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VMA Classes Adapt to Online Learning by Tapping into Creative Avenues

Visual and Media Arts (VMA) students and faculty haven’t been able to meet for in-person classes, make on-site films, or take field trips together since mid-March, so they’ve had to get creative. Luckily, that’s a specialty of Emersonians.

VMA Professor Cher Knight typically takes her art history classes on trips to cultural institutions. This semester, she had scheduled a private tour of the Museum of Fine Arts-Boston, as well as a tour with MIT’s public art curator. In the classroom, she leads discussion heavy lectures with projections of large-scale images.

“For me I had to figure out how to make it a real conversation. It’s difficult when I’m sharing a screen,” said Knight. “If readings or issues need to be discussed then we’re doing it in gallery review [on Zoom].”

Her Topics in Art History: Earthworks and Site-Specific Art class is field trip heavy, so she went out with VMA Chair Brooke Knight, who happens to be her husband, to record virtual walking tours.

“I did [a tour of] the Black Heritage Trail…one of the Greenway, and one on the Public Garden. I play the video for the students and then discuss it later,” said Cher, who says she’s wearing a mask and practicing social distancing in the videos while doing the tours. “It gives a little sense of what the walking tour would be like for the students. Then I post a map of where I walked, and if anyone is in town and can do so safely, they can retrace the walk on their own. It’s been really great.”

Knight said she’s been impressed by student presentations, especially considering that resources that would normally be available in person, are not available online. But libraries are quickly digitizing items quickly, and more things are coming online every day.  

While students are obviously disappointed by not having certain opportunities, Knight was also dispirited by not having the private tour of the MFA’s Writing the Future: Basquiat and the Hip-Hop Generation exhibition that goes perfectly with her 1970s and 1980s Art and Issues class.

Like Knight, affiliated faculty member Stephen Glantz got creative to breathe life into online learning with classroom guests. He had actors from Shakespeare and Company in Lenox, Massachusetts, read scripts to students. He also had producer Kim Waltrip discuss one of her films, Seven Days to Vegas, and students informally presented their screenplay ideas to her. Director Lizzie Borden “visited” Glantz’s Writing the Social Justice Film class, and discussed her film, Born in Flames, with students.

“Because of the virus, I think professionals are very inclined to help out students and Zoom into classes,” said Glantz. “Also, they are less busy than usual.”

Like faculty, students have had to make lemonade out of a lemon of a situation. Rebekah Czukoski ’22 said she’s still been able to receive and give feedback via Zoom and online in her screenwriting class. However, a game design class became more difficult because the point of the class was to design a board game, and now that has to be done online, which “basically scraps the whole board game concept.”

She’s taken this time to build up her skills in online programs like Maya and AfterEffects. “I’m glad Emerson provides LinkedIn Learning, because I’ve decided to use a couple of their program tutorials to try to further my skills,” she added.

But truly the biggest obstacle that has forced creative solutions is the lack of access to equipment, and simply being able to do what VMA students have done for decades – make films in person with their peers.

VMA Professor John Gianvito said many students were about to embark on filming what would effectively be their thesis projects. But like the students, he had to adapt and provide other learning options.

“As the situation sadly and rapidly changed, I also began requesting a variety of works made by both students and established filmmakers that were shot wholly within a single apartment and that are no less cinematic or compelling as a consequence of this seeming restrictions,” said Gianvito.

And if any college population can make a single apartment film look good, it’s Emersonians.

“I have been blown away by how well it is going — both faculty and students have been flexible and adaptable to all of the changes that we have been forced to make,” said Brooke Knight. “I like to say that VMA is like a supertanker, and that we need to call ahead to make a turn; with the pandemic, we have turned this ship on a dime.” 

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