with Benedetta Crippa and Johanna Lewengard
20.9.2021 – hosted by Lisa Baumgarten and Judith Leijdekkers
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Lisa: Thank you so much for taking the time for our fourth 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]
Benedetta: Hi, I am Benedetta. Me and Lisa had the pleasure of working together for the first edition of Teaching Design, where I designed the ornamental curtain for their workshop space at A–Z Berlin. I think we feel aligned in what values we want to bring into design discourse, practice and pedagogy. I am a graphic designer. I teach occasionally, as a guest teacher in different institutions. It’s always a pleasure for me, because I think education is crucial to pushing the field forward.
Judith: And how do you know Johanna?
Benedetta: Johanna was my supervisor at Konstfack during the second year of my master’s degree in Visual Communication. It’s quite an unusual programme where one develops a research project around power for a couple of years. In the process, me and Johanna found that we are both very committed to bring certain values into design pedagogy and committed to feminist pedagogy. We have been in close conversation since then.
Johanna: We became lifelong friends. And colleagues.
Judith: Wow, that’s a teacher everyone should have! What about you, Johanna?
Johanna: I am a communication designer engaged with visual labor for more than twenty years, and I am on my way to conclude a 10-year mandate as Professor of Visual Communication at Konstfack University. When I started to work at a design agency in the 90’s, it wasn’t on my map to study. Nobody in my family entered higher education, so I learned the craft with my hands and put a lot of pride into the tools and tricks of trade. I find it interesting Bene, when you say that education is what brings the field forward today. Because to me it is not obvious, and for sure I didn’t feel like that when I decided to study graphic design at the turn of the century. Working was my school just as much as university studies although studies gave me the space to also act beyond market logics and what the industry suggests. Perhaps this is exactly in what way the art university makes sense, to not just prepare for a working life according to industry standards but to empower people with confidence and capacity to push and transform them.
Lisa: So what are you going to do when you leave Konstfack? Will you go back to your design practice? Or do you have another call to teach or lead a programme somewhere?
Johanna: I don’t know yet. I actually didn’t decide. But for sure I never thought of design education as a permanent situation for myself, but rather something I do at a time when I believe I have something to give. For me that something gets energy from working outside an institution. At the time I entered teaching on a regular basis ten years ago, I was motivated by creating change. I was committed to creating the kind of education I thought was missing, for my own part and for the field at large.
Lisa: It’s very interesting. That was also my motivation for going into education. But then it is also interesting to see how hard it is actually then to invent or create something different out of the things that you are filled up with, if that makes sense, to speak very figuratively. Judith, it’s your turn.
Judith: I’m currently in Rotterdam, which is the context I speak from. My practice is a combination of design, anthropology and social work. I always work in the context of the neighbourhood I live in, which allows me to base my work on relationships. I also teach in this neighbourhood and it doesn’t really matter what I teach – I have been teaching social work and I’m currently a gardening teacher at an elementary school – but the starting point is always being situated. I see my design practice as my education work and the other way around. Lisa and I met digitally, because I had reached out to her. I had just started working in vocational education, which is very different from the academic world, where I came from. I immediately felt that there was a lot for me to unlearn. I was reading about intersectional feminism, decolonial practices and antiracism, but I didn’t know how to put it into practice. I wasn’t sure how to deal with the fact that my students are marginalised and oppressed in many ways – their education to start with. I needed fellow teachers around me to share our experiences and support each other. That’s when I learned about Teaching Design. I reached out to Lisa to learn from Teaching Design, but also to explore how I include vocational education into the discourse.
Johanna: I find it interesting how you arrive at vocational education with experiences mainly from the academic world, and how you get the sense of disconnection between formal and practice-based knowledge. I believe dominant traditions prevail dominant precisely due to this gap, formal knowledge is rarely transformative by itself and the other way around. Although more actors in design education have opened their eyes to why social theory is urgent to the field, I am hesitant about using theory as an alibi of responsibility. If we don’t at the same time create a profound space to explore ways in which making is thinking, we leave most design students paralysed and powerless in the face of theoretical knowledge. Konstfack has a strong tradition of graduating students to excel through practice, apart from this the programs can be very different from each other both pedagogically and artistically. The Visual Communication program starting in 2014 has gained international attention as being progressive, however it is important to know that different programs relate to the present in different ways. The way in which Konstfack is largely shaped by the people who are assigned to teach, while at the same time succeeding in maintaining a shared level of legal certainty, is a great strength that I wish more universities learned from.
