Reflecting on Teaching Illustration Online

With grant support from Full Spectrum Learning, this past semester I got to implement some of the lessons and ideas of #DigPINS when I taught a Special Topics course in Illustration. The class was truly special for me in a number of ways: 1) it was my first time teaching a hybrid class that takes place both online and in person, 2) I got to try out a topic I love with advanced students who were equally fired up about it, and 3) the hybrid nature of the course was uniquely supportive of my early months of mothering a tiny person (who arrived at the end of the fall semester). The course gave me a purposeful connection to the college community I love while allowing me to keep a schedule that centered around the un-circadian rhythms of a newborn.

Said newborn and one of 28 small gouache paintings I did parallel to this class as part of #sketchuary.

Below I’m going to briefly outline the structure and weekly rhythm of our course in case you, like I, have never taught an online or hybrid course and don’t have a sense of what that means practically.

In our class we primarily used two platforms to host our work: slack, a free, private, group workspace for sharing messages, images, links, informal thoughts, and other work-in-progress (#WIP); and art389.katieries.com, a public website hosted as a subdomain on my personal site* and running WordPress. All students in the class were added to our slack team and were given user/author accounts for the WordPress site. Prior to the start of the semester, I stocked the class site with posts making up the content of the syllabus. I also posted the syllabus as a straight multipage PDF for those (like me) who prefer their content a little more linear than the branching structure of a website. Students also got a Premium subscription to SkillShare, a website with thousands of curated and edited tutorial videos on creative techniques and concepts. I also asked students to set up a website through the college’s Domains program and to think about what, if any, work they wanted to post there. They were required to create an online illustration portfolio on their own domains as part of the final.

* – Side note: I learned I had not talked enough about formatting images for the web when my 14 students each uploaded files ranging from 1-2 MB and my hosting data got all but used up. Should have brushed up on my “Digital Survival Skills” from Bryn Mawr’s Digital Competencies Framework.

We worked on four projects during the semester: an introductory assignment exploring gouache and our artist identities, a surface design project, an editorial illustration project, and a final self-directed project with online portfolio. For the first three projects, I assigned students videos to watch on SkillShare, short essays to read and reflect on, and progress work to post to slack. We would post our work-in-progress and respond to one another on slack. We would meet in person at least once-a-project to touch base, critique work, or Skype with freelance illustrators. (Shout out to Lauren Lowen and Sam’s Myth for being so thoughtful and generous with their time.) The bulk of our communication was online, but our final critiques were often in person.

Sam Smith, AKA Sam’s Myth talking with our class about his work

In thinking about what worked and what didn’t for this class, it is impossible for me to separate out the strands of the hybrid structure, the newness of teaching illustration, and the weird contracting time of early baby days. The things that I loved about the course, like the flexible schedule and giving asynchronous feedback, where also the things many students mentioned liking. Thankfully, some of the things I worried about didn’t show up as much in student feedback. I had been concerned that the lack of in-person lectures and relying on SkillShare for content might seem to students like I wasn’t delivering the goods in terms of What Teachers Do. Instead, SkillShare was an ideal platform for accommodating a variety of software preferences and levels of experience. Motivated and curious students could geek out on learning more advanced techniques. Less engaged students could speed through the tutorial videos at double speed. Or skip them entirely.

In proposing the course, I suggested that our digital communications would be akin to the back and forth of an art director and a freelance illustrator. The “digital” here is a feature, not a bug. While I personally missed the ability to “read the room” and to respond to cues in people’s body language and tone of voice, for the most part we had rich and constructive communication. Our group met face-to-face around six times over the semester. I think both students and I were grateful for our face-to-face check ins. In an in-person critique, we could deliver impactful feedback and answer an artist’s specific questions. While the asynchronous feedback we gave on slack was nice in that people could tend to it when they chose to, in-person feedback helps when the deadline is tight or when dialogue and questioning can be helpful to your process.

Another gouache painting for #sketchuary

Were I to teach a hybrid course again, I’d want to spend some more time working with students to articulate, and set expectations for, what it looks like to have “good classroom community” online. At the recent D3 conference at SNC, speaker Martha Burtis talked about the importance of letting students teach each other. Now I’m thinking about how I could better use the systems of our class (slack, email, and our WordPress site) to encourage and facilitate peer teaching. Similarly, this class was my first time testing out some of Jesse Stommel’s ideas on “ungrading.” I am convinced that quantitative grades are not helpful in pushing students to make better art. Our foray into ungraded-ness was a little messy, but good. I’m excited to fine tune the process such that I will be comfortable using it with first-year and beginning students.

I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to teach Illustration, to try out a hybrid course, and to keep a foot in the world of the classroom while I tended the home fires of the new human.

(2) Comments

  1. Krissy Lukens

    So fun to read how #DigPINS helped shape some of your course, and how some takeaways from D3 will be meaningful for future iterations! I appreciate your reflections on how the hybrid nature of the course was mutually beneficial for both you and your students. Your illustrations are beautiful!

    1. Katie Ries

      Thanks Krissy! I appreciate your support in this process.

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