Q&A: Focus Week at PNCA

November 25, 2020

While many folks in the immediate PNCA community are familiar with the term “Focus Week,” we’ve found that relatively few parents, friends, and others connected to our community members truly understand what makes it so integral to the experience of receiving an education here at PNCA.

One may describe Focus Week as a week-long experience in which the entire college comes together to support senior undergraduate students as they present their Thesis proposals and orals. It is an accurate description, yes. Although it doesn’t even begin to capture the intensity, the excitement, the pride that erupts from within the community as the work is presented throughout the week. To better understand this distinctive aspect to a PNCA education, we recently sat down with Linda Kliewer, Director of BFA Thesis, to gain a better understanding of what Focus Week is and why it’s such an integral part of PNCA’s culture.

Read the full interview below, and be sure to check out a gallery of Fall 2020 Thesis student work at the end of the post! You can also view the entire Fall 2020 Focus Week schedule, with presentations accessible to all via Zoom, by clicking here.

What is the Thesis experience at PNCA? And what does it have to do with Focus Week?

At PNCA, all students’ senior year includes a year-long project called Thesis. During the first semester of their senior year, Thesis is a group classroom experience in which one faculty member works with roughly a dozen students to help them research and hone their individual project ideas. In their second semester, students work with a single faulty member, who serves as their mentor to work with a student and help them complete their work.

In week 14 of 16 each semester, Thesis students participate in Focus Week, a five-day stretch of either proposal presentations or oral presentations; proposals happen at the end of the first semester, with orals at the end of the second. Proposals see students discussing their project in front of a panel of faculty and 20-50 students, family, friends, faculty, and staff, laying out a roadmap for its completion, while orals amount to a defense of the students’ completed work, again in front of a panel of faculty.

Thesis is the link between being a student and being a professional out in the world. It provides the experience of a long-term project of a students’ own design and choosing, in which they are essentially in charge, even though we give them lots of support and guidance throughout. I could tell a student, “Well, I think you should do this,” but how does that help them if it doesn’t engage with their own idea or their own rhythms about the way that they like to work? So we support students, but they are the ones figuring it out, asking things like, “if something didn’t work, how do I find a solution?” or, “If I need additional support, where do I go?”

The whole experience helps students who are leaving PNCA better understand themselves as creative beings, and how to have a fantastic experience publicly engaging with their work. This not only better prepares our students for the professional world, but also for a graduate experience, as they’ve already engaged in a graduate-level process and are comfortable with presentations and discussing a work’s entire process of creation.

Who are the panels comprised of?

When a Thesis student is getting close to the end of their first semester, I ask them what their work is about, in addition to asking them to name three faculty members that they’d like to work with as mentors. I try to put two of those three faculty on their proposal panels, because if they’re considering someone as a mentor, that means they feel like those faculty members are going to be supportive of their work.

Out of the proposed mentors on a student’s proposal panel, one of them will become their mentor, who works with them throughout the second semester to finalize their Thesis project and present their oral. Then, that mentor will be on their oral panel, along with two other faculty members of my choice; I spend a lot of time getting to know faculty members, looking at what each student is doing, and then determining all the things that impact their work and how they relate to each faculty member in order to put together a balanced panel that will both support and challenge the student.

What does it feel like to be on campus during Focus Week?

In typical years when we’re in the building during Focus Week, the energy in the school is phenomenal. All four years of undergraduate students, some graduate students, faculty, staff, family, and friends all come together to watch and support the seniors giving Thesis presentations, meaning you can have five or six presentations going on simultaneously, with 35 to 50 people in each room.

When a student finishes their presentation – and often times multiple will wrap up in one hallway at the same time – all of a sudden you have people pouring out of rooms, hugging, high-fiving, and taking pictures. It’s just such a warm and supportive energy, a perfect respite after the stress of all their work to date.

This year, Focus Week looks different due to the pandemic. How has a remote setting affected the week’s typical energy and experience?

Students still get some of that same energy through Zoom; at the end of presentations, we unmute all participants, so you can have 60 or so people on screen throwing out congratulations and messages of support. It’s still quite wonderful, but definitely not the same experience as being physically present with one another.

Have there been any unexpected benefits from hosting Focus Week via Zoom?

Definitely. For one, tons more people can attend, since presentations are held in a virtual room with capacity for hundreds of people, compared to our small classrooms that hold 50-ish max. This means that more family members, friends, and folks who aren’t in the immediate PNCA community can attend and support our students.

That expanded access has been one of them most beneficial things about moving Focus Week online. We also have a number of students who simply aren’t very comfortable presenting in front of people in a physical setting, so we offer the option for students to record their presentation – either proposal or oral – and actually present that as a recorded piece. They need to be there to introduce it and answer questions at the end, but I think that’s a phenomenal addition to the process that wasn’t possible before.

Our students have learned to communicate differently, and to do so entirely online. Now, they’re able to put together a package of their work and sent it to anyone, anywhere in the world. They can be comfortable talking to someone overseas about a job opportunity or graduate school, and those kinds of international pathways just weren’t as readily available when we were doing everything in person.

Are there any components of hosting a remote Focus Week that you’ll keep once it’s able to resume in person?

I’d like to keep the remote element as an option moving forward, even when in-person presentations become the norm once again. Now, we know what gear works, we have multiple carts that can be used for presentations, and we have upgraded Zoom cameras with better picture quality and sound than you’ll find with built-in cameras on most laptops and desktops. Our students are now familiar with remote learning and how to record and present virtually, so there can really be any mix of presentation formats moving forward.

For example, this fall we have five or six people who are physically installing their Thesis work on campus, and will sit in their studios and broadcast live via Zoom from there. I can see creative solutions like that becoming the norm as we navigate a post-pandemic life.