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Lessons in teaching: graduation through the eyes of design professors and instructors

A deep-dive conversation with three professors and thesis instructors from around the world, discussing the recent year in graduation

This academic year, which has just drawn to a close, was profoundly different. It’s true that the class of 2020 was the first to go into their graduation under great uncertainty, but it was this year’s students which saw the pandemic and its implications set into what we now know as our given reality.

In a previous article we looked into the experience of graduation through the eyes of a student. Now we turn our attention to the other side, and see what the experience was for teachers—professors and thesis instructors who have had to adjust and cope not only as individuals, but as mentors and class leaders.

Join us as we dive into conversation with three voices who shared this position over the last year: Carly Aires, writer on the UX Community & Culture team at Google and a teacher from Parsons’ adjunct faculty in their Masters of Professional Studies Communication Design, Digital Product Design program; Caspar Lam, co-founder of Synoptic Office and BFA Director of the Communication Design program at Parsons, and Senior Thesis course teacher; and Eike König, founder of the creative collective HORT, and professor for graphic design and illustration at HfG Offenbach University of Art and Design.

Mentoring in confinement

Wix Playground: Let’s start by talking about online mentoring. What was the experience like as a teacher? Benefits vs. challenges?

Carly Aires: "While pandemic restrictions definitely made it more difficult to connect with students individually —you can’t really ‘catch someone before class’ like you could in an IRL setting, ya know?—truth be told, I did find it refreshing for the one-off meetings with students and recent graduates.

Don’t get me wrong, I love an excuse to log off and meet up face to face with someone, but it can often be challenging to find the time, duck out of the office, and do that. Digitally meeting with folks eliminated a lot of that friction.

I do find it is more challenging to be present digitally, though, particularly with all the distractions of notifications and endless tabs in the corner of your eye. You also lose feedback cues like body language, which can cause anxiety. I’ve tried to counteract that by being more visibly expressive or over-communicating, which can be draining. And there is something that just feels a bit more transactional about a digital meeting on your calendar…”

Caspar Lam: “There were a couple of interesting advantages we saw in online mentoring, the most obvious one was being able to bring in people that we weren't able to otherwise, zooming in from different parts of the country and the world. The other interesting thing was having a chance to reexamine the notion of what it means to utilize class time. Last year, a lot of us were really struggling to figure out what it means to be together as a class. We’ve realized class time should be about dialogue. The idea of having a ‘talking head’ lecture is not effective, it’s almost the same as sending a video. We came to an understanding that we want class time to be about responses, questions and answers and an open discussion.”

Eike König: “Doing everything online was a dramatic change. There were the granted good stuff, of course—inviting people for lectures from different places, and being able to meet more students for private sessions because we had much more flexibility—that was all great. But teaching digitally can feel like talking to a void. Technology can make for a very distracting experience as well: there’s suddenly a problem uploading files; people are freezing up; you’re dependent on your’s very disrupting, and makes it even harder to engage in dialogue.”

The importance of classmates

Wix Playground: What were the online teaching implications for the students' relationships, the peer-to-peer connection?

Eike König: “That was definitely the most significant loss. I believe students learn most from each other. It’s not us, the teachers, who are important. There's this idea of centralized knowledge that used to be prevalent, 20-30 years ago. But today everything is online anyways, the knowledge is there for you to teach yourself if you’d like. In my experience, studio time is the most meaningful, when we share the space and exchange ideas and practices—that’s when real learning happens.

I believe a big part of studying is figuring out who you are. When you're in an ecosystem of like-minded people, you can suddenly discover new strengths and interests, and open up to unexpected possibilities. As a teacher, I’m interested in that intersectionality and influence, where there’s no border between the disciplines. Those things were very hard to facilitate in online classes.”