Judith: Johanna, I think you’re the one who has been in the teaching practice for the longest period of time in this group. I would love to hear how you started working in design education, what you saw when you started and what you wanted to do differently.
Johanna: While running my design studio I was recurrently invited to teach at various design programs mainly in Sweden and Europe, Konstfack amongst them. I always found occasional teaching to be a vibrant part of practice, to me there is a dynamic between teaching and designing that I truly enjoy. When a couple of teachers encouraged me to apply for a professorship at Konstfack, I was flattered but not at all interested in going into education on a regular basis. On top of that I used to study at the same university and I was not very impressed. A few days later I was contacted by students for the same reason, they encouraged me to apply. At this point I checked the announcement out of curiosity, realizing there is room for change. I decided to go transparent and bold in my application, thinking that if the things I fundamentally support don’t resonate with the university this position is simply not interesting for me. Being appointed with a mandate to rethink education allowed for me to enter change-making with compassion and sensitivity to detail. Knowing that established institutions such as Konstfack always face great and multi-layered external and internal pressure, I was also prepared to approach this role with diplomacy. And also, I probably mentioned this before but, having a close colleague who I happened to share vision with was essential. We could quickly go deep into the how of things while already being aligned with the what and why.
Lisa: Sometimes, speaking from my experience, even if you are invited as a person with a critical standpoint – and you are very clear about it – people welcome you and say: “yes, we want someone to transform this programme, and someone who has different ideas”. But the moment you enter that setting, people involved start to realise: “Do we really want that? Do we feel comfortable?” Usually, when one applies for a job, one somehow has to bend a little bit. How was the journey that you went through? When you arrived with your ideas, did you have to bend a little as well? How did you communicate with the other teachers? Because, I guess, to make it transformative, it also has to be somehow participatory, right? So you can’t just go in there as a programme leader and say: “Okay, now we’re doing it like this.” I’m curious about how that went.
Johanna: Most things we started to deal with early on were in the interest of the whole collegium. For example we applied for visual communication to be recognized as a major area in its own right and were granted it. We basically started an infrastructural work aiming to secure and strengthen visual communication as an artistic research area in its own right. When we started to work on a new master’s program, we were above all motivated to create a program that was clearly research preparatory because that was not the case before. Our vision to create a master’s program which is explicitly designed to strengthen and make worthy of the democratic society we have so far taken for granted, was what raised questions from inside the institution. These questions were valuable not least because they helped us articulate why, in ways that seemed obvious to us. In the process of building a program from the ground up, both collegial and external conversations were absolutely central. Then comes patience and accuracy, if we do not prepare for various decision-making processes, it will not matter how well thought out the preparatory work is, and without formal decisions there is no legal certainty. One thing I learned the most from working with transformation since before is that bad decisions are not necessarily taken because people cannot do better. But bad decisions on this level are usually made because people arrive to meetings unprepared. I think that being prepared and creating the chance for others to be prepared is crucial for any healthy and sustainable change.
Judith: I think you’re also touching on time pressure here. I cannot speak for that in the context of Sweden, but something both Lisa and I recognise is the time pressure in all sorts of education. A lack of time makes it so hard to be prepared for meetings. Is that something you recognise as well?
Johanna: Yeah, for sure. Time is likely the weakest spot in all cases, however one of the most important parameters next to communication and the channeling of dialogue. I think, once you make vision and goals clear, you allow for more people to engage and have agency throughout the process. Apart from being able to bounce thoughts and helping each other to prepare, collective work helps to prioritize. At the time it was our priority to create the program we believe has to exist in order for the future of our field to stay relevant and vibrant. Clear priorities saves time in the sense that universities tend to offer an endless amount of tasks and opportunities, it is easy to get lost in this kind of environment if everything seems equally urgent and important.
Lisa: I also saw a big note about time in our preparation document. You mentioned in the first note that it has such a different quality of working when you are somewhere in the institution for a long time, and you can really invest time to develop and also to get to know all the screws you can bend or change. And then on the other hand Benedetta’s role as a visiting teacher or lecturer who comes in and works with the students for maybe a semester and is therefore in an extremely different situation, right? Maybe we can also talk about that mentioned difference, I am really curious to learn more about this different way of working in those two roles.
