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Collaboration and Assemblage: The Transformation of the First Year Program

For more than 18 months, SAIC’s administration has been working in collaboration with the faculty to redesign the First Year Program.

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Students are filing in slowly into the Art Institute’s Fullerton Auditorium. It is a night class and many are wearing their work clothes: they are porters, delivery boys, cooks, and waitresses. A few of them chat with the model, a young woman, adopted by a working class family from the South Side. The front row is reserved for the best students: deemed most promising by the instructor for their treatment of line, volume and space.

The woman reclines, as the students, their drawing paper backed by a board firmly planted in their pelvises for support, attempt to record her pose: the curve of her spine that brings forth her hips, the dynamism of her strained hands, the way her hair carelessly outlines the shape of the pillow in dire need of laundering. The more advanced ones strain every muscle to capture her illusive essence. The hall is filled with the sound of charcoal scratching the paper, the beat to the spectacle is provided by the instructor’s shoes, as he, in attentive silence, ascends and descends the stairs of the auditorium.

Or at least that is how Theodore Dreiser described the School of the Art Institute in his 1915 novel The Genius. If the function of introductory classes at an art school is to inform the student of key art-making approaches, then things have definitely changed.

It is 2004, and for more than 18 months, the School’s administration has been working in collaboration with the faculty to redesign the First Year Program. It is part of a wider effort to catapult the school’s curriculum and technological resources far into the 21st century. In addition to structural curriculum changes and the physical move of the Program exclusively to the Sharp building, the School is also requiring all first year students enrolled in the Core Studio classes to purchase an Apple PowerBook G4 laptop. The School is also implementing a wireless network that provides umbrella coverage for all of the buildings. The new computer portal, “” will serve as a key communication and service tool for faculty, students, and administration.

“In response to, and in support of the School’s interdisciplinary intentions, the FYP is conceived as a group of studio classes that collectively introduce beginning students to a breadth of art forms, methods, tools, and ideas,” the School of the Art Institute’s 2001-2002 Self Study asserts. The studio classes in the program taught students conceptual and technical methods within dimensional approaches. In addition, the Research Studio component helped students learn various strategies of research, both experimental and academic, in order to expand the knowledge and understanding of their subject.

As Adam Scott, and Adjunct Assistant Professor in the FYP, describes: “The FYP has been suffering from a number of structural issues for a while now. Students entering the FYP would usually find themselves in one of two contrasting situations; instructors that are expansive and allow the students to plug in and turn on, or instructors who feel it is necessary to conduct remedial exercise in the purely technical aspects of art making.” The consensus among the SAIC community was that the students were not sufficiently learning the technical or the conceptual aspect of art practice, nor receiving enough guidance to wade their way through the myriad of SAIC’s departments and practices.

The new FYP program seeks to address problems of previous years by completely reshaping the incoming student’s experience. The new six-credit Core Studio will be required for all incoming freshmen, combining them into classes of 60, co-taught by four faculty members. Two Core classes will meet on two consecutive days of the week in order to intensify the learning experience. The new facilities can be modified to accommodate students in groups of 15 to
120. They can work in smaller groups on studio projects or come together for a lecture.

The class will introduce students to various contemporary technical, conceptual and critical approaches. For example, in the first weeks of one of the classes co-taught by Michael Ryan, Adjunct Associate Professor and Faculty Advisor to the Student Union Galleries, the students will be asked to build shelters from rolled Sunday editions of New York Times. They will have to work as a team to create mini-cultures for each of their shelters, and communicate with each other without the use of speech. The project combines aspects of sculpture, design, performance, critical thought and cultural knowledge that are indicative of the new FYP. In another project, titled “Do It,” the students will have to communicate the directions of how to complete a work to another student over e-mail. “Not to say that the students are not going to learn drawing and address issues of space, but the FYP assignments will be based on projects and ideas as opposed to dimensionality,” as Lisa Wainwright, the Dean of Graduate Studies and Professor in the Deaprtment of Art History, Theory, and Criticism, states.

The first semester Research Studio component of the FYP will supplement the technical and conceptual skills acquired by the students in the Core classes by exploring how to investigate the history, politics, critical issues and cultural contexts in their work. Practices such as observation, collection, material investigation, library research, as well as search for found objects, will be utilized to help students approach their studio work, according to Jim Elniski, the Co-Director of the FYP. In addition, starting at midterm of the Fall semester, the faculty will work closely with an advisor from Student Life, in order to help the students with class selection in the Spring. The second semester Research Studio II will help students further develop ideas within particular themes, such as building a narrative, working within a historical practice or using color, chance and humor in their practice.

The incoming freshmen will not be able to take any elective classes in their first semester, but they will be able to take up to two department-specific Contemporary Practices classes in the spring, which will eventually replace the introductory classes within each department. Some of the Contemporary Practices classes will cross departments, such as painting and printmaking or art therapy and education.

The restructuring of the FYP is a step in a new direction for SAIC. As Lisa Wainwright points out, students are coming out of high schools better prepared and the School needs to challenge them within a contemporary paradigm. The idea of a single artist working in seclusion creating masterpieces for posthumous recognition is hopelessly outdated. Under present conditions, in order to survive and succeed, many artists rely on media-specific collaborations or practices linking different disciplines around a similar concept.

