An email interview with Professor Matt Saunders
Interview by MICHAEL KIELSTRA
As Harvard goes online, there is an assumption that most if not all courses can easily be delivered over a video-link. After all, you can watch a professor online and take notes just as easily. Some classes, however, don’t translate as well as that. Painting’s Doubt (GenEd 1114) is a daringly large studio art class, comprising 70 students in total, the vast majority of which are now scattered across the globe as a result of this semester’s early student move-out. Professor Matt Saunders, Harris K. Weston Associate Professor of the Humanities, is, nothing loath, taking it online, an effort that includes mailing kits of essential painting supplies out to his students. The Independent contacted him to learn more.
His responses have been edited for clarity and concision.
When did you formally learn that students were being sent home? How much time did you have to plan?
We formally learned of this through President Bacow’s Tuesday 10 March email. I don’t know when others first heard, but there was some inkling that the option of online instruction was being considered, so a few of the AFVS faculty came in and met on Sunday before, 8 March, in order to discuss all of the department’s classes and think through plans. As soon as the official word came down, we were in communication with the whole department. I was impressed by how quickly things came together. So many of my colleagues gave it serious thought.
What are you and the studio courses doing to continue instruction? Since you teach a large Gen Ed class as opposed to a small studio, does your course have more options than others? Fewer?
It varies from course to course. At this point in the semester, a lot of studio courses were getting into work on individual final projects. Many courses are able to pivot into this, with students working independently and the class providing critique and support for materials from afar. I have heard of some wild experiments—I believe that Drawing 1 will attempt some real-time drawing exercises over Zoom—but in general the focus last week was on providing materials for students to work with wherever they are. The work on Zoom will most likely be critiques.
I plan to conduct critiques in sections and even smaller groups, using Zoom and also OneDrive for sharing images. The sheer numbers [six times more students than a usual AFVS seminar] have made this a challenge, but I have a built-in structure of sections, which helps greatly, and a wonderful teaching staff. I am optimistic. This week we are scrambling to get a basic painting kit out and into everyone’s hands before the end of break, and at the moment I am re-writing the remaining syllabus to turn the planned in-class work into prompts that can be completed independently. Luckily, we are far enough along in the semester to do this, and we have a very dedicated group of students. They are what give me hope.
The film and video faculty and staff have done a heroic job in the past few days signing out equipment, securing remote licensing for editing programs, and generally providing support. It was a mad enterprise. I believe that they downloaded each student’s folder of footage and files from the shared drive [the AVFS central server] to an individual external drive [one for each student]. We can now all edit and communicate collectively online.
Do you think that physical studio time, with you and the student in the same room, is essential to teaching art? Why or why not?
100% I do. I would not be able to teach remotely for a full semester. We were lucky that Spring Break was a turning point in the class anyway: we had designed things so that by Break the students had completed all the major demos [hands-on demonstrations of materials and techniques] and several exercises working together. We certainly could have used more in-person instruction, but we will do our best.
Learning to work with these materials is hard to explain in words, or even video, alone. Hearing an explanation and actually doing can be night and day, so teaching really unfolds best in person and in real-time. This is especially crucial for beginners, and Painting’s Doubt was designed specifically for those new to the art.
In addition to the loss of face-to-face contact, we are losing the experience of the studio. I can send some materials out for people to work with at home, but that is far from the options available from and the sheer physical experience of being in a painters’ studio.
What is the mood in your course and in the AFVS department?
I think everyone was freaked out last week, but in general, AFVS took it well. We understood we had to try to make the best out of a bad situation. I think there are silver linings. The spirit in the studio seemed high! I was energized by the challenge, the group was feeling galvanized, and people are genuinely excited to get back to work. I felt that students and TAs were glad we had a plan to get materials out to everyone, and were willing to come along on this adventure.
What are you going to do now?
It is the thesis students I feel for. AFVS theses aren’t due until early April. This is undeniably a huge interruption, and we will be working to support each of their individual needs in the coming months.
I think this will be a very busy semester between now and May. We are losing our Spring Break to rethinking all of the logistics, and, even putting that time in, keeping track of every student and being as helpful as possible will be a huge task going forward. I am really committed to making sure that the class retains not just all of its rigor, but also its positivity and enjoyability. I mentioned silver linings, and one that I could imagine is the role painting could play as a fun, steadying or contemplative activity in the midst of chaos. If people are staying in, what better thing to do?
Photo courtesy of Matt Saunders.
Michael Kielstra ’22 (firstname.lastname@example.org) refuses to admit the terrible truth about his lack of artistic ability.