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‘When You are Forced to Adjust, You Begin Learning Things’


William Salzillo, Chair, Kevin W. Kennedy Professor of Art
William Salzillo, the Kevin W. Kennedy Professor of Art

To his surprise, William Salzillo, the Kevin W. Kennedy Professor of Art and department chair, realized fairly early on that the move to online courses has forever changed how he teaches, which he’s done on the Hill since he began at Kirkland College in 1973.

“When you are forced to adjust, you begin learning things,” says Salzillo, a painter. “You know, as an artist, I believe that's really important. And in a way, I think it’s just as important for the students to learn that lesson, that we keep on doing what we do, and if we’re doing it right, we can adjust to almost any circumstances.”

The COVID-19 pandemic prompted Hamilton to temporarily shutter the campus in March, but courses continue online. One of Salzillo's concerns about remote instruction — what about his painting students who lack the resources or space at home for oil painting? He thought of pastels, which he says are basically paint in a stick, and introduced them for the first time in a painting course. That gave students a chance to work with a medium they easily can use outside a formal studio. “And that really gave me a heads up about how we're preparing students for the real world and their real-world circumstances,” Salzillo says. 

In his design course, Salzillo is now immersed in digital technology — something he’d long wanted to use in a course. Students plan projects in Photoshop, sending him their work. “So that's a whole dialogue that we never had before, but it seems more natural in this context than in the classroom,” he says.

Mary Kate Sisk ’22
Painting by Mary Kate Sisk ’22

Not only is he more confident in incorporating technology in his courses, he’s more confident in his students and their initiative. Mary Kate Sisk ’22 completed her final project in record time — a week. “And it was fabulous,” Salzillo adds.

Sisk, who majors in math and world politics, hasn’t taken an art class since eighth grade. “Honestly when I first saw the assignment for the final I thought it would take me weeks to finish. It ended up taking me 34 hours, but I have so much more free time now that I am home,” says Sisk, who misses seeing Salzillo and chatting with her talented classmates.

So does the professor. From working remotely, he’s gained a keener appreciation of what Hamilton provides for its students in person.

“I think it’s teaching me something about why I like to teach; I really like to work with the students, I like to learn about them individually, and it's a really important part of my teaching. I think that's why you study art at a place like Hamilton — because we can connect,” he says. “Over four years we grow together, and we have a really in-depth understanding of each other. I think we can really help students in that way.”

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