Professor, Department of Art
“The devil fools with the best laid plans.”
Nearly 50 years after Neil Young penned lyrics for his controversial song, "Alabama," University at Buffalo educators and students are getting first-hand experience dealing with their own “devil.” Today, the devil is a worldwide pandemic causing the higher education community to adapt in real time to rapidly changing conditions and unanticipated outcomes.
Joan Linder, professor, department of art, has taught drawing to hundreds of students throughout her career. After careful consideration, she opted for a hybrid class model for her Fall 2020 drawing classes. “Because everything that I’ve always done has been hands on and because drawing is a material practice, I thought hybrid would be the best option giving the flexibility to meet in person and remotely,” she explains.
Linder’s plan was to hold the initial class session via Zoom, then move to outdoors on campus as long as the weather permitted. “I thought it would be good for students’ and my own mental health: drawing, not being inside a screen, just sitting outside, being near other people,” she says. Her students overwhelmingly supported the idea of meeting outside to draw and learn in a group setting.
On a picture-perfect late summer day, Linder met her drawing classes on campus. The students sat in a large circle, all with required facial masks. From the first few minutes of class, she realized that the experience was not what she had anticipated.
Even though they were introduced remotely the previous week, Linder couldn’t recognize students with their masks on. Also unexpectedly, she had to “scream at the top of my lungs through a mask” in order to be heard. “After the first week I thought, ‘I’m going to need a bullhorn,’ I didn’t anticipate that. I was hoarse when I came home,” she says.
Linder quickly identified additional difficulties with meeting her classes outdoors. Class scheduling was weather dependent, and sometimes last-minute changes had to be made. In addition, social distancing made student interaction difficult, and students were unable to give and receive feedback with one another as they normally would.
Most importantly, Linder’s health and the health of her students and their families took center stage. “Within a week or so I was getting messages from students saying, ‘I can’t come to class because I don’t feel well’ or ‘I’m quarantining because a roommate or family member has been exposed,’” she says. If the class was meeting outside, what technical capabilities would she need to stream the session for those students unable to come to campus? Would she have to deliver an in-person and a remote version for each class session?
Because of these and other issues, Linder moved to remote classes earlier than she planned, resulting in more—this time, positive—unexpected outcomes. “There are aspects of the mediation of a Zoom that are easier. For example, I did some demonstrations where I was drawing in front of a camera and I was able to articulate to the whole class much more effectively,” she explains. Remote course delivery also inspired her to reorganize and digitize her teaching materials. However, as the semester is wrapping up, she is now needing to re -adjust the rhythm of the class forwhat she perceives as zoom or screen fatigue.
Linder also gained insight into students’ needs through Zoom breakout rooms. “When one day, I heard was a theme of, ‘I really, really miss people.’” That inspired her to organize an in-person visit to the Anderson Gallery on UB’s South Campus.
Linder says, “Students get so much from seeing the actual drawings and discussing them with each other versus looking at jpeg on screen by themselves. Everything is filtered on screen.” Almost everyone in both of her classes attended the gallery visit. With over 8,600 square-feet of gallery space there is plenty of space to accommodate her classes safely. “People are craving contact and connection again. Seeing my students in person gave me so much energy.”
Linder is looking forward to the time when the UB community can return to campus safely but in the meantime, she will continue to use lessons learned from the hybrid course delivery to elevate her teaching. She says, “I’ve come to expect that nothing will work in a way that I’ve experienced it before.”