The Problem with ATEC

 

It’s a new semester, and while we’re a few weeks in already, things still haven’t settled down — the alarm clock rings earlier than we’re used to, classes seem longer, and we can’t quite find the right time to beat the lunch rush at the SU. Between figuring out the right routine and mourning the impact of all those overpriced textbooks on our bank accounts, there are few things more irritating than the start of a new term. Unless, of course, you’re stuck in a class you never wanted, with a professor you tried to avoid at all costs. While I can’t speak for other schools here at UTD, I can speak for the school of ATEC, where this problem is far more common than it should be.

The School of Arts and Technology is, for many students, a sanctuary. It’s a means of escaping the corporate world, while keeping true to a creative field of work. Even though it promises a stable workflow in an environment as smooth as a future job, ATEC has failed to live up to expectations. Concerns are held not only by current students, but even by faculty members. Needless to say,  ATEC has begun to set off alarms among those it serves. While it can be easy to assume that fault lies with faculty, further investigation suggests that students are also out of sync with their community.

In the School of ATEC, students are privileged to have the opportunity to forge their own paths; every specialty within the degree plan is meant to be customized to the fullest extent of the school’s resources. Across disciplines including animation, game design, sound design, and everything within the spectrum of new media, ATEC advertises a degree fit for artists and technicians alike. Problems begin when advertisement for one specialty, especially 3D animation, takes center stage over the rest of the school. This results in other concentrations, such as sound design, preproduction, and UX design taking a backseat to a total of 15 animation courses (including Lighting, Modeling and Texturing, and Rigging). Compare this diversity of course offerings for animation students to the measly total of six classes in sound design, and it becomes apparent that there is a severe neglect in other concentrations.

Oftentimes, this issue of not enough specialty-concentrated courses forces students to wait a year to take fundamental courses in their area of study and fill the semester gap with a class irrelevant to their concentration. A fellow ATEC student described their experience, mentioning that “the courses I need are almost never available when I need them. I’m a junior specializing in sound design and I still haven’t been able to take, like, three classes out of the eight total [sound design] classes offered here in ATEC. Only eight courses in four years! That’s… one specialty sound design course per semester.  I understand [sound design] is, like, one of the underdogs, it’s not as desired as animation, but I think that if [ATEC] advertise[s] for a specific sound design specialty… [they] should be prepared for it.” I can personally confirm that preproduction students can be in an even worse position.

One of the most common pieces of advice given to people our age when starting college is to not fall in love with the major we start with and be ready for a plan B. However, rather than determining based on the nature of the field that the major they went into isn’t quite right, preproduction students never get the chance to actually test out preproduction. The consensus conclusion among multiple interviewed preproduction students is that an ATEC degree specialized in preproduction is a degree specialized in 3D animation with design electives and a single preproduction-specific class. A preproduction student explained that “Preproduction II is never guaranteed. I think the general consensus is that we would like for it to happen, the instructors would like for it to happen, but I think everyone is spread too thin and it’s a very intensive course. I would need to board almost every week; that’s easily 50 frames hand drawn. Now if I have to draw fifty frames, the instructor needs to evaluate those fifty frames, along with everyone else in the class,” which can be a logistical challenge. This is the exact resource allocation problem ATEC is facing. The neglect of other specialties outside of animation was never intentional. Instead, the demand of a surplus of animation students has prompted administration to prioritize resources in that area.

While these imbalances in the size of specific concentrations may not be able to change significantly in the short-term, student initiative can help bring about slow improvement. Unfortunately, many students have given into the current system of ATEC without question. They have established a trend of assuming the system will stay the way it has been, and reluctantly take on the challenge of learning a skill set they did not expect or desire to learn. It’s easy to point fingers at faculty and staff, but when I asked students about their efforts to facilitate improvements (Did you ever think to meet with your advisor and talk about expanding classes? Do you fill out your student evaluations at the end of semesters? Have you talked to your instructor to see what you can do to change the coursebook?), most found themselves liable to not taking action. Overall, a large percentage of the students I interviewed, spanning the wide diversity of ATEC, admitted to never considering talking to faculty, staff, or administration about this widely-known issue. Why is this?

