On-campus arts students, professors respond to COVID-19 with resilience

Barnum Hall (left), home of the Film and Media studies program, Granoff Music Center (middle) and the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University (right) are pictured. Nicole Garay, Ann Marie Burke & Seohyun Shim / The Tufts Daily

Disclaimer: Ben Leikind is a contributing writer at The Tufts Daily. He was not involved in the writing or editing of this article.  

It’s been just over a year since COVID-19 shut down Tufts University. Amid the initial pandemic panic, educators and students were forced to quickly adapt to a virtual environment — something especially difficult for the university’s arts groups and programs. The Daily had the chance to speak with multiple professors and students involved in the arts about the transition to online formats.

Film and media studies  

From the film and media studies program, senior Emai Lai and Professor Malcolm Turvey, director of the FMS program, shared their thoughts on the past year and the coming ones. Turvey first reflected on the day that in-person classes were suspended.

First of all, I was pretty sure we were going to be remote for the rest of the semester. Second of all, we were all just trying to work out how to navigate to fully remote instruction,” Turvey said. “I was talking with the faculty of film and media studies about how we were going to do that that was probably the number one concern, given that few of us had done any significant remote teaching before. So that was foremost in my mind — how do you teach effectively online?”   

Turvey spoke to the influence that class size has in providing an engaging virtual experience. 

“I was fortunate to be teaching a seminar. For those kinds of classes, I think we felt it was easier. Larger lecture classes were harder in terms of keeping people engaged,” he said. “Faculty had to [get] up to speed on the technology [and] ensure that students remain engaged in the course. [The] toughest [were] the filmmaking courses, which are hands-on.”

Lai echoed these sentiments, discussing how she is fortunate enough to work on a small set for her senior thesis course project. While many students in senior thesis classes typically work on “production projects,” Lai said, she is the only one in her class to do so this year. She made a short film — with a small cast and crew — and collected footage over winter break. 

“There was a lot of discussing with my professors [and] COVID safety officers about what was possible to have on set,” she said. Her crew was comprised of four people; her cast — just two. 

“We all wore so many different hats on set,” she said. 

Both Lai and Turvey believe the FMS program will return stronger than it was pre-pandemic. Lai focused on the film creation part. 

On the production side of things, I can imagine people being extra excited to be able to write and create their own films, and plan scenes in more exciting locations,” Lai said. “I think people overall will be pretty excited to have the doors open in terms of what kind of stories they can write.” 

Turvey highlighted the 2019 reopening of Barnum Hall, which houses the FMS program, after a year-long renovation. The program was given its own section within the building, which included filmmaking studios and an editing lab. 

“We were just starting to work out how we were going to use all of this … when the pandemic hit,” Turvery said. “We have all of this untapped possibility that, once we’re all back in person again, we’ll be able to take advantage of.”

Student groups

Since the onset of the pandemic, music and live performance have suffered on the Tufts campus. With the advent of the Tufts policy that forbids singing and the playing of brass and wind instruments on campus, student musical groups have had to improvise and find new methods of performance. 

Sophomore Ben Leikind is president of the Tufts street percussion ensemble Bangin’ Everything At Tufts. He said that one of the most difficult aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic for the music group has been the loss of in-person performances, especially their end-of-semester concert at Dewick-MacPhie Dining Center.

Due to Tufts’ initial restrictions on in-person meetings for student groups, Leikind said that BEATs was unable to hold auditions this year because “all [their] songs are original: there is no database where the parts are kept.” Because of that, it would be too difficult to virtually teach the parts to new members.

Leikind clarified that the songwriting process for BEATs is “a very interactive creation process.” Additionally, he mentioned that because of this inability to teach musical parts in person, a few of the group’s classic pieces may need to be retired. While acknowledging this loss, Leikind still feels hopeful for the future and the “new creative opportunities” that the retirement of some of their past songs will open for future instrumentalists. 

