My Thoughts as an Animation Educator

I started teaching storyboarding in a university’s animation program last fall, and am teaching a second class this spring semester. And now my time with my students together in person was unceremoniously cut short. With classes online (which I agree with) for the rest of the semester, here are my personal thoughts as an animation educator during the pandemic.

Again, these are my thoughts and opinions–not my schools or anyone else’s.

If you want to LISTEN to this article, I have a recording you can listen to by jumping to the end of the article.

Transitioning Classes Online

Of course, the big challenge school-wise has been transitioning all classes online. My school in particular had been very on-top of things, sending out emails encouraging teachers to start brainstorming and preparing for remote learning weeks before things started picking up. Of course, being in the NY area put us at the probable (and then actual) epicenter of the US outbreak, and so we had to take it more seriously sooner than the rest of the country. Even with a few extra weeks to brainstorm and prep, it still felt abrupt when the switch happened.

There are two types of classes that are being transitioned for remote learning: those that can and those that cannot be smoothly updated.

Fortunately, my class is the former. I teach digital storyboarding for animation. I’d say it’s one of the smoother classes in terms of transfer-ability. Especially compared to others in the animation department, our broader school of the arts, or other more hands-on departments/majors.

There are fine art classes requiring heavy equipment or machinery, well-ventilated rooms. Figure drawing, with its endless supply of resources and YouTube channels with models, and considerably inexpensive newspaper print drawing pads and charcoal fares a lot better than a sculpture class with pottery wheels and kilns. Thesis students doing stop motion would need to have the means and space to transport their sets wherever they’re working otherwise stop production. If cg thesis students don’t have access to school render-farm’s I doubt their personal machines have the processing power to render in realistic amount of time.

Normally in my class, we use Cintiqs (large drawing tablets/monitors) at each station in the lab, drawing in Photoshop. We bring our storyboards into Premiere to edit into animatics. Outside of class, some students use personal iPads with a drawing stylus, or have their own smaller tablets like a Wacom Intuos. Some don’t, and so they can only work when in the labs. I’ll get back to this in a second.

The main adjustment I had to make to my syllabus was slowing it down for a bit.

Because of how quickly students had to leave campus, I opted to slow down the pace of my class during that time. While we were aiming for two bigger projects this semester, I’ve cut it down to one. For the rest of the semester, I was going to do fewer lectures about story structure and whatnot, and focus more on student pitches and turning critiques into mini lessons for everyone. Our first meeting attempting that was last week, but it doesn’t seem like many are able to or willing to pitch. I think instead of watching each other pitch, they’d want to spend that time actually just working on their own assignments (which I get).

Keeping Student Needs in Mind

When it comes to school–especially university–and especially art education, you can’t have that conversation without talking about privilege. What having a family with a stronger socio-economic background, with generational wealth, what general stability offers for ones future success makes any notion of meritocracy seem laughable.

There’s plenty of reading about this. How the majority of students who enter professional careers in art usually come from well-off families. How, for the longest time, internships were unpaid and out of reach for students who needed to hold down other jobs to stay afloat. How, due to generational wealth and the wealth gaps that disproportionately affect people of color due to things like housing discrimination, students just don’t start out on a level playing field, full stop.

All of that to say, I try not to assume things regarding my students’ lives and circumstances, and how those circumstances have possibly been compounded by the pandemic. I can’t honestly say I really know anything about their backgrounds. For example, I can’t assume any of them have something as robust (read: expensive) as the big Cintiqs we have in the labs. But some students in the department might have them.

Going back to what I described about what my normal class uses, the first thing I had to see was if all of my students had access to computers outside of school. It sounds like the students had a couple days to only a few hours to get into their dorms and get out. I think they allowed for some students to remain on campus if they had no where else to go (perhaps international students or students with unsafe home lives). I had to know what we were working with.

