with Alice Wong and Simpson Tse15.6.2021 – hosted by Lisa Baumgarten and Judith Leijdekkers
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Lisa: Thank you so much for taking the time for our third Teaching Design Conversations continued … We – Judith and I – will give a bit of context on why we are in this space today. I’ll briefly introduce everyone, but we’d like to invite you to introduce yourselves properly before we dive into the conversation.
At the beginning of 2020, we organised a two-week temporary library in Berlin, where we hosted different kinds of conversational formats. We are still drawing from the meaningful encounters and discussions we had during those weeks, which encouraged us to continue the conversations as a way of sharing practices, perspectives and experiences – this time in an online format.
Judith: With Conversations continued..., we reflect on design education through dialogues – as a means to facilitate space for critical reflection and the production of counter-knowledge. We hope to work towards a more collective approach for transforming design practices by focusing on design education. For this project, we bring together educators, students, alumni and staff. We want to include institutionally established education as well as self-organised initiatives and independent practitioners.
Lisa: The dialogue is a format that is embraced in feminist and decolonial discourses. To us, a dialogue – in comparison to e.g. a lecture, a panel discussion or an interview – means giving each other time to speak, taking each other seriously and allowing differences to exist.
Judith: We just want to keep it very casual. It’s not an interview and we would like for it to be also energy-giving and inspiring to all of you.
[Start of Conversation]
Lisa: It would be super cool if you, Alice and Simpson, could tell us a little bit about yourselves before we dive into the conversation.
Simpson: Alice, would you like to start?
Alice: I can talk forever. Okay, my full name is Alice Wong. I was born in the Netherlands and was raised in Hong Kong. I returned to study in the Netherlands and I graduated from the MA Information Design at the Design Academy. This is also where I am teaching. I teach the Master’s students how to conduct research, how to find the narratives within their research findings, and how to translate these findings to a format that can speak for itself. I also give guest lectures here and there in higher education. I define myself as a story designer. So what do I do? I translate complex information to shareable stories. Now it’s Simpson’s turn.
Simpson: My name is Simpson. I studied Visual Communication at the Sydney University of Technology back in Australia, where I was born. Visual Communication is a bit broader than Graphic Design. I was combining my studies with humanity studies and cultural studies, which brought me to Japan for a year. After I graduated from my design education, I relocated to Hong Kong to work as a graphic designer. Eventually, that job brought me to the Netherlands seven years ago. Two years ago, I picked up postgraduate studies at the Master’s department of the Rietveld Academy,– the Sandberg Institute. The programme I enrolled in is a thematic programme called the Commoner’s Society. The initial intention is to study the commons from the point of view of art and design practitioners. I graduated last year. I met Alice when she graduated, actually. I went to the Dutch Design Week, and obviously, the Design Academy was one of the highlights, as always. We met in a lift. We were just checking each other out and then she smiled. And then I smiled. At that time, Alice graduated with a film and I sat down and watched the whole thing. She happened to be by the monitors and asked “Do you have any questions?” We just instantly liked each other, I guess. At that time, the director of the design studio I worked for, Thomas, was the creative director of the Design Academy. Not much later, we were invited to do an artist residency project in China to make a film called “Weaving Stories”. Alice was just the first person we both thought would be a really good collaborator on this. That’s how our friendship and a professional relationship started. By coincidence, but also because of the relationship between my director and the school. Everything added up. And that was … I can’t remember how long! Like five or six years ago? We ended up making the film together. The film was shown at the Dutch Design Week 2018. Since then, we have been in touch. And then last year, we also collaborated on another project: RGB Together. We designed an installation to teach kids something about coding colour. And obviously, we are each other‘s mental support. So yeah, we have a very close relationship as friends. But also as designers, I guess you can say that.
Judith: All because of the lift.
Alice: Simpson was with his boyfriend then. I was wondering: why do they speak Cantonese? It is so rare to find Hong Kong people in the Netherlands. I was with my friend and they said hello in Cantonese to each other. Then I added: “Oh, wow, do you speak Cantonese?!”
Simpson: That detail is a bit hazy for me. But I want to say more things about Alice’s film. Her graduation work was really impressive, because it was just so different to everything else on the floor. I come from a more conventional design education, where disciplines are very clearly defined, like fashion design or industrial design. Although I come from Visual Communication, which is the more hybrid department, I think moving to the Netherlands really opened my eyes. I saw that design doesn’t have to be limited to one discipline. And obviously, with a school like the Design Academy – from what I know through Alice and my previous boss Thomas – there seems to be a more intellectual, maybe a deeper way of positioning design in relation to other studies. That became my motivation to pick up a postgraduate study in the Netherlands.