Benedetta: When we were preparing for the talk with you, the time factor really emerged in our discussions. What I think is beautiful is that to achieve structural change, you need both of these modalities. You need someone that is within the institution and works on lobbying, say, for 10 years, like Johanna has done to build things that will be able to sustain after she leaves and someone else takes over. So to build something sustainably, you need time, you need to get to know the people, you really need to work from within, slowly but surely. I think it’s especially relevant to keep this in mind in a moment when we are losing faith in institutions. There are a great number of para-academics and self-initiated design schools emerging, for very good reasons. And they are doing good work against great odds. And while we celebrate them, we should also remember there is something in the stability of an established, government-led institution that allows for this kind of long term work that after a while becomes written in law, and affects generations to come, and then other people will build upon that. That is how we create democracy. The relevance of this level of action should never be forgotten in the discourse around education. Then you also need the second modality: people like myself, who are practitioners today and are trying to push the field forward from outside the institution but from within the practice, and can come in and reinforce the long-term action. Reinforce it in class with the students, working with them on topics that are relevant for the practice today, through their craft. You really need both these modalities. Neither of them would be enough by itself. They also require different kinds of emotional labour. I’ve seen the enormous strain Johanna has been under during the past years, because of the many pressures she has to deal with within the institution; something I am normally not exposed to myself as a guest teacher who visits the institution occasionally. On the other hand, I go through a different kind of emotional labour. If I’m lucky I see the students for a few weeks, but often, when I give short workshops for example, I see them only for a few hours. During the pandemic I could not even meet them in person, I met them online. In that short span of time, I have to secure their trust, and find a way to make them feel safe with themselves, with me, and with one another. I need to get a sense of who they are and how we can work together, of where they stand with important questions, work on those questions, and finally get some kind of response. And when that’s done, I leave the building, or simply close my computer, and there I am at home by myself. It can be very emotional for different reasons, but both these modalities are very strong experiences.
Lisa: I can relate to turning off the computer and then being alone. I think also a big difference in your work, Johanna, is working with a team that stays for a longer period of time. And then being a visiting teacher is quite isolated work. If you know someone you’re lucky, but that doesn’t mean the person is necessarily a conversational partner, right? So if you’re lucky they are, but mostly you’re dealing with this on your own. I think working with people in real life when you’re in university is already very intense, but I think the intensity has even increased with digital teaching. It’s so hard to make a connection to people. What happened to me was that I turned the computer off and I was left with so much tension. It was so important for me to then just call someone and talk about the seminar session. I think that’s also a very big difference in not only the kind of labour, but also the way to deal with or reflect on what was happening during that experience.
Benedetta: Teaching remotely was a much stronger experience than I anticipated. I have realised that when doing that I need some kind of routine. The topics I usually discuss are very personal, they will impact my life, whether the students know it or not. I felt extremely exposed during the past year of remote teaching in a way I did not experience before. In a way it was easier; you teach from the comfort and safety of your home, or your own space. But when you are present together in the same room, when you share a space, you are sharing intimacy. We expose ourselves to one another, there is a commitment there that has been harder to feel in remote sessions for me. When you close your computer after an intense session, you can think: wow, I’ve just given a piece of myself to people that I will never see again and I haven’t even been in the same room with. So, strategies become necessary. First, I learned that it’s important to have another educator in the room who shares your own vision on key questions. I have decided that whenever I teach about power in a short session, I will want another person in the room that has an expertise in power, especially if I haven’t met the class before. Secondly, to try and not be just by myself after the session, but be able to talk to someone, even just with a short check-in.
Judith: When online teaching started, a lot of colleagues started talking about the safety of the students. But the safety of the teachers is as important, but it seems not to be discussed as much. Lisa and I also have had our experiences in online calls, where we had to learn how to deal with feeling unsafe. We can only teach digitally when we first think about our own safety.
Lisa: We had a very problematic phone call with a programme leader of a renowned Dutch design institution. And after that we talked about how we can handle situations like this in the future. I mean, if you’re in a room together, and Benedetta, you sit next to me I will immediately sense when you get nervous. I would sense that you are uncomfortable, and I would be able to jump in or make you feel more comfortable, obviously, to dilute the situation. But if you’re online, you basically have no anchor, or no feedback loop. So we decided on strategies. We now have specific code words that we say to each other to prepare the other person that a line was crossed. And that we partner up, basically. And then the other person is prepared to jump ship together – to end the meeting as a team for instance. But no matter what, I think it’s a very different way of working together, because it’s harder to sense each other.