She provides, as an example, the synergy exhibited by John Cage’s, Robert Rauschenberg’s and Merce Cunningham’s seminal tour of Europe, which combined music, set design and choreography, based around everyday sounds, found objects and movements.

In order for the cluster-based FYP to function as intended, all of the classes will be held on the second, third and fourth floor of the Sharp building. This is a definite improvement to the old system, where students had their 2-D and 3-D classes in the Columbus building and then had to make their way across Michigan Avenue for time-based work. Every Core Studio class will have access to two general use classrooms equipped with wall partitions to accommodate the fluid class-size, as well as a woodshop, a peripherals lab, and a space for lectures and presentations.

Despite the 18 months it took to develop the new FYP, recent months proved to be very challenging for staff, administration and especially the instructors. As long-time SAIC faculty member Michael Ryan pointed out, “Things have been asked of me that I have never done before.” While Ryan has previously team-taught for “Art Across the Streets” class, many of other faculty have not. He noted that preparation time for classes involving four teachers is much longer, and there is a “greater chance for insecurity and vulnerability.” While some of the faculty teams have been developing the curriculum along their specialized dimension lines, others have been collaborating with each other across dimensionality and media. “To survive you have to bring some part of yourself to the table,” Ryan asserts.

Most of the faculty in the FYP department happens to be part-time, and work other jobs; the switch to collaborative teaching proved to be a strain. The key to implementing the new framework of collaboration among faculty had been, according to Ryan, “coming up with a communication structure, among faculty and future students.” He hopes the new portal will facilitate that, while realizing some will be initially reluctant or lack access to it. “It has been a huge challenge to get to this point,” Elniski said.

Adam Scott emphasized that the “core clusters will act as an interdisciplinary centrifuge, hitting the incoming students with concepts and techniques from all of the disciplines that in the old model were discreetly separated; this should prove to be nothing if not vibrant and somewhat chaotic first taste of SAIC.” Paul Coffey, Director of the Undergraduate Division, agrees: “The truly interdisciplinary nature of the FYP depicts the School at large.”

Despite the broad changes, there is very little room for failure. The faculty has been developing curriculum to maximize the cluster format. “We have to make sure the students are not the guinea pigs,” says Michael Ryan.

A successful implementation of the proposed changes to the FYP required an alternative to the old system of communication. The curriculum changes and the implementations of new technologies have ushered in the “” portal. According to Chas Scidmore, Director of Administrative Applications, the portal will function as a private web site, reached through an authenticated sign-on, offering on-line services, features and resources. It will consolidate various applications and content, such as web mail, personalized calendars, and school-wide announcements. It is proposed that the portal will support on-line class registration for the Spring 2005 semester.

An important aspect of the portal will be the ability to foster a sense of community between students and faculty. As Skidmore describes it, it will serve as a virtual student union, consolidating the SAIC community split between three buildings. Faculty will be able to automatically communicate with students in their class via discussion groups. Students will be able create their own groups based on their interests and post text, topics, share images, text files or links.

The portal is intended to eventually phase out the all-school e-mail system, in favor of announcements posted on the user’s home page. SAIC’s website will be transformed into an information resource directed to the outside community. The School’s administration has been traditionally very serious about maintaining computer user’s privacy, and intends to keep this policy with the portal.

In addition to the restructuring of the FYP curriculum, the School is also introducing laptop computers as a requirement for all incoming first year students to expose them to research techniques, image editing, and time-based art production. While this year only the FYP students enrolled in Core Studio classes will be required to purchase laptops, there are plans to integrate laptops and the portal across most of the School’s classes.

One of the reasons for the implementation of laptops in the School, according to Hiroko Yamamura, Assistant Director of Computing Resourses and Information Technologies, has been the continuous increase in demand on the computer labs in the Michigan and Sharp buildings. She strongly insisted that “we do not want to intimidate anybody with technology,” a statement backed up by the continuous training sessions CRIT has conducted for the School’s faculty.

In addition to training and resistance issues, one of the concerns that come with the introduction of several hundreds of laptops to the School’s campus is the problem of theft or simple absentmindedness.

Of course, computers will not completely change the classroom environment. FYP students will still have to attend class and participate in live critiques, but the faculty will be introducing numerous computer-based assignments. The laptop is an added tool that will be made integral to the life of many SAIC students; however, “computers are only as interesting as their end user. In this specific case, the computers are being used as a digitally adrenalized sketchbooks,” says Adam Scott. “The people that are really in trouble are the faculty who do not use computers on a regular basis, not the students.”

The FYP faculty underwent extensive training on using the laptops and software, because they will ultimately be responsible for training the students. There will be computer technicians, who are part of the Student Computing office in the Sharp Building, dedicated exclusively to supporting the FYP students. Michael Ryan said that even though he was not very familiar with the new technology, the more he learned about it, the more comfortable he became with it. He sees the change in the FYP curriculum, and the integration of laptops and the Portal as one of the biggest changes in the School’s history.

The reinvention of the program together with the technological improvements will dramatically alter the School’s curriculum. The true test of the changes will be the reactions of the students and the way they approach their work. As Adam Scott says, “Exposing students to the real conditions of contemporary art-making is always a sure bet. The conditions are this: there are no rules, and everything is permitted.”

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