Kerry Skarbakka teaching remotely

When the COVID-19 outbreak caused universities across the country to close campuses and deliver all courses remotely, Oregon State University was exceptionally well-positioned. With an Ecampus program rated fifth in the nation (U.S. News & World Report, 2020) the structure to deliver online learning was well in place and many faculty had experience teaching remotely.

But it’s challenging enough to have to deliver a lecture course remotely. It’s a different challenge to deliver a hands-on, laboratory course that uses special “materials” (instruments, conductor, theatre, stage.) That was the challenge for the School of Arts and Communication in the College of Liberal Arts.

“We asked our faculty to pivot from classroom teaching to remote teaching very quickly,” said Marion Rossi, associate dean of the College of Liberal Arts and interim director of the School of Arts and Communication.

“Over the course of two to three weeks, the restrictions on gathering became tighter and tighter until we finally went from asking for winter finals to be given on line, to remote delivery of the entire spring term, with no access to campus. And that was a very difficult thing to do for many of our arts faculty,” Rossi said.

Faculty in the School of Arts and Communication found themselves faced with unique challenges. How do you teach acting when you can’t produce plays? How do you teach orchestra when ensembles can’t meet and perform together? How can you teach painting or sculpture without studio spaces?

Rossi says it was important not only to do it, but to do it well. Many OSU faculty spent their spring break putting course materials on Canvas, preparing PowerPoint presentations, YouTube videos and learning how to make the most of group meeting software from Zoom and Microsoft. They contacted colleagues in their field, shared ideas and resources, and did a lot of brainstorming, with the goal to maintain the rigor of their programs while completely pivoting to remote teaching.

So while the expectations were high and the timeline was short, the faculty in the School of Arts and Communication tapped into their artistry. They did what they do best. They got creative.

In theatre, faculty were quick to reformat courses to accommodate remote learning using Canvas and Zoom.

Chad Rogers, who teaches scene crafts utilizes YouTube videos about the forest industry in the Pacific Northwest and “How it’s Made” videos to show students how building materials such as plywood and framing lumber are produced. Having recently completed a new back porch addition on his own home, he used the project as an example to teach students how to calculate lineal footage of necessary products and how he saved money by using glulam (glued laminated timber) beams grown and processed in Oregon, rather than clear cedar from Canada.

Since staging a play is not an option, theatre coordinator and instructor Elizabeth Helman has paired each of her directing students with a writer to develop an original radio play that will be rehearsed and eventually produced and published online, as part of a digital Spring One Act Festival for 2020.

In an effort to continue preparation for a bricks and mortar stage production of “The Importance of Being Earnest” next fall, the cast, which has already been selected, will spend this term recording a radio play version, with a plan to collaborate with music technology and New Media Communications students to supply a background score and sound effects. 

“Our priority during this time is finding ways to keep our students actively engaged in making theatre, creatively solving problems and growing as artists,” says Helman.

Teaching and learning orchestra music without the orchestra and conductor being together in the same room proved to be a challenge for Marlan Carlson, director of orchestral studies, who has taught orchestra in the traditional way for more than 50 years. But Carlson’s symphony orchestra course is now being taught through a live stream at the ensemble’s regular rehearsal time on Monday evenings. The curriculum now involves a study of ten milestone symphonic works – one presented and discussed each week. Carlson utilizes rolling scores available on YouTube (an audio recording, with a scrolling bar that follows along on the sheet music) to facilitate teaching and discussion that includes historical, stylistic and compositional analyses. After listening to and examining each work performed by famous and highly respected orchestras and soloists, Carlson has senior members of the orchestra demonstrate from their remote learning space a more historically-oriented interpretation of the same movement. Students learn to note stylistic differences as they do so, and then rehearse and play along with the recordings as part of their own practice time.

“The objective,” says Carlson, “is to encourage students to think for themselves and to interpret and be more adventurous as they develop as musicians and conductors.”