Benedetta: For sure. That’s part of the reason why I especially enjoyed the sessions I’ve been leading lately with Anja Neidhardt. We share the same outlook on pedagogy and we are both familiar with dynamics of power. So even though we are not close friends, she knows when it’s time to step in, by listening to me and the dynamic in the room. Like you say, it is important to secure the conditions for our own emotional safety, in order to be as effective as we can as educators.
Johanna: It’s good that you mentioned the question of emotional safety, Bene. Going back to programme level and how to make it sustain I believe the question on how to make it sustain its teachers is central. One of the answers for us is that there are rarely less than two teachers in the classroom. This mainly has to do with questions of quality and accuracy since we teach two separate subjects, but indeed it also saves emotional labor. As teachers we are everyday witnesses to situations and dilemmas that emerge in class, being able to process this together creates an everyday space to feel less alone when dealing with something very complex, our own role in the scenario and mistakes included. It saves emotional energy and it saves time.
Lisa: That’s very unique. In the context where I was taught, and also where I’m teaching, it is more the “burning up-method". It’s not sustainable. It’s built on the extensive labour of single individuals who are underpaid and overworked and then after a couple of semesters quit their jobs. So that’s amazing to hear. In any context where you address sensitive topics and political topics, topics where you also expose yourself – as you said, Benedetta, you give a piece of yourself – it’s very important to have some kind of a partnership. Because tension, I think, is guaranteed.
Benedetta: I feel that whenever I teach about power, teaching is never about just teaching. Recently, I was teaching a class of only men. I was speaking about power in relation to transportation, and we were doing exercises where we were trying to pin down what kind of people and bodies they do, or do not think about when designing. And as you speak, as we do these exercises together, you realise (and they realise it too) that you do not exist in their heads. When they design, your type of body is not even something they will consider when applying their craft. They may have gone throughout a full education without ever reflecting on this, because the question is never brought into the classroom. So suddenly it is no longer only about how something should look, or function. You’re teaching your students to see you. And, mind you, not all teachers need to do that. Some teachers – and most design teachers today – are automatically seen. I think this is what may be so draining at times. And I’m realising it now as I speak with you, I did not quite put words into it before. That’s what the labour is about. You’re teaching the students to see you.
Johanna: I think, Judith and Lisa, that one of your preparatory questions was how we define our roles as teachers. And I keep on coming back to the role of the design teacher as a responsible witness. Apart from creating conditions for the student to grow and eventually pass, I am there to listen to each student’s goals and dreams also beyond studies. Because especially in design education, it is seldom a motivation in itself to pass courses or graduate with a diploma. If you are into the sciences, if studying for example particle physics, your opportunities to advance exist within the academic system. For a design student future opportunities almost exclusively exist outside academia.
Judith: I guess that this progress is something you see if you follow the students for a longer period of time. But I can also imagine that if you come in for a short period of time, you still want to know who a student is. Bene, do you have any experiences of how you have dealt with this so far? How do you get to know your students?
Benedetta: That’s a complex question. For me, every student is so important as an individual. I never wish for them to become a number in my head, or for them to become a blur or a “group”, a monolithic unit. For me, it’s very important to try and see each and every one of them. One of the strategies I have is to make sure that we have two or more rounds, where everybody gets a chance to speak. It is very important for me to hear their voices. This without pressure however, because some students will be more outspoken, others will prefer to not be under the spotlight. So always in the respect of their personality, but I try to give everybody a chance to speak at least. Then I always try to plan for both group work and individual work. Not only one of them, so that even the students that are a bit more shy, or students who have a hard time emerging in a group, or those who think better alone or don’t perform well in a group or under peer pressure, can also have the chance to emerge. I try very hard to remember names. It is not my greatest skill, unfortunately, but I really try – with Zoom it’s easier, the names are on the screen! I also always try, when I have a longer course, to give them individual time with me. So doing both group tutoring, as well as individual tutoring. I make myself available if they want to get in contact with me in between lessons, and I’m usually very happy to hear from them after the course. At the end of the course, I invite them to get in touch for feedback or just for advice on their future or whatever they want. I want them to feel that they are seen, and that they are seen as people. That’s my approach usually. But I’m very happy to hear your great ideas, because it’s not it’s not easy, I must say, especially with short sessions.