Lisa: Judith and I both read your Master’s thesis about care and design, Simpson. We actually recommended it for a reading list for a publication, because we think it’s really meaningful. Could you connect it to the possibility to study design in a different way than you were maybe used to? I am curious how that might have been influential to your Master’s thesis. I would also love to hear more about the thoughts behind your thesis.
Simpson: Yeah, sure. I will first do that, and then I think Alice has probably a lot to say in terms of her role as a teacher. I guess it all started with me enrolling in the Commoner’s Society programme. It was a reaction from the school to more timely themes. This programme caught my attention because I have always been interested in how we relate to people and how people relate to society. I guess that came from the other half of my Bachelor’s studies, which is in cultural studies. The programme started based on the theme of the commons , but eventually, most students didn’t follow through in that line of study. I think there are two reasons. The first one is not a complaint, but does relate to the concept of care. The two directors didn’t seem very experienced in that topic. Secondly, our programme is supposed to be site-specific. It was supposed to be built upon this man-made island in Amsterdam, called Zeeburgereiland. We were asked to bring our interventions to this newly built island, where culture is supposedly lacking. There’s no art galleries or anything. It’s on the fringe of Amsterdam. During the programme, there was a lot of bureaucracy and miscommunication. I think the reason why I decided to write a thesis on care is because I feel like that was really lacking in my experience of studies. Of course, when I started researching care I was also looking into the more intricate and urgent aspects of care. For instance: what are all those hidden exploitations that could happen in the name of care? So it was a much more complex subject than just a four letter word.
Lisa: You said hidden exploitation. What do you mean by that specifically?
Simpson: In relation to my studies, the school cares about the students with really straightforward statements, but they don’t seem to know how to care in practice. For example, they (the heads of department) say that they care, but every time we tried to communicate through any channels, questions and concerns were often dismissed quite quickly. They said: “Just work it out among yourselves.” Another example is that the programme didn’t have a space on campus. Even though most of the time the school is pretty empty, it is never really fully utilised. At one point, we wanted to relocate back to the main campus, because we felt like that would help us to reconnect with other departments. Otherwise, we were always floating outside the school. We were supposed to be working from the island, but then it took more than one year to actually secure a space to work from. And then COVID came, and the whole thing just collapsed. It took us about a year of negotiating. Basically, what we wanted was just a container, which the school has stored somewhere. We had the expectation that we would be working site-specifically, but then we became site-less in a way. As students, we were expected to self-organise. I think not sorting out logistics and expecting the students to bring everything to the school is a mismanagement issue.
Judith: It’s also giving false expectations – or expectations that you cannot meet. Meeting expectations could be a form of care.
Simpson: Yeah. The teachers all came from good intentions, but sometimes that is just not enough. It is quite infuriating, actually. But when you‘re already involved it’s too late. So I think, yes, they care, but at the same time they are incapable of caring because there’s no tangible support. It turned out that the institution doesn‘t care for their teachers, either.
Lisa: It’s like a line of lacks of care. There’s no energy left for it, because everybody‘s just drained. It’s passed on continuously.
Simpson: It’s really a vicious cycle. We – the students – are unhappy about certain things, and then we pass it on to the department heads. Then they move it a level up, where they say they can’t do anything about it, or at least not right away. And then you‘re just lost, basically. I do think that each of us is resourceful in our own ways. We came to the programme experienced. It’s a Master’s programme, so a lot of us were already practicing or had other kinds of experiences before we came to the studies. But the reason for all of us going back to school is because we were missing pieces in our education. So I don’t think the whole argument of having to be self-organised is valid. At one point we were told: “Don’t expect to be taught”. I think that was a wake up call for everyone. Why are we at school if we are not provided an opportunity to learn? At the same time, teaching is a form of income, a way to solidify your network and your reputation. Our school is very established in the Dutch cultural scenes. It feels like there’s a lot of tension around that too, because it creates a level of mistrust between the students and the teachers. The students would sometimes think that the teachers are only doing it for influence and connections, instead of really having a heart in education. So all these things snowball together. I think that makes the learning experience quite unproductive.
Judith: I am interested in hearing from Alice, because you studied and are now teaching at the Design Academy. Could you tell us about your experience from a teacher‘s perspective? Do you recognise what Simpson is talking about?