Sophomore Liliko Uchida described similar issues that Tuftsall female-identifying a cappella group, the Jackson Jills, have faced. A member of the Jills, Uchida said that she was initially worried about how the group would continue producing music, since their members are scattered across the globe. However, she found that she enjoyed recording some of the songs virtually, from her own home. As a result of Tufts’ policy regarding on-campus singing, the group has been unable to rehearse or perform in person this year. Uchida clarified, however, that her experience over the past year has not been entirely negative.

For example, the Jills started a new buddy system to help include its new members. Uchida said the buddy system “motivates [members] to get to know the new kids in the group and have an incentive to hang out with people,” which has been a struggle for many during the pandemic. Similar to Leikind, Uchida is devastated by the inability to perform in person, but she believes that after restrictions are eased, “the appreciation for those live performances and rehearsals will increase a lot.”

Despite a disappointing year for musical performance at Tufts, many students like Uchida and Leikind were able to find ways to keep their musical groups alive while planning for the future and engaging in virtual performances. This display of resilience, dedication and ingenuity is a comforting indicator that Tufts’ musical groups will continue to survive and thrive through whatever conflicts await them, and hopefully will find themselves performing in some capacity for live audiences very soon. 

The School of the Museum of Fine Arts

Learning remotely is uniquely difficult for art students due to art’s highly interactive and involved process, yet the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts and its students have responded to the pandemic with incredible resilience over the past year. Students often thrive with personal feedback and require the right space, materials and hands-on training to do their work. With all SMFA classes being virtual this year, fourth-year Tufts-SMFA combined-degree student Delilah Roberts reflected on her experience.

 “The naturalness of being in the studio and seeing what everybody else is doing is gone,” she said. “You really make a connection with the professor if they see your work in person.” 

Beyond classes themselves, access to studios and materials has been limited. Studio space can be reserved this year, but some students like Roberts usually “jump around between studios and like [to] use many things at a time.”

Working in high hazard studios where tools require significant safety training is even more difficult. According to welding studio manager Adam “Legs” Cowell, the studio “can’t safely give any new trainings because it takes hours and hours everyone has to be up close.” Just as some students may feel detached from the creation process, Legs misses interacting with students and seeing the progression of their work. “I feel left out,” he said.

Despite this, the SMFA has put massive efforts into innovative solutions. For instance, when students need a specific piece from more intensive shops, they can describe the piece and request the shop to make it for them. Additionally, the SMFA tried shipping huge packages of materials and tools to students during the spring 2020 semester. Although this first approach was unsuccessful, the school transitioned during this academic year to giving SMFA students extra Rhino Bucks, the SMFA equivalent of JumboCash, to spend on supplies.

In addition to administrative perseverance through trial and error, students adapted in creative ways. Roberts responded to having fewer new materials at her disposal by “digging through [her] closets” and recycling old clothing, even using packaging boxes for art projects. In fact, she is currently sewing lingerie out of an old shower curtain. She notes that in addition to creative solutions, the pandemic has also pushed her to be more sustainable.

Legs echoed her sentiment with praise, saying that, to be a successful artist, “you need to be resourceful and resilient.” He explained that, because of the pandemic, artists have to “get [their] brilliant idea across with minimal inputs.” 

And yet, despite the disappointment shared by Roberts and her peers at the anniversary of all these changes, Roberts said, “I feel like I’m in the eye of a hurricane It’s so messed up, the present moment, that I just want to think about the future. And that’s my way of coping with it.” The pandemic has undoubtedly been challenging, but it’s also given her time to reflect on her future goals and put more time into her art. 

Roberts also recognizes the pandemic’s challenges for younger students still finding their niche. However, as an experienced artist she feels COVID-19 has accelerated her artistic growth and allowed for greater resilience in the SMFA culture as a whole. Legs already “feel[s] the energy picking up in the building” again from his position in the welding studio. Students are starting to install their senior thesis projects early this year, which he thinks is the time when “everything kind of coalesces into something awesome,” calling it “inspiring.”

SMFA students and faculty have had to do their fair share of scrambling this year, but it’s fair to say that their efforts have culminated in something amazing.

 


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