Interview with Elizabeth Hutchinson, Associate Professor of American Art History
The semester is quickly coming to a close and we’re interested in your reflections about your courses and how you have maintained instructional continuity.
I’m only teaching one class this semester - a large lecture class - Introduction to Art History. And it’s a new class for me. It’s taught normally by a faculty member who is away. I think right now I have about 118 enrolled students and a bunch of auditors as well, so it’s a very large class and one in which I don’t have personal familiarity with the majority of the students.
It's a new class for me because I don’t actually like teaching large lecture classes. I really like knowing all of my students and I like being able to have discussion during a lecture class which is really hard to do. I’ve done a little bit of pair-share and I certainly lecture in a style where students can stop me and ask questions for clarification. I feed very much off the energy in the room. I can tell when I need to slow down or when people are getting restless. The combination of this being a new class and a large class is making this transition not easy.
Additionally, it’s a Monday-Wednesday class, so because of the campus shut-down for Monday and Tuesday and then the delayed reopening after spring break, we had a huge disruption. The Wednesday before spring break there had been a midterm scheduled and the way I responded - and it may or may not be right, I read something on the Bwog that the undergrads are not happy with faculty who went ahead with their midterms – they thought we were crazy and mean. But I thought there were a lot of people who studied a great deal and to ask them to recall that information later was going to be a challenge. At that point, of course, it wasn’t clear that we weren’t coming back.
I learned how to do an online midterm through Courseworks and I actually created a mock-up single question for the students to practice using Courseworks so they could be ready for the format. I was proud of myself for figuring out how to do this! Some of the students did amazingly on the exam, but most of them did much less well than they would have because it was such a stressful week. But I think my attitude was like let’s put a pin on the first half of the semester, let’s get this done and then we’ll move forward.
What part of the semester was that?
That was Wednesday the 12th of March. We were still very much not really knowing that this was going to be our new reality. And then, you know, I spent the next three days in zoom training sessions. And any student who didn’t feel capable of taking the midterm was given an extension, and we gave a make-up later. We didn’t come back that first week after spring break because of the Monday-Wednesday [schedule]. I communicated with everyone over break. I created a poll in CourseWorks to figure out what time zone they were in now. And I did that for CourseWorks instead of on Google because I heard that my students in Asia can’t access google and I have a large number of visiting students from China and also, I had two self-quarantined students at the beginning of the semester. I was so particularly interested in being welcoming to them: they show up, it’s their first visit to campus and they’re immediately told to go in their room and only eat two meals a day.
There was maybe a dozen or so students that needed either some change in their discussion section or they need to see the recorded lectures. The others could stay in their discussion sections where there was already a community created, which is great. And then I’m on the discussion boards on Canvas one day a week very early and very late in case they want to reach me rather than having office hours at that time just trying to make myself available to the students in remote time zones, which of course are all over the place, from Eastern Europe to Asia.
I’ve converted my lectures to be online which is an immense challenge because I’m home with a small laptop, not particularly great Wi-Fi and no printer. I’m used to walking into a classroom with lecture notes and a print out of my thumbnails of the slides that I’m going to show. And now I have the slides on my phone and the lecture notes on my iPad, and then I’m speaking into my computer and then my TAs interrupt me when my connection breaks to tell me where they stopped hearing me or seeing my images and then I’ll go back to them - so it’s a bit of a three-ring circus just trying to get all the pieces together. The first lecture it also became clear that the mic on my laptop wasn’t good enough, so Barnard Fed-Exed me a mic—it took a week but I now have an external mic that I can use. I have one profoundly and maybe a couple of less profoundly hearing-impaired students and so my first lecture I just shared my screen and I didn’t show my face and they couldn’t follow at all because zoom doesn’t transcribe. What that student needs to do is have my voice loud enough that they can have a device on the other end so it can capture what I’m saying. But I also am trying to keep my head close to the camera so that they can follow my lips. So that’s another consideration.
I’ve built in breaks about every fifteen minutes in the lectures for questions. I also have a TA assigned to monitor the chat and the students can post questions on the chat and often it’s: “I missed the title of that slide” or “What’s that term that she’s using?” In many cases, those would be exactly the same questions they would have interrupted me with in the real room. But they’re actually getting better answers because the TA can Google it: like, “What is that book that he’s holding in that portrait?” “Oh, the Louvre says it’s that book!” I think that’s working ok, not perfectly - but ok. And then I’ve done a little polling and some breakout rooms. The breakout rooms were really tumbleweed-y the first week - people were having some trouble finding an ability to speak in them. I’ve got five TAs so I only create five breakout rooms and they’re bigger, but there’s somebody in the room who can facilitate conversation if it needs to happen.
