Arts faculty innovate in wake of transition to remote learning, miss community of in-person classes

From drawing to dance, theatre to music, the arts play an important role in the Tufts community. In addition to student clubs and performance groups, Tufts offers students a space to explore, grow and express themselves artistically through formal instruction.

However, the recent transition to remote learning amid the COVID-19 pandemic has severely impacted arts courses. How do you rehearse a play when your scenemates are scattered around the world and confined to their individual homes?

According to Heather Nathans, chair of the Department of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies, the answer is to evolve. Instead of performing a traditional play, students and professors have worked together to develop alternatives.

“Acting classes, for example, can’t do [multi-partner] scene work at this point because we have folks in different time zones, and of course, we have to be mindful that not everyone has good internet access or computers,” Nathans said. “I think everyone is trying to work with the students in their classes to figure out different creative solutions, like how about you film your monologue on your phone and then we’ll get to see it that way.” 

Individual theatre capstone projects have also had to change their goals. 

“I think every individual project is figuring out how it could continue,” Nathans said. “Some say, can I write a reflection on what I was able to create up to this point? Or, if I’d been going to direct a show, can I do it as a podcast? Can I do it as a radio play? And then how can we [the faculty advisors] evaluate that?”

For dance classes, the solutions are also varied. Renata Celichowska, director of dance, originally held synchronous Zoom classes but quickly changed the format of her course in response to student feedback.

“It seems like a lot of people want a drop-in class, so now I’m planning to do a Zoom meeting that people can drop into,” Celichowska said “I’m not taking attendance, people just come if it’s good for their own sanity and then I’ll record that Zoom meeting. Then students who might not be able to make that particular time can just turn it on and participate as they can.”

Celichowska’s meetings are also in addition to other remote learning materials, such as pre-recorded videos and links to external resources.

Other dance classes are altering their content more significantly.

“Some of the classes are taking advantage of this time to go more theoretical, looking at the aesthetic form of the genre and how it’s developed over time, in addition to perhaps encouraging people to do their warm-ups at home and so forth,” Celichowska said.

Studio art courses, which already often focus on both theory and practice, have also continued to meet remotely. Studio Art Coordinator Patrick Carter holds synchronous Zoom meetings with his class. Students were able to take their materials home, and therefore can continue to work.

However, according to Carter, the learning environment is quite different online. 

“Our work in the studio is quite hands-on,” Carter said. “There’s something very tactile. In a single moment there’s something quite spontaneous that might happen, all sorts of interactive things.”

Such in-person, impromptu interactions can no longer happen due to the transition to remote learning. 

Carter is planning more changes to the class format to try compensate for the lost connection. 

“I may have to break the group down into small groups. That way we can individualize things,” Carter said.

The music department too faces significant struggles because of the move to remote learning. Richard Jankowsky, chair of the Department of Music, said that most courses are still meeting and the music department has worked hard to ensure students have access to instruments at home.

In addition, many music groups held performances right before departing campus.

“Some of our ensembles used their final rehearsal that week as a final performance,” Jankowsky said. “Normally their final performance is a concert at the end of the semester, but they used that final rehearsal as a kind of send-off.”

For example, Tufts Symphony Orchestra used its final rehearsal as a chance to play together one last time. 

“Our orchestra — realizing that even if they attempted to do their rehearsals online, which would be impossible, it would not be the same — decided to play one of the group’s favorite pieces from this year, the Shostakovich Fifth Symphony,” Jankowsky said, referring to Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 in D minor.

The Tufts community showed up to support one another during the final week on campus. When the orchestra held its final performance, people turned out in full force.

“Normally with these rehearsals in Distler [Performance] Hall, there’s a full stage but it’s an empty hall, no one is in the seats,” Jankowsky said. “When I went in there [for the final rehearsal], there must have been 200 students and faculty there listening to this performance. It got a standing ovation at the end and there was not a dry eye in that recital hall.”

Theatre groups also came together in final performances.

“The cast of Sweeney Todd, when they knew it was our last night of rehearsal, they sang through the whole show, just so that they could say, we sang through the whole show,” Nathans said.

The sense of community that each arts discipline cultivates is what arts faculty fear most about losing to remote learning. 

For Carter, being in the studio itself is an important component of the class that’s now missing.

“I think what I miss most is working in the studio and being in that physical space, communal space, because making art in my classes at this point in time is a communal thing,” Carter said.

