Open Letter to Incoming Students

On behalf of the Transylvania University Division of Fine Arts, congratulations on your recent graduation! We’re thrilled that you’ve decided to attend Transy this Fall and will be part of our arts-driven community of learners!  

Given the challenges of the past few months, you might have wondered how faculty from various arts programs were able to provide the types of substantive teaching and mentoring that defines the Transylvania experience. To be sure, moving to online teaching was a challenge for faculty, as we value face-to-face conversations and in-person/hands-on learning.  Although we’re planning on an in-person Fall 2020 experience, we’re already integrating much of what we learned — about ourselves as well as our students — throughout this experience so far.

Liberally educated people — and arts-minded people, in particular — are problem solvers. Arts professionals, as well as arts educators, are especially prepared to adapt to challenges via creativity and collaboration. Over the past few weeks, I took the time to interview some colleagues in Music, Theater, Writing/Rhetoric/Communication, and Art and Art History, to learn how they translated their teaching skills into digital practices. What I found was nothing short of inspiring.  

For me, things such as an online Sculpture class might seem impossible. And yet, Prof. Kurt Gohde’s upper-level sculpture class was able to build upon discipline-specific concepts and maintain — and perhaps even extend! — the sense of engagement that Gohde is quite well-known for. Students used synchronous online tools to have a “quilting bee” of sorts — developing and shaping work that they began at the beginning of term. Gohde encouraged students from this class to use video tools, in real time, to help enhance the artistic process: freezing images, zooming in for details, and more. In a different class — focused on video production — Gohde had students create short, imagistic pieces that showed what their own shelter-in-place experiences were like. But perhaps what was more impressive than the artworks themselves (which you can see samples of on YouTube) was the way that these students and faculty created — and, sustained — a real community of art makers, despite physical distance.  

Scott Whiddon is Interim Division Chair of Fine Arts
Kurt Gohde is a Professor of Art
A still from the video students’ work

In a similar manner, Digital Liberal Arts Initiative co-director  Dr. Emily Goodman was able to easily adapt her student-centered teaching style to an online environment for her courses in Art History. Goodman used virtual exhibitions and other already‑existing online materials to help students see her subject matter as something more than mere dates and names. Goodman describes her work as the teaching of visual literacy; students are able to take what they see in a range of art forms and then make careful, thoughtful assertions, based on both their own knowledge and already-ongoing conversations by scholars. Such work helps students develop high-level critical thinking skills. I was particularly impressed with Goodman’s “social distancing meme” assignment, in which students had to explore how classic works of art were incorporated into popular culture.

Chatting with theater faculty members was one of the best parts of this interview project. Prof. Tosha Fowler spoke at length of how she used this shift from in-person to online teaching to help her students get experience in acting-for-camera she incorporated video to help students think carefully about character development and revision. She also invited theater professionals from all over the US for Zoom chats with her students as a way to keep classes energized and engaged.

Students gather online to get experience acting on camera.

In a similar manner, Prof. Daniel Bennett took up the challenge of teaching tech theater students who might not have access to the tools typically used to build and design sets by drawing upon his and his students’ interests in popular culture. His students — supported by online chats with faculty and peers — took on assignments such as designing/building fake food as props, using materials from home.  (see images below) They also took on humanitarian projects, such as safely reorganizing elementary school classroom spaces once the shutdown began.  Each student used phones to document their process and to showcase their products. The program is looking ahead to a variety of possible plans for 2020-21, including digital/interactive performances, radio plays, and original solo performances. 

As a working musician as well as a writer, I was particularly interested in how music faculty maintained their well-respected instruction. My chat with Music Technology Professor (and co-director of our Digital Liberal Arts Initiative) Tim Polashek reminded me of the lengths that our faculty will go to in order to support student learners. Polashek quickly worked to see which digital tools for mixing/production were available online; he also made sure that physical tools that students needed for projects — such  as various mics and studio monitors — were delivered to the homes of students who were working on senior-level projects and who needed technological support. Faculty who taught lessons also used easily accessible digital tools to ensure that students were part of a world-class learning experience — even if such learning took place from a distance.  Along the way, our Digital Liberal Arts faculty, as well as our Information Technology staff, were inspiring in how they responded to student needs. The joy that Polashek and other music faculty bring to their teaching is nothing short of amazing, and you can find samples of music made by students during this transition on Prof. Polashek’s Soundcloud.

Emily Masur ’20

Of course, liberal education is hardly confined to classroom spaces, or even studios or galleries or theaters. Much of what Transy students do in terms of learning and growing is spent in community spaces, or in sharing their intellectual work with others — and none of this was stopped during our Spring transition to online spaces. For example, the Writing, Rhetoric, and Communication program established seven new internship sites — all of which involve safe practices for student learners. Each of these incorporated writing for digital spaces; many involved community outreach — involving groups such as Kentucky Refugee Ministries, the Classical Music Institute/Chamber Orchestra of San Antonio, and Cincinnati Magazine. And right at semester’s end, WRC major Emma Masur was a featured keynote speaker at the online Pedagogicon Conference — a gathering of over 400 educators from across disciplines, all talking about teaching. Emma’s work was incredibly well received by peers and scholars alike; she’s headed off to get her MA this Fall, on a full scholarship.

These are only a few of the stories I collected over the past month. In all of them, I saw a real commitment to maintaining the values of collaboration and community. Students were and are never mere numbers, to be lost in the shuffle. Over and over, faculty told me how they took the time to check in with each individual student on a regular basis — not only about academic matters, but also the stresses that came with such an abrupt shift in life and learning.

As interim division chair, I welcome you to contact me at swhiddon@transy.edu if you have questions about what the upcoming year might look like. If I don’t know the answers, I promise to direct you to someone who does. The creative teaching and individualized mentoring that I learned about from fellow faculty members is a core part of the Transylvania landscape — whether face-to-face, or in digital spaces. We look forward to welcoming you as part of the Class of 2024.

Sincerely,

Dr. Scott Whiddon
Interim Division Chair – Fine Arts
Program Director – Writing, Rhetoric, and Communication
Writing Center Director

Kurt Gohde
Professor of Art