Director of piano studies and professor of piano Rachelle McCabe has turned her living room into a Zoom teaching studio, complete with a professional quality microphone and two cameras set on her piano, to show her hands and the keys from different angles. Students submit to her pre-recorded, private YouTube videos or audio links of their playing which McCabe watches and listens to, and then she gives feedback and teaches at her piano in live time to help students learn and work on their music.

Steven Zielke’s Chamber Choir is studying works by 21st century young composers, most of whom are women. Zielke, director of choral studies, has been setting up live conversations between composers and the choir. It is an opportunity for the choir, many of whom are studying to become music educators and choral conductors themselves, to reflect on the choral texts and how they are set to music. Students are also continuing to work on singing, and submit individual recordings to Zielke for evaluation.

It is tough to teach a conducting seminar without an ensemble to conduct. Since University Chorale cannot meet this term, Zielke and colleague Sandra Babb, pivoted the conducting seminar to a choral repertoire survey class, which is something that has not been offered to undergraduates in the past. The course includes repertoire from genres such as the madrigal, motet, mass, 19th century part songs, oratorio choruses, as well as special topics, such as choral repertoire for the adolescent and changing voice. The class is incorporating live remote guest lecturers including OSU alumna Emily Mercato, assistant professor, University of Utah; Andre Thomas, professor emeritus, Florida State University, Richard Sparks, professor emeritus University of North Texas;  Jonathan Talberg, professor, UC Long Beach, and Babb, assistant professor at Oregon State.

Jazz Band Director Ryan Biesack uses videos and recordings he has generated over the years, as well as recorded music by other artists, to curate content for his ensemble class. A large component of his class is teaching jazz improvisation, so he has made ear training a focus of this term

“By developing our student’s ‘ears’, we can actually strengthen their overall musicianship. So many times in music we get stuck inside the perimeters of the printed sheet, but reading printed music and making music are two different things,” says Biesack.

While it’s not possible for OSU concert bands to meet and rehearse in person as an ensemble, Erik Leung, director of bands, meets regularly with his OSU Wind Ensemble students through Zoom. Working with friends and professional contacts in their field, Leung and athletic bands director Olin Hannum, quickly put together a series for their band students titled “Inside the Musician’s Studio.” The series, scheduled on Tuesdays at noon via Zoom, features a live talk/interview and time for student questions with noted composers, conductors and band directors, from around the U.S. and Canada.

Since guitar instructor Cameron O’Connor arranges most of the music for the OSU guitar ensemble each term, O’Connor used time over spring break to make videos of himself playing each part of the ensemble music and then utilized picture-in-picture video editing to create an “ensemble” of himself performing all the parts together, for his students to practice along with.

In art, painting professor Shelley Jordon has made the pandemic part of her curriculum. Adapting her Painting II class to be called “Concepts; Journal of Confinement – the Pandemic!” Jordon very quickly restructured her syllabus based on a travel journal class that she has taught in Italy, in which student journal entries respond to specific prompts. In addition to being a written document of students’ personal experience during this time, the journals will serve as the inspiration for an independent series of paintings students will complete during the latter half of the term.
 

Painting II journal entry by Erik Ruby
Painting II journal entry by Anna Roth
Painting II journal entry by Ava Menchu

Core studio and painting instructor Anna Fidler made 20 demo videos in her home studio, working through all of the assignments herself in order to test methods of creating art at home using make-shift supplies, such as making black paint from ground charcoal briquettes. Fidler says her students are coming up with new methods and tools to create work from what they have on hand, employing such items as make-up brushes, old tooth brushes and other common household items. Their problem-solving, she says, has been interesting and inspiring.

Fidler has also combined home-schooling with teaching college courses.

“My (10-year old) daughter has become a great cinematographer, assisting me with the filming of all of my demos,” she shared.

Like Fidler, sculpture instructor, Michael Boonstra is teaching students to use alternative materials.