Thankfully, they all have access to a computer and a smartphone. But not all of them have a drawing tablet of any kind. So I have some students who have to draw on paper and then bring their drawings onto their computers, likely taking a photo of each with their smartphone. Our school has student licenses for the Adobe Suite, so they should all be able to install Photoshop and Premiere, and hopefully their computers are robust enough to run those. It sucks for those students that don’t have access to a drawing device of any kind. That’s one of those things where it’s like…not a big deal (of course storyboards were originally hand drawn on paper) but I cannot deny how much nicer and easier and smoother it is to just do things digitally. Even the difference between a monitor tablet where you see the pen to ‘paper,’ see the lines you’re drawing vs regular tablets that are not monitors (and your eyes are watching a monitor while your hand is elsewhere drawing) makes a huge difference for me personally. But I’d take a tablet with no screen over nothing.

I know that it’s not about the tools, but obviously the tools help you create a smooth workflow. Yes, they could edit their boards on their phones, but creating an editing workflow in premiere with nesting and layers to help with music and sound allows for the process to not get in the way of the making.

I also just don’t know where most of my students are. I’ve only asked a bit, trying not to put anyone on the spot. If they managed to get to their parent’s or other relative’s homes, if they’re at the dorms, at a friend’s place. Again, you really can’t act like you know what’s going on in someone’s life. Because wherever they are, I also don’t know what that environment is like. If they live with elderly family members and are extra worried about them, if they live with family they don’t get along with and the quarantine is creating a strain, if they live with younger siblings who need more attention during this time, if they needed to get a part time job doing deliveries because they lost their on-campus job.

I. Just. Don’t. Know.

I’m just hoping that they’ve had enough time to settle into some type of normal, whatever that may look like for them. Everyone deals with grief and uncertainty differently.

Should There Be Classes at All

All of that begs the question of if there should even be classes. I personally do think there’s nothing wrong with continuing them, but with caveats–with the understanding that students may not be able to 100% commit to their role as ‘student’ now versus when they had the stability the campus/facilities/classes offered them.

One thing we are seeing with most people working from home is a collective drop in productivity. Arguably a collective nihilism too. This has really put into perspective how we live our lives, where we spend our time, who we value most. Just…value in general. We went from students and teachers to just people trying to stay safe and get through this.

So where does school fit in to that? Because school, work, and productivity are not as important as safety and personal well-being.

And everyone’s personal well-being is probably not optimal right now.

We’re actively going through a tragedy, a trauma. However your coping mechanisms manifest, no one is fully ‘themselves’ right now.

Something that has actually helped me understand how some students have been is YouTube. I’ve actually really appreciated the art student vloggers that I follow who have been sharing their perspectives. One who I started following a long time ago goes by CatCreature, who is a tactile/fabrics major at RISD who made a video about her school closing down and her senior thesis being fundamentally altered due to lack of access to studios and equipment. Hers is just one of thousands of stories about students lives changing.

Another student went a bit viral on Twitter due to her feelings that NYU wasn’t handling her film classes adequately:

Camryn’s comments go back to what I said before about some classes being relatively the same online vs fundamentally changed.

Some classes have had to turn from practical, hands on classes to more theoretical “appreciation” classes, or classes where (like Camryn mentions) students were expecting to end with a certain number of projects/portfolio pieces but may end up with far less, at significantly lower quality.

This isn’t a matter of, “if they care enough, they’ll find a way and do the work,” but rather, “can they do the work and how do we fairly respond if they can’t?” And I don’t have an answer.

That goes for teachers too. This isn’t about a teacher being ‘creative’ or ‘dedicated’ enough to come up with solutions when their class promised one thing and it can no longer fundamentally deliver on that. Of course they’ll do what they can for their students, but again some class full stop just can’t be converted.


Naturally, this had lead to many tweets, open letters, petitions, and general discussions about refunds. I’m not involved in this at all, but have just noticed articles and tweets about students arguing for partial refunds for classes (or at least certain classes), as well as prorated refunds for dorming and meal plan costs. All of which, I completely understand. It’s a shit situation for everyone.

