The student experience amid a pandemic

When the University of Manitoba announced that its fall 2020 term would be conducted remotely, students knew that they were in for many changes. Every faculty had to face, and continues to face, unique challenges regarding remote learning, and the school of art (SoA) is no exception. Like others, SoA students have faced difficulties with remote learning on top of issues with studio courses, course options and an overall reduction in class quality over the term.

Solange Roy, a third-year SoA student, described the term as “successful overall, but very challenging.”

“Two hours and 45 minutes on Zoom is quite the task,” Roy said. “I think the usual schedule needs some revision since the remote way of learning is very different than the normal campus lectures and campus environment.”

Despite the challenges of the semester, Roy noted the effort that went into online teaching. “I appreciate the efforts from the SoA staff to continue our education as undisturbed as possible,” she said.

“[But] the social aspect — or lack thereof — was the biggest obstacle for me.”

Having witnessed the challenges that the fall term brought, it is now up to the SoA to adjust as necessary to better facilitate student learning in the future.

The necessity of on-campus courses

As one of the programs to continue providing in-person classes over the fall term, it became apparent that there were far fewer class options for students than in previous years, particularly studio courses. This change was not unprecedented — with new restrictions on class capacities and building hours being put in place due to COVID-19, a reduction in course offerings was expected — but just how drastically the class options changed came as a surprise to many.

Classes began overlapping with others extensively and were far fewer in numbers overall. This made it more difficult than normal for students to get into classes they need.

Yet this was the least of SoA students’ concerns — access to studio space became the predominant issue that made the term particularly challenging for many.

Shanelle St. Hilaire, a third-year SoA student, expressed disappointment at being unable to take studio courses for this exact reason.

“I expected there to be some issues with the in-person classes possibly being cancelled, the studios not being open for enough hours of the day, possibly not being able to use the studio, [among other things],” she said.

Further, certain studios require tools that make working from home impossible — ceramic courses, for example, require kilns to finish projects. Luckily, this meant that select classes were in-person for the majority of the term.

However, there were changes to the usual order of business for in-person classes, the main one being new building hours put in place to facilitate proper sanitization of spaces.

In many studio course syllabuses, it is often written that professors expect students to put approximately two hours of time into class projects for every one hour in class — for studios that are three hours in length, that comes out to six hours outside of class, which students often actually do require since making art often takes great lengths of time.

Regardless of the uncomfortable adjustments that had to be made in order to attend in-person classes, students and professors alike tackled these changes with enthusiasm.

Students who were able to work on campus for most of the term, including Roy herself, reported feeling mostly safe on campus due to sanitization stations and face-covering requirements and felt that these classes ran smoothly considering the circumstances.

However, for those who did not have the option of attending in-person classes or had their classes moved back online, other issues prevailed.

Hazards of home learning

Many studio courses made the switch to online learning alongside lecture courses for the whole term, meaning that students had to create their own studio spaces at home. This may seem like an easy enough task, but the issue is not so clear-cut — students are often in more than one studio course, requiring much more space to do their schoolwork, and utilize materials that are not meant for use in confined spaces for prolonged periods of time.

Since the average student does not live in a space where they have access to a room solely dedicated to studio practice, many students had to downsize their term projects due to lack of space and access to vital tools and materials.

In addition to this, many artistic mediums — clay, darkroom chemistry and paint thinners, to name just a few — can be harmful when used in spaces that lack proper ventilation, are in close proximity to everyday living spaces and lack the proper vessels to dispose of waste safely. When you consider how much time students must spend on their work, this means that they are spending considerable amounts of time working in less-than-ideal spaces and therefore increasing the chance of any potential negative health effects to materialize in student’s lives.

As necessary as the switch to remote learning has been, there is no denying the impact that this had on not only SoA students and their work but those who live with them as well. Scotland Cook, an SoA student who was painting out of his home’s garage for class, knows this all too well.

“I was inadvertently gassing my whole house with noxious fumes from spray paint,” Cook said. “Even working with the garage door open.”

This impacts the quality of all studio courses. More often than not, studios do not have lectures associated with them — the learning experience from being in these classes comes from being able to see and discuss not only your own work but others’ work as well. This experience, and the relationships that come with it, is essentially impossible to recreate in a Zoom class.

These changes to SoA’s studio classes and their resulting effects have even led some students, like St. Hilaire, to completely avoid taking them this year instead of paying for classes that will not give them the quality of education, experience and access to school facilities that are usually provided.

In fact, studio and lab fees have not been reduced throughout the course of this pandemic despite the fact that the majority of students have no access to the school’s facilities.

Roy’s description of the semester rings true — 2020’s fall term was successful, but ultimately much more challenging than any other term in recent memory at the SoA at the University of Manitoba for a variety of reasons. The efforts of the professors, librarians and rest of the faculty to make the best out of this time should be applauded, but there is considerable room for improvement, which will hopefully take place as we enter 2021.