“Rather than try to replicate the studio version of the course, I’m assigning projects that are not media specific and can be done with whatever materials a student has on hand,” Boonstra said.

Boonstra is also incorporating videos from outside sources to teach about the sculpting medium.

To teach his analog darkroom course without students being able to access the darkroom and chemicals was a challenge for Kerry Skarbakka. So he adapted the curriculum to focus on black and white photography. Since most students don’t have access to an analog camera at home, Skarbakka teaches the difference between analog and digital by assigning students to photograph only in black and white, and to limit their shots to the equivalent of a roll of film. Students are allowed a certain number of “rolls” per assignment. This, Skarbakka says, forces the students to set up each shot more carefully, instead of shooting hundreds of digital photos and sorting through to select the best shot.

 Working through a video medium to conduct her video art class has been an “absolute gift,” says arts professor Julia Bradshaw.

“I feel very fortunate. There is opportunity for creativity and new forms of engagement, merely through conducting the class using the video medium,” she said.

Bradshaw located two very helpful Facebook groups where teachers have shared resources and teaching ideas: “Photography Professors,” and “Online Art & Design Studio Instruction in the Age of Social Distancing.” She says the members of both groups have been extremely generous in sharing ideas on how to overcome the available online resources for teaching in their medium.

She was fortunate, too, to have been already in the process of developing a free online textbook for her course: Photography: History, Technology, Culture and Art. With a plan for the textbook to be used for both on campus and Ecampus teaching, Bradshaw has accelerated her work on the materials due to the pandemic.

Of course, in all areas there are bumps and limitations, and adjustments will need to be made along the way.

“I think the greatest challenge is that students did not sign up for an Ecampus course. As an instructor, I need to be flexible in working around the students’ new schedules and challenges that they might have in their living situations, such as shared computers, shared housing, child care or elder care issues,” Bradshaw said.

“My motto for the term is to be kind and to assume that some students may be creating and studying with the smartphone as their only tool,” Bradshaw said.

Skarbakka said that good, natural discussions that would happen in the classroom are sometimes hampered while using Zoom, due to delays caused by the need to use mute buttons, natural background noise cutting in, or everyone awkwardly trying to speak at the same time.

Faculty concurred that flexibility and a sense of humor are definitely needed while teaching and learning in home environments. Dogs bark, internet service can experience lapses, sometimes children, or roommates, or spouses interrupt. But overall Rossi is pleased with how faculty and students have adapted.

“I feel very good about where we are at now. Sure there are some limitations and things we need to tweak and address along the way, but for the most part, our faculty and our students have responded in remarkable ways to a really challenging set of circumstances. For the most part, we’ve got the basics down really well and we are now able to refine and broaden the things we are able to do,” Rossi says.

In addition, Rossi says the College of Liberal Arts is working on innovations to continue to deliver arts programming to the campus and community, in ways that do not require gathering in person, so that people can continue to experience the events they are accustomed to attending.

Already, the 50 year tradition of weekly noon concerts, Music a la Carte, has been reformatted to be presented at noon on Fridays through Facebook Live, on the Music a la Carte Facebook page.

A virtual choir and a virtual choir/instrumental project are in the works.

Bachelor of Fine Arts student exhibitions, scheduled to be hosted in the West Gallery of Fairbanks Hall, are being presented through Facebook and Instagram. Capstone projects in Graphic Design will be shared online.

Theatre’s annual One Act Festival will be an online delivery of radio plays.

And Rossi says there is more programming to come.

“I think some of the changes we are making in terms of online and virtual arts delivery are going to continue to be a necessary part of our world and the ways in which we define community and create community through technology are going to be essential components of our culture, at least over the next two to three years,” Rossi said.

Story by Erin O'Shea Sneller
Photos courtesy of Rachelle McCabe & Philip Humphrey, Shelley Jordon, Kerry Skarbakka