Alice: Yeah, definitely. When I was a student at the Design Academy, I always thought my teachers didn’t care. They just showed up for 10 minutes to give us feedback, and then they disappeared. I always had a different idea on how I’d like to teach. Students are open to me and seem comfortable being vulnerable. I see students struggle mentally. I see myself as a teacher who not only guides students creatively, but also for mental support and dealing with doubts and insecurities. I’ve been to a psychologist myself when I studied, which taught me how to deal with such struggles. The Design Academy was very stressful for me. There is a psychologist at the Design Academy. She helped me a lot, because she knows the context of the Design Academy and the struggles students are facing there. She has been there for over 16 years, but the school doesn’t provide much information about her. Students have to look for her. Someone who has already been there tells you: “Hey, you should go to the shrink. She’s really nice, she can help you. She is experienced in supporting creative people in tackling these thoughts and putting those feelings into perspective.” But it’s not that you come into the Design Academy and you know that there’s a psychologist ready to help. The whole setting is quite hidden and inaccessible. This became very clear during the first lockdown, when many students had to study from home. Suddenly, they had to work at their kitchen table. Some students had no space to work on anything. Some students need to work in a school environment, so I saw that some of them lost the rhythm. They were so unhappy with the situation and got unmotivated. There were students who talked about really sensitive topics. Some even talked about serious depression. As teachers, we didn’t have any tools to deal with that. I tried to be there for my students, but I am not a psychologist. How can we be supportive? I sometimes felt very incapable of supporting them. Everything I say is just based on what I experienced with and taught from my shrink. Every week, I see so many students crying and dealing with overwhelm. It affects their design development. But failing these students will make the situation worse. They can not afford to fail. But what if a project can’t pass? Do we want to fail students because their mental state affects their work? I think it is very difficult to give feedback in an honest way as design teachers, if we also have to evaluate students based on what happens in their personal lives. We cannot disconnect personal lives from design work, but here is no support for teachers to deal with that. We don’t have a platform ourselves to discuss this side of teaching.
Lisa: Can I ask a question about something specific that you just mentioned? You said that it gets really hard to maintain a professional relationship. If the students open up to you, you get to know them and you get to know about their struggles. That’s a very interesting point, I think. I’m wondering if the way that we have experienced our education is based on this system of cutting off professional from personal. Maybe that is problematic in the first place. I think, actually, from my experience, our being, our bodies and our professional practice are always intertwined. But we don’t really have a strategy because our institutional education systems are not built on taking that into account. And that‘s what causes the tension then for you as a teacher, who is also not trained, obviously, as someone who can take the whole load of the personal struggles of the students, right? Even though you care and you want to, I mean, how can you not if you’re an engaged teacher? And you’re in there with your whole heart, then how can you not consider that, right?
Alice: Studying from home was so tough for many students that we just tried to pass everyone. We are just juggling around with marks. It’s a long discussion on how this one mark can change someone‘s life and well-being.
Lisa: It’s a lot of responsibility.
Alice: Sometimes it feels scary. It drains me. And then there is a lack of time. I don’t even have time for lunch most of the time, maybe 15 minutes if I’m lucky. A student of mine had to walk with me to the supermarket to talk about their design project. My schedule is always fully booked. I have about 20 minutes per student in a day. I meet each student for 10 minutes in the morning and for 10 minutes in the afternoon. I try to put their thoughts and experiences into perspective. I help them understand that critiquing their work is not critiquing them personally. But what if a student gets an emotional breakdown? I can’t just stop the conversation. It means I will have to spend extra time to really talk about their work and not just their emotions, to bring them back into the moment. Extra time always needs to be spent, but this extra time is not paid. We won’t be compensated for the hours that we spend on care, but the care is so important. I wonder: is that fair? It’s not fair for the students, because that was their need. But it’s also not fair to me.
Judith: And don’t forget the emotional labour of thinking about and processing this.
Alice: Yeah, it’s quite hard. After work, students still want to meet you. Will you say no? Sometimes I think it’s not my job. But then I think: what if that half an hour will change something? That’s why I will still meet them. Looking back, when I was a student, I sometimes asked my teachers for extra help. Whenever they declined to help, I thought they just simply didn’t care. But now I see it from the perspective of a teacher, it might not be that they are cold and not care, but instead they cannot afford to care more. Every single request from students outside of the planning is unpaid time. I realise now that I was asking them to do unpaid work. I think this should change. I get paid for my teaching hours, but teachers should also be paid fairly for preparation work and time to care for students. Maybe it should be a different kind of contract instead of having a freelance contract. I am teaching as a freelancer. I I get sick, I would not have a safety network for support. Additionally, I can never be sure whether or not I will be teaching next year. Freelance contracts are very uncertain. I only know if we can teach right before a semester starts, because that’s when the schedules are made.
