“The future is unwritten,” or so says Joe Strummer, but one thing is clear: It’s going to be a very different year at the College of Fine Arts at the University of New Mexico, beginning with a new dean, Harris Smith, and obviously, continuing on with new ways to teach given the global pandemic. Weekly Alibi sat down on the campus of the University of New Mexico with Smith on the morning of his first day on the job to talk about his background, his goals for the school and how students are going to be able to learn in this very different environment. The following is an edited version of that conversation.
Weekly Alibi: What brought you to UNM?
Harris Smith: The possibilities of growth. What really got me excited was the idea of the interdisciplinary programs, working with the various programs within the college and the university. I found an appealing potential for growth there for our students to be able to take advantage of—like the relationship that's been developed with Netflix. Hopefully that NBC studios will be built pretty soon here. I liked the whole idea of combining education with professional connections. I found that appealing because that's eventually where our students are going to end up, in the professional world. If that can happen sooner, rather than later, we should take advantage of it. Because that's what we're telling our students, especially in the fine arts. We're trying to prepare them for the real world. If they can make those connections sooner, the better. It's also more challenging for folks in the fine arts to make those connections. Other disciplines have internship programs available, possibly all four years of their training. It's a little bit more of a challenge for us in the arts to do that.
Tell me a little bit about your background.
I was an actor, a stage combat teacher and fight director. That’s what got me into the business and where my passion lies. That's where I spent most of my time, acting professionally in theater and film. Then I ended up getting certified as a teacher in stage combat and teaching a lot of stage combat, then eventually being a fight director as well. That's where I made my bread and butter.
I'm sure the question everybody's wondering is how are we going to teach at the University of New Mexico this year? For instance, how do you teach theater or voice performance remotely?
I'll give you the same answer that everyone else has been giving you: We'll wait and see. We'll continue to wait for whatever guidelines they give us from the governor down to the president of the university. Our main mission is to give our students the best quality education possible. We learned last spring. Even though I was at [the University of] Utah, I know they were doing the same thing here in New Mexico. We were able to get pretty darn creative delivering our curriculum to our students using virtual means. Our first commitment is to make sure our students are getting the quality education they got when it was live. Yes, there are going to be challenges. We're not going to have as many classes live as we'd like. The ones that are going to need to be live, we'll figure something out. I've been impressed with the chairs of the departments here. They’ve come up with some creative ideas to make sure that that curriculum is delivered to the students. Otherwise, the virtual things they can do virtually, and they'll explore those options. Some of the traditional lecture classes are going to be easy to deliver online. Some of those live courses, that'll be the challenge, but the [department] chairs have come up with some good ideas on how to approach that.
Can you give me an example?
One they're talking about is using tents somewhere here on campus. They had mentioned that that can give them the room and the social distance that they need for instruction. You can limit the number of people, depending on the major or how advanced the course. Usually, with most any curriculum, the farther up you get, the more advanced the curriculum, the smaller the classes are. So, for some of these courses, it may not even be an issue. When you look at some of those courses where there are only maybe 10 to 15 students, down to if it's a graduate course, 4 to 6 students, it may not even be an issue.
Teaching stage combat is probably out.
Well, you can't have a sword in your living room. The Society of American Fight Directors, SFD, has made adjustments for students to be taught online so they can still get certified in a weapon or test in weapons. I haven't had the chance to delve into it, but they've made it clear that they want instruction to continue for students. Now, like I said, I don't know how you're going to swing a broadsword in the middle of your living room, but they're trying to address those issues because they want the instruction to continue.
You mentioned partnerships with industry. What other goals do you have as Dean of the School of Fine Arts?
I'd like to create more partnerships within the university, with anyone in the university, especially when it comes to the grand challenges that the president [of the University of New Mexico] talked about. Trying to work with the arts in the health and science industry to help bring those issues to attention. I believe one of them was successful aging. Trying to find a way to partner with them as well as the water resource issues. And then drug addiction issues. I think the arts can have an impact on all of those. You know, we're artists. We tell stories in various ways that will help bring attention to those issues. We can find plenty of creative ways by working with the different folks in those areas to bring attention, get more help and support in those areas.
So, interdisciplinary work with other parts of the university. What about within the School of Fine Arts itself?
The most obvious one within the college, for example, let's say if we wanted to do a film project that involves everyone. You need actors from the theater department. You need designers to design a set, either that's theater or it could be folks in the art department. You need someone to film it, so you have your film and emerging media. You have the emerging media folks who may end up creating a virtual set. If you want to score the film, there's the music department. So, right there as an easy interdisciplinary project that you can create for your students.
Any other goals?
I'm excited to be here. There's so much potential. This seems like I timed it to be here at the right time when everyone's ready for change. I'm excited to take the next step forward with the University of New Mexico and put us on the map as a world-class university.