‘How’s your lab going?’ Students describe digital hands-on classes

Delila Ames/The Miscellany News

Navigating the shift to online learning has proved disorienting and challenging for students and professors everywhere. At schools like Vassar, which emphasizes the importance of community and personal connection in learning, the transition to online classwork can feel even more unnatural.

Some departments found the shift less organic than others—there are not many existing models of virtual teaching for studio art, dance, theater and music. Without a canvas, barre or band in every student’s home, how can they practice? Departments and students alike are struggling with the task of recreating in-person experiences that they depend on to learn. Most students are united in mourning the loss of a semester of college. Even mustering the motivation and focus that school work requires becomes a herculean task, particularly given the level of high performance and engagement that is the norm at Vassar. 

But as a studio art student, the transition to distance learning has been smoother than I expected. When we first received the news that the rest of the semester would be conducted online, I could not fathom how that could possibly work. I had none of my supplies, which cost nearly $200 in the beginning of the year, and had to purchase a smaller collection of materials to work with at home. My art class used to take place twice a week for two hours in the art studio, followed by two assignments to complete over the weekend. Class time was crucial as it consisted of presentations about style and technique followed by the implementation of these in still life and model drawings. The professor offered commentary and suggestions as they made their way around the studio, and student work was presented collectively at the end. Essentially, the course revolved around real-life contact—with professors, models, peers, materials.

The Zoom version of Drawing I: Visual Language feels less unusual than I anticipated. We take photographs of our assignments and upload them to a shared Google Drive where we can access everyone’s work. Class time is spent looking at slides and critiquing. Because of time zone differences, some classes have split into two sessions to make it easier on those who are not located on the East Coast. 

This set-up works fairly well, as we can still talk as a group about each other’s work—yet, all of the valuable in-class drawing time is gone. One of my favorite parts of class was watching everyone hang their work on the wall and take a step back to admire each other’s art, sometimes with audible “oohs” and “aahs.” That quiet, electric reverence is lost on our digital platform. I miss the warmth of the studio and the camaraderie that came from shared struggle and creativity. 

One positive is that because of the lack of materials and resources available to students, we have gained freedom to explore new scales, styles and even media. In order to accomodate the range of resources available to students, assignments are much more flexible and open to interpretation. I happen to have a decent collection of watercolor paints at home and have been taking advantage of the opportunity to use color and paint in a way that I have not yet been able to this year. Other students are taking this opportunity to create animations and draw digitally.

While some of the enchantment that moved students to take art classes has been lost in this virtual shift, art has been versatile and resilient in the face of this crisis. Other fields have not been quite so fortunate. Music courses and organizations are more challenging to move online for a number of reasons. Music, unlike visual art, has to be live, and everyone has to be in sync. There is simply no replacement for real-life rehearsal. Music majors and students who take instrument or voice lessons must substitute pre-recorded memos from accompanists for in-person, synchronous rehearsal and class time. While this is all we have available currently, it poses problems of its own for the accompanist, like being unable to start and stop or slow down or take cues from the soloist. The soloist, on the other hand, is subjected to the whims of the recording. 

As vocalist Helen Johnson ’21 explained, “Usually the accompanist is supposed to follow the vocalist in terms of tempo, dynamics, phrasing, etc., but now we as vocalists have to follow the recording, so we have no artistic license anymore.” Without practice rooms and access to accompanists or performance groups, many students struggle to replicate the experience of learning music and performing in their homes. For those without access to their instruments, it is altogether impossible. Johnson reports feeling less enthused about academia, even creative subjects, than usual: “I have way less motivation and I’m practicing less.”

The prospect of virtual learning didn’t only discourage students; even professors were initially filled with dread and hopelessness. International Studies Program Director Tim Koechlin described his reaction to learning that the remainder of the semester would be online as mournful and frustrated: “My first reaction was shock, and then sadness—that life at Vassar as we know it was not going to continue for a while. I was especially sad to realize that I was unlikely to meet with my students again.” 

Professor and Chair of Dance John Meehan recalled his initial reaction and subsequent reignition of inspiration. “At first it seemed like an impossible task to teach a dance technique class online, as most students would not have available space or a suitable floor to dance on in their homes. We learned that the Juilliard school was canceling all technique classes and at first thought we would follow suit,” he described. “Some faculty members, however, were eager to try to teach remotely and are teaching, via Zoom, classes that move the body but do not travel out in space. Other classes have become research and discussion sessions using the enormous numbers of videos available online to continue to study the finer points of advanced dance technique and performance. Students and faculty alike have responded positively to these sessions.” 

Virtual learning complicates more traditional departments as well, especially STEM classes that depend on hours of lab time each week to provide hands-on experience. Some classes have completely changed their direction to focus on the COVID-19 pandemic, while others have only revised their syllabuses minimally. Describing the revised syllabus of Bioinformatics—a team-taught course that consists of computer science, biology, biochemistry, neuroscience and cognitive science majors—Associate Professor of Biology Jodi Schwarz said in an emailed statement: “The goal of the class is to form collaborative research teams using computer science to tackle biological questions. Around the world, scientists are tackling the COVID pandemic using bioinformatics approaches, so we thought we HAD to jump on this and change our class.”

Lindsey Sample ’20, a Bioinformatics student and neuroscience and cognitive science double major, recounted her experience so far in this class and in STEM departments, as largely positive, demonstrating adaptability and resilience. “One cool thing happening in my Bioinformatics class with Jodi Schwartz and Marc Smith is that we’ve shifted from studying the genome of coral to studying the genome of SARS-CoV-2 [Coronavirus] which is a really cool opportunity and is very motivating to study,” she explained. “It’s easy to be motivated to do something like that because it is so relevant to the real world and what’s on all of our minds right now.” Like many of her peers, Sample also recounted feeling less enthusiastic about school during this crisis: “I have felt a lot less motivated than I typically do at school, I think partly based on the environmental factors, and partly because the future is so uncertain.”

Across the board, sentiments about school work reflect distractedness and apathy. Despite the apparent abundance of time we all now have, most of us are finding it harder and harder to throw ourselves into academia. Some are inspired and grateful for the distraction, but many are finding school demanding, tiresome and laborious. Professors and students must manage personal stresses and widespread concerns while also navigating an unplanned, unique transition to remote learning. We can hope to find solace and distraction in unexpected ways, but there is no doubt that the loss of in-person learning has affected all of us profoundly, silver linings or not.

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