Leading fashion educators speak out on remote teaching Part 1

Spring break was
certainly different this year. From Parsons School of Design in Manhattan
to Central St Martins in London, fashion students were instructed mid-March
to remove their possessions and vacate the premises. The remainder of the
semester was to be taught remotely beginning March 23rd. Students
frantically booked flights home to Seoul, Beijing, New Delhi, Toronto,
Pittsburgh, before borders closed and their adopted cities became pandemic
epicenters. Educators had about a week to build kits of supplies, convert
their syllabus to an online version, with many scrambling during their
spring break to learn how technology like Zoom, Blackboard, Screencast,
Google Meet could accommodate their professional needs. Lack of access to
buy fabric, space to pattern cut, and inability to receive face-to-face
instruction in the sewing lab meant that programs relaxed the garment
making portion of the syllabus for juniors and ramped up the portfolio and
drawing side. Graduating students wondered how they would complete their
finals, or stage end-of-year fashion show, without access to looms,
knitting machines, laser cutters, printers.

The semester is now all but completed. Fashion shows and portfolio
reviews were subsequently rainchecked or went virtual. Commencement
ceremonies too. As committees convened to figure out if fall would bring a
return to face-to-face teaching, or involve some sort of hybrid model,
educators were finally able to catch their breath, overcome with relief or
still spinning on adrenaline. But they couldn’t fail to note last week’s
breaking news that CSU, the nation’s largest 4-year college system
announced it will offer a virtual fall program. What does all this mean for
fashion education?

FashionUnited spoke to three of the field’s leading figures about the
pandemic semester and its impact on education in this two-part report:
Simon Ungless, Executive Director, School of Fashion at the Academy of Art
University in San Francisco; Elisa Palomino, Senior Lecturer of BA Fashion
Print at London’s Central Saint Martins; and Shelley Fox, Director, MFA
Fashion Design & Society at Parsons in New York City.

For many educators the spring semester amounted to working double time
for the same salary, the sole goal being to pull the students through. Yet
Ungless, sheltering in place in his Murray Park home north of San
Francisco, reveals he had less time to spend with students due to an
inundation of extra projects and meetings. “I sense there is a perception
out there that faculty are taking this situation easy, teaching their
classes and using the rest of the week as bonus vacation time,” he says.

Mental health and remote education

Keeping students engaged has been the emphasis across the education
community as instructors’ faces on screen became beacons of normality for
students in crisis. The topic of mental health was never far from mind, as
some students suffer from the lack of structure associated with the
traditional classroom experience, and might find themselves in unstable
home environments, a situation perhaps exacerbated by a parent suddenly
becoming unemployed or a family business failing. Therefore Ungless is
critical of any compulsion to heap on extra workshops and activities. “The
students already have projects, collections and a full curriculum to work
on along with the stress of the adjustment of going online.” Students who
might normally visit on-campus counseling services during times of stress
were opening up that dialogue during individual Skype or FaceTime
tutorials, and instructors were compiling lists of helplines. “Right now
talking to the students about how they really are feeling and coping, it’s
key for me at the beginning of every class just to clear the way for
learning to happen,” says Ungless.

The studio experience cannot be replicated

Shelley Fox, Director, MFA Fashion Design & Society,
Parsons

Since the cancellation of face-to-face classes Fox retreated to upstate
New York, only returning to the city to collect the office chair needed to
offset the back problems she knew would come with prolonged sedentary work.
“I do receive a lot of emails from companies and education sites giving
advice about teaching remotely but it doesn’t inspire me in the slightest,”
she says. “I don’t really take it on board as I know what is needed for the
program. It’s not that I’m trying to be negative about remote
learning––it’s just that the studio experience cannot be replicated.”

Palomino, who was already in lockdown at her home in Florence two weeks
before CSM announced theirs, asked her students to take turns sending
emails outlining their daily healthy routine. “Life inside someone else’s
home, food tastes, cute pictures of their pets, and views from their
windows,” she says, “help me assess how my students are doing and it amuses
us all to hear how much video games are being played or delicious British,
European, American and Asian food everyone is cooking and eating.”

