Sally Tomlinson had always taught a hybrid of online and in-person art history classes at Clark College.
Then, like happened everywhere else, she had to switch to full-time online teaching as the pandemic hit.
At age 67, she realized something new about herself as she instructed classes from the comfort of her living room: “I’ve discovered I was meant to be a cloistered nun. I enjoy being alone. I’m fine without all the social interaction,” Tomlinson said in a phone interview.
Classes for the school’s most recent quarter recently ended, but she teaches summer courses — with the next class starting on July 6.
“I miss the students, certainly. But I’m OK. I’m not on edge,” she said.
She calls teaching “more than a full-time job.”
“In fact, over spring break, when we were told everything had to go online, we were told to keep track of our hours because we thought we’d get a reimbursement from the state,” she said. “In three weeks, I worked 168 hours. It’s very labor intensive to put everything online. I take my hat off for the teachers who had never done it before. They were just thrown into the deep end. That has to be true across the country.”
Tomlinson’s average class includes about 30 students, with a maximum of 36.
“So I teach 100 students every quarter. I teach extra because I often help my daughter financially. That means like 300 students in a year, and I teach summer, too,” she said. “I always tell students, once you’re out of my class and you say hi to me, I might not remember your name, but I’ll recognize your spirit.”
Now that the adjustments have been made, however, she’s finding a little more wiggle room for herself.
“I got a window in the basement so I could paint,” she said.
While Tomlinson has had many different jobs over the course of her life, art has always held a special spot in her heart. One of her areas of expertise she’s most known for is her research on rock posters. She has written essays on the subject for San Diego Museum of Art, Penguin Books’ Portable Sixties Reader, and for Tate-Liverpool’s “Summer of Love” exhibition in 2007.
“I’ve been watching programs get defunded. Places like Yale are even questioning if they’ll offer art history,” Tomlinson said. “It’s how I feel about not teaching cursive. So students aren’t going to be able to read the Declaration of Independence? Art is life. It expresses life.”
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The Columbian caught up with her to learn more about her and her job.
Tell me about yourself.
I used to be a full-time painter. I got my bachelor’s degree from University of California Berkeley. I got my master’s from University of Victoria in Canada, and a doctorate degree from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. My master’s was in psychedelic rock posters. I’m the world’s leading living expert in that area. At age 50, I uprooted myself, my daughter and young grandson and moved to North Carolina. I completed my PhD in Celtic Irish art in the medieval period, they said, in record time. I said, ‘At my age, you can’t waste time.’ I got hired at age 54, 13 years ago, at Clark College, after working a little bit at California State University, Chico. I’ve been a journalist. I’ve watched cats. I’ve house painted. I’ve done a little bit of everything. I like office work a lot. I like organization. I was a house painter for eight years. No ivory tower person here.
How has COVID-19 impacted your work?
I had to redesign everything. I don’t use texts because the texts are very expensive, and they’re set up for a semester system — and we’re a quarter system. If I required a text to medieval and renaissance art, they’d have to buy two texts for about $250. So I write out all my texts and illustrate them. I have to illustrate them and format their sizes and research them and put them all together. It’s very labor intensive, just putting it all online. Of course students complained that it wasn’t as clear, but I think by fall quarter, it’s going to be in really good shape.
How are you handling it personally?
The art department, of course, the studio classes are having a tough time. They’ve created a very professional marketing video, just trying to promote the idea of how even with online learning you can still take these classes and be fine. My daughter and grandchildren live in Portland. My daughter works at a bar in Portland. I can’t believe they’re opening, so she put in her two weeks notice. More disturbing to me is the whole what’s going on with people of color. I have two grandchildren: one is half African American and one is half Mexican. So it’s an issue that are very direct in my life. That troubles me and that people are dying and the government administration isn’t doing all it can. There’s just so much going on right now. We live in interesting times.
Seeing as you made art your career, I imagine you think it’s an important subject that people know about. Why?
I feel that if we become a society that solely focuses on tech and only focuses on getting more stuff, we would be lost. It’s important for us to understand how past cultures expressed what was going on. It’s also important to honor that creativity. People who are creative get inspiration from artists in the past. People who know nothing about art think it’s something special in your brain to understand. I see it as my job to make people comfortable with art. That whole side is been getting cut over the years and everything else is getting funded. Sadly there’s this clear inequity in art and see how cultures marginalized people of color.
What does your future look like?
Well, I think now that I’ve done all this intensive work on classes, I’m going to ask for more things online than I used to. I want to start painting again. I’ll hopefully have more time for that. I raised one grandchild with my daughter, he’s going on 20. I help a lot with the young one. I studied Braille so I’ll be able to help my grandson that. And life is rich. There’s always so much to do. I can’t imagine anyone who says they’re bored. I want to travel more. My cousin bought a house in Barcelona. I’ve been putting $100 a month for a big trip to Europe. That’s how I discovered art — I went to Europe and wandered through art museums.