VISA hubs face purchase period difficulties, registration challenges

For most Brown students, shopping time marks a hectic start to the semester. Chemistry students attend poetry workshops, English concentrators attend language classes, and engineers try their hand at playwriting. But for visual art hubs, the process has become a source of anxiety.

“It’s actually quite difficult,” VISA hub Rena Jiang ’23 said of the shopping period. “This year when I bought (VISA 1320:) ‘Painting II’ the ceiling was 12. There were maybe 20, 25 people there.”

Harshini Venkatachalam ’23 had similar sentiments. “As a VISA hub, I found it a bit stressful,” she said. “I couldn’t access any courses during pre-registration.”

When pre-registering for VISA students, seniors have an advantage due to their early registration time, and only a few places are reserved for declared subclasses and concentrators, according to department head and art professor visual Leslie Bostrom.

“I think a big part of the problem is that pre-registration lets in a random assortment of students instead of letting teachers decide who deserves to be in the class,” said Sylvia Atwood ‘22.5, head of the departmental group. VISA undergraduate.

Jiang emphasized this feeling. “I kind of wish the VISA hubs got a bit of a priority,” she said. She explained that the current shopping process is one in which “most of the time you have to keep showing up to class, begging the professors (and) getting lucky.”

According to Bostrom, who has taught at Brown since 1988, the department is “just exploding with hubs right now.” This past semester alone, 25 to 30 students have chosen to declare VISA, catching even Bostrom by surprise.

Bostrom wrote in an email to the Herald that high levels of class demand lead to what she called “a bottleneck effect.” Older students who have been unable to attend classes due to pandemic restrictions now find themselves competing for places with younger students, she explained.

Bostrom added that the department “cannot fill courses at this time.” COVID-19 procedures require faculty to maintain a maximum size commitment, and studio spaces simply cannot physically accommodate everyone who works there, she said.

Jiang said that by purchasing “Painting II” – a course where every student needs a painting space – “there was literally not enough space in the studio to support all of the students”.

The lack of available places is also the result of the shortage of teachers, according to Atwood. Bostorm also mentioned Brown’s earlier decision to “reduce humanities faculty to three courses per year…removed seven courses from our record.”

The core courses of the concentration, namely VISA 0100: “Studio Foundation”, can be particularly difficult to integrate, according to students. Competition between aspiring VISA concentrators and students just looking to take a general art course at Brown often makes this bridging course a major point of frustration.

When Venkatachalam wanted to take the VISA 0100, she did not enter the lottery and had to shop through several sections in hopes of securing a place. When Jiang purchased the course in its freshman year, she described the room as being at about “150% capacity.”

Even for students who have managed to complete the bridging courses, enrollment difficulties still ensue for concentrators. Although concentrators have stated that course requirements are eventually met, completion can happen at the last minute, leaving some students scrambling.

“I have, I think, four or five classes that I have to take next year,” Venkatachalam said. “It’s probably partly on me, but partly because I don’t always want to try and try to get into class.” Atwood added that “there are VISA concentrators who are juniors who have just taken a VISA course for the first time since their freshman year when they took VISA 0100.”

There are other options available to satisfy higher-level studio requirements, such as taking classes at the Rhode Island School of Design or opting for an independent study project — which Jiang is currently doing. “It’s a great way to get around without going to class,” she said. The problem is less meeting the requirements than getting into the courses she wants to take, she added.

As a result, VISA hubs said they had to be persistent buyers. “You have to be there,” said Yolizbeth Lozano ’22, another VISA DUG leader. She added that professors are generally responsive to emails from prospective students and are “very accommodating and willing to make room for you.” The problem, she explained, is less the result of faculty wanting to hire additional students, but rather the limitations of physical studio space with pandemic restrictions in place.

Although hubs get some priority during regular enrollment — “it’s part of our obligation,” Bostrom added — the recent “explosion” of VISA students makes that perk less valuable.

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Atwood also expressed concerns about the difficulty of enrolling in VISA courses for non-concentrators.

“I think there’s a disconnect between the department’s ideology that art should be for everyone and it should be something that everyone can fit into their schedule,” Atwood said. She mentioned that many students who took and enjoyed art classes in high school but don’t necessarily want to focus often find themselves unable to continue their art studies in college.

At a meeting on February 4, VISA faculty gathered to discuss the department’s high demand and low availability issues.

In order to offer more classes, Bostrom wrote that the department needed “more faculty and more space.”

“We asked for ‘dirty space,'” Bostrom wrote. These “dirty spaces,” Bostrom explained, are places “where you can do carving, engraving, charcoal drawing, and other messy stuff.”

“I’m going to ask again,” she added. Bostrom has already managed to add an additional drawing class and also plans to apply for another section of VISA 0100 at the University.

Going forward, the ministry has also decided to make concentrators its main concern. “We have so many concentrators that can’t fit into classes that we’ve decided to prioritize them when registering for the fall,” Bostrom wrote. Non-concentrators will still be allowed in VISA classes, but their enrollment status will largely depend on their attendance on the first day of classes.

Although she acknowledged that there is no perfect solution in which everyone who wants to take a university art course can do so, Bostorm wanted to “emphasize that the University is responsive”. Lozano, Atwood, Venkatachalam and Jiang expressed their appreciation for what the department has done for them and the other hubs.

“Even though shopping and entering courses brings a lot of uncertainty, I still really enjoy being a VISA concentrator,” Venkatachalam said. “And I really like all the courses I’ve taken so far.”

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