly cumbersome.

In the spring when we went first went online I didn’t use Blackboard, other than for grading. I handled everything via email back and forth. Now that I have had training in using it, I am aware of more features it has, including a communications method called Collaborate. I had hoped to maybe use this to let my students aim their screens at their work and I could watch as they worked, just as I had hoped to do with Zoom. Not happening. Getting screens aimed at work with the right angle and the right light just requires too many contortions. We are exploring the possibility of having students use a separate webcam in addition to their computers or iPads, but for the time being the students are reporting that webcams are sold out everywhere. (Apparently I am not the only person having this sort of problem.) I am also discovering an interesting phenomenon: my students do not want to share their screens or show video so that you can see their faces. Maybe they’re in their jammies in their rooms?

Collaborate is nice in that I can talk to the students directly and personally, instead of via email, plus the rest of the class can get the benefit of any advice if I so choose. Collaborate is also the third method I might use for having students upload their progress and subject matter photos. My wife has been looking this up for me (she used to use Blackboard when she was teaching). Apparently Collaborate will allow students to upload image files of their subject matter and progress, and will also allow me to download these image files that the students have uploaded. I am thinking of organizing them by student, although it may be time consuming and may overload my own computer.

Meantime my colleagues are teaching on campus. Campbell was described earlier this summer by some magazine or newspaper (can’t remember which) as being one of the best prepared schools for students to return in the fall. And they have definitely put work into it. They are doing their utmost to keep residency at one student per room. Since Campbell is a residential university (on the main campus, most students live on campus), this may prove difficult. They have mandated spacing out of classroom seating to safe distances, and in order to accomplish this have devised a variety of class schedules to accommodate the students. In particular, many classes are being split in half, with half attending one day of the week in person and the other half attending the other day (for Tuesday-Thursday classes). All classes are being recorded, so on the days a student is not in the classroom, he or she can watch it online. For Monday-Wednesday-Friday classes the idea is the same, but the scheduling is a little more complicated. Some classes are being taught synchronously (i.e., the teacher meets with all students at the same time, which is what I am doing), and some asynchronously (students work on their own time). There are problems with each approach. Depending on class size, various variations of this model can be employed to ensure social distance. The staff are working very hard at maintaining

“You guys have to realize a party is not life or death, but you

socializing during a COVID outbreak is.”

– Aisha Greene, Duke student

cleanliness. I hope it works. North Carolina State University closed regular classes and has gone fully online already, due to a jump in COVID cases. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has had four cluster outbreaks of COVID. Duke is faring well, but they required students to quarantine for two weeks before coming to school and they are testing like crazy. The biggest problem seems to be parties. I read a quote from a Duke student named Aisha Greene. She said, “You guys have to realize a party is not life or death, but you socializing during a COVID outbreak is.” My wife says she wants to meet this girl.

In our own department I worry about my colleagues who are teaching face to face. For the

Graphic Design professor, the computer lab is small relative to the number of computers in it, and spacing things so that students can be far enough apart will be quite a challenge. In the ceramics and painting studios, when students are going for and putting away supplies, social distancing just can’t be maintained and allow students time to get to their next classes.

It is only the end of the first week, though. I am waiting for word from the Computer Help Desk on their ideas on what I can do to resolve the photo uploading issue. And I am still learning more about Blackboard. Who knows? Maybe someone from the Blackboard company will read this, take pity on me, and make me my own special uploading function. I can always dream.

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