Lisa: How big are the classes that you normally teach? How many students participate?
Benedetta: They are usually small. At Konstfack, we’re talking about maybe 15 to 18 students in total, maximum. In other courses, it can be a maximum of ten students. But ten is really a lot for a session of three or four hours. Sometimes if they ask me to lead a workshop that is short, I ask for a low number of people. Sometimes organisers can object, with the argument that they want to give as many people as possible the chance to experience the session. I understand that. But the fact is that I cannot possibly give enough attention to everyone above a certain amount of people if I have three hours with them. For me, it’s better to focus on quality. That’s why I ask for a number of students that I believe I can give enough attention to in the given time span that I have. I am fortunate that it is usually possible to negotiate that, because in Sweden, numbers are quite small. I’m not exactly sure how it could work in places like the UK or even Italy. I was myself studying in a class of 50 students during my BFA. For theory classes, the number went up to 150 and then we were only seeing the teacher from very far away. I believe we need to shift toward educational systems crafted for small numbers and thoughtful teaching, where all schools are properly funded and educators are supported to do just that.
Johanna: This is interesting since the number is constantly increasing in design education, entirely for reasons that have to do with money. A practice-based design programme in the UK now has 60 students in one year and there is a similar development in design programs especially around Europe, East Asia and the US. It is very likely that Konstfack will slowly go there. If looking at the role of the design teacher as a person committed to listening and to navigate student-teacher relationships based on recognizing how each student learns and what opportunities this creates to their practice, large student groups make design teaching a different kind of challenge. I would say that this inevitably erodes practice-based knowledge in favour of theory.
Lisa: I think it connects really nicely to the question of how to build trust with students. Out of curiosity I agreed to do an online workshop with 50 students. It was about power structures and design education and I facilitated it alone. I went into it very sceptically and unsure if a digital workshop format with such a big group of participants could work. I thought that maybe I can structure it in a good way so that the students will get something out of it. I had a three hour session and 50 people came. Everything was planned, and the students alternated between group work and individual work. After the first session I had no idea if I had reached the students. I didn’t get anything back. Basically, it felt like me being an animator on a cruise ship, or something. It was very curious. I prepared really nice tasks, but it became so anonymous. I had prepared a Miro board really nicely with a workshop space and a library. But when the students entered the board they immediately started tagging all over it. And I do understand it in a way, because I think if you are with 50 people – most of whom you never met – and then there’s one person who tells you “Here, do the workshop”, you must feel neglected. Why should you have respect, right? And why should you trust this person? I don’t think that in that instance I was able to build trust. Which is so important in a teaching-/learning space.
Johanna: Again, I could bounce this back to program structure. Because if you arrive as a teacher to this kind of situation, there should be someone from within the program, someone who already had time to build trust, to actively support your presence and what you are about to do there. If this program person cannot be on site to introduce you, at least they should use some priming. Priming is great as a routine to embrace and give authority to a future guest teacher. If we mention their names and refer to their practices beforehand, the guest teacher will not arrive as an anonymous individual, we shouldn’t leave anyone alone with the responsibility to build trust in such a short period of time. Some tasks are just impossible for us as individuals if there is no structure that supports this kind of situation.
Lisa: This is reconnecting to sustainability as well, right? Because if you’re not introduced, or primed beforehand, then you have to create everything yourself in a short amount of time. It can work, but it’s harder than it has to be.
Judith: Shouldn’t a guest teacher come in to complement an existing curriculum? If you’re not well prepared by the existing team, or if this team doesn’t take on this responsibility, that says something about the structure of a programme, I guess.
Johanna: For sure it should be in the interest of the premanent teacher to communicate with the guest teacher so that they will know at what point they enter. To know what exists before and after for the student. And also, it is never a guest teacher’s responsibility to take learning outcomes into account. We can never put that responsibility on someone who is not employed by the university since grading is an exercise of authority and concerns legal certainty. The permanent teaching team has to take responsibility for this when inviting guest teachers, for every course there is a course responsible person.
Judith: That’s actually an interesting topic: responsibility. Thinking about the other conversations we’ve had so far, responsibility keeps coming back. Are we responsible for students who are struggling mentally? Are we responsible if we work as a freelancer and don’t have any financial security? What responsibilities come with teaching, with coordinating, with being a freelancer or a guest teacher? From what I see, mostly from my colleagues, is that teachers who are in temporary positions are expected to take on too many responsibilities. I’m happy that you mentioned responsibility, Johanna. Who is responsible? It is an important question to ask in an institution.