Perhaps students feel that they stand no chance of influencing administrative decisions even by dialoguing with the people whose job it is to provide for the students of ATEC. However, the impression I got when speaking with faculty and staff is that if you ask, you shall receive. Or, at the very least, if you don’t ask, you’ll never receive. In assessing the root causes of dissatisfaction in ATEC, I first inquired as to how classes are chosen for a particular professor and how much influence professor’s have on their schedules. A faculty member who teaches animation described the process as follows:

“I’m given a proposal for what my schedule for each semester looks like, based off of what the trend is overall. If we have, say, five filled courses for Computer Animation I, we can expect to have enough applications approved for two courses in Animation II, and it whittles down from there. I would hope that the board in charge of curriculum knows my skills pretty well not to stick me in a topic I’m not familiar with, but it does happen from time to time, if not to me, then to other professors. Most of the time I’ll refuse a section because it’s at a time and date that’s impossible for me, and if someone else can’t cover it or reschedule, we’ll drop it.”

On the issue of appropriate use of faculty members’ expertise, a professor who teaches design recounted “an instance where [they] [were] scheduled to teach a topic really unknown to [them]” and “after reading through the curriculum… decided to refuse because it wasn’t something [they] could walk through using only the curriculum materials.” This faculty member surmised that the situation occurred “because [faculty] [are] spread out so much.” This sort of problem with resources is closely linked to situations where specific courses are inconsistently available or advanced courses aren’t offered sequentially after the prerequisite. An animation professor explained that while classes in “the general topics of 3D animation” and “big game design courses… are usually pretty solid,” “specialties in sound design and UX design” are “usually more supplementary to the general degree plan.” The impact of prioritized focus is more severe in the specialty of preproduction which ATEC “[doesn’t] have the resources for…right now”, though “we have a lot of students who want the Prepro special.” Overall, this professor finds this “miscommunication… frustrat[ing]… not because students keep asking, but because we genuinely cannot go in that direction right now,” although “we really want to do everything.”

However, some irregularity is unavoidable in these fields, and therefore unavoidable in a school like ATEC, as explained by a member of the animation faculty:

“What first attracted me to the School of ATEC, what inspired me to take this job, was the diversity, the diversity of the students, the program, and how reflective it is to the industry. This industry is always changing. Sometimes you fall in sync with it, a lighter when lighting is at it’s prime like in The Incredibles, a rigger when they’re messing with new programs for animating Moana’s hair, or a sound designer when… well, when Ratatouille blows everyone away! When you don’t quite sync up it’s up to you to reach out, seek independent study. Your professors are here to help and maybe they can’t take on an entire new class, but a student is doable; become their shadow.”

A staff person in ATEC administration offered a similar perspective to those of faculty. While praising the growth of the animation program in the last few years, including the movement into a dedicated building, this staff member acknowledged that “some years” offering “diversity” through “the ability to take a little bit from everything and piece it together” and courses in “preproduction and UX as well as sound design… is more achievable than [in] other [years]”. They had the following to say about the future growth of ATEC:

“At this point it’s the question of, at what point will animation go too far? At what point do we step back and really consider that the cost of upbringing animation in ATEC is too great? Our students deserve the same opportunity to learn. Maybe it’s time we consider expanding in a different direction, and I say ‘we’ because it really is a team effort here. Ultimately we are all a community of artists, we want our students to feel included and welcome. Then again, it’s up to them to guide us and let us know which direction to go. If all of the students with these concerns came to me, emailed me, talked to me over the course of the semester, I would do everything in my power to make a movement, but someone ultimately needs to start that conversation.”

They also offered a perspective on whether other schools at UTD struggle with some of the same issues as ATEC:

“I don’t know much and I can’t necessarily speak for other schools, but our industry is always changing. You get a new release of Photoshop, a better mic, a different cutting tool, a new patch tool, a new technique. Maya has new extensions at least every four to six months and with that we change the curriculum to reflect those changes. You get used to picking up new software. With that in mind we do everything we can to keep up, changes in courses, changes in curriculum, and changes in staff. With so many elements that are always advancing it’s difficult to keep a quality control, but I’m not sure that any school within UTD is without its own little flaws.”

Given a look at the history of classes taught by the School of ATEC, one can clearly see the wide diversity in classes ATEC is capable of providing its students. The problem is that not enough students go out of their way to ask for them. This recent trend has fixated ATEC into a school for animation and game design, resulting in a surplus of animation and game related classes. Lack of diversity in coursework forces students to hyper-focus on one specialty and the classes related to that specialty. Even though ATEC advisors often reiterate the importance of focusing on developing a wide range of skill sets that are interrelated, students fall short on creating an effective degree plan.

Through the entirety of my interviews I thought about how these issues might connect with the general student population of UTD, beyond all of the jargon about specific degree plans. We need to remember that our schools, our staff members, and our faculty are here to help us out. Struggling through that one class that’s overpopulated or haggling with an undesirable professor for an increased grade does not have to be part of the college experience. To change this, a conversation needs to begin at UTD, where students seek to create their own college experience and take control of their education.