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In June, Clara Lieu left her position as a professor at RISD and spoke out about the discrimination she faced while there. Her twitter thread telling her story garnered a great deal of attention, and from some, surprise. She is on the podcast today to talk to Tim about her exit, her current and upcoming work on Art Prof, and ends by sharing some of her expertise and best advice on teaching online. Full Episode Transcript Below.
Tim: Welcome to Art Ed Radio, the podcast for art teachers. This show is produced by The Art of Education University, and I’m your host, Tim Bogatz.
On today’s episode, we have a returning guest, Clara Lieu. She is a former professor at the Rhode Island School of Design on otherwise known as RISD or RISD. And more importantly, she is the founder and director of Art Prof, an online learning site for art students everywhere. Art Prof is an incredible site that has so many resources for artists, from critiques to tutorials, to supplier reviews and live streams and everything you could want really, if you’re learning to become an artist or trying to learn something new as an artist.
But I wanted to have Clara on the show for a lot of different reasons, but one of the biggest ones is the way in which she addressed her departure from RISD. In short, she chose to leave at the end of last semester. And on her social media, she talked about how, as a person of color, she didn’t feel like she truly got a fair shot at becoming a tenured professor, despite her incredible teaching and a stellar resume and an extensive exhibition history. She was still passed over repeatedly for those better jobs. And when she told that story, it seemed to strike a nerve. And so many people replied to her, sharing their stories and commiserating, and just wanting to thank and support Clara as she decided to move on.
So we’ll ask her to expand on that story a little bit more here when we get the interview started, and we’ll also dive into what’s going on at Art Prof and suggestions she has for teaching online, because it’s something that she’s been doing quite a while, quite a bit longer than most of us. So I will love to hear what she has to say.
All right. Clara Lieu is joining me now, Clara, how are you?
Clara: I’m doing very well, thanks. How are you?
Tim: I am doing well. I’m excited to have you back on the show. I’m excited to talk to you again. A lot has happened since we last spoke. So I guess if we can start with you, I guess, choosing to leave RISD, and you put together a huge Twitter thread all about that. Can you talk about your decision to leave, everything you wanted to say? And I guess what it felt like to get all of that weight off of your chest?
Clara: Well, I sat down to write an Instagram post to publicly announce that I was leaving RISD, because I’ve been there since 2007, so it’s been over a decade and I felt that it was important for me to tell the community that I was leaving. And I was ready to write a very positive, sanitized version. “Hi everybody. I’m going to miss all of you. I’ve had such an amazing time being part of the RISD community.” And a lot of that is true. There are many things about RISD that I genuinely appreciate and love about the community, but there were so many parts of it that were very complicated and not pleasant. And when I sat down to write those words, it felt wrong and it felt dishonest.
And I’m not usually the type of person in a school situation to rock the boat. I think that that’s not really the way I tend to do things, but I thought, “You know what? I’m leaving. It’s fine.” People need to know about what’s happening in academia because I see people come and go in academia all the time. And what I have noticed is that people that leave academia, you never hear from them again, they just disappear. And I thought, that’s not okay. People need to know what the system is really like.
Tim: And were you surprised by the reaction to everything you had to say?
Clara: I was. I was not expecting people to have such an emotional response to it. I guess, because for me, I’ve been living with that situation for such a long time that I just thought, well, this is just the way it is. And a lot of times in academia, that’s the justification for why things are. People will tell you, “Well, that happened to me as well,” as if it’s normal, and people were shocked. I mean, my students that I had 10 years ago, I got just so many messages, people furious to hear about the way academia is set up. I really think the students just have no idea what’s going on behind the scenes.
Tim: Yeah, absolutely. And I think, even from my perspective, just as a high school teacher, you send kids off to art school, and we don’t know what happens there too. So I think you’re really did open up a lot of eyes by sharing everything that you did. I also want to ask you, are you afraid that you burned some bridges there, or did you burn some bridges? Are you okay with that?
Clara: I definitely burned some bridges. There was another thread on my Instagram that followed the first one. They were both on Instagram and Twitter. That was actually an email that I wrote to the RISD Illustration faculty. And again, I’m not the type of person that replies to those giant faculty threads because I don’t like to cause a lot of drama. But yeah, I burnt some bridges and you know something? The hypocritical thing is that my number one piece of advice for students when they ask me, “Well, how do I navigate life after art school?” Is don’t burn any bridges. And here I am at this flaming bunch of bridges. And I just thought, I’ve been putting up with this crap for too long. Who cares? I’m moving to Utah. I have a new life with Art Prof. I don’t know if it was a great idea in retrospect, but I’m old enough that I just don’t care now.
Tim: That’s fair. That’s fair. And actually, that gives me a good segue, because I wanted to ask you about Art Prof. So now that you are not teaching drawing, now that you’re not working as a professor, does all of your time go to Art Prof or do you have other things that you’re working on as well?
