By Nathan Cohen
In March 2020 an announcement was broadcast that we should all stay at home and only venture out for the most essential activities. While this had been anticipated, it still came as something of a shock and heralded the start of a period in all of our lives that few might have imagined previously.
The COVID-19 coronavirus had seemed a distant concern even a few weeks before its impact began to be felt in the UK. Following the announcement social media was abuzz with the news and the MA Art and Science course group was no exception. University buildings were being closed and students would be confined to their accommodation for the foreseeable future, many a long way from their homes. This was just as our second-year students were looking forward to their final term and making preparations for the graduation exhibition of their work.
Anxiety seemed to divide into two camps. One small but vocal group of students responded initially with calls for their fees and accommodation costs to be reimbursed and compensation paid. The other, and by far larger group, seemed more understanding of the emerging situation, although nervous of what may lay ahead. My staff team were very quick to respond and we held a number of meetings during the Easter recess to prepare for the term ahead and consider what could be done to salvage the prospects for the graduating cohort.
As the daily death toll rose and panic buying of food kicked in, so anxiety levels continued to rise, but we were able very quickly to utilise digital communications to offer support to our students and staff. Zoom provided a stopgap as the university raced to put in place adequate alternatives. We realised that for at least the weeks ahead teaching and communication would be via the internet and so the entire curriculum for the summer term was adapted for online delivery within the space of a week. Additionally, we used social media to keep in touch with our students and set up what was, effectively, a pastoral hotline for those who needed to talk to us as the pandemic situation continued to develop.
By the start of the Summer term we were ready to continue online. Most students had by then had time to come to terms with what was happening and seemed relieved that the course and access to staff was continuing, albeit through the lens of digital platforms. Initially, we had been very concerned that the impact might prove too great and stress of delivering the program too acute for many to be able to cope, but as the term proceeded so a rhythm developed and we all became more adept at finding ways to communicate effectively online.
We also noticed that there was increasing levels of attendance to the various online activities as they offered one of the few opportunities to continue to meet, talk and reflect in groups. The longer the shutdown prevailed, the more important these key moments in our days became. Smaller group sessions in break out rooms for seminars and online crits were also proving to be very popular. Students also took the initiative to set up their own online forum for meetings and group chats.
The counterpoint to this was how exhausting it was proving to be for staff to sustain as the weeks progressed into months, with workloads increasing substantially and the university extending the teaching calendar to meet students’ needs. Making changes to the curriculum, adaptations to delivery, managing expectations, offering reassurance regarding assessments, and the need to be available to support students through this difficult time was also very demanding, especially as many of the staff were also needing to isolate or had family commitments to attend to as well.
The university sector nationally was looking to the Government for guidance regarding how to proceed, and in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic official communication was quite slow and at times contradictory. Clearly, safety was the highest priority although issues soon arose with student accommodation and access management. Gradually, evolving policy became translated into action and the messaging more consistent. The staggering increase in the death toll also provided additional grim evidence, if any were needed, that observing social distancing and self-isolating were the safest options at the time. Provision of PPE would come later.
As the COVID situation progressed the university was catching up with events and online teaching tools became more sophisticated and generically available. It was clear that the annual showcase for the graduating students work across all of the constituent colleges that make up University of the Arts London (UAL) would need to be adapted and, with support from IBM, a dedicated digital platform was created for this in just three months. At course level we also continued with the plans for the catalogue for our graduating students work and live symposium, only with a view to this being presented online as well.
So unfolded the initial weeks of the first wave of COVID-19 in London. New words entered the public lexicon including the magic R number (rate of spread of infection) and, for universities, “blended learning”, a combination of online teaching and learning, bookable face-to-face/workshop facilities where safe, and access to the library and student support services combined to provide the curriculum as best as possible.
The end of the summer term witnessed a magnificent response by the graduating students with a rich cornucopia of digitally adapted output celebrating their creativity and responses to the crises. Not all were accepting of the situation but most had come to realise that this was not an institutional failing. Rather, it was a situation not previously experienced affecting the whole of society in a way that was life threatening, but that in the individual and collective efforts and creativity that ensued, could also be life affirming.
For details about the MA Art and Science course at Central Saint Martins, please visit:
Nathan Cohen is an artist, educator, researcher and writer whose interests include transdisciplinary art and science engagement and practices. In 2011 he established the first UK Masters course in Art and Science at Central Saint Martins (CSM), University of the Arts London. He is also currently a WRHI Visiting Professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology in Japan, and a lead researcher on the European Union funded Erasmus+ STEAM project (2019 – 2022). New publication: ‘The Art of Science – Artists and Artworks Inspired by Science’, co-authored with colleagues at CSM, published by Welbeck (May 2021).