NiTRO + Creative Matters

Perspectives on creative arts in higher education

From both sides

Recent online interviews with Professor Carol Becker, Dean of the Columbia University School of the Arts, and Professor Rob Cutietta, Dean of the Thornton School of Music, University of Southern California (USC), offered insights into the impact of 2020 on the tertiary arts sector on the eastern and western seaboards of the United States.

By Professor Jane Davidson

Recent online interviews with Professor Carol Becker, Dean of the Columbia University School of the Arts, and Professor Rob Cutietta, Dean of the Thornton School of Music, University of Southern California (USC), offered insights into the impact of 2020 on the tertiary arts sector on the eastern and western seaboards of the United States. Both deans reflected on the massive operational changes in their schools due to COVID-19 as well as commenting on responses to the Black Lives Matter Movement.

Many students from other states or countries had remained in New York City, living under highly restricted conditions, often crowded into tiny accommodation and with COVID cases surrounding them. Dealing with this sort of trauma required care.

At Columbia, a complex suite of COVID-19 arrangements was implemented. Some courses were moved entirely online, some included elements of on-campus attendance, and others, such as Theatre, were paused until the dynamics of person-to-person interaction could be restored. For creative writing students, the intense skills-focus and critical reflection that arose from tempering social isolation with internet connectivity and guided learning saw them flourish off-campus. Conversely, the scheduling of on-campus solo studio space to visual artists enabled their more complete immersion in projects. Overall, the range of solutions offered staff and students a route through the relentless horror of New York’s COVID-19 deaths. As Professor Becker pointed out, many students from other states or countries had remained in New York City, living under highly restricted conditions, often crowded into tiny accommodation and with COVID cases surrounding them. Dealing with this sort of trauma required care, and Columbia kept in close contact with all of its students throughout.

At USC, in an unprecedented logistical operation, all learning moved online providing a clear and defined context for staff and students alike. USC did everything possible to maintain connectivity and facilitate learning. Each music student was sent a microphone with technical instructions enabling them to work with tutors to maximise individual learning in video exchange and feedback. Large musical instruments like pianos and percussion were distributed out to homes across the country. But a key ingredient of on-campus music study that could not be replicated was a quiet space in which to work. Certainly, some could convert garages or basements into sound-proofed studios with state-of-the-art technology, but many could not. These contrasts in students’ personal opportunities offers stark reminders of the gulf that exists between different sectors of the university’s student community, and the population more broadly.

Large musical instruments like pianos and percussion were distributed out to homes across the country.

On a more positive trajectory, bountiful evidence of incredible collegiality and never-before imagined synergies bode well for the future. At USC the opera students partnered with composition students, to create exciting new works and solo singers learned self-accompaniment to overcome the problems associated with internet time delay. The Early Music studio focused on editing asynchronous performances from click tracks, working collaboratively to learn how to edit and balance the individual lines into a cohesive whole – new skills that offered both deep listening and insights into the production of sound. On both sides of the country, students were offered a new contextual curriculum on how to prepare for next career steps. These online lectures and seminars were welcomed and will be continued as key new additions to learning.

Over and above the impact of COVID-19, the urgency of the Black Lives Matter Movement has also brought welcome and radical changes. Both deans were eager to note how creatively and passionately staff and students had re-imagined and re-vitalised curricula to bring diversity and inclusion to the heart of learning. Professor Cutietta concluded that the “influence of this movement has offered the education sector more positives in the past six months than experienced in the previous 20 years.”

There is no immediate or magical tool to aid in implementing all new frameworks, practices and ideals. Moreover, further reformative efforts are essential if the harsh realities of ongoing threats to health and social justice are to be rebutted. But the challenges and period of change experienced in US tertiary education has been embraced with deep empathy and hope. For Deans Becker and Cutietta, the tertiary curriculum has shifted and re-focused in positive ways, furthering the development of analytical and reflective competence, refining arts techniques and skills, and enabling the production of work that is responsive to deep critical review. When these new skills merge and coalesce with vitality of studio learning, it is certain that even further exciting results will ensue. 


Professor Jane W. Davidson is Head of Performing Arts at Faculty of Fine Arts and Music, University of Melbourne and current President of the Australian Music and Psychology Society. With over 200 scholarly contributions, grants and awards in Australia and overseas, her research interests embrace performance and expression, intercultural engagement and music for wellbeing outcomes. She was Editor of Psychology of Music (1997-2001), Vice-President of the European Society for the Cognitive Sciences of Music (2003-2006), President of the Musicological Society of Australia (2010-2011), and Deputy Director of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions (2011-2018). 

Professor Carol Becker is Dean of Columbia University’s School of the Arts. Her research focuses on the role of art in society, with outputs including the volume ‘Surpassing the Spectacle: Global Transformation and the Changing Politics of Art’ (Rowman & Littlefield, 2002). She has a significant leadership experience, being the former Dean of Faculty and Vice-President for Academic Affairs at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Professor Rob Cutietta is Dean of the Thornton School of Music and the Kaufman School of Dance at the University of Southern California. A leading music educator, he has published widely including the recent  ‘Who Knew? Answers To Questions About Classical Music You Never Thought To Ask’ (Oxford University Press, 2016). Prior to USC, he was director of the School of Music and Dance at the University of Arizona.

More from this issue

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