Judith: I just wanted to contextualise the way we deal with mental care in general in the Netherlands. There’s a huge waiting list for psychologists and therapists. Somehow, the way we think of care in the Netherlands is that we only ask for care if we really need it. And if we really are already broken down.
Lisa: So when it’s already too late, basically.
Judith: Yes, when it‘s too late. If you ask for professional help, you end up on a waiting list. I know many people who are assigned to a psychologist they don’t feel comfortable with. That means that you have to choose between speaking with someone you don’t want to speak with, or waiting even longer, maybe even years. I wanted to contextualise this because this is also ingrained in educational institutions. The way we think about when, or at which moment, we need care and ask for help. Your stories all show that thinking about care is something we can somehow only talk about when teachers break down and when students break down. And even then there is still so much labour that we have to go through before we get better.
Lisa: I had a very similar experience to Alice’s. Especially during the first months of COVID, a lot of my students were sad and anxious, and they didn’t show up regularly. I kept checking in, which is also outside of my working time. Sometimes I felt like they’re young adults, maybe I shouldn’t, but then I also realised that they really needed someone to check in. So I kept checking in and then found out that they were really sad. They felt very isolated as well. I had a lot of South East Asian students who were victims of racist attacks or harassment here in Berlin, which was super difficult for me to support. I tried nonetheless, but was feeling like my capacity as a teacher was overstepped. I also don’t have the competence to really counsel them. So I looked on the website of the university. I looked for a specific office for someone who can help them to deal with or give them support with racist harassment. I eventually found this office, which is led by a white man. I would guess that the girls who were telling me about this would never go to this guy, and talk about their experiences that just doesn’t feel comfortable. I was not able to reach him on the phone either. To help the students with their anxiety and sadness I looked for the counseling office. I didn’t find anything except a PDF on self-care, but it was self-care in the most neoliberal sense. It was not really about taking care of yourself, but more about how to deal with stress in the sense of efficiency. Then I actually wrote an email to the president of the university because I was so worried. I cc’d a lot of people in the email and I wrote to them that I really want to support my students, but that I also need support myself. I asked if they could give me support in helping my students. And then they said: “Oh, you know, we haven’t known this since yesterday. We have known this for many years. It’s not just because of COVID. But next year in April (2021) we will install one person who will be responsible for the students, for the teachers, for the networks, for so many other things.“ I just saw red flags in this statement: burnout, burnout, burnout. One person to support all these different people. That is ridiculous. And they never communicated it through the email chain to the students or the teachers. So even after a year, I still don’t have any guidelines. I still don’t have any support. So the email was basically just reassuring me to keep me quiet.
Judith: Something I recognise everywhere is that when we speak out about a better structure of care for our students, we are told that we are right, that it will be handled, and then nothing happens. I started looking at contracts and tasks in vacancies to see whether and how care is mentioned. And it never is. Never, ever, nowhere. There doesn’t seem to be any paid time for care in educational institutions.
Simpson: Just as a point of reference, there’s a new book from Sara Ahmed, called Complaint!  She did her fieldwork in different universities. She writes beautifully. About language and emotions, and also about feminist theory. I really would recommend it. But just to zoom in a little bit: our teachers also speak about this problem. When I was a student, it made me feel very helpless. We are unhappy, the teachers are unhappy. How do we move on? To bring it back to the personal experience a little bit: in my second year an additional teacher was hired and she was very patient. Even though the bigger structures didn’t change so much, we did get more attention and care in the second year. But it was a bit of a shame because I was hoping that we would try to tackle questions about how to treat each other and do things collectively, which is what the commons is about. There is definitely a cultural trend into a more collective way of thinking about creativity instead of celebrating the so-called genius artist. For instance, the Turner Prize this year shortlists only collectives. That is a really sensible move, because we have to understand in design and in arts that all the work doesn’t come from one person. It comes from a network of labour and care. I think people are slowly recognising that in the art and creative fields. And I think that schools fall short in supporting that sort of thinking, because they still think that they need to groom students into these individual geniuses. I do think the struggles from my and Alice’s experiences are very different. Because the group of students I was in joined the programme out of a desire to do things together. And then we had a lot of collective frustration because the school was not capable of dealing with this topic. We ended up just following the trajectory of a very ordinary design education. Basically, they just said: “It’s about yourself now. What do you want to do?” For me, at least personally, that was a big disappointment. I didn’t come to formulate myself in that way, but we were left with no other options. That was a realisation that came with a big price, I guess.
