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Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College
87 North Main Street, Oberlin, OH 44074
440.775.8665

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Teaching during a pandemic calls for creativity

August 31, 2020

Teaching during a pandemic calls for creativity

August 31, 2020

Teaching during a pandemic calls for creativity

When the Oberlin College campus closed in mid-March and shifted classes online, the Allen faced a daunting challenge: to continue providing students with high-quality learning experiences in the absence of class sessions inside the museum.

Even as she reached out to professors whose class sessions at the museum had been cancelled, Hannah Wirta Kinney, assistant curator of academic programs, realized that teaching entirely on Zoom would not work. The platform’s image quality didn’t capture details well enough.

Kinney instead adopted the Prezi platform, which accepts high-resolution image files and allows instructors to enlarge specific areas. “Everyone can be looking at the same detail at the same time, which is really hard in person with small works of art,” she said. “It gave a kind of dynamism and interactive feel—a way to recreate the experience of looking at and talking about works in the galleries.”

To counteract the clunkiness of teaching online, such as waiting for discussants to mute or unmute, Kinney tried new modes of interaction, for example asking students to vote on a question or topic.

Oberlin faculty members got creative, too. In her creative writing course, Word & Image: Poetry in Dialogue with Visual Art, Lynn Powell first had students read poems by authors who explored a subject from multiple points of view. When an April visit to the AMAM to see a dozen views of Mt. Fuji (in the current exhibition of Japanese woodblock prints) had to be cancelled, Powell collaborated with Kinney and her assistant, Emma Laube ’17, along with Curator of Asian Art Kevin Greenwood, to create a remarkable online session. Afterward, students wrote and read haiku inspired by works they had seen. “A poetic sequence emerged that I feel is as vivid and communal as our experience of looking and talking together about art,” Powell said.

The online format also lent itself to introducing content beyond the AMAM collection. For example, images from popular culture, and even a music video, were used in a class session with Adrian Bautista, assistant vice president of student life. The class focused on the late musician Prince and considered the variety of ways that artists can disseminate their work. “Students were able to make the connection that what they’re learning in the museum is not just about looking at art, but looking at everything that’s going on in the world around them,” Kinney said.

Over the summer, the Office of Academic Programs assisted with an online collaborative course for 132 high school seniors accepted into Oberlin’s class of 2024. In the course, Cinema and Change: Ritual, Identity, and Coming of Age, each student paired an object from the AMAM collection with one from their own life that spoke to them of change, and shared about it.

A key question was, “How does the material or visual quality of the object itself tell the story? This is another way of moving the collection outside the museum, and it worked really well,” Kinney said. “Students learned that their personal responses are important, and that you don’t have to have a large body of knowledge to enjoy the museum.”

Kinney plans to use a hybrid teaching model this year, using technology to deliver course content to groups while inviting those who can to visit the museum individually to view objects related to their courses.

While remote instruction has uncovered valuable new approaches that Kinney will carry into regular classrooms, she says it’s still a challenge to create a sense of community and to empower faculty members to teach with the collection. “Digital and in-person teaching are very different, but can inform each other in lots of important ways,” she said.

Author: Megan Harding

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