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doing it for the kids…

December 22, 2013

lisa hammershaimb

I was asked recently to be a member of the PAC (professional advisory committee) for the Undergraduate Graphic Design program at Conestoga College in Guelph, Ontario. I accepted gladly, as I’m always interested in what other schools with roughly the same demographic as my own are doing in their design programs and really, who wouldn’t accept an invitation that comes with the introduction, “Because you are an expert in your field and we value you as a trendsetter and someone with a finely-tuned acumen regarding the future of graphic design education…” (okay, maybe that’s a bit exaggerated, but it was a very nicely phrased email and my ego was glowing after reading it!)

In early December, we had our first meeting and the program directors presented to the committee, their five year vision and then asked us our thoughts and ideas. It was interesting to hear just how they plan to keep on expanding their program, recruiting students and, totally foreign to me, build a physical infrastructure to support their new endeavors. (As I’ve been teaching in the DE world almost 3 years and a DE student for 4 years previous to that, I tend to forget that people actually have building programs and all the bricks and mortar conventions to make spaces for people to come and learn within. I think it’s great that their view is so grand and if a mega campus is your vision, I’m all about you running after it as hard as possible.) Conestoga is indeed all about a physical presence and it seems if their reality can match even a third of their projected vision for the next several years, it will bring much good to the region.

That said, there were two things about the whole experience that didn’t sit so well with me. (And I will say…Conestoga sits in the unenviable position of being the catalyst to get me thinking this way thus these remarks may seem overly biased toward them but in reality they could just as easily apply to my own school or any host of schools.)

The first was a relentless drive toward growth in student numbers. At one point it was stated that the long term goals were to double or triple in enrollment over the next many years. My own school has similar stated goals about recruitment and enrollment. While I am all for growth, I honestly hate the idea of growth for growth’s sake. As an instructor, I’ve seem too many recruiting campaigns that work because they sell a dream and yet they have no substance and instructors like me are left to try and get students to stick who were never meant to attend in the first place. Recruiting students who just don’t have the means or the time to succeed to a program, is an exercise in futility and completely unethical. Sure there are the breakout success stories and the underdog stories of determination succeeding in spite of the odds and I cheer those on with everything in me, but those are not the norms. Do I believe education is a human right, meant for everyone? Completely. Do I believe that everyone should go to college to pursue higher education? No. Perhaps I’m just cynical because I’ve sat through one too many meeting and had one too many student phone call trying in vain to fix something that has been shattered beyond repair, but I think goals to increase student enrollment are low fruit and instead the goals need to be about increasing student retention and graduation and even decreasing student enrollment if it means raising quality of experience. I’m not dazzled by large numbers and could care less about the reach of programs but what does get me amped up is hearing how graduates or even current students are connecting program content with real life and also how students are connecting with each other and instructors in transformative ways that have indeed changed everyone in the process.

Next, the idea that as “experts” we have all of the answers about what the program should be. I know that as someone who has been in field almost ten years (shocking!!) and had my share of mistakes and failures, I have a larger, higher vantage point and my wisdom means that it is my duty to give back as best I can and yet the whole idea that we as experts and lifelong practitioners can make the best possible program for students without student input, feels crazy to me.

Design Thinking 101….who is you audience? What do they want? How have they expressed it verbally and how have you drawn it out of them through their unspoken actions? Sure we know our field and sure we think we know our students, but how comfortable are we really with their needs? I know my life when I was a student is completely different from my own students and I would venture to guess that anyone who has been practicing more than five years or so would agree with me.

I think that a committee that doesn’t have some student representation is inaccurate. As professionals, can give students business knowledge in spades but how does that help students who are trying to balance working three jobs and raising two kids and working on school after everyone has gone to bed and they’ve already been awake sixteen hours? I don’t think students need to be held responsible for determining content and applicability once they leave the academic world but I do think that students need to be part of the conversation regarding program delivery, style, etc.

So, who cares about numbers and let’s have a student guided degree!! Hahaa….just kidding. I see the rationale behind both of the issues to which I’ve taken offense. It’s a super hard world to navigate and gets even more blurry because the people so directly involved are indeed in it mostly because they believe it can bring good and they can make a difference. And yet, I think because we all still have to pay the bills and growth in the soft ways of self efficacy and personal empowerment are so hard to measure, we are all guilty of making the things most easily quantifiable the most important when in reality those things might have little bearing on personal success.

What do I think moving forward and indeed what do I advise to my fellow PAC team, my program, and cavernous world of the internet? It sounds a bit cheesey, but I think we must first strive to affirm the humanity of our students through a clear presentation of both the pitfalls and joys of the program and then also give them a measure of choice and self determination in the paths that they choose to follow. We see the 30,000 foot view, but no one lives up there…people live in the ruts and shallow hollows of the earth. In order to succeed, we need to take into account the views from those places because they are just as vital.

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