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Committing to an Arts Education During a Pandemic

A review of how COVID-19 has affected teaching and learning in the Arts

by Julie Toft Carlsen

Arts degrees are often seen as the lesser choice of university degrees, a range of easy subjects that won’t secure you a job. Yet during a global crisis, people are dependent more than ever on the entertainment and nourishment that art provides.

Studying ‘Arts’ covers a broad range of areas: from Music and Visual Culture, to English Literature, French Language, and Art History. What they all have in common is their connection to human experience, be it the languages we speak or the art we consume. As a result, Arts degrees are highly interactive disciplines that rely on each individual to bring their unique perspective to the subject…So, how has this approach to education adapted during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Great Expectations

Most course coordinators interviewed by Gaudie Arts expressed the uncertainty with which they approached the 2020/21 academic year, and the confusion about the extent to which teaching could take place on campus. Staff were eager to create the best experience possible for students so they felt a purpose for continuing their studies, and hoped that the university courses could perhaps be a positive influence on students’ days in a time of great uncertainty. Teaching Assistants played a key role for many course coordinators, who said that adapting entire courses in very little time would not have been possible without the input and support from TAs.

Teaching staff also had to come up with new ways to engage students’ creativity: how can you play music together from miles apart? How do you perform, recreate art installations, or visit museums during a pandemic? In preparation for the blended learning model, activities from previous years had to be adapted to adhere to COVID safety measures, and be also available to students that weren’t in Aberdeen.

Connectivity Issues

Both staff and students have expressed their gratitude for campus classes providing some sense of normality and an opportunity to see other people in-person. However, face masks, distance, loud fans and limited time impaired the ability to have effective discussions. For online seminars, some students reported feeling more anxious and hyper aware of being perceived by relative strangers while in their own home. Microphones typically only allow one person to speak at a time, complicating the natural flow of discussions, and trying to connect with video takes a toll on many students’ broadband. Lecturers reported that trying to engage a class of students without videos felt isolating, like talking to a blank screen, and they generally missed being able to read students’ body language or listen in on small-group discussions to discern how students were getting on with the course materials. For students, seminars which didn’t encourage discussion felt like another 1-2 hours of staring into a blank screen, and found it difficult to sustain attention or engage with sporadic questions from lecturers.

Overcoming Obstacles and Unexpected Advantages

A number of students, however, reported feeling less anxious when attending seminars from the safe space of their home, and hope their newfound comfort and confidence will benefit them once in-person teaching resumes full-time. Staff reported that the limited access to library material led them to explore alternate course materials, such as podcasts and workshops with guest speakers, formats whose success is arguably tied to students acclimating to alternative ways of entertainment and communication. The pandemic has also seen an increased democratisation of art, as world-renowned museums have granted access to their collections online, something which has benefitted Art History students that could no longer access source materials from the library. Music students may not be able to produce their usual showcases, but are learning valuable skills in online event organisation and engagement. For Film and Visual Culture students, those in Aberdeen were invited to re-perform Knizak’s 1965 performance, A Walk Through Prague, adapted for social distancing around Kings Campus, and all first-years received an online workshop in filmmaking, a pilot project introduced this academic year after students’ requests for more practical elements.

Both staff and students have also highlighted the valuable skill sets they’re developing from online research, such as critically assessing sources and optimising their search engine approach, skills that are particularly useful in our increasingly technological world.

Moving On with What We Now Know

At the end of the day, we all just miss social interactions. We miss chatting between classes and sitting in Starbucks under the guise of studying. Some staff members said they now feel closer to their colleagues, because everyone is more aware of making an effort to check in on each other. The distance between lecturer and student also seems to have diminished, as students say their lecturers regularly check in with their wellbeing, and staff have needed to appeal to students’ empathy when things go wrong, which is a good reminder for students to see their lecturers as humans, rather than representants for the large impersonal organisation of the University. Some lecturers play music when starting a seminar, or use the interactive whiteboard function on Blackboard to let students write and doodle together.

A new focus has been put on informality to establish personal connections, something we’re all craving, and a beautiful fortuitous outcome from studying during a pandemic.

DISCLAIMER: During the research for this article, every student and member of staff expressed how the pandemic has adversely affected their mental health, making them more susceptible to stress and poor academic performances. Please see page for information on the support a No Detriment policy would provide.


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