The latest in a series of one-on-one conversations with SVA department chairs.
When the MPS Digital Photography Department opened its doors in 2007, it provided an innovative curriculum aimed at photography professionals who wanted an intensive approach to shoring up their skills in the field’s latest methods and technologies. This past year, Department Chair Katrin Eismann innovated further by offering the College’s first distance-learning program, wherein students take fall and spring-semester courses with SVA faculty online, followed by a rigorous summer term in New York City during which they produce their thesis projects (an electronic portfolio, book and exhibition prints) alongside the department’s other students.
Eismann and Tom Ashe, the MPS program’s associate chair, sat down with the Briefs to discuss the low-residency option and their cooperative approach to running the department.
Your program is the first at SVA to integrate distance-learning technology into the curriculum. How does that work for your students and faculty?
Eismann: Students take the same curriculum with many of the same instructors in fall and spring; in summer they come here and produce their final thesis. We put a lot of time and effort into creating a rich environment where the students get a lot of information: we take them on virtual gallery tours, have Skype meetings and do live critiques. They form a sense of community with each other and with us, so when they show up in NYC, it’s like picking up an old friend at the airport.
Ashe: The students’ main interface is a system called Blackboard, through which they’re interacting with the course info, the other students, video content and interactive content. Every week, students get new lecture materials and assignments on Sunday night; by the next week, they’ve discussed it and presented their assignments.
KE: A lot of times online education has a tainted reputation. But our class size is equal to or smaller than what we have in the classroom. Students get a lot of attention, and we notice that students are putting 40–50 hours a week into the online courses. It’s a rigorous, graduate-level learning experience.
The two of you run the department in a very cooperative manner. How did you develop your division of labor and how does it benefit the program?
KE: The program couldn’t work without either of us. Tom and I each have specialties, and we balance one another.
TA: Katrin really comes in from the aspect of Photoshop and the creative side; my specialty is color management, output, the technical side. As far as division of labor, we’ve divided a faculty/student focus: Katrin focuses on faculty and development of curriculum; I’m the advisor to the students, and I make sure they’re registered and have the requirements to graduate.
KE: If students have a problem, Tom is their first resource, which frees me up to work with faculty and curriculum. Because our student body is so diverse with such a variety of interests, they know they can reach out to either one of us for advice and get an answer.
Why does your program include the summer term?
KE: It would be very easy for us to add classes and become a full two-year program. But we talk to students at the end of each year and many tell us, ‘I signed up because the program is concentrated and one year long.’ That said, starting in September we’re offering a part-time, two-year online version. The part-time option has been well-received with applicants who have to maintain a full-time job; it allows us to offer our curriculum and knowledge to people who have a job, a mortgage or a family and can’t come to New York full-time.
Is there a particular style or quality to the work that your students do that you think is beginning to be identifiable with the program?
KE: Each year we have photographers who work in fashion, landscape, journalism, editorial—we have all types of photographers, and they’re learning from each other. There isn’t a look, but the thing that sets our students’ work apart is the quality of it. It’s high-quality work conceptually, and they learn to produce professional Web sites, branding materials and gallery-quality prints.
What impresses you most about your students?
TA: The diversity of the people and their work. They come here from all over the world, all over the country. Their ages range from 23 to 60, and they have very different life experiences—we’re all richer for that.
KE: Because the students take all the same classes together, they become a real group. They really support one another. They’re a dedicated, passionate, serious group of students. We require a lot of work from each of our faculty members, and they come into each class very prepared. The students pick up on that and they come in prepared. They all step up to the plate.
Image: ©2010 Visual Arts Press, Ltd.