By Dr Simon Standing
As I write this article the UK is moving out of a national lockdown – again. This time, however, the Government roadmap that was announced is the attempt to return the country to some form of normality. In this path to unrestricted life we have recently reached a next step, which allows people to meet outside in groups of six only, and with only essential shops open. It will not be until 17 May (at the earliest) that a further change in restrictions occurs and indeed not until June 21 that all restrictions could be rescinded. These two dates, rather ironically, align to milestones in the academic year. 17 May is the beginning of the week where most creative arts undergraduate programmes in my School have their deadlines, and the week of 21 June is when we are due to hold our end of year Degree Show across the city of Plymouth.
Looking back to March 2020, the move from educational normality to a purely online experience was, in some respects at least, surprisingly smooth – at least from a staff perspective. Lectures, seminars and tutorials immediately moved online, with staff working out of their homes and students out of their accommodation. Technicians recorded material to support students, and ran online advice sessions each day, having set up working environments at home also. Thinking back to this time I remember there was a strange air of excitement mixed with that of the uncertainty and fears of a pandemic. There was something new and strangely intriguing about the shifts that were occurring and due to the timing of the lockdown, students were soon to move into the final few weeks of the year. There was a sense of short-termism that was apparent. But of course, when the reality hit, with the death tolls and the long-term predictions starting to appear, the situation became immediately more sobering. And for the students, life changed in ways they would never have anticipated.
An element that became apparent very quickly was the difference between students “who had” and students “who hadn’t”. The reliance on digital technologies exposed significant disparity between students who had effective internet connectivity and those that didn’t and, in my discipline area, those who had cameras and photographic equipment and those that didn’t. And there were those students who had developed friendship groups, particularly those in the second and third years of their programmes, who were sharing accommodation and had a sense of a supportive community, versus those that were still relatively new to higher education, were younger, and had only recently moved away from home. They hadn’t established the same connections and support mechanisms as their peers.
Then there was the ability for certain disciplines within the School to move more effectively to digital and online practice than others. Whilst realising the following is a sweeping statement, photography students could often adapt practices and maintain some form of meaningful practice, even if it was not what they had originally intended. People had to change projects, but they could at least produce work in digital form immediately, and share it effectively through online means. And whilst there are exceptions, many photography students can work individually. Fine Art students, 3D Design students, Graphic Design and Illustration students of course are what we term “studio” subjects. The communal working space and the human experiential dimension of this is so hugely significant, that the shift to online, at-home learning, was massively disruptive – and remains so currently. Then of course there are those disciplines that are entirely reliant on collaboration and working in groups – filmmaking crews being the most obvious example. Whilst alternatives to shooting material are still possible for film students (and indeed are reflective of industry changes) the learning of production techniques, and the development of the range of skills required in this discipline, have been significantly impacted.
But most significantly of all for students I think is the shift away from material making, or at least losing access to the wide range of facilities normally available to them. At the outset of the pandemic the closure of our letterpress, printmaking, silkscreen, ceramics, wood, metal and analogue photographic facilities set in motion a year of predominantly-digital production at the expense of material and process experimentation. This has far-reaching consequences for the students as it has curbed what is so vital about Higher Education – the room to explore diverse ways of thinking through making. The chance to experiment. Of course, all programmes in the School worked with their students to mitigate negative impacts and there have been some excellent examples of entrepreneurial spirit in evidence, such as posting materials to students and undertaking sun-printing photographic workshops where students worked imaginatively with what they had around them in the home. And this problem-solving, lateral thinking and adaptability are all vital graduate skills that students will take with them. But in online conversations with the APHE network, in photographic educational terms at least, it is clear that there is a feeling that what we have been able to do is put a sticking plaster on a gaping wound. We have found ways to continue, but at what real expense to the students and their ability to realise their aspirations for employment – particularly those final year students who have had nearly 50% of their time at university affected?
And this is how I summarise the year – one of continually shifting between a positive sense of continuation in adverse conditions to that of concern for the impact on student aspirations and potential.
Simon Standing is Deputy Head of the School of Art, Design & Architecture, University of Plymouth, UK and is an Associate Professor of Photography with a primary focus on undergraduate programmes. He is also Co-Chair of APHE, the Association for Photography in Higher Education, a UK-based subject association.