‘I will really miss seeing their shoes’
I have been a Senior Lecturer since 199* and worked across a number of specialist Art Schools and Universities. I have been in my current position as Senior Lecturer at ** since 20**, and I have been part of the Department Exec for ***.
The recent pandemic has transformed my working practices and the teaching and learning experience of my students. It is also becoming increasingly clear, that it has permanently changed the way that HE – more specifically, Art and Design education is delivered.
A thirst for online delivery has been unleashed – and whilst there is a need to re-vision what has gone before in the name of protecting both students and staff, the prospect of cost saving is being sucked up by University Executives with neither vision nor imagination.
My 3rd year Fashion students handed in the final module of their course today. After 3 years of studio based learning, teaching and technical development – their hand in consisted of a collection of digitally packaged files, the content of which I will never ‘see’ nor touch. The culmination of a pedagogic indoctrination into the importance of material languages, the richness of creative community and the freedom granted by the creative process – culminated into a demand for 3 compressed files sent anonymously and identified by 8 digit student numbers.
The thing is, these students have done brilliantly. The levels of critical and creative expertise, of vision, risk, tenacity and ambition within those compressed files is immense and fully demonstrative of both their ability and their outlook. The lock down occurred in the week that their final collections should have been handed in, the University shut, reopened and shut again across 3 subsequent days. They handed in incomplete, we marked and then they collected their work amid a rising sense of fear and spirit of descent.
Since then we have delivered online, we have Zoom’d, Team’d and Skype’d. We have delivered drawing workshops, portfolio reviews, critiques and tutorials from our lounges and landings to them – in their bedrooms, flats and family homes. The democracy of studio education was lost in an instant, as individual wealth, (or lack thereof) was immediately exposed by the state of the walls. High flying students returned to cramped multiple occupancy bedrooms, many had nowhere to work except their beds propped up on pillows or kneeling amid chaos. For others, rambling farmhouse kitchens or garden annexes provided quiet isolation for peaceful creative development.
If only endeavour and determination were matched by ease and privilege – then it may all seem fairer.
I haven’t started marking the work yet – shortly after the hand-in and the ‘final’ Zoom of congratulations and laughter, I had to attend an Exec meeting. In what always feels like a schizophrenic twist of character I was again on the ‘other side’ – discussing vague plans being drip fed by a detached University leadership team who haven’t taught students for years. They may well ask for feedback, and pride themselves on the fashionable brightly lit agendas of well-being and inclusivity, but there is a lot of smoke and too many mirrors.
There is already much back-patting amongst those who look on remotely, ‘the students have handed in, show me the work – there’s so much good practice, best practice, they’ve done so well, surely it’s a model for the future….’ But it isn’t. It isn’t best practice, it isn’t good practice, it’s contingency practice.
‘How much can they (programme teams) put online?’ ‘They (the University Executive) want as much as possible online’. How much is 15 credits? 10%, would 30% be ok? What about 80%? If we say too low will they close courses down? If we say too high will they make redundancies? Speculate-speculate-buy-sell-buy: Licked fingers held high in a spring breeze wouldn’t be inaccurate.
The thing is, these students have only done so well, are only doing so well, because of what has gone before. They have been pedagogically raised in nurturing studio environments, challenged by tutors who can read the nuanced signs, and supported by peers who know what they did last Friday – and want to do it again next. And that makes all the difference.
It feels as if there is a rapid dismantling of Art and Design education, as if contingency is being redressed as pedagogic ideology. With little thought to discipline specifics or the dynamics of process: a reductivist approach is being fuelled by panic, and we are unable to apply our experience. Instead of rethinking, inventing, kicking back, questioning and coming up anew – we are being funnelled rapidly into an unimaginative homogeneity, and it doesn’t have to be this way.
My fear is that future students will not be as brilliant (literally) as this years cohorts – because they will not have been exposed to the multiple dimensions of thought and activity provided by studio education. They will be taught predominantly in two dimensions, with all the haptic qualities of both their work and experiences reduced to screens of varying sizes. Face-to-face will take on new meaning, as screens of rectangles and glitchy platforms are re-branded as online studios.
We will scramble to read the nuances of their environments and pitch of their voice in the same way we have always holistically read their expressions, body language, gestures and shoes. They will work on beds, in corridors and through the night, without the fluid and constant banter of a studio dialogue, without the moments of inspiration inspired by chance or proximity, and without the random calls for tea bags, pins or pattern paper – without the magnificent minutiae of studio life. I will really miss seeing their shoes.
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