Caspar Lam: “It was quite fascinating to see actually, what students needed in that sense. As instructors, we were looking for ways to recreate the classroom experience, having the students meet more, enjoy a sense of community. But actually, many of us found out that students were after more one-on-one time with the instructor, and less with their classmates. I was quite surprised by this, but then again, I guess students were looking for stability in times of uncertainty. They know their peers are freaking out just as they are, but their instructor is someone that is meant to supposedly be more stable (even though that may or may not be the case!) but at least in the classroom, that is the person you count on. And they needed that reliable voice.”

The pandemic as an idea

Wix Playground: Did you find the pandemic affected the topics students chose to deal with in their thesis?

Caspar Lam: "I’d say indirectly. The pandemic caused a lot of introspection, so we saw a lot of projects about the conditions that were generated, things like loneliness or anxiety, thoughts about the future. These types of projects are always there, some students are just naturally more inclined to looking inwards in the way they approach things, pandemic or not. But we definitely saw an uptake in those types of projects this year. Simply because they’re all inside their rooms at home and it just forces that type of thinking.”

Eike König: “I would say around half of the projects were around Covid and the experiences of this year. Some students made it into a topic, or chose to address the side effects of the pandemic—the emptiness and isolation. Obviously it was a once in a lifetime experience (hopefully..!), so choosing to focus on that was only natural for some of them.”

Formats and restrictions

Wix Playground: Resources were quite a challenge this year, with many services (printing, scanning, etc.) being inaccessible. Did you notice students choosing digital formats for their projects more than usual?

Carly Aires: "As we teach within the digital product design program, all our students’ work is already digital—so we didn’t see much change there. I think the biggest challenge was figuring out how to create an engaging presentation remotely. How can you simulate the experience of using an app on your phone? Do you present mocks? Or can you get a viewer to download the prototype and try it out themselves? The latter is always going to be a bit more enticing.”

Caspar Lam: "We definitely saw an uptake in digital projects. A lot of students gravitated towards making things for mobile or for screen. But we also still had a sizable—I would say at least a third of the projects—that were very analogue, books and posters.

It was so interesting to see how those students didn’t let the pandemic get in their way. They wanted to make a book, so they made a book. I felt it was also a good lesson for them in being self-reliant for the first time in their lives while producing something, not having the school facilities or outsourcing their work. Some of them ended up getting their own printers, and just turned their own rooms into their studio. Obviously the type of work produced is a little bit different, but it became a production aspect and value in their project.”

Eike König: “At HfG the trend was actually the opposite—much less digital projects. I guess they were sick of it, spending so much time online as it is. There was much less satisfaction found in the digital realm. We like to enjoy technology, use it for fun and experience, but once it’s a representation of an obstacle in daily life, it's a tiring experience we want to avoid.

Students did struggle quite a bit with production, as so many things were not available, but they somehow managed it, and that was fantastic to see—what they were able to achieve despite all the restrictions. That's sort of the silver-lining of a crisis, it creates a lot of energy and new thinking, your creativity under pressure can really be surprising. Another thing is that I guess they were much less distracted. Of course there was the news and media, but in terms of time resources, they had so much time on their hands to focus on their projects.”

Graduation as an event

Wix Playground: Was there a graduation show this year? In what format?

Caspar Lam: “At Parsons, for the past 10 years or so, there hasn’t been an actual exhibition for the visual communication design department. Partly because of space constraints, but mainly because an exhibition didn’t feel like the right format for the type of work they were producing. Instead, we publish a catalog every year, and that actually hasn't changed in the pandemic.

During the pandemic, though, an internal catalogue felt a little anemic, so we partnered with a publishing house, which will allow us to distribute the catalogue. Having that kind of added value felt like an appropriate step: giving the graduates another means of access to the world, allowing them more recognition and access in a time when it’s less available. It also made their thesis feel real and official, in a time when everything felt so unreal and intangible.”

The challenge of presenting online

Wix Playground: How did students present their work this year? What were the challenges of online presentation, if there was one?