I’m having a lot of trouble with the “less is more[approach],” because I feel my attitude going in was I want them to have as close an experience to what they would have had in the classroom because I don’t want them to feel robbed of this experience. And now I’m feeling like that’s ridiculous. Nobody feels normal. Aspiring to normal makes no sense whatsoever. And also, some of the things that I tried to create to keep them feeling connected and supported - like the breakout rooms - feel pressuring to some of the students because they feel like they have to be accountable in a way that maybe isn’t easy for them.
I created this online discussion board where between Monday and Wednesday I pose a discussion question and the idea was to just give them a sense of coming together around the material and put it in their own words, but particularly it was for the people who were viewing asynchronously. I wanted them to be able to come together with the people who were in the room. And it was an amazing experience the first week. But my TAs told me when they got to discussion sections the students felt like that created more expectations than before, and why am I adding work instead of taking work away, and they don’t want to post on a discussion board for everyone to see because it makes them feel exposed. And a lot of students in this intro class are first years. I walked it back. I said, “It’s a resource. I’d love you to use it. Please understand that if you use it you might be helping the students who can’t be in class in real time and post questions on the chat, but nobody’s grading you on it. It’s not an obligation.” I think that’s the biggest pivot for me – away from trying to give them the best possible reproduction of a class, not necessarily in terms of the challenge but in terms of the offerings. I mean everything is pass-fail and I’ve really dialed down the assignments, but I wanted them to feel supported and nurtured and then I had a bit of rude awakening when it didn’t feel nurturing to them.
Could you discuss some new ideas that you’ve come up with or that you might take into a future course that is not online?
I think I need to think longer about what I’m learning from this experience. I was one of the first art historians I know to go digital in my teaching, but this is a different learning curve. I am also learning how much I just feed off live people in front of me. There’s no replacement for that in terms of really paying attention to what’s landing and what’s not.
The innovation in this course is that in the second half of the semester there was supposed to be a paper, a group project, and a field trip. And I was too concerned about people being in different time zones to make them do a group project. My son is actually learning remotely in college now and he’s in a couple of classes where they’re still doing group projects. But I thought that would be a lot to ask, so instead of the group project we’re going to do a virtual field trip. In art history there’s just an amazing bunch of resources online including on Google Arts and Culture a lot of 360-degree views of museums.
The students were going to go to an exhibit of modern Native American art at the National Museum of the American Indian downtown, but I am teaching Mexican muralism and right now there’s a Mexican muralism show up at the Whitney and there’s also a 360-degree view of many rooms in Frida Kahlo’s house in Mexico City. I’m also going to look for a third option because I don’t want them to all feel like they have to write the same paper. That’s death for the TAs among other things. They will do some kind of trip to some colorful if not unserious art destination. And then I think that they’ll write two paragraphs. So that will be fun and I do think that a lot of museums have these education personnel and they want to keep paying them, so those people have generated a lot of resources. The education people at museums are still working while a lot of people at museums have been furloughed and a lot of people at museums have been fired. Last week the Whitney laid off most of their staff basically. And the Guggenheim did, too.
There’s a lot of content being developed. For the past five years or so I’ve tried to have a digital assignment in every class, every undergraduate class, both to meet the students where they are and encourage them to engage critically with digital-visual cultures which I think are just such a huge part of their life, so I have them do things like podcasts and Instagram and Medium posts and things like that. They were going to use TimelineJS for this group project but this is a different kind of digital project: they’re not the producer of digital content but the consumer of it. I think that my awareness of what’s on offer has shifted and also what’s on offer has shifted so that could definitely be something that pays forward.
Could you share some interesting research that you know that your students are working on or thinking about working on and your graduate students’ research?
I do supervise graduate students and I’m also supervising five senior theses in art history, so I do have students doing research. I think a lot of my graduate students are just feeling on hold. I have graduate students at various stages. Some of them are finishing up thesis work and so it’s ok because they can use the notes that they have and they’re moving their work forward although I think they’re very distracted and anxious so they’re not working at top capacity.
But I have another student who—the project for this part of the semester, she just passed her orals and now she’s trying to put together a dissertation proposal and the library’s closed. So, thank goodness there are bookstores. Some people have been getting used books for their research. There’s also this internet archive that is making a lot of material available and I’ve recommended that for both my undergrads and graduate students doing research. I guess one of the nice things is that I had an undergrad who needed a copy of a chapter in a book that I have in my office. And she had a library copy and she didn’t bring it home with her to Costa Rica. And I was like, “This is an important essay; I’m going to see what I can do.” I reached out to Professor Monica Miller and she said, “It’s in my office too but I don’t have a scan of it, but let me go on Facebook and see.” And the network produced somebody who said “Oh, here’s a link to a place where you can find it.”
