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Art & Design Professor Cate Vermeland Reimagines the Classroom During the Age of COVID-19


Academics, COVID-19 Information & Resources, Fine & Performing Arts, University News

Due to the spread of COVID-19, Concordia closed campus and moved all face-to-face classes to online learning. While this was the best decision to keep faculty and students safe, it forced many to readjust to a new learning format. In a matter of days, professors completely changed the structure of their courses for the remainder of the spring semester.

Moving classes online so abruptly challenged CSP’s professors, but in many ways it was for the better. Professors found themselves rethinking what was most important and ultimately growing in their teaching as they adapted to online learning. Cate Vermeland is one of CSP’s art professors, who quickly redesigned her hands-on Photo1 course to an online practice half way through the spring semester. Now, she is leading the online course once again through the summer semester.

During the transition, Vermeland was able to reflect on her role as an educator: “Those seven weeks where we had to go immediately online, I think a lot of people, including myself, hopefully learned so much about how they teach, why they teach, how to best teach, and how to communicate.”

Currently, Vermeland is getting her Educational Doctorate through CSP’s online program, which she said helped prepare her for transitioning her class.

“Probably the best thing as a teacher, is being a student this fall because I haven’t been a student since graduating in ‘94 from graduate school, so everything is different,” she says. “I got to see how an online class is set up before I had to do it and that helped immensely. I understood what I needed as a student, so I just tried to translate in being able to put that together for my students.”

Many of Vermeland’s Photo1 assignments have required students to leave their home. As the shelter-in-place order came into effect, Vermeland not only had to move her class online, but create new photo assignments that would not require her students to leave their residence.

One of the photo shoots she has assigned is “daily life from a new photograph perspective.” For this assignment, her students were asked to look at their immediate surroundings through a new lens and capture it with their cameras.

Vermeland had this to say about the assignment: “A powerful assignment that came out of this is to photograph an image of your daily world that really expresses who you are and use that as a way to introduce yourself because it just tells so much. It gives students an idea of how photographs really can communicate in ways that they could never really use words to communicate. So a lot of Photo1 is understanding how photographs communicate and how photographs are used to communicate, and then historically how photographs communicate.”

The most challenging part of moving her course online has been communication. She says letting go has been hard and she has had to trust that her students are taking care of themselves, but she has also had to rethink how she keeps her students engaged from home. Shortening classes and moving discussions from message boards to video chats have helped improve engagement and communication. Rethinking her delivery has proved to be beneficial to her growth as an educator.

Vermeland reflects on the abrupt switch saying, “That was something I struggled with in spring semester, was letting students know I was always available to talk.”

This struggle is something that has ultimately been beneficial. She says she is learning to be a better communicator.

She has found this to be especially evident when it comes to student critiques. In the traditional classroom, each student would lay out all of their photos on a table in front of them, as the class moved around the room and observed their peers’ work. In the online course, Vermeland is doing critiques quite differently. The classroom meets via the video chat platform, Collaborate, and each student presents their work one at a time.

“Critiques are better!” she says, enthusiastically. Her eyes brighten as she explains, “Everybody is looking at the work together on the screen and can really assess it, talk about it, think about it. I think those have been really engaging and satisfying. I think it’s the focused attention you don’t really get in the classroom when all the photos are laid out on the table.”

In addition to the changed delivery of critiques, Vermeland has added critique reflections to the agenda. This gives students the opportunity to really take in their peers’ commentary and to learn and grow in their work.

Vermeland remembers her own time as an undergrad and the work and anxiety that lead up to critiques: “It’s like all this work towards a critique, you try to do your best work and then oh my gosh how did you do and then you’re on to the next thing!”

She wants to change that, saying that the critique shouldn’t be the end process. Rather, it should just be part of the process in becoming a better image maker.

“What I love about teaching photography is that it’s a lifelong journey,” she says, “People are going to continue photographing after Photo1, so I just try to have them think of themselves as lifelong photographers and what can you do now to get that started? How can I launch you as a lifelong photographer? I’ve never said that before. I’m going to add that to my syllabus!”

With plans of returning to campus this fall, Vermeland says she is especially excited to teach Community Arts, a course she offers every two years. She says, “It will be a place for students to understand how communities can come together through art making, responding to the issues of the day. I am glad that students will be able to respond to COVID-19 and the death of George Floyd through the power of art.”