Eike König: “At HFG, students presented their work in person, but only for the professors. Unfortunately, there was no exhibition that was open to the public or even for the students. That was a real shame, students preparing their installations and then only a handful of people get to see it. There’s usually an audience while the students present, people coming to be part of the conversation while professors give their feedback, so that aspect of showing your work was also absent this year.”

Caspar Lam: "This part was definitely different this year, as it was online-only at Parsons. The benefit was bringing in critics we were not able to before—we had people Zooming in from Japan, all over Europe, and all parts of the world actually. For the students it was an amazing opportunity to meet people they wouldn’t have had a chance to meet otherwise, let alone having them see their thesis work and give feedback on it. That was very unique.

The biggest challenge was materiality. Throughout the year, across the board, we were all wrestling with ideas and struggles of how to express, convey or talk about materials on the screen. Looking at an artifact is by definition a very different experience than being able to share it in a room.”

Pandemic + graduation = extra stress?

Wix Playground: Graduating and completing your thesis is a stressful experience in normal times. Did you notice more stress than usual around it, or did the pandemic have a counter-effect?

Caspar Lam: "Yes and no. I think our students are always anxious about landing their first job after graduation, and so the pandemic added a stressor in that sense, as the industry and the economy were unstable. And therefore the thesis becomes less of a priority. They were in a much better position this year, though, as things began to look a little more positive and there was a bit more optimism and hope in the air.

In a way, graduation, overall, became a little less important, and I think they were just trying to manage life... Which was the biggest task for all of us.”

What graduates are thinking about the future

Wix Playground: Talking to students about post-graduation, what type of concerns were they expressing? What’s on their minds this year?

Carly Aires: "As our course specifically focuses on building a professional practice as a designer, a lot of questions tend to be about finding a job, interviewing, whiteboard tests, and the like. This year came with a whole new host of unknowns, however, so those questions took on a bit more weight, as well as the added complexity of how to do all those things remotely. We staged digital whiteboard tests and role played interviews, doing our best to simulate what that experience could realistically look like in the coming months.

Additionally, I saw an increase in questions about work visas and how to convince potential employers to hire folks who might not be U.S. citizens. We were deeply grateful to Laurie Batista who joined us and gave a compelling talk on the hiring process from a talent recruitment perspective, and graciously answered all of our visa questions afterwards. (Thank you, Laurie!).”

Caspar Lam: "I think in general, graduates are a bit pessimistic this year. If you look at their projects, some of them are trying to find a way to solve it, or get over that pessimism, try to tackle it. But none of the projects I've seen are overly optimistic or assuming that the future is boundless which is very telling in and of itself. The pessimism is not generally about their own individual situation, but more about the state of the world.

I think they also experience a great deal of uncertainty. For example, 50% of our students are international. In a pre-pandemic world, most of them will try to get an internship in New York, that would be the tried and true path for them. This year so many of them were not even in New York, so they didn't bother looking for a job here. In a way there's more freedom for them in that choice, but also much more uncertainty and anxiety over job search and decisions around it.

As for Parsons, I think one of the reasons students study here is that they want to be in New York and are interested in all the opportunities the city has to offer. For them, graduation can sometimes feel less important than getting that first job. I'm not saying it’s not important in general, but as they are very future-focused, their thesis is more of a stepping-stone than a goal in itself. In comparison with other schools I've seen, students here see that final outcome as less of a culmination, and more of a jumping-off point to getting their practice starting.”

Eike König: “I've been teaching my students for many years, so talks of the future were there throughout the entire time, before and during the pandemic. They did ask me for example, whether now is a good time to start your own practice. I tell them there is no wrong time.

I actually think there are many advantages to starting your own studio during a time of crisis.

If you manage to understand how to operate within a crisis, and you organize and structure your business in times of struggle, then scaling it as things get better will be very easy for you, rather than the other way around. Economy is like that, it acts as a wave, and I really believe it’s best for them to get on the wave at its lowest point—there is only room to grow from here.”


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