Judith: Thank you for mentioning the notion of collectivity. It looks like there are more and more student collectives who decide to graduate together. It makes clear how academies and universities are not at all geared towards working collectively. It is still the norm that a student graduates individually. The fact that more students graduate collectively hopefully forces institutions to self-reflect and make space for more collective ways of working.
Alice: Something else I wanted to add is that I think it normalised that schools hire famous designers to teach. But being a famous and successful designer does not necessarily qualify them for being a good teacher. Teaching students to work on their own design project is different from working on your own project. You can be really good at something, but that doesn’t mean you know how to share it. As a teacher, you need to make sure the students understand what you mean. For me, teaching is sometimes almost like bingo: you give out five numbers, and you have to check with your students if they really received those five numbers. We cannot just throw out information and then drop it in the ocean and see if they get it or lose it. Teaching requires a lot of effort, patience, self-reflection, and responsibility.
Lisa: Judith, you are currently doing a programme that allows you to teach in different types of education. Is the programme mandatory for independent lecturers? Like you said Alice, designers are not trained to be pedagogues. Being a good designer doesn’t mean that you are a good pedagogue. When I heard from Judith that she’s doing this degree in order to be able to teach, I found that very interesting. I think it entails its own problems, which maybe you can also talk a little bit about, Judith, but I think it has a lot of potential.
Judith: It is becoming more and more normalised that teachers are asked to have some kind of pedagogical education. In elementary schools, high schools and vocational education you need to be certified. In some academies, you need to have a teaching qualification in order to get a permanent contract – if you are in the privileged position of being offered one. But this is not the programme I’m doing, although there are similarities. I’m doing the Fine Art and Design Teacher programme at the Willem de Kooning Academy, which is a regular programme of the academy. The people who run this programme also run the internal teacher training. So the teachers and the students are being trained separately. It would be so interesting to have the two combined. I’m now in this weird position where I’m both a student in the teacher programme and a teacher elsewhere. If I wouldn’t have been already thinking about feminist pedagogy and care, then I would never encounter those themes in this programme. The idea of this programme is that we need to understand the Dutch traditional education system, so we know how to fit in. The programme showed me that the whole education in the Netherlands is built on a handful of white American male psychologists, like David Kolb, Benjamin Bloom, and John Watson. But how do we situate ourselves in the Netherlands? Who are the people who have been working on transformative practices and pedagogies here? As a teacher in training, you are pushed into an idea of education and arts education that perpetuates individualist thinking. Also, it is still the norm that you teach alone. To get back to Simpson, because you mentioned this idea of graduating collectively, I think it should also be much more normalised to teach collectively. I am fortunate to have people like you around me to talk about my experiences in the classroom, and I need that in order to process, to stay mentally healthy, and to unpack problematic structures. But most people are teaching alone. Situations like Alice’s are everywhere, in so many educational contexts. That’s too much and too hard. Sorry, I totally went off your question, Lisa.
Lisa: No, I think it’s very interesting. In Germany, around 1/3 of the students drop out of university, because the pressure and stress is too intense. The number of mental illnesses has increased tremendously, not only during the pandemic, but also before. The pressure is too high. I mean, what kind of behaviour are we fostering in those institutions? After university, these humans go out into the society and have values that are totally self-destructive. So I am trying to incorporate this stance in my teaching. I would like to mediate more to my students, than just content. I would like to equip them with social tools, empower them to care for themselves and others. That has always been the focus of my teaching. I think that we don‘t need more designers who come out of university and are competitive and are trying to follow this individualistic ‘genius star designer path’. But at the same time it’s hard because this kind of teaching also requires more labour in the current system? It seems like there’s hardly any space for that kind of teaching in traditional university systems.
Alice: It’s interesting what you said about teaching to work collectively and that we don’t need to have new designers coming in. Indeed, the pool is not getting bigger. It is very important to play together and find our position and still be able to exercise what we’re good at, and define our roles. To work collectively, not as competitors, but to support each other to do interesting work and think collectively as a community.