There has been less focus on the mental health of educators coping with
the disruption during this anxiety-inducing time. Arguably this is because
they are older, have access to an archive of wide-ranging life experiences,
or even because there is a certain martyr identity imposed by society on
teachers, whose ability to do their job is often affected by issues of
budget, retention, planning, but who for the most part are just expected to
get on with it. “To be honest I feel very lucky compared to what some
people are going through in the world so I haven’t really considered my own
wellbeing to that level,” says Fox.

The diverse challenges of remote teaching

The problems arising from teaching students who’ve been scattered to the
four winds can be unexpected. A storm in the midwest during April knocked
out a swathe of wifi connections. Time zone differences meant students in
Korea were meeting for class at bedtime. Certain communication platforms
popular in the US are blocked in China. All of these circumstances force
instructors to find minute-by-minute solutions, to continuously follow up,
to modify expectations. But on top of this, fashion design education which
is usually quite a customized experience, with class numbers that don’t
often go high into the double digits, is a practice-based field. At this
time of year tutorials and fittings occur and Fox bemoans the absence of
spontaneity integral to this process and a lack of satisfying “a-ha”
moments: “In the studio the nuances of the conversations and our
interactions with the students during fittings is paramount, and working on
collections remotely is so frustrating for both the directors and the
students. The physical presence of clothing, the cut, fit, fabric and
movement, is challenging over endless Zoom tutorials because we never feel
like we can do our job properly although that’s our best intention.”

Fox builds herself up psychologically for tutorials and experiences a
lack of motivation, after a Zoom-filled day, to take care of all the other
director-related work that she usually moves through seamlessly. But with
her focus primarily on the student experience, she identifies another
failing of this semester: “One of the biggest factors is that they miss the
peer support and not being in the studio with each other as so much
additional learning goes on during that time.” At Parsons tutorial
conversations are designed to be experienced by the group which encourages
camaraderie. ”You walk up to a student’s desk and you can read the work in
one go,” says Fox. “It’s all over the wall, on the desks, you can just
start picking up the fabrics and start the conversation. Zoom is going
through endless jpegs that the students have to upload into special folders
week by week and then we have to go through them all before we start the
tutorials so again the level of spontaneity is missing. It feels like twice
the amount of work without the satisfaction at the end of it.”

There is one positive outcome to remote teaching which unites Ungless,
Palomino and Fox, and that is how much the students have surprised them, or
as Ungless puts it, “blown my brains out, actually.” Excelling despite
circumstances in the most unique ways, students are overcoming obstacles,
developing flexibility and resourcefulness. “We went through a deep
grieving process with many of the students when it became clear the spring
graduation shows would not happen,” says Ungless. “There is so much put on
that moment, 4 years of work coming to an end with their 6 looks on the
runway. Losing that was a big moment for many of the seniors but they have
worked through it and understand it’s the skillset and portfolio that is
important and not the 60 seconds in a show.” He marvels at his textile
designers who built print studios in garages and in backyards. Fox applauds
how her graduation group are using themselves or roommates as models,
filming themselves walking up and down wearing their toiles, uploading the
whole process so their tutors can provide them with the most focused
direction. Some of their ingenuity has been truly moving. “One student
didn’t have a mannequin and so built one based on her own measurements out
of gaffer tape, as the project was based on her own wardrobe,” says Fox.
“It was so beautiful. It was a work of art.”

And there is no scarcity of funny moments to share. “Week one of being
in a Zoom class one of the students forgot to wear anything on the bottom.
When they stood up to show me something they had been draping, it was a
moment,” says Ungless. One of Palomino’s students, helping clear out his
drag queen boyfriend’s shed which was filled with colored wigs and sequins,
pulled out the glue gun and set about making fabric from it. Fox’s office
happens to be set up in the same room as her cat’s litter tray. “He has
always had digestive problems,” she says, “and he makes a huge noise so
when I see he is about to go into his tray, I mute my microphone.”

Tomorrow Part Two of this report will focus on the sustainability
arising within remote education, how the shutdown will impact graduates’
employability and its effect on the future of education.

Fashion editor Jackie Mallon is also an educator and author of Silk
for the Feed Dogs, a novel set in the international fashion
industry.

Photos provided by Shelley Fox, Simon Ungless and Elisa Palomino.
Student work shown: Theerapon Ekster Angsupanich

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