Clara: Art Prof is pretty much the vast majority of my time, although what’s happened that I did not anticipate is Art Prof has led to other opportunities. So for example, one thing I’ve actually been in very high demand for, is training faculty on how to do remote learning, because I have a very strange skill set that I don’t think a lot of people have. And actually one of the school districts that hired me to do training, she called me a unicorn because a lot of people know about technology and how to do things online. But then there’s a whole other group of people who are studio. Teachers do hands-on demos, and there are not a lot of people that do both. And I’ve been doing both for over six years now. So I’ve had a big jumpstart compared to everybody else who had basically no notice at all about the transition.
And so for that reason, I’m doing a lot of lectures on online marketing. This is for artists helping teachers out, providing ongoing tech support. I’m in the Facebook groups every day. I have an Art Prof Discord where we have specifically channels for educators where they can jump in and ask some tech question about streaming live and I can go in there and help them. And then at some point I do want to get back to my own studio practice.
Tim: Oh, I think everyone who teaches has that feeling of like, eventually I need to get back in the studio, but everything seems to get in the way, it’s really tough. But let me ask you, you have been doing this online learning thing for so long. And now that the rest of us are just catching up to where you’ve been for awhile, can you give me your impressions of distance learning and what you’ve seen so far? Maybe talk a little bit about what you think is working and what you’re seeing that’s not working.
Clara: Well, I think fundamentally, what has been so difficult and stressful for teachers is number one, how abrupt the transition was, nobody was prepared. And I remember the day that they decided to shut down classes at RISD, people were just in shock. It was so fast and nobody had any time to prepare. Students were leaving their work on campus because they didn’t have time to get in there and get their stuff out. And so there’s this incredible amount of stress that is upon students. It’s upon teachers. Teachers are scrambling to prepare stuff that really, you need several years to understand. And they’re being given a few weeks. And the other problem I’m seeing is that a lot of studio art teachers, they’re getting no training. I think the teachers who are getting training from the workshops I’m doing, they’re the lucky ones.
I would say most teachers are getting no training, none of them have any budget for equipment. I talked to a school system where I asked them, “Well, what do your teachers have to work with, so I can configure the workshop to fit that.” And they said, “We’re not allowed to use YouTube. You have to assume the teachers have only a phone. Teachers may not speak to a student one-on-one, and we can only use Google Meets.” And I just thought, well, basically you’re telling me we can’t do anything, because how can we teach remotely with only a phone? There are so many just basics that you need to have. And so teachers are being told, “Do the impossible with nothing,” and it’s incredibly stressful to have to do that. And I know a lot of teachers are paying for the equipment on their own and it really should not be that way.
Tim: Yeah, absolutely. And then I also want to ask you too. I’ve seen you say some things that are critical of Zoom where kids maybe don’t enjoy it as much. Can you talk a little bit more about why you think we can move on to other things, maybe give some suggestions about what people can can do?
Clara: Well, I think one of the issues is that there’s definitely a lack of honest communication between teachers and students in terms of what is working and what is not working, in terms of the technology. And I understand why. Because if you’re a student in a class and you see that the teacher is doing something that is not working, technology-wise, say they chose a platform which isn’t working very well. You don’t really want to tell the teacher because that comes across as you being critical of them and students worry, “Oh, if I say something, the teacher’s not going to like me, and they’re going to give me a bad grade if I tell them that this technology is not working.” So I totally sympathize with that.
And as a teacher, of course, people are absolutely doing what they can to get what’s out there, but it’s not always easy to get reliable information. And that’s the tricky thing, is that people are finding all kinds of workarounds with Zoom. People are bending over backwards to do so much extra work to stay on Zoom. The way I would describe it, it’s like if I said to you, “Okay, we have this nail, we need to nail it into this piece of wood.” And people are saying, “Oh, well I have a rock. I’m just going to hit the nail with a rock and it’ll get in there eventually.” And I’m saying, “Why are you using the rock? There’s a hammer right here.”
And that’s what I’m seeing, is that people, their initial interaction with online learning was with Zoom because Zoom was what all the schools just gave people initially. But the thing is what’s happening now is people are saying, “Well, I know Zoom. I want to stay on Zoom. And I need to figure out how to do this on Zoom.” And I’m saying, “Zoom is not made for that.” Zoom is not a live streaming platform. It’s a video conferencing platform and sure it’s got its uses, but the way that I’m seeing people trying to use it, it’s so much extra work and it does not have to be that way.
Tim: Yeah. So I guess, can we talk then a little bit about best practices and what teachers can be doing that you think will help? What are some strategies that you think will work well for art teachers as we’re continuing to navigate distance learning here.
Clara: It’s complicated because every single school and school district has a totally different set of rules. Some teachers will say to me, “We are only allowed to use Google.” Other schools, it’s like, whatever. And so it’s hard to give advice to such a broad range of situations. And so in the beginning, my first approach was telling people, use these platforms. And after a few months of training, I realized that that’s not a good approach, because if they’re not allowed to use YouTube, then of course, that goes out the window. And so what I’ve tried to do is I actually revised my best practices video on how to teach remotely. Because I did do one in March, but now after observing things for the past few months, I’ve shifted the way that I’ve been presenting content. So I would just say that any way teachers can do live video, they should.