Lisa: I can really recommend this book, which actually Judith recommended to me. It’s from the Care Collective, called The Care Manifesto . It helped me – in a very short and summed up way – to understand neoliberal values, and reconnect them to educational institutions and see how educational institutions train the students to think in this neoliberal sense to then function in this construct, and perpetuate these values. So basically, when I start teaching a seminar, what we first do is unlearn a lot of stuff. Once we’re past two thirds of the seminars, then we can start working. But then the semester is almost finished, right? I don’t know how you feel about it. I’m also employed as a freelancer each semester, and I only teach the students for one semester in a year. So I think that time is super essential. If I would work with them for a year or 1.5 years, I could really see them develop and guide them also to get to know themselves and their skills better. But since it’s only half a year, in Germany, you say it’s like a drop of water on a hot stone. It just evaporates.
Alice: Oh, nice expression. So true.
Judith: But also, don’t forget how much you can do, and how much you can mean to people in a short period of time.
Alice: That’s true also.
Judith: I know, it’s not ideal, but I’m sure that for so many students, it’s so important to at least encounter one teacher who does make space to listen to care for each other, even if it’s just briefly.
Judith: I just wanted to get back to Simpson, because the one thing I really remember from our last conversation is that you introduced yourself by saying that you try to do everything with care, even small things like writing emails. I find myself thinking about that almost every day.
Alice: As if it’s a mantra!
Simpson: It comes from my work as a graphic designer, the simple things, like the way I see my friends and colleagues. I will never see them as competitors. I prefer to put the idea of collective care into practice. I think there’s definitely a big desire to do so, but often we just don’t have the vocabulary and infrastructures. How do we start with building those? So I think that care and being careful at the same time is very important. It doesn’t mean that you are just being nice. That’s probably how I would answer your question. I do put care into everything I do. It’s not just that I’m sitting around a corner and just want people to like me. It’s really about having this attitude in the things that you do, where you’re working, with which people, and how and why they are being reached, and also being conscious of things in relation to everything.
Judith: It does remind me of something bell hooks  wrote. She said that she’s always trying to teach with care, which sometimes leads to students getting confused when they fail a class. They ask: “but you’re here for me, right? Why did I fail this course, then?” For bell hooks, these are two different things. Taking care doesn’t mean that the students’ work is always good. It doesn’t mean that a teacher should please a student … maybe even the opposite.
Lisa: Yes, maybe taking care is also being honest to each other.
Judith: And being open about expectations. Maybe it also gets back to what Alice said earlier in this conversation about passing and failing students. We are put in a position where we need to have these discussions with students whether or not they pass or fail when someone is not mentally well.
Lisa: Maybe it’s also the binary of those two, passing and failing. Maybe there needs to be a third or fourth option, like giving the person a break, and just not let the person fail or pass. I think life is so much more complicated than that. In my studies I had really traumatic experiences of teachers telling me that I am lazy and that I will never be a good designer, that if I’m not more resilient, I wouldn’t get anywhere. Teachers were giving me really harsh comments, which took my whole self-confidence away. And I hear this a lot from students that I teach now who experience this with other teachers. I think this is such a mean and subjective way of judging someone and it can really destroy someone’s confidence, and with that the courage to move forward after graduating. Now that I’m out of university as student for many years, I’m able to do my thing and I’m doing it with joy. But at the time, the reality of university felt so real and so ubiquitous, that I was taking it super seriously. It took me almost 10 years to get out of that way of thinking, to say to myself: “No, actually, I’m not lazy. And actually, I can do it.”
Alice: It’s almost like a kind of spell that is put on you.
Lisa: Yes. Teachers have so much power. It is really a power, right? You are the one to judge a person’s abilities. What do you know about the person? You just see a glimpse of the student in your seminar, right?
Alice: Yes, exactly. I had the same experience. I remember that I was being told right in front of my face that I was naive, superficial and lazy. That hit me really hard. Receiving this negative feedback piled up with my other personal struggles and I ended up having a depression. When I had depression, the teachers somehow seemed to be more relaxed with me. Then I wonder: why do some teachers have to say such words to break down a person and then be nice again? How can it be allowed to break down a student so that they can build up again? I think it doesn’t help, instead it causes so much stress and pain.
Lisa: It’s like ‘carrot and stick’. This has become part of education, it is normalised that it has to be painful.
Alice: Sometimes I wonder why the expression “you will be fine” is so present in design education. In any other profession, you won’t say to your students “you will be fine”. But in the design education context, we always say “you‘ll be fine”. I mean, it’s nice to say it, but then at a certain point, why does this phrase always come up? What does it imply?