Johanna: A question that we have to deal with more and more is how to work with students who are not emotionally or mentally well. Formally, at least in universities in Sweden, students in higher education almost have no rights. So legally we are not responsible for a student’s well-being, my responsibility ends at knowing and communicating to the student what support and procedures there are in place within the university. However, if looking at pedagogy as an active approach to learning processes, as a teacher I engage in creating conditions for these processes to take place. To me an important aspect of pedagogy is the understanding of how a learning process will affect, or maybe even change, the one who learns. So without considering an individual’s social and emotional self in this setting, perhaps I teach but I am not really engaged in pedagogy. This pedagogical engagement shouldn’t be confused with taking on the task to heal someone who is not well though. I do not have this expertise, it is not in my power and I shouldn’t fool anyone to believe it is. Teachers who are in temporary positions should not be expected to take on even the pedagogical responsibilities. The course responsible teacher at the university who invites a guest teacher is already trusting their presence and holds responsibility for what comes out of that in terms of learning. Hopefully the inviting teacher has a clear idea on who to invite at what point to do what and why, while at the same time being in dialogue with the invited person about this. Basically a guest teacher cannot be held accountable for anything apart from sticking to the law.
Lisa: Yes. There’s a kind of a compartmentalisation happening as well. Speaking of not only how design is situated in a context, but also how students are situated in a context, and they bring their situatedness into the university, and the university being another context. A student is not a machine that comes into university to learn and leave everything outside, right? And the teacher as well. We have a life, we have stuff happening, and we also go with that backpack into the university. But this is a part of the university experience that is rarely discussed. I don’t know why actually. Maybe there’s this understanding of education being something that needs to happen separately, or maybe because of hierarchies and authority. That if you see that your teacher is just a human being, the person’s not respectable? I don’t know. There are probably a lot of complex parts to it.
Judith: A student of mine recently told me that he thinks I’m not a teacher, because of the way I teach.
Johanna: What was it, in your opinion Judith, that made the student think like that?
Judith: I think it’s being open about myself and my personal life. I allow my students to ask me all kinds of questions, also if it’s not related to what I’m teaching. I take students to places outside the school. We immediately have different conversations as soon as we leave the building. I guess there’s something in how I position my body in the space as well, which is hard to put into words.
Benedetta: It’s good that we are talking about responsibility. When addressing the theme of power dynamics in the classroom, there is a question about the responsibility of the teacher, and even what a teacher is. Lisa, you said in the beginning that in German the word “education” has a strong negative connotation. Now that I’ve started to teach regularly, I had to ask myself the question of what it is that makes me an educator. What kind of role do I bring in the classroom, compared to being a friend or a peer? Most of my students are more or less my age, some already work so we are also colleagues. What makes me an educator? Whenever I step into the room, the students need to feel safe: they need to understand that I am the person they can refer to while they can focus on learning, growing and developing their craft. It’s really important for me to be a safe presence of guidance, and to never delegate that role. In the discourse around pedagogy, I think there can be some confusion around how we can flatten hierarchies or co-create knowledge. Often the conclusion is that co-creation of knowledge can only happen in the total absence of hierarchy. I don’t agree with that. I think that hierarchy in a classroom is necessary. If you don’t establish it as an educator, other kinds of hierarchies will nevertheless emerge between the students. So step number one for me is to establish a non-violent hierarchy; one where it is very clear who is in charge and who’s responsible, and who the students can rely upon; while it is also clear they have the responsibility to present, work and make the best of their time and mine. Then, as a guest teacher, I will find students that are maybe in a difficult place in their life journey, or are not feeling well. I do not want to be responsible for their well-being in the sense that I don’t want to be arrogant enough to think that in four weeks, or three days or three hours, I can solve whatever is going on in their lives. If I am that arrogant, I’m going to make some serious mistakes, and possibly hurt them more. So I’m not there to solve anything, as a guest teacher, but I am nevertheless responsible for the students to grow from whichever point they find themselves at, and according to their abilities. Going back to your example, Lisa, of participants starting to mess with your very carefully crafted Miro board. One must ask why that happened, and you did ask yourself. My answer would be that to receive care, we need to give care as well. Perhaps 50 people felt that they could not be individually seen by one person in the span of three hours, and then you get this kind of anarchy in the classroom. Years ago, I was talking to another design educator who was complaining that students did not show up for tutoring sessions. As we were talking it turned out that the sessions were 5 minutes per person. It was not difficult to identify with the students, who probably felt that this amount of time was not respectful of their efforts to begin with, and was not an adequate standard (especially when some of them will be paying thousands of pounds, and getting in debt to be there). I think there is an agreement to be made with every class, at the start: I am going to first create the conditions for you to do your best work, and then I am going to expect you to show up. Then the question becomes, what are the conditions that allow me to do my job with integrity, giving the students the standards they deserve? And what if there aren’t the conditions? I can sympathise that a lot of us, as educators, will find ourselves in a system that is fundamentally not working from the beginning. I appreciate that it is not easy to step into an institution and change it radically when the conditions to begin with are so inadequate. I feel it’s important that sometimes we say no. That we set boundaries and establish what our conditions are, otherwise it becomes a huge waste of time for everyone.
