Leah Sweet, the Lynch Curatorial Coordinator of Academic Programs at the Johnson, shares one example of what remote learning for Cornell students looked like at the end of this semester.

The Johnson Museum enhances and supports faculty teaching across Cornell’s schools and departments by hosting around 400 class sessions every semester in our galleries and classrooms, so we wanted to provide a strong and flexible response to the migration of university courses online.

Some faculty kept the lessons and assignments they had already developed, which we facilitated with image groups in eMuseum, supplementing with higher-resolution files and even photographs of installations. But other classes required rethinking our plans, especially in trying to combat a flat and passive student learning experience on Zoom.

For a brand-new class, “Global Water Sustainability” (NTRES 1201), from the Department of Natural Resources, I’d originally suggested a Museum visit to the coinstructors (Associate Professor Peter McIntyre and Dr. Xoco Shinbrot, a postdoctoral researcher in discipline-based education research) centered on how art communicates cultural ideas of water and its management. Now it was important to determine how we could still convey the value of object-based learning to a class of nonart majors while confronting student exhaustion and the limitations of emergency virtual instruction.

I made two significant alterations to our original plan, recognizing that students’ relationship with space and time is different in online learning. First, I shifted the broader global focus of the class to include something local, familiar, and beautiful: Beebe Lake. Even though the class could no longer view at together at the Johnson, most students had experienced Beebe Lake firsthand. I began our first Zoom session with Dennis Oppenheim’s Accumulation Cut from the famous Earth Art exhibition at Cornell in 1969, in which Oppenheim chain sawed a 100-foot winding channel into the frozen lake.

We discussed why Oppenheim selected this spot by reviewing the industrial damming that created Beebe Lake, the aesthetic expectations of the lake codified by Hudson River School painters, and Cornell’s past use of the lake for student festivities—all of which led up to his environmentally minded artwork in 1969. But beyond this content about water and its cultural management, I believe that rooting learning in the students’ preexisting physical and emotional connection to Beebe Lake turned out to be a key success factor; personal memory took them beyond the flat landscape of the laptop screen and to a familiar, even comforting subject. Student energy and engagement was stoked to a degree that both instructors remarked was markedly tangible.

The second change involved adapting the visual analysis assignment, which I tailored to allow for deep concentration offline and lively group discussion online. In this case, the students had already completed an introduction to visual analysis before the Zoom class, but this setup is rarely done when the Museum is open, in the assumption that in-person guidance is best. But trying to replicate this usual process online could have created a distanced or even confusing experience. The image of a water-related artwork and customized worksheet that students received before class let each take as much time as he/she needed to look, think, and understand the basics of visual analysis before expanding upon and implementing this material during class.

Students were required to stick to observation of the artwork’s formal properties for the preparatory assignment but were encouraged to proceed to analysis—deductions about how the work used those properties to convey messages about water management—in groups during class sessions. In their presentations, students capably turned their individual home-grown observations into focused and engaging group analyses of how of color, scale, line, and composition communicate different ideas about water as a natural resource. It was impressive.

Like many entities on Cornell’s campus, the Johnson had to adapt its teaching during a challenging time, but the creative responses we have generated for content delivery and assignment design will likely improve class sessions at and with the Museum for years to come.