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An NVU Art Prof Teaches Printmaking Without a Printer


Phillip Robertson's home workstation - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy Photo
  • Phillip Robertson's home workstation

Remote learning typically involves video lectures and online tutorials. But how can you remotely teach classes that require making things by hand or with equipment not normally found in a college student's home? Since colleges have been shut down to help contain the spread of COVID-19, teachers and students are finding out.

At Northern Vermont University-Johnson, adjunct faculty member and Julian Scott Memorial Gallery director Phillip Robertson is taking the challenge in stride — and he's excited for the opportunities that come with a virtual art class.

When NVU announced on March 12 that it would suspend in-person classes on its Johnson and Lyndonville campuses, Robertson says, he wasn't alarmed by the idea of pivoting to virtual instruction, even for a tactile class such as printmaking.

In addition to his printmaking classes in Johnson, the Hardwick resident has been teaching drawing online for Community College of Vermont for nine years. Though he was initially skeptical, Robertson quickly came around to the notion of virtual art instruction. He recalls how, years ago, in his first week of using an online platform, he had a realization: "I'm like, 'Oh! I'm empowering [students] to do the work at home on their own, which is establishing good studio practices.'"

Starting this week, he's empowering his NVU students to do the same. For two weeks, Robertson's 37 Johnson students, including three interns and four doing independent study, will follow his remote-learning lesson plans, which combine academic and practical instruction.

On the academic side, learners will read one of three art history articles preselected by Robertson and respond with short essays. They'll also contribute definitions to a printmaking glossary on the web.

Hands-on practice would typically take place in an on-campus studio with ink, brayers, carving tools and multiple printing presses. But most of Robertson's students didn't have time to retrieve their supplies before they left school. And, as he puts it, "Obviously students can't pull prints that require a press."

So he's asking students to use the online learning platform Canvas to post drawings that can be used as material for future prints when they return to the studio. Classmates will discuss their work online, and Robertson will pose guiding questions.

Those who have the hardware can document plates in progress. One student, Robertson says, is working on a collagraph plate ("kind of like a collage that you then ink up"). Though she can't print it, she can document and discuss her progress online.

"[That's something] we wouldn't normally be doing," Robertson says, "so I think that's a whole other level of learning that these students are getting."

As of press time, physical classes are scheduled to resume on April 6. But, should the university suspend in-person learning for the remainder of the semester, Robertson will ensure that his artists have supplies in hand. "I will create a little bit more academic content," he says, "but I'll try to keep it focused on the production, which is what my class is all about."

The original print version of this article was headlined "From Hands-On to Online | With colleges closed, how to learn printmaking without a printer?"

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