A Different Kind of Community: How one Art History Professor transformed distance learning into a student-centered educational experience

In an announcement to his 250-person survey course on April 2, after UT Austin’s extended spring break in response to an escalating COVID-19 epidemic, Art History Associate Professor Louis Alexander Waldman wrote to his class:

This changed world of online teaching has given your professors unheralded new tools. For instance, you all probably know all about Zoom. And you certainly already know that with Zoom teaching software it is possible for me to turn myself into a potato. 

WELCOME, EVERYONE to the FIRST UT AUSTIN CLASS THAT IS TAUGHT BY A POTATO!  

This new world of online learning is full of magic, isn't it?

For those still unaware, new communications tools such as Zoom that are used prolifically at this moment by institutions of higher education offer individuals an array of customizable video filters: a custom background, a “touch up,” or as Waldman found: a filter transforms the person on a screen into a potato with a face. With that and many a spud pun, Waldman’s Renaissance through Modern Art survey course enthusiastically resumed. 

Your traditional art history survey course would involve a few hundred students brought together in a lecture hall to examine great works of art through a slide presentation and lecture; oftentimes supplemented by group projects, visits to museums and galleries, as well as lectures from visiting scholars. All of which had to be quickly scuttled and transformed into an online course that delivered the semester’s remaining course content when it became clear that the coronavirus pandemic would alter campus plans. As a result, during UT’s extended spring break, Waldman gave himself a challenge: to create an effective distance learning experience that was as content- and contact-rich as possible. At least initially. But Waldman, ever aware of the trap of best-laid plans, soon realized students separated across time zones and those unable to access high-speed Internet would require a more meaningful pivot in his lesson plans toward a more student-centered approach. 

“Having decided to use only tools that would work for students with limited bandwidth, I took a fresh look at how I do PowerPoints,” said Waldman. “If my original mantra had been, Enrich, enrich, enrich, as the days of Spring Break went on it changed to: Simplify, simplify, simplify."

Waldman conducts his virtual and in-person courses with a signature blend of humor and playfulness combined with a deeply serious mission: “to learn about art, to acquire information and ideas, but also a holistic sense of how humanity has been driven to communicate what is important throughout its history. To seek understanding of the reasons why people have made art, which are as diverse as we are.” Each of Waldman’s asynchronous modules, dedicated to chronological periods and movements, unfolds through the integration of related videos, articles, and multimedia into a central PowerPoint deck. For example, a module encompassing “The Reaction to WWI: German Expressionism and Dada” seamlessly combines historical context and formal analysis with a video of Marie Osmond performing Hugo Ball’s Dada poem, “Karawane,” and Hannah Hoch’s movie Cut with the Kitchen Knife

“I enjoy our online presentations as well!”, one of Waldman’s students exclaimed by e-mail after admitting to missing the lectures on campus. “Everything is written in PowerPoint and is very easy to understand. These are really interesting and amazing PowerPoints! Thank you!” 

A core component of Waldman’s online course modules required students to complete short essay responses, often prompting students to both demonstrate that they have mastered key concepts as well as express their own opinion—thoughtfully and through meaningful knowledge of the material. “There is nothing more empowering in teaching than working with opinion,” writes Waldman. “Often we just ask students to repeat back information they’ve learned. Asking a student to formulate an opinion, on the other hand, can be a way of asking them to think about what they’ve learned in a way that’s relevant to their lives, filtered through a process of personal experience, judgment, and intuition.” 

In the last writing response assignment, Waldman asked his students to write to their future selves to give advice about how to look at and analyze art as well as how to understand the period of crisis they are currently living in. Student responses, rooted in an invention of their future as their course material examined the past, exhibited lessons learned during their academic journey over the Spring semester and what they will carry with them long after this moment has passed. 

Letter to future self:
By looking at art, I have learned to appreciate everything, become more analytical, and more engaged in general. Art has given me a glimpse at pain I’ve never experienced and has made me more empathetic. I have learned that art doesn’t have to be pretty and there is no “right way” to do anything. I hope that you come to learn these lessons as well.

As I am writing this, we are living in a pandemic that you most definitely remember. Personally, I feel as though there is a lot of selfishness and selflessness in America right now. I hope that you take this letter as an art-related life lesson because it is always important to choose the selfless, mindful, and empathetic path. However, I am confident that if you continue to express your emotions with your doodles, you will have no trouble choosing that route.
-    Kathleen Monaghan, Freshman Chemistry major
Letter to future self:
By looking at various types of art, I think I have grown to relate more to others. I used to look at art through a critical lens, judging the skill and talent of the artist. Although this is an aspect of art, I have realized that’s simply the surface. Art reflects so much more than the creator’s technique. It embodies their deeper feelings towards life, politics, and social issues. Art is a form of communication combined with visual aesthetic which makes it all the more beautiful. I think I have become more understanding of different art types thus making me more understanding of different types of people. This class engaged me and allowed me to become more empathetic through education. I want you as well to be curious and inspired by the art and unmade art around you.

I feel these emotions of yearning to find deeper meaning in things because the age I am writing this to you is one of superficiality. Social media has placed unrealistic lifestyles and goals on to ordinary people.  Currently, as a college student, I see myself and many others getting influenced by that and going through the motions of school and not truly learning. This year, COVID-19 hit and many of us realized the numbness we were living in trying to be a certain way. Our ignorance to our privileges have been exposed at this time so my goal is to become more intentional with the way I live, the things I learn, the people I surround myself with, and the art I view.
-    Keerthana Duvvuri, Sophomore Biology major

The arts are inherently grounded in connection—communicating ideas, emotion and the history of who we are, where we’ve been and who we hope to become. One outcome of isolation during the pandemic has been the fragmentation of our sense of community. Being apart is causing us to miss the connected nature of life and learning on campus. But Waldman’s course defies this assumption and provides a glimpse into how to build community from a distance. Until “normal” returns, his students have found that sense of connection in his virtual classroom, where responsiveness to students’ concerns, pedagogical innovation, and a passion for art history are all part of a formula for bringing people closer together in this age of social distancing.

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