This will definitely affect certain schools more than others, and I’m sure is actively affecting the staff at these places, like cafeteria workers, cleaning teams, maintenance and more.


Overall, I’m glad classes carry on. It keeps everyone doing something, even though I often struggle to. So ask me that tomorrow and I’ll feel differently. I just hope students are finding some structure and know to communicate with teachers if they run into issues, and I hope teachers over communicate to students that they’re there to support them.

I am also aware that I’m more okay with my class continuing because I personally feel like I’m trying to maintain and convey a healthy, scaled back balance with my students, and have been clear and upfront about things. I am hoping no one is stressed, and I hope they reach out if they are, while also knowing that some of the students who might need to reach my the most are the ones who won’t or can’t. So again, it’s tricky. I both really despise people who spout business as usual without acknowledging things, but also crave that normalcy and get mad when it’s clearly not there.

While this doesn’t really change my role (just how I execute it), this hugely affects the students going through it. Forgive the corporate buzzword, but there’s a lack of synergy in online classes some times. In a classroom there’s just a different vibe vs online learning, I feel as both a professor and as someone who was a student as recently as last spring who has taken in-person and online classes. Online learning has improved dramatically, and there’s still jokes and conversations and everything else, but it’s just different.

It’s also not what we signed up for. This requires a mindset shift no one was ready for, on many levels. It’s one thing to take an online class knowing you signed up for an online class versus have an in-person one change. No one is to blame, of course. It’s just the world we now live in.

Grades

Debates about grading naturally came up. In the grand scheme of things, this situation really hits home how unimportant so many things are. Grades are arguably one of them, especially in a field like animation.

Something I learned from CatCreature a few weeks ago was that RISD switched over their letter grading to Pass/Fail. I’ve followed these conversations on social media out of interest, knowing my school was likely having similar conversations.

Some people feared switching to Pass/Fail would spur students to not take classes seriously anymore, and only do the bare minimum since the bar would be so low. I understand that concern, while also taking in the context of everything that’s lead to this. That, yeah, maybe that’s the most a student could do right now. But a line does have to be drawn somewhere, and that’s difficult. When our school has been turned into a drive through testing site, there’s a tent hospital a block away from my home, and out local hospitals are completely overwhelmed, it’s fair to not want to have to pressure students to deliver work.

My school recently announced that students would be able to decide for themselves which of their classes would be letter graded and which would be Pass/Fail. There’s pros and cons to both, but it’s interesting to put it in the students’ hands.

And Endless Loop

Every student learns differently, and every student is going to adjust to this differently. Students that may have flourished in an online or self-directed learning environment might find themselves unable to work as well due to anxiety over the looming news. Some who may have struggled in a classroom setting might enjoy working on their own time alone. Maybe people who were afraid to speak up in classes are more vocal in emails. I’m sure there are some who were looking to do the bare minimum before and will continue that line of thinking even stronger now.

This is new to everyone, and every day I feel differently and react differently about everything.

There’s a general sadness I feel for my and other students too. Sad for my students missing lab time together, in class interactions. I’m sad for students who were dorming and missing out on the fun shenanigans that come from that, as well as end of year events, thesis shows, graduation of course. I’m sad the thesis students are going through making their films alone, and are missing that ‘in the trenches’ camaraderie of everyone suffering together at 3am in the labs and going to the 24-hour diner nearby for a break.

I feel bad for teachers who may not be as technologically proficient, and for the facilities and staff who may have been laid off or furloughed. Even then, local businesses and restaurants are affected by the lack of students. Everyone is connected.

For me, it seems like we’re all at some stage of grief. We’re all handling this differently. I’ve personally felt that over-communicating, and trying to go about things empathetically have always been my go-to in any situation. It definitely doesn’t always work, and maybe my students think I’m an oversensitive baby lol, but I just hope it conveys enough to know that I am probably feeling or have felt how they do, that we’re all humans trying to navigate this together.

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