Simpson: Different schools attract different kinds of students. So I think you need to understand the people you are working with in these two or three years of the programmes. In order to really build up the infrastructure of care, we shouldn’t see it as a fixed thing. Things are changing really quickly, like the way we speak about things. I think the word “safe space” was not vernacular until three years ago, and now even politicians don’t feel safe. I mean, they’re the most powerful people and they say they don’t feel safe in their political party. It has just spread like that. I think vocabulary is something you constantly need to revisit. Teachers together with students can formulate this environment. And it takes time. I have a friend. He is, like Sara Ahmed, the diversity counselor in a performing arts school. He said that, as a trans person, from his experience with activism, it takes a very long time to make even the tiniest change. From his point of view it is difficult to observe how the students suffer so much from struggling with politics in the school environment. They are students, they are here to learn. And instead, a lot of energy evaporates into a lot of emotional labour as well as feeling very frustrated with how little change they could bring to the school. Just to give another concrete example: I believe the Rietveld and Sandberg Institute have hired an external diversity counselor. It’s a one person or two person team. They are there to connect with current students to work on ongoing topics. It is very hard to get a lot of attention with the work you do, because you’re almost no one’s friend in this situation. The students don‘t think that you’re on their side, the teachers think that you are here to criticise what they’re doing. I don’t have a clear answer yet. I just know that as a young person, you came to creative education with a lot of hopes, and it’s really sad to see a lot of those hopes get killed along the way. There’s a lot of students who don‘t make it through their education. They drop out. In my programme, we started 13 and then we ended with 10. It makes you wonder why? What happened to my department? I tried to analyse the issues a little bit with some time in between. I graduated almost one year ago today and now I’m a lot more equipped to talk about it. How does meaningful change and substantive change come by, because you only have these thoughts in hindsight? Will this new struggle recycle itself? I don’t know what will happen when I am given the opportunity to teach. How would I do it differently? That’s the question for me.
Alice: We now facilitated this workshop together which is about teaching young children to understand RGB. So it’s like a mini-example of teaching. The funny part is we are designing this whole package of teaching materials for school workshops. We need to give a workshop to school teachers on how to teach with our teaching materials.
Simpson: I think that’s also maybe a nice example, because we have Joni , and she‘s really, really good. So we talk a lot about her skills of delivering information, and also coming in as an external teacher to the kids and building that connection. I think that could be an interesting way of teaching. There could be external people making the content and you have professional teachers to deliver it. Then it’s a collaboration. In some topics, I think it’s very useful. So I think it’s amazing, and it is really a privilege to enjoy creativity and to be able to make that your lifelong passion. And I would love that for anyone else. But how do we open that up? And also not fixate on this illustrious imagination of what creative people are? I know there’s a lot of people who think the same. Otherwise we wouldn’t be speaking now.
Lisa: Exactly. I think it’s the same with care and this neoliberal framework that we operate in. We are not the only ones seeing that it’s not healthy, that it is not sustainable, that it can go on like this, and are not happy with it. And that’s a precondition for it to change, right? To have different people working on it in different ways and trying to change it. In a way that’s an optimistic outlook on things. We are not alone in this struggle. And that’s why it’s so important to connect to each other and to check in and help each other out to not feel alone with it.
Alice: When I studied design in Hong Kong, which is another context, I was treated so badly. My sketches were thrown on the ground, models that I had built were being trashed in the bin and I was asked to cover the lid. When I was in drawing lessons my teacher would get a cutter and then cut the drawing that had wrong parts. It was brutal and I was really destroyed. When I came here I felt it was quite mild, you know. But then I started wondering. Why is that? That was an extreme case. We assume that designers – when they graduate – have to stand on their own feet and that they have to deal with the cruel world where the clients are beasts. We assume that you have to be a one-man band, that you have to handle everything yourself geniusly. So I wonder if teachers assume the worst in the real world which makes them treat students in that way to prepare them. They say these brutal words, are being rude and then we say: “you will thank me later.“ It’s a vicious cycle. But in reality with the clients that I have, which are mostly from the cultural sector, never have they ever told me that my project is shit, neither threw it on the ground, nor destroyed it with a cutter. I have never been treated like this. I mean, my tolerance is quite high. I used to think that in creative countries like the Netherlands, the design teachers might torture the students very badly. But they never ban an idea here. In the Netherlands, I learned that there is never a bad idea. Somehow I should say that is something good about the education here. We agree to say every idea is unique even though the same question has been asked for years. We are still being encouraged to ask the question over and over again, perhaps with a new perspective, so that we can create something different. To look at the overlooked details with a different eye. That‘s how creativity comes I think.
