March 24, 2021

In-person instruction: Some classes have already returned

The planning process and preparations were demanding, but Steven Hill, Mauricio Pauly and Marla Eist say the benefits of returning to in-person instruction have been worth the effort.

In Fall 2020, the dance, theatre and music courses offered by the School for the Contemporary Arts within the Faculty of Communication, Art and Technology (FCAT) had to be taught entirely online because of COVID-19. That requirement led to enormous challenges and compromises for classes that typically include intensive studio work. This semester, several faculty members taught their courses in a hybrid format that combined remote instruction with in-person sessions. We spoke with Marla Eist (associate professor, dance), Steven Hill (associate professor, theatre performance) and Mauricio Pauly (assistant professor, music & sound) about the process they followed in returning to the studio, the measures they implemented to ensure the safety of their students and themselves, and the lessons they have learned as the university prepares to return to in-person instruction. 

Who made the decision to deliver your course in person, and why?

MP: We were given the opportunity to submit proposals for courses to go in-person. In our school, a lot of the proposals came from theatre and dance. CA 340: Contemporary Music Performance II was the only course that the music & sound area proposed for this term. There were several reasons for that, but one was that we knew there were things our students needed for their development that we were not going to be able to make happen remotely.

SH: Teaching live performance practices is challenging online. It’s not to say there’s no benefit to online teaching, but [theatre] work requires our students to move through space, interact with one another and with an audience. Mediated/video conferencing works for some of these interactions, but there is not a direct translation for all aspects.

ME: In the fall we taught online and using Zoom—and frankly, it was heartbreaking. I’m not being dramatic. I have one student who literally had about a foot of space in his dorm room between his bed and his closet. I had one young woman who was in a basement suite, and she couldn’t lift her arms over her head. My first-year group had 26 students with mixed skill sets and experience, so I’d have to watch 26 little squares on a small screen over Zoom and try and give them feedback on very specific refined coordinations and full body movement.

What was the process for gaining approval of in-person instruction, and what measures did you implement to ensure safety?

SH: The school director, Elspeth Pratt, and technical director, Ben Rogalski, meticulously developed plans for in-person teaching that included restrictions on class size, reduced contact time (32 hours per student per course), a strict mask policy, even taping out squares on the floor within studios for students to remain at a safe distance from their peers and the instructor. Each instructor in collaboration with the school director and technical director put together a rationale for their course returning to in-person instruction as well as creating a detailed safety plan. These proposals were then approved by the FCAT dean and university administration.

ME: It was a very, very big team effort. Our director and technical director and even our dean at the time—the acting dean was Owen Underhill—did a huge amount of work and research and planning. Each course has a COVID safety plan that is seven pages long. Everyone was committed to making it work and taking responsibility as a participant.

MP: There were a lot of adjustments and tweaks for safety, like masks and room distribution to ensure safe distance. All of that is relatively easy to implement because once you know that that’s in place you just behave in that way. What’s trickier, I think, is that I’m very used to going to students’ performance stations and troubleshooting what they’re working with, be it technical or artistic. In the current conditions, we had to resort to pointing at a distance, which is slow and potentially unproductive. The upside of that is that the students learn to solve their problems earlier. 

How have your students responded to the return to in-person delivery?

MP: Judging by the work that they’re doing and the keenness with which they’re submitting projects and ideas, I think they’re pretty excited and grateful to be back. This has been a profoundly productive term.

SH: By and large, students have been very pleased to return to in-person instruction. Some students who themselves or [whose] family members may have compromised health conditions have chosen to stay with remote learning. One of the things that students have really missed is connecting with each other in informal ways after class and in breaks. We’ve seen that this is also a very important part of their education, to be able to digest materials, compare notes, etc.

ME: The students who’ve chosen to come in have been just raving about taking class together live in the studio. I had one young woman tell me in the first week of classes, “I was crying on the bus today because I was so happy to be coming in to take class.”

How about you?

ME: I have to say, I’m so happy to be back. It’s wonderful despite all the challenges. Some nervousness is to be expected. Being immune-compromised, I was a little nervous, but when I saw the amount of work and thoughtfulness that went into preparing for this, and everyone’s commitment, I feel safe, and the benefits in terms of being able to teach better are well worth it. We still have to make many adaptations to teach in this hybrid fashion, but even so I find it to be a great improvement over the isolation of remote teaching. Dance education is very much a “hands-on,” experiential practice. The students learn so much from their peers, and as educators we need to be in the studio with them.  

SH: It was great to work with students in the studio once again. The safety protocols create a different experience and require new approaches to studio work. We are still teaching remote classes once a week, alternating with in-person classes. There are challenges with both models as the in-person classes require students to wear masks and remain at a distance. The hybrid classes at times can feel like teaching bodiless faces on Zoom and faceless bodies in the room.

Are there things you’ve learned during remote instruction that you will translate and carry back into the classroom with you?

MP: Resourcefulness. I guess this is true for all fields in some way, but our field is so dependent on finding your own solutions within limited circumstances, particularly when we are out in the professional context. The other thing that has been interesting is the variety and quality of guests from all around the world that we’ve been able to bring via Zoom to our weekly seminars. Not only has that kind of invitation become normalized, but people are simply more available and easier to book. There is agreement in the area that that is something we want to figure out ways to keep when we fully return to teaching in person.

ME: I think that ability to adapt and be flexible is a good thing because artists have to be incredibly flexible and adaptable. You realize that there can’t just always be one way of doing things, and you have to have a lot more compassion and empathy for one another than we practiced before—and that’s a good thing.

What would you say to colleagues who are beginning to think about the return to in-person instruction?

ME: I would completely encourage it, but I think the work has to be done, and everyone has to be committed and on board. I think we can learn a lot from each other.

SH: If one can, prepare for improvising or at least have more than one approach up your sleeve. Students are happy to be back and relieved to again be in physical proximity to their peers, but the social environment is new, and the safety protocols call for new methods.

MP: It is normal to be a little bit apprehensive, but in most situations, if safety can be observed, it is likely to be worth it. Given the support that I’m getting from my department and all the way up to the dean, I have felt very comfortable doing this. And the difference that it makes to my experience of teaching, the difference that it makes to the students, is significant.