On being a design student today; COVID’s push-pull with instrumentalism and maturity

The COVID crisis has changed everything. It’s revealed the landscape in stark relief like an earthquake turning the soil, or a bushfire burning dry sclerophyll; destroying, collapsing, revealing, yet bringing renewal and clearing fertile ground for the new.

We’re in the midst of this pandemic, we’ll remain in it for some time and – eventually – we’ll come out. However things will never be the same; we are never ‘going back’ to how things were, instead we’re moving forward into how things will be.

For design education the pandemic has been challenging, though not quite as challenging as those disciplines in which the phenomenology of material practice and its interpersonal sharing in studio is absolutely indispensable to learning. For Communication Design we can–and do–get by, online. Our students, with their MacBooks, can sit in their kitchens and produce work. It can be hard to see why this is any different to them working on those same MacBooks on campus. So, as design educators, we carry on; our students generally stay with us (unlike some disciplines through this pandemic) and they keep producing work. This allows us, on the whole, to keep our jobs.

Signs are somewhat grim for the future of this ‘network’, as we see the International students (upon who a lot of this system has been enabled) slowly peter off; locked out of Australia and looking elsewhere, rather than gambling on an enrolment in a hastily developed online offering that does not allow them to improve their English, leave home, or feel part of something bigger than themselves.

This presentation will make a case that Design Education is at a crossroads. Through COVID we find ourselves dragged towards a highly instrumentalist (and reductive) view of the purpose of education (to get a job), the purpose of practice (to do jobs), and what we should be prioritising as educators (to get them all jobs). We stand, exhausted, in danger of losing touch with what brought us to teaching; the lively, dynamic interplay with those new to the worlds of design.

Yet, concurrently (to use a somewhat dangerous word) we see students and lecturers displaced productively from their traditional and habituated roles. We see a flattening of hierarchy, a shift in what it means to be a student (or teacher) of design and, through this, new potentials for valuing the non-instrumentalist capacities of practice. Our collective global existential crisis might allow us to be reborn into new conceptions of why we are here. Might we be forced to mature our understanding of what it means to be a design educator, be a design student, and to practice design?

This presentation will reflect on a series of events taking place in HE design education during the last 18 months; impromptu interdisciplinary online studios, global collaborations, peer student-staff communities as well as the collapse of traditions and the revealing of canons as myopic and anachronistic. It will reflect upon the concomitant disciplinary and pedagogical knowledge produced through these sudden shifts and conclude with a possibility for a hopeful future of a greatly matured C21st practice.

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