Face-to-face interactions in art classes are valuable both for the professor to provide immediate feedback and for students to receive help in overcoming artistic obstacles. 

“I miss that inspiring space to encourage people in the moment when they’re discouraged, to make people feel like making a mistake is not a negative thing, it’s a positive thing because you’re human. The studio space makes a lot of sense to students who feel like they’re a little frustrated and they need a little lift or a push in another direction,” Carter said. “One enriching thing about the studio is that environment of curiosity, and that’s one particular thing that I miss.”

Celichowska is now working to try to maintain the community that she had built in her dance classes.

“I’m trying to create our community, to preserve our community, which is I think one of the most valuable aspects of dance in a college setting,”  Celichowska said. “We are communal animals in dance and it has so many benefits.”

Celichowska also believes that continuing classes virtually has positively impacted students.

“I’ve seen a lot of students who are really struggling, and I’ve seen the power of just being together as a community online,”  Celichowska said. “It’s really helping in this instance.”

Nathans echoed this sentiment. 

“What I appreciate is that folks are trying to continue to connect and to make sure that everyone’s okay because it’s such a tight-knit community,” Nathans said “We spend so much time together that it’s weird and disorienting to not be with everyone.”.

The arts, in addition to experiencing strong support from students and faculty, have also been bolstered by administrative assistance. 

“The administration, Nancy Bauer, [dean of the School of the Museum of Fine Arts and dean of academic affairs for Arts and Sciences], everybody is just being so incredibly supportive, and so it’s nice to know that we’re really in it together,” Carter said.

In planning for the transition, the Tufts administration reached out to each department to assess their needs.

“The deans reached out to all the department chairs and asked, ‘What are the opportunities you see? What are some of the challenges you see?’ I think they wanted to be aware before they finalized things so that they knew what they should be prepared to support,” Nathans said.

Nathans cited support from James Glaser, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences.

“We had a great meeting with Dean Glaser,”  Nathans said. “He asked lots of questions, and I know that he took that information into [the deans’] meetings.”

The administration responded by quickly acting to meet each department’s needs.

Nathans, who worked closely with librarians for one of her seminars, has been in contact with them throughout the transition, and the librarians have maintained heavy involvement in her class.

Tufts Technology Services (TTS) has also collaborated with arts faculty to secure different software and technology to aid in their online classes. Nathans expressed gratitude for that support.

“I want to give a shout out to both the library, which has been amazing, and then also to Tufts Technology Services,” Nathans said. “TTS got licenses for different platforms that would normally cost individuals a lot of money. They went ahead and got licenses to a lot of software so that people who needed to finish making film projects like our dance and camera students or [film and media studies] students, would be able to do that without a big cost.” 

Jankowsky has also been working to secure equipment for music students. To continue with some type of instruction, several music courses require that students have keyboards, and so the department bought and shipped keyboards to each student that needed them, even shipping one to a student who returned home to West Africa.

“We had to reach out to many different vendors because some of them couldn’t ship internationally,” Jankowsky said. “We finally found one, but they were in New York and were shutting down in 24 hours.”

The department did manage to obtain and ship a keyboard to that student so that they could continue to participate in the class.

Such resourcefulness has been found throughout the arts departments, and indeed all of Tufts.

“Everybody looked at what resources they had and tried to say, ‘How can I share my resources with somebody that might need them?’” Nathans, who has been very impressed by the kindness and generosity of the Tufts community, said. 

Arts professors are also viewing the sudden shift to remote learning as an opportunity to grow.

“I really looked at this as an opportunity to push my versatility and [comfort with] technological advancements, online and so forth,” Celichowska said. “I do think that this is going to help us continue to take more advantage of what’s out there in terms of remote access and online resources.”

In his studio arts classes, Carter is considering continuing some of his current remote practices — even after the pandemic is over.

“It might be really nice then when everything returns to normal to have an open session on Zoom to invite people to talk, to keep an informal line of communication open rather than email,” Carter said. “You can say, we’ll be open for an optional Zoom session while we’re in the process of something or on break.” 

For Celichowska, the crisis has also made her even more strongly value dance.

“While I recognize what a sobering moment we’re all in, I also recognize that celebrating movement and life and joy is so, so vital, and that’s a way that we can contribute when we participate in dance,” Celichowska said.

And Nathans concurs. 

“That to me is the silver lining, the really passionate determination on the part of all of our Tufts artists, on the part of artists around the world, to say we’re still here. We’re going to make art,” Nathans said.