Winding down the on-line class, art

My Philosophy of Art class this term was synchronous, meaning that students and I typically logged onto a real-time Zoom meeting for class. I had students fill out a survey about their experience of the course. One question was about how the on-line experience compared to a face-to-face class, and this was the result—

From the standpoint of learning and engagement, having this course on-line was ____ having it in person.

…better than… 23%…about the same as… 41%…worse than… 36%

I would have said about the same, but that’s not quite right. There were definite differences, but some were for the better. On balance, it was a good course. Although I was adapting to the format as I went along, I’m not sure it would have been a better course face-to-face in a classroom.

Group discussion

I could split students into small groups for discussion using the Zoom’s Breakout Room feature, but it doesn’t work as well as having them circle up in a physical classroom. Checking on the Breakout Rooms is awkward and slow, so it’s hard to get a quick sense of how the groups are doing. And there’s no good way to communicate with all the groups if I want to update or elaborate on the prompt.1

The chat box

Zoom provides a chat box which allows participants to type comments. I used this sometimes to share a link or a bit of text that wasn’t on my slides, but mostly students used it. It allowed students who were having problems with their microphone or felt awkward speaking to contribute to the discussion.

Although sometimes I forgot it was there, I tried to glance over at the chat box every once in a while. When there was a good question or an interesting point raised there, I’d talk about it. Sometimes students would chat a follow-up to something with the comment that I didn’t need to talk about it.

There are some things I would have handled with small groups in a face-to-face class that I handled instead with the whole class using the chat box. When we read Jesse Prinz on the aesthetics of punk rock, we listened to a bunch of clips and students commented in the chat box in real-time.2


I noticed part-way through the semester that I wasn’t pausing as long for student responses as I would in a face-to-face class. In a classroom, I spend a moment surveying the faces in front of me to see whether they’re understanding. Often, someone looks like they want to comment or ask a question, and I can prompt them to do so.

In Zoom, it’s much harder to get a read of the room. So the silences feel more awkward, and it’s tempting to start talking again to fill them.

When I noticed this, I started adding in deliberate delays: Pause. Check the chat box. Take a drink of coffee. Give it a beat before moving on, even after it feels like I should move on.


I usually don’t prepare slides for class. Instead, I write things on the board as needed. That means that I can change a lot more on-the-fly. What makes it onto the board is guided by what’s in my notes but ultimately reflects what was important in the live discussion.

I’m not happy with the on-line white board options, so I prepared slides for this class. This often meant that I showed them more words than I would have written on the board in a face-to-face class, because I made slides for things that I would have decided (in the moment) not to write on the board. But it also meant that I showed them more examples of art work.

The last time I taught philosophy of art, I used slides to give examples of works— but only the minimum required to launch the discussion of the philosophical issues. Having slides up the whole time this semester meant that I was free to offer lots more examples. We talked about Duchamp’s readymades, of course, but also Damien Hirst’s The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living and Martha Schwartz’s Bagel Garden.3 When we read Mary Beth Willard on street art, we looked at lots of examples. When we read Wesley Cray on conceptual art, ditto.


Instead of asking for one longer paper, I had students participate in on-line forums almost every week. I used the cliché expectation that they make a post and at least two responses to other students’ posts. Half of their grade for each forum was for their initial post (which they made before being able to see what other people posted) and the other half was for their responses.

For the first month of the term, I was disappointed that there were never conversations in the forum. Occasionally someone would respond to a response, but it never went further than that.

The mandatory responses were interesting, though, because sometimes students would admit to changing their mind. They had said something in their own post, but reading someone else’s post convinced them otherwise.

So I realized that it’s valuable to have them read each others’ posts. Requiring substantive responses gave me evidence that they’d done so, something I could grade, even if other students didn’t read the responses and start a conversation.

This worked well and students liked it. Although it’s something I could have done in a face-to-face class, it’s something I wouldn’t have tried if the course hadn’t been on-line.

From the standpoint of learning and engagement, forum discussions were ___ a single long paper.

…better than… 73%…about the same as… 14%…worse than…14%
A spaceman looks at Duchamp's Fountain and asks "This is art?" Another spaceman points a gun at him and says "Always has been." A label indicates that the second spacemen is P.D. Magnus.
A meme posted to the final week’s discussion forum by one of the students.
  1. It’s possible to send them a line of text, but it doesn’t show up in the chat box and is easy to overlook.
  2. If I’d been in a classroom, I would have downloaded the songs I planned to play onto my tablet. Since I was using my laptop, though, I had my whole music library available and could adapt the playlist on the fly. I hadn’t planned on playing any Social Distortion, but they came up in discussion.
  3. Several students said in the last week’s forum that the Hirst piece was their favorite from the semester.

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