Assistant Professor Sean Salstrom encourages students to make discoveries within—and beyond—the constraints of remote learning.
Welcoming Students to a Year Like No Other
New and returning RISD students tuned in on Tuesday morning, September 8, for a virtual Convocation ceremony, one of many revamped traditions the community is accessing this week while working from home or quarantining on campus. Led by President Rosanne Somerson and Provost Kent Kleinman, the welcoming event segued into a frank discussion about how staff and faculty are radically transforming the RISD experience in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and renewed demands for racial justice on campus and across the US.
“RISD is committed to confronting the social injustices embedded in our institution.”
“RISD is committed to confronting the social injustices embedded in our institution,” Somerson says. “We’re building on the strong voices of student activists and faculty who are leading change at RISD that is long overdue and fully supported by leadership in both the college and museum.”
RISD Museum Director John Smith voiced that support in his brief welcome, referencing “the complicated, interconnected histories we all share” and inviting students to take part in the considerable work yet to be done.
Kleinman outlined the work that has already been done to transform the campus into a safe space for returning students and to rethink RISD’s pedagogies and curricula to include and honor non-European/nonwhite perspectives.
“The pandemic alone does not account for the intensity of our refocus,” he explains. “Challenging systems of injustice and inequality in our social and educational constructs is our urgent mission. We are looking anew at the way we teach, what we teach.... The fundamental changes we are investing in now are deliberate, durable and signifiers of a new RISD in the making.”
“Challenging systems of injustice and inequality in our social and educational constructs is our urgent mission.”
Kleinman was joined on the RISD Auditorium stage by Dean of Experimental and Foundation Studies Joanne Stryker, Dean of Liberal Arts Damian White, Dean of Architecture and Design Scheri Fultineer, Interim Dean of Fine Arts Brooks Hagan MFA 02 TX and Associate Provost for Social Equity and Inclusion Matthew Shenoda, who shared their perspectives on the coming year.
Stryker explained that her division will focus on more clearly connecting the first-year art history curriculum with studio learning. “We’ve always asked students to be deep critical thinkers and experimenters,” she says, “but we’re encouraging them to use that same kind of critical thinking to understand societal systems and structures and to incorporate these issues into their work.”
“The faculty is embracing new ways to collaborate on interdisciplinary issues, questioning for example how sustainability and social equity intersect.”
White notes that “artists and designers are the key players in creating discourse in moments of crisis” and reminds students that “in order to decolonize, we must first deal with 500 years of colonization and global problems that are very old, enduring and recalcitrant.”
RISD’s academic leaders agree that while they still value the deep disciplinary learning the institution is known for, “the faculty is really embracing new ways to collaborate on interdisciplinary issues, questioning for example how sustainability and social equity intersect,” as Fultineer puts it.
Will the “radical changes to structures and operations at RISD” that Hagan describes endure after the current crises recede? Shenoda believes so. “I see these concrete and significant steps forward as a jump-start to a much larger and more durable initiative,” he says. He invites students to make their voices heard and “engage in this work with us by letting us know where we’re failing and where we’re doing well.”
—Simone Solondz / photos by Jo Sittenfeld MFA 08 PH