SBVC Art Department Gets Creative with NewOnline Instruction

Dr. Mandi Batalo, chair of the Art department, adapts to the new normal of Zoom meetings with her students.

This has been a summer of learning for Dr. Mandi Batalo.

Batalo, a professor and chair of the Art Department, has been attending virtual conferences and workshops on everything from photography to mindfulness in order to not only prepare for teaching online in the fall, but to also gain insight into how it will feel for her students.

She has also been hosting an online open art studio with adjunct Rick Caughman, a graphic designer and illustrator. Once a week, they hold a session on Zoom, where they give an assignment and then critique the students on last week’s task. About six students have been regularly participating, and “it’s not really a formal class, we’re doing it to keep the spirit alive and keep people creating through the summer,” Batalo said.

Art is a hands-on discipline, whether it’s using a paintbrush to create a landscape or shaping clay into a bowl. When the decision was made that most spring classes would be moved online because of the coronavirus pandemic, the three full-time faculty members and 16 adjuncts in the Art Department had to quickly make adjustments.

“Taking studio classes online, any class online, is a different format than face-to-face, and to take studio classes online was an additional challenge,” Batalo said.

While several art history classes were already taught online, the faculty teaching studio classes had to make adaptations so their lessons could fit this new format, with some having to learn how to use Canvas and Zoom.

“The strength of our Art Department is the personality of the instructors and the care and the one-on-one work they do with the students, so to change that within a two-week period, I think we’re all still reeling from it,” Batalo said. “Not every instructor wants to be an online instructor — if you’re a ceramicist, you want to demo how to use the wheel.”

It was difficult for the instructors to not have access to their studios or offices, and one faculty member who teaches ceramics said, “I will have to demo out of my kitchen.” Zoom “really saved us,” Batalo said, and instructors got creative, recording demos on their iPhones. This didn’t work for every discipline, though — SBVC is one of only a handful of community colleges in California that offers glassblowing, but fall classes were canceled because “there is no way you can do that at home,” Batalo said.

Once classes started up again online, Batalo lost about four students in each course. The transition posed several challenges — some students didn’t have WiFi or had to share a laptop with multiple relatives, and many didn’t have a private place to study. There were those who needed to care for younger siblings or their own children, making it difficult to focus when class was in session, and others didn’t turn their cameras on because they didn’t want to show their living spaces on Zoom.

“I am very sad because I think we are going to lose a lot of students or they may choose to sit out a semester,” Batalo said. “I really miss the students. I miss the art faculty. I miss the camaraderie.”

One student joked with Batalo that he was glad he no longer had to get up early in order to make it to class on time, but by the third week, he was ready be back on campus.

“They miss the interaction with one another,” Batalo said. “They weren’t negative, they understood what was going on, but for most of them they would have really preferred being in the studio on campus, and having at least some form of contact with one another, the campus itself, and with their instructors.”

Now that faculty members are working from home, they are dealing with issues like higher electricity bills and a lack of ergonomic equipment. One instructor lives with his family in a small house, so he has been working from a Starbucks.

“This adds a lot of stress,” Batalo said. “I talk to him all the time about if the Starbucks closes, or it’s raining — where is he going to teach from then?”

Looking ahead to the fall, the Art Department has come up with a few ways to bring some normalcy to classes — ceramics students, for example, will have the chance to pick up clay to turn into tile for their projects, documenting the process with photos so their instructors can offer critiques. Batalo also hopes that the Art Department will be able to hold a modified lecture series via Zoom, which would be open to the community, and also feature more student art online. Art, she said, is cathartic and “we want to keep that creativity going in people.”

The Gresham Art Gallery’s spring show, “Visual Culture: Interpretation of Self(ie),” was about to open when campus shut down, and Batalo said a “marvelous group of artists” participated, submitting selfies along with narratives. Their works were already hung and banners were being printed when everything came to a screeching halt, and Batalo is hopeful that “when we can return to campus, we can at least have that show and have our delayed opening.”

For educators, it hasn’t been easy trying to navigate around the different mandates coming from the state, federal, county, and college levels, but “we’re responding as best we can,” Batalo said. “There’s nothing punitive going on, this is just the situation. We’ve had such a short period of time to make these adjustments — when you think it’s only been four months, it feels like an eternity.”

Founded in 1926, San Bernardino Valley College (SBVC) is a comprehensive community college offering hundreds of degree programs, on campus and online.