Flexibility, Creativity, Community: The Art of Remote Learning | St. Lawrence University

Flexibility, Creativity, Community: The Art of Remote Learning

If Cece Rooney ‘20 was to designate a theme for the second half of her senior year, it would be “prepare to pivot.” 

When she left campus before Spring Break, bound for home in Dover, New Hampshire, she wasn’t sure when she’d see her townhouse again, when she’d next convene in the Student Center for a Thelmo meeting, or trek across campus to ceramics class. But she was prepared to address at least one of these unknowns with a 25-pound contingency plan—a fresh block of clay, courtesy of her Visiting Assistant Professor of Ceramics and Drawing Rachael Jones, her Ceramics II professor.

“We weren’t sure exactly what we were going to do with it, but at least we’d have something to do,” says Cece. “It’s definitely been a thinking-outside-the-box situation.” 

Of all the courses required to pivot to an online, remote learning model, studio arts seem to pose some of the biggest challenges—and some of the greatest opportunities to get creative. 

“I really had to look at what the limitations would be for what each course was doing the moment we all learned that we wouldn’t be back, and then reconfigure ways around those limitations,” says Jones, who also teaches Ceramics I, II and III as well as Drawing I.

For Jones, the solution to a remote ceramics course required a bit more imagination, but she was determined to set her students up for success. When she learned students wouldn’t be returning to campus after Spring Break, she immediately took action.

“I wanted to make sure that they were still working with their hands, and had the materials they needed,” says Jones. These materials included all the plasticine (non-drying oil clay) she could find, a jug of slip for molding and casting, and a set of precautionary guidelines detailing the proper safety protocols for working with clay at home.

While both Cece and Jones admit the necessary pivoting has come with some limitations—namely, adapting a haptic, hands-on pedagogy—it has both inspired thoughtful solutions and renewed their appreciation for the larger community that bonds them.

“What I appreciate about SLU is the opportunity to learn from other people and the ability to collaborate on something or learn from someone else’s practices,” says Cece. Even if doing so in person is impossible at the moment, professors like Jones are striving to find innovative ways to continue St. Lawrence’s tradition of communal, collaborative learning from disparate locations across the country and the globe.

Though she’s been able to move forward with some planned assignments, Jones says she’s had to reimagine all four of her syllabi substantially to accommodate present circumstances. For example, she’s asked her Ceramics I students to experiment with other materials and mediums on their final project—a tableware set they can now craft from cardboard, plastic, or found objects.

Jones has also used the absence of a physical classroom to transport her ceramics students to new learning environments. She’s arranged a series of studio tours during which working artists across the country open their virtual doors to her classes.

“It’s been great for students to see that being an artist can be a real career path, and that there are infinite possibilities if you have the drive and determination to make it happen,” says Jones.

She’s especially grateful that the art and art history department offers these artists an honorarium for their time, emphasizing the difficulties that many are facing and the importance of banding together to overcome them. She views the present moment not only as a chance to get creative with her curriculum, but as an opportunity for critical introspection. Society’s increased reliance on music, movies, and visual artwork while social distancing has demonstrated that art is essential. It brings us comfort. It keeps us sane. It fosters solidarity.

“It’s important to remember that although this is a time of immense change, it will pass,” says Jones. “The question then becomes, what kind of world do we want to create after this is over? What can I do to make this vision a reality? Who can I ask for support? Who can I give support to? What needs to change so this doesn’t happen again? It might feel overwhelming, but community and creative expression can provide a constructive outlet for incremental change.”

As we all learn to manage this immense change, Cece, who is a sociology major and an art and art history minor, is taking things one day at a time. She’s been making clay bell pepper molds in her kitchen and attending Thelmo meetings via Zoom. She says that, despite the fact that her senior year will be marked by the significance of a global pandemic, her overarching experience at St. Lawrence will not. Recent efforts by her professors, by administrators and staff, and by her peers have only confirmed what she’s always known about her alma mater. 

“It’s been more proof that this is why we chose St. Lawrence,” she says. “The University is taking care of everybody, even from afar. Even though it’s remote, it still very much feels like a community.”

Clay peppers and a clay bowl sit atop a wood cutting board with other kitchen prep items behind them.

Cece Rooney '20 has spent part of the remote learning period making clay bell pepper molds for her Ceramics II class.