Back to School

View of the Groote Kerk in Dordrecht from the River MaasAelbert Cuyp (Dutch, Dordrecht 1620–1691 Dordrecht) From the collection of the Met

Did you get a whiff of autumn in the air the other day? I certainly did, and memories of going back to school came flooding back to me. It's especially poignant because I'm going to be on the other side of the lectern this year teaching an evening undergrad class — Interaction and Communication — at the School of Visual Arts.


Why teach, and why now? I'll admit that for years I've considered teaching but I've often lacked the confidence and motivation to do it. As an introvert it was a scary prospect to have to stand in front of a group of people and capture their attention for hours at a time expounding on a topic. I always felt like I needed to be more of an expert...well, at basically everything. I've come to the conclusion that the feeling will never go away and it's better to interpret it as a desire to learn. Having to be responsible for someone's educational experience seemed like a huge burden that I wasn't ready to take on.

 And that's exactly why this moment feels like the right time to teach. Given that many of these students will end up in the tech industry, what questions are they asking about what they're designing? These are the students that will one day be shaping the experiences of millions (if not billions) of people. Will they be asking the "for whom" and "why" questions, the really hard ones? Design shouldn't just be paying lip service to empathy. If designers are supposed to be user advocates, we need to do a better job as a discipline to consider those questions and be prepared to persuade our colleagues to stand behind them. Asking these questions from the beginning means we're making products, services and systems more humane - in the sense that we're making them for all humans, not just a small privileged subset of them. 

And this starts at the foundation. Students need to get comfortable asking "for whom" and "why" from the beginning; of course the "how" is important, but the most beautiful app that has really clever interactions is abhorrent if it supports and enables harassment or discrimination. It's so important to understand how to critically think about the existing structures and systems around us and imagine different experiences and outcomes. 

 So yea basically I needed to get over my fears because this is so much bigger than me.


At SVA there's complete freedom to build the course curriculum and set grading policies, and they believe that the most effective teachers are active practitioners in the field. On one hand that's awesome, the curriculum can emphasize what I believe are the essential principles in approaching design and I can choose exactly how to structure the course. It's also incredibly daunting to write a course from scratch - the first thing a friend of mine who's taught undergrad said to me is "don't write your own curriculum from scratch the first semester you teach, I really regretted that." Sooo what am I doing? Ignoring that advice. (Mainly because there *is* no standard course to base anything off of, every section is unique to the instructor.) 

Derrick and I have been shaping the syllabus over the course of the summer and it reminds me a little bit of the process of doing a perspective drawing. Find the measure, mark off the drawing surface with the measure, and roughly lay out the structure. Then go back in and layer on details with increasing fidelity while keeping the whole drawing in mind - you never focus too much on one spot or it'll become unbalanced. But it's ok to not work up the entire drawing in excruciating detail, it's finding the right places to add that detail. You have to periodically fuzz your eyes out a little bit to see the big picture. 

 I've been considering the flow of each session but also how each session has to flow across the entire course. Does it all connect? Do the concepts in one build to the next? Where do the outlier topics go in the sequence? They're important enough to cover but stop the flow in some way. How early in the semester can I introduce a concept? Is that concept better conveyed through a lecture, discussion or exercise? Is this too ambitious for a semester? Rather than trying to answer those questions right away, we started with a rough outline of the semester and we've been moving, tweaking and refining the structure as we add a little detail to each session. 

It feels very meta in that I want to do some user research on students before even writing this syllabus because creating a course *is* a design project. What level of knowledge can I expect? What are their work habits and attention spans like? What assumptions am I making about how they work? Leaning on educators for anecdotal evidence is what will have to suffice, for now. We'll iterate as we learn more about our students, so I suppose the syllabus in its current state is our MVP. I've also started questioning what my pedagogical beliefs are and that I don't really have a great perspective on that! So I've given myself some homework so I can feel a little more grounded in the why's and how's of teaching. 

 If anything this is forcing me to brush up on things I thought I knew, but from the perspective of explaining it to someone who has no knowledge or experience of the thing you're talking about. It's given me fresh eyes as I've been flipping through reference books and reading articles I saved forever ago. I've been considering what got me excited about being a designer and figuring out how to convey that excitement. I want them to walk away from this class feeling like they've only touched the surface and that there is so much possibility for helping shape the world around us in meaningful ways. 

Ideas? Tips? Send them my way!

Thanks to my co-instructor Derrick Schultz who asked me if I wanted to teach this course with him and gave me the kick in the butt to say yes. I'm so grateful to all my friends and colleagues who have been involved in education that have put up with my pestering to give me tips and advice. 

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