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In Computer Age, College Prefers Personal Touch

At CalArts, students meet their instructors before registering for classes. The unusual procedure helps guide budding artists.

September 10, 2003|Rebecca Trounson | Times Staff Writer

Kady Riklis stood near the center of the large, airy room, looking bewildered and more than a little stressed.

A first-year student struggling to register for fall courses at the California Institute of the Arts on a recent afternoon, Riklis frowned at the printed green signs tacked one after another to the wall before her. All bore the same discouraging message: "Closed."

"Are there any classes still available?" she asked a woman seated at a small table nearby. "Oh sure. You just go to the places that don't have those signs," the woman said soothingly. "You'll get something."

Soon, she did.

Newcomers to CalArts, the highly regarded arts college in Valencia, are often a bit unsettled by its unusual, labor-intensive registration process. At a time when most American college students sign up for classes online or over the phone, CalArts students are expected to stand in lines in the school's main gallery twice a year, waiting to meet one-on-one with the instructors of all the classes they hope to take.

For most of two days, CalArts faculty members, including such prominent artists as Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks and visual artist Sam Durant, sit at long wooden tables arrayed about the room.

In brief -- or sometimes, lengthy -- conversations, an instructor describes the class and its requirements and asks the student how it might fit with the student's overall course of study. The students -- budding actors, musicians, painters and film-makers -- outline their artistic goals and tell the instructor what they hope to gain from the class. If both decide there is a match, the student is allowed to register by signing a class list.

CalArts' registration process is rare these days, according to Esther Hugo, outreach coordinator at Santa Monica College and the president of the Western Assn. for College Admission Counseling. Although many colleges, including Santa Monica, offer drop-in counseling in addition to online registration, she said, few, if any, do it all on paper and in person.

"How great for those students," Hugo said.

Yet the process often comes as something of a shock to many CalArts students, especially graduate students accustomed to more efficient online registration at their old schools.

"At first, I thought, 'For $24,000 in tuition, why can't they implement an electronic system?' " asked Shizu Saldamando, a first year fine arts graduate student in painting who had done her undergraduate work at UCLA. "It just seemed ridiculous to be standing in these long lines."

But most students, including Saldamando, are eventually won over, saying the process has its own rewards. Many say they feel they know their teachers, at least slightly, before classes begin and are less nervous as a result. Others say the conversations include valuable advice and guidance, crucial to fledgling artists.

"Part of it is about letting the students know, from the very first day, that they're not just a record or a file here," said CalArts President Steven D. Lavine. "They are human beings who have a chance to tell us that they want to be in a particular course and why, and about their needs as artists."

Most faculty members support the in-person class signups, Lavine said, although many find it exhausting and some, particularly the musicians, complain about the noise level.

"We've also got a few who are quite shy and the idea of sitting there, almost on display, is humanly daunting for them. But they realize the benefits to students so they agree, year after year," he said.

Lavine, president since 1988, spends most of each registration day in the middle of the fray, answering questions and sometimes just directing traffic.

"I love it," he says. "Every year, you have all these students pretending they don't know their parents, and all these parents, very proud but also kind of afraid for their children and clinging to them a little bit. It's wonderful and very exciting."

The one-on-one registration, a tradition since the school's early days in the 1970s, is also possible because of CalArts' low student-faculty ratio of 7 to 1. The institute, which offers bachelor's and master's degrees in the visual and performing arts, has a student population of about 1,200.

"The benefit is that we know who our students are right away," said Susan Allen, associate dean of CalArts' school of music and an instructor of harp performance and improvisation. "There's a face, a demeanor and a carriage and that helps shorten the familiarity process. Especially with very small classes, where there's an apprentice relationship between the student and instructor, you need to be sure there's an intellectual and musical chemistry."

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