Because the asynchronous video, it’s not remotely as effective as live videos. So whether you do that through Zoom or YouTube or OBS, it doesn’t matter what platform, just get on live video. And live video is really foreign to people. I would say your average teacher probably has never watched a live stream before. And I made the mistake of when I started streaming live, never watching the live stream. And in retrospect, I think that was so dumb because why would you do something and then never watch somebody else do it? And so I actually started watching a couple of people on YouTube who streamed live every week and I observed my own behaviors. Why did I turn it off? What did they do that I did not care about? And it was so eye opening and it made me a much better live streamer afterwards.
And then I would also say to teachers, consolidate your platforms because I think what’s really hard for the students is that they’re spread so thin amongst so many platforms. And I watch my daughter who’s in middle school, I think last semester, navigate 10 different platforms. And it’s so hard for them to keep track of things. So I say to teachers, “Listen, if you’re going to use Discord, you don’t need Zoom because Discord has voice channels, which is basically Zoom inside Discord. So if you can eliminate even one platform, you should. Now that takes time though, because you have to figure out, well, how can I do this, that this platform does in another platform. And so that does take a certain amount of knowledge about the platforms, but if you can, that’s a really good thing.
And then the other thing is to look at remote learning in terms of finding longterm solutions, because in the spring it was a little different, it was so abrupt. And so everybody just did what they had to do, which is fine. That’s not something people could control. But I think people are still taking the bandaid approach that, oh, well this will stop the bleeding, but eventually it makes a big mess. And so we need to figure out a way that we can sustain this longterm because I think unfortunately the pandemic, it’s not going away next month.
Tim: Right, right. No, I think that’s some really good advice. And I think that is something that we need to be conscious of and teachers need to be thinking about as we move through here. Just one last question for you, I guess Clara. Finally I wanted to just talk to you about what’s going to be happening over the next few months for you. What is next for Art Prof? What do you have coming in the near future? And I guess what are you looking at longterm with Art Prof?
Clara: Well, I do really need to get back to producing our studio and travel tutorials. Those are extremely time consuming because I’m a one woman production studio and they’re edited and they take forever and ever to do. And so because we’ve been so busy with our daily live streaming schedule, those unfortunately when I was teaching, really sat on the back burner for far too long. So I definitely want to spend time on that.
But I think most importantly, our goal within the next year is to get financial stability because what’s strange about the place that we’re in right now is that we are big enough and popular enough that there’s a lot of demand for our time, but we don’t have the financial backing to hire the staff that’s necessary. And so I’m still making spreadsheets and schedules and filling out forms. And honestly, there’s a better use of my time. I need a full time office person to take care of the paperwork. I need to hire our teaching artists on a more substantial basis because they’re critical to Art Prof, but we just don’t have the resources to hire them more substantially. And so that’s the key thing right now.
And then, oh goodness, I’ve got plans beyond that. In an ideal world, we would have an Art Prof conference and we would have travel workshops around the world. And I do think that could happen, but we have to get the staff and the financial stability first.
Tim: Yeah, for sure, and that’s obviously a big challenge, but you’ve been succeeding so far. Real quick before we go, for art teachers that want to check out your site, can you just tell them, maybe a good place to start, how they can get into the site and find everything that they may want to?
Clara: Well, our main site is ArtProf.org, and we have a new section on the main menu, it’s called teaching and learning art online. So if you’re teaching remotely, we consolidated all of our content there. We stream live daily on YouTube. So just look up Art Prof on YouTube. And then the other place that I think is great is the Art Prof Discord, because we have not just channels for educators, but for artists in general. And that’s honestly the quickest way to get a hold of me because I have people contacting me all over the place. But what’s nice about the Art Prof Discord is that when somebody asks a question, everybody sees my answer. Whereas when I get an email, I just reply to one person, it’s not as helpful to the community. So I’ve been really encouraging people to hang out with us there.
Tim: Yeah, that’s really cool. All right. We will make sure we link to all of those so everybody can find everything that you were talking about. Clara, thank you so much for your time. I appreciate your insight and a conversation with you. Thank you.
Clara: Thank you so much for having me, Tim.
Tim: All right. I appreciate a lot of Clara’s advice there on doing distance learning. She has just a ton of experience. She’s been doing it a lot longer than all of us that just started earlier this year and are really doing it for real right about now. So anyway, go check out Art Prof, we’ll link to everything that she talked about, everything that we discussed and you can find all those resources, everything that you need.
When I’m on the Art Prof site. I love watching the critiques and that’s how I first found out about Art Prof, but there is just so much more there. Suggestions for teaching online, technology ideas, prompts, exercises, games, so many things that can be helpful for you. So take the time to take a look, it will definitely be worth your while. And thank you to Clara for coming on. Give her a follow on Twitter and Instagram, check out Art Prof and see what’s there that you can use for your own students. There is a lot that can help.
Art Ed Radio is produced by The Art of Education University with audio engineering from Michael Crocker. Thank you for listening and we will talk to you next week.