Lisa: It’s a very good point to have a balance of being human but at the same time also being a person with a specific function in the classroom. For instance, I have been very transparent with my students – not directly in seminars, but speaking in giving lectures or writing articles – about the precariousness of my employment. I made the experience that after talking to student groups who invited me into their classroom for a talk actually led to them being a little bit more benevolent towards teachers. And also seeing that, for example, I don’t get paid for preparation time, I only get paid for the time I’m present, and I don’t get paid consultation time. So I have to do several lectures in a semester, to sustain myself. If I teach 60 people in one semester, I don’t have the capacity emotionally as well – but also timewise – to care for them in the way that I would like to. So it’s super tricky. But being open about this, I’m bringing a lot of critical topics into the classroom, but it also causes ricochet sometimes.
Johanna: I’m so inspired to listen to you all… Making sure to be aware of the dynamics and processes taking place in classes is crucial in my opinion. I think this touches upon what you mentioned in the questionnaire Lisa, critical pedagogy. If I make clear from what position I speak, I also leave space for the one who learns to decide its relevance. I allow for a shift of agency. But then there is always a student-teacher power dynamic that shifts due to discriminatory factors and biases, to me this is where the personal comes in. In some situations it is necessary that my role as a teacher or my professional self comes across, sometimes even strongly, while in most situations it will be important that I am transparent about my personal position, how I am inevitably guided by a Eurocentric culture of thought and so on.
Benedetta: Maybe I can reconnect to what I said at the beginning, when I said that education is what shapes the field. That’s not exactly what I meant, because I do think that it is the practice that shapes the field. But since the very beginning of my practice, I felt committed to education. Johanna is right: just a couple of decades ago, before degrees in design were common, we were primed during our first internship or working in our first job. But now most design practitioners will have to go through an education of one kind or another. And then my biggest concern is that we don’t ruin people in the process: that the designers that will come out of it will come out of it empowered, and not suppressed. Because suppression is what has been happening until now, especially and acutely so for women. I’ve myself been brainwashed into being suppressed through my first five years of education. And we end up with a field that is just depressingly uniform in its outputs, its references and even its practitioners. So I think education must necessarily play a key role in the liberation and the development of the field. Practice is fundamental, but if we don’t act on education, practice will never be enough by itself, unfortunately, because we all go through this priming that education is.
Lisa: Thank you so much for your time and energy! I’m actually sad that we are already at the end of our conversation. I feel like I have so many more questions.
Johanna: Part two!
Benedetta: I hope Johanna will write a book about her MFA programme one day. The story of how much lobbying is required just to create the conditions for a feminist pedagogy is a story yet to be told.
Lisa: There’s a lot of things that go on, but are never really documented, right? It’s just knowledge that goes with you when you leave Konstfack. I guess you also influenced a lot of people there, which is super valuable. So thank you so much for your time and your thoughts.
Johanna: Thank you. But my colleagues will stay and they know more than me. The good thing with having these kinds of things formally established within an institution is that for the ones who arrive in the future and wish to tear it apart will have to think things through, argue and come prepared to meetings too.
Lisa: I wrote that down actually, “come prepared”.
Benedetta: Read the book by Nancy Pelosi. She also says that this is her number one lesson in life. Just come prepared.
Get in touch with the participants
Benedetta Crippa, Johanna Lewengard, 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