I do think that a lot is findable and of course we’re all not sure how privacy is going to work around our knowledge production, but in other ways I do feel like scholars are often very generous. It’s one of the reasons I love being a scholar: the community that we can create by sharing resources. But [Art History] is really [a] book-based discipline and museum-based discipline. The grad student who needed the book chapter was also going to go visit several collections and just peruse. And that kind of browsing is not well served by digital culture anyway.
It’s already a challenge and it’s changing the field in ways that I’m sure are good but are also troubling. Digital means that you’re not browsing as much. You don’t have the serendipitous discovery of looking at the book three down from the one you went to the shelf to pull or going to a museum and then seeing something on the way to another gallery. So that’s a challenge. More and more is online, which is amazing, and it’s even better because you can zoom in and you know you can turn pages more rapidly than if you have to call somebody over with gloves to pick up the manuscript and turn it. Some of it is great and I think there’ll be even more initiatives to do that.
I’m going to participate in a zoom conference and I’ve been thinking a lot about - and this is partially Director of Campus Sustainability and Climate Action Sandra Goldmark planting the seed - the carbon footprint of the kind of academic work that we do. And this is a global conference and the people from Doha and London are zooming in, but everybody will be zooming in so it won’t be that they have a diminished participation. I mean I still like the fact that at conferences you get to go out to dinner afterwards and you can connect with people, but we can do less of that if we can mix in more remote research more remote sharing of our knowledge. I think that will be really good for the sustainability of the planet which ultimately is our sustainability.
Could you describe the work of your senior thesis students?
We have weekly presentations of work in progress and it’s been okay. I think Zoom is actually pretty well suited to that because what they’re basically learning is how to give a slide lecture of their research. I haven’t been yet because the faculty rotate through and I’m up next week. That part has gone okay. I think the part that’s really challenging is this is the stage where you’re pulling them over the finish line and I want to just go to my shelf and say, “Read this thing” or “This term isn’t well defined but let me look through my library so that I can find the source that’s going to help you to find that term in a way that’s really going to work for you.”
Please feel free to reflect on the experience of transitioning your course or any other aspect of our current circumstances that you could like to reflect upon.
While the students don’t have a symposium at the end, we do have a champagne toast for them. And we celebrate the work being done in whatever form it ended up being in on the day that it was due. And my department, as all Barnard departments, also just really loves to celebrate our students at graduation. And we love to meet the parents. And, you know, I think we’re really feeling for the seniors. The pass/fail is appropriate and the right thing to do, but also really hard for those students who have been working super hard all year on a capstone experience that just is going to get a P - the same P as the person next to them that hasn’t worked really hard.
I am really thinking of the seniors and then because I’m teaching this class I’m thinking of the first-years—this has been such a hell of a year for them. And, you know, this was supposed to be the normal semester. And I try really hard to express my caring—I try to arrive at class ten minutes early and just have chit-chat going. Last week the students all turned on their cameras and held up their pets and introduced their pets to the rest of the class, which I think is a thing because that’s happened at my son’s school too.
But I think of the freshmen who are just trying to learn how to not be home and now they’re back home. For me moving forward it’s such an interesting experience that I’m teaching a new class and the lectures that I’ve had to write since I had no access to the library. I’m not necessarily teaching the latest knowledge about these things. I’m not necessarily teaching them the way I wanted to. I’ve been teaching long enough that I’ve let go of a lot of my ambitions as a teacher. And there’s a lot to know and much of it is important - and just because it’s not new doesn’t mean it’s not important.
I think there are cultures within the institution and departmental cultures where a lot of us invent new classes a lot, or teach in new classes frequently. I don’t think there’s been a year in the nineteen years that I’ve been at Barnard that I haven’t offered at least one new class and I would say at least half the time I’m offering two. And I think that this [emergency online teaching] is not a modality that lends itself to a lot of novelty. I just think the ramp-up has to be huge because you really have to be ready—you have to create the class. I think you can’t continually reinvent the class the way you might if people were walking into the same room and you had that same kind of give and take and goodwill - I mean especially now because it’s accompanied by so much stress and fear. Online teaching could look a lot of ways, but this is online teaching under these particular circumstances.
The sense of loss that you touched upon is something that other faculty have expressed and they’ve expressed that they feel it’s important to have that out in the open if one feels it.
I think that’s right, I think the students need permission—I mean our students are so amazing, they’re so ambitious, and they worked so hard to get here and I know I feel terrible that I’m not doing my best job. But it’s so important for them to hear: nobody can do their best job right now. These are not circumstances that allow us to do our best job and we have to learn how to keep going even though we can’t, which is another kind of lesson, right? I mean, I definitely keep saying to people that we don’t know what we’re going to learn from this but it’s going to be amazing. And I think that’s true.