In a time of global predicament and reckoning, when, even leading gatekeepers grappled with unchartered territories, the meanings and methods of education were also tested. Many educators during the pandemic claimed to adapt to the rapidly changing academic needs, while some were nostalgic and held onto the pre-Covid ways of working in hopes to resume hands-on physical activity in classrooms.
Though overbearing, the pandemic signaled opportunities that were unimaginable prior to its outbreak. We were fast forwarded into a digital virtual realm that was remote and unfamiliar to many, but this unfamiliarity altered and broadened our ways of thinking, making and experiencing. Domestic spaces were adapted; basements, lounges, kitchens, attics and garages were converted into offices, studios and classrooms.
Anecdotally, higher education art and design educators in Pakistan had varied opinions. Some realized the inevitability of a physical studio regimen and reinforced its value, while others tried to reinvent methods of teaching to ensure online academic productivity. Virtual spaces, digital interfaces and web-based interaction were embraced as alternate materials and mediums to inspire students to sustain their creative expression. Some managed to facilitate, or simulate, a studio environment for their students while others took the anomaly as an opportunity to dismantle older and traditional ways of working in a studio and develop newer methods of production. The Printmaking studio also brought surprising alternatives to create experiences at home, similar to those in an equipped college studio, keeping in mind the burning question of how to teach seminal printmaking intaglio, relief and planographic techniques. For one part of the exercise, the studio prepared material boxes with the bare essentials (containing paper, inks, tools, linoleum sheets, wood blocks, a silk screen and some rollers) and posted them out to students in their respective cities.
However, this sudden shift from physical space to a virtual one was drenched in uncertainty, especially for the thesis year students, who had academic training to develop their creative processes predominantly through hands-on tools and mediums within tangible studio spaces. While my institution, the National College of Arts (NCA), adopted a hybrid approach to studio and theory classes for its initial years, the final year (albeit a delayed and staggered one because of intermittent breaks caused by multiple pandemic waves) was conducted on-ground. The compromised student strength from the first three years of the undergraduate degree program allowed for larger, more ventilated, and segregated studio spaces for the graduating cohort. The final year cohort managed to improvise, amid heightened paranoia and skepticism about health matters, work outputs, and the role and value of audience in art making, but they managed to move on, albeit cautiously and slowly.
Many teachers engaged with distance learning were also able to engineer modes of learning to address individual needs of online engagement. Many of them, particularly female students who were enrolled in graduate degree programs, preferred the online format while working from home because the role of caretakers was heightened at this time and students had heavy responsibility outside class as well. Course content was also adapted to consider strategies of making that were mobile, ephemeral, virtual and accounted for collectibles and material from within the home or from any other context outside of a classroom. Some faculty worked well with limitation and asked students to use only recycled material available at home to substitute conventional art supplies. There was an opportunity identified in teaching methods to co-construct knowledge even with students living in remote suburban districts with fluctuating internet and unstable electricity. A few colleagues welcomed these challenges as a much-needed rupture. One studio instructor stated that while the active on-ground studio space had its pros and privileges, the ritualistic methods of pre-pandemic teaching did not account for individual experiences and world views of a mixed, ethnically diverse group of students within a white walled studio. Therefore, online teaching allowed students to observe their contexts and lived experience and see opportunities outside art room confines. The projects allowed them to question the scope of material, both tangible and intangible. Being home and working with the ordinary, as a value, as opposed to searching for extraordinary ideas within their creative practice was crucial to the shift. Putting a limitation also enabled learners to pay attention to surroundings, and hunt for material in the vicinity. This led to greater introspection and a divergence of trajectories. The idea of a studio became more of a concept, existing more in a head space than a geographical one.
Teachers also observed that class preparation time, pre-production content as well as student contact hours increased, which in some cases, remained undervalued and unaccounted for. Nonetheless online teaching overcame physical barriers and allowed for more guest speaker sessions, artist talks, lecturers and international critiques, by academics present elsewhere. It facilitated interaction and viewership on a broader scale which otherwise seemed unimaginable. Students struggled immensely—logistically, financially and emotionally—but also claimed to enjoy wider digital viewership and feedback from individuals and art enthusiasts, across regions. Teacher instruction and physical interaction on a regular basis was missing and some students used this as an excuse for slack and inconsistency. Yet, many were in tandem with each other’s work and life and connected digitally at every stage of their semesters. They were also observed to strengthen their ability to think independently and set their own deadlines, take ownership of their work process, and be sensitive to their decisions about work-life balance. The architecture faculty anecdotally shared that many students who graduated during or after the Pandemic were self-employed immediately and did not require architectural firm endorsements or job offers.
However, as educators we may want to ascertain or deliberate on what is post-pandemic pedagogy in higher education, and how it might affect or transform studio teaching in particular. This period allowed us to think backwards and eliminate the abstraction that often blurs the eventual goals of learning, being creative, making art and being human. It pushed us to find meaning in what we do. It also threw us into a deep pit of enduring questions.
What are the eventual goals of undergoing any kind of education, in particular art education? Since the solitary mode of the pandemic was alienating for everyone, it was crucial to keep students within the parameters of group learning. Students and teachers collectively were able to realize the value of peer learning, proximity and community building. Empathy and generosity influenced the ability to evaluate formally and objectively. Assessment criteria were reconsidered and made flexible. Blanket relief was given to students administratively and most of their requests about fee matters, logistic constraints and academic shortfall were entertained. Curricular outputs and outcomes were re-defined. Although level-playing fields were disrupted, academic systems, as well as teachers, did attempt to deliberate on equity and fair grading. The meaning of privilege and entitlement also shifted. The role and responsibility as teachers and mentors was expanded. Though unprepared, teachers were expected to be reflexive in their new virtual classrooms and quickly own their altered routines and behavior. They were expected to regulate their emotions and deal with their individual and collective academic anxieties. This period was a cycle breaker for many learning patterns and teaching approaches. The personal and professional collated. Academics were reminded of the importance of listening, connecting and empathizing, developing the will and capacity to understand each other’s needs, giving one another the benefit of doubt, and prioritizing collective successes and failures over individual ones.
And how are we to respond to questions beyond the scope and parameters of formal education? What was the tipping point after which things were never the same? What was most regretful? What was exploited? What was momentous and celebrated? How did we derive comfort in deep crises? How prepared are we, if something similar happens? This quintessential time of distress and adversity highlighted our divisions and differences but also made us recognize how similar we are, as humans, in our instincts, inadequacies and vulnerabilities.
I would like to take this opportunity to acknowledge and extend my gratitude to my colleagues, and to art and design academia in Pakistan. A special thanks goes out to Laila Rehman, Fatima Hussain, Madyha Leghari, Zeb Bilal, Saulat Ajmal, Shanza Elahi, Umair Abbasi, Qazi Fazli Azeem, Omair Faizullah Bangash, Maham Iqbal Bosan, Amina El-Edroos, Rohma Khan, Suleman Khilji, Zain Naqvi, Salman Afzal, Pakeezah Zaidi and Syed Faizaan Ahab.
Title Image: National College of Arts, Lahore, during a student-led festival (Fall 2022). Image courtesy, Imran Qureshi.