Judith: There is one thing that I was reminded of last week. I had a conversation in class with a woman called Shahaila Winklaar. She is part of an initiative called Musea bekennen kleur, which explores how museums in the Netherlands can engage with decolonisation and inclusivity. She has been in this field for 15 years now, as part of educational teams of museums. I asked her: “what is it then after all these years you now see or have learned or reflect on?” And she told me that we are constantly talking about structural oppression. But in the end, it is the people and individuals that keep this structural oppression intact, or break through it. It matters so much who is in a specific position. The one who is making the decisions is a person. I just wanted to share this.
Lisa: I think that’s super, super important.
Judith: Yes, it is important to be mindful of, in politics, in local politics, in neighborhood politics, but also in museums and in educational and other institutions. Everywhere, basically.
Lisa: Yes, structure sounds so abstract, right? ‘Structures’ always sound like it’s something outside of us. So yeah, obviously, we are against the structure, but it feels like it cannot be changed because it’s externalized.
Judith: And yet, structures are embodied.
Lisa: Exactly. We have already hit the one and a half hours mark. We want to respect your time, but maybe just to give an opportunity to comment on something or mention a last thought that’s really important to you. Now, if you feel like you haven’t said something you have now the space to do it, and then we wrap up the conversation.
Alice: I have a last question for Judith actually: why does the Dutch education system follow the American one?
Judith: I am not an expert but what I do know from the history of pedagogy in the Netherlands is that until the mid-1900s, so right until 1960/1970, it was only men who were allowed to write and theorise about education. That might be one of the many reasons. But university structures, and universities in the Netherlands I think are generally built on American systems and research. It could be that when education became a topic to study, a lot was drawn from American psychology, which has been researched for such a long time. To me, it was such an eye-opener to realise that the whole education system here still follows this idea. There is this handbook for teachers that every teacher who is trained in the Netherlands gets to read. That’s a scary book. The first sentence in the chapter is something like: “You are a successful teacher once you have transferred all knowledge to the students.” That’s horrible. But it still is the basic book for educating teachers in the Netherlands, not only in art education, but everywhere. This is something to research more extensively. But it is very deeply ingrained. That’s for sure.
I [Simpson] personally am referring to Peter Linebaugh’s elaboration of “commoning” in which he positions the commons as an activity, not just an idea of material resources. For further elaboration, see Peter Linebaugh, The Magna Carta Manifesto: Liberties and Commons for All, University of California Press, 2008.
Sarah Ahmed: Complaint!. Durham: Duke University Press, 2021.
The Care Collective: The Care Manifesto – The Politics of Interdependence. London/New York: Verso Books. 2020.
bell hooks: Teaching Community – A Pedagogy of Hope. London: Routledge, 2003.
Joni Cousins is the workshop coordinator for RGB Together, an interactive game developed by Alice Wong and Simpson Tse as part of the Cinekid Festival co-hosted by MU Hybrid Art House in Eindhoven, The Netherlands.
Berenice Fisher and Joan Tronto: Toward a Feminist Theory of Caring. In: Emily K. Abel and Margaret K. Nelson (eds.): Circles of Care – Work and Identity in Women’s Lives. New York: State University of New York Press, 1990, p. 35–62.
Catherine Denial: A Pedagogy of Kindness. In: Jesse Stommel, Chris Friend, Sean Michael Morris (eds.): Critical Digital Pedagogy. A collection. Hybrid Pedagogy, 2020.
iLiana Fokianaki: The Bureau of Care: Introductory Notes on the Care-less and Care-full. eFlux Journal, issue #113, november 2020. www.e-flux.com/journal/113/359463/the-bureau-of-care-introductory-notes-on-the-care-less-and-care-full/
Raewyn Connell: The Good University. London: Zed Books, 2019 Raewyn Connell: The Neoliberal Cascade and Education. An Essay on the Market Agenda and its Consequences. In: Critical Studies in Education 54 (2013), p. 99–112.
Simpson Tse: Care, The Friendly Ghost. Master’s thesis, Sandberg Instituut, 2020. https://sandberg.nl/thesis/simpson-tse
Get in touch with the participants
Alice Wong, Simpson Tse, Judith Leijdekkers and Lisa Baumgarten
Many thanks for proof-reading support
to Sander Holsgens.
Conversations continued… is made possible with the kind support of Stimuleringsfonds