Fashion educators are paid poorly. I don’t believe this is stated enough. Of course, all educators are paid poorly, but fashion happens to be the world’s third largest industry, worth an estimated 2.5 trillion dollars globally, and counts among its ranks the world’s third-richest person in Bernard Arnault, CEO of LVMH, and sixth richest in Amancio Ortega, owner of Inditex, parent company of Zara. According to Forbes the US leads the world in tuition fees. Yet those engaged in helping educate the future leaders of this lucrative industry are paid peanuts.
New York City-based part-time faculty generally earn between 3000 and 5000 dollars per class per semester, with no benefits or stability. Teaching a class one semester does not guarantee it will be yours the next. Most part-time professors in the city frantically try to secure, if not multiple classes, then appointments at several schools to earn enough to meet the basic cost of living. It’s not unusual for one professor to be teaching seven classes across four institutions, racing back and forth between the boroughs and the garment district. The following semester they might only get two classes. With Covid’s arrival they might have none as schools trim their part-time faculty due to lower enrollment, particularly of international students.
Most part-time fashion educators hold a Master’s degree in their subject, and bring a wealth of industry experience to the classroom that cannot be found in textbooks or at academic conferences. They are often expected to plumb their professional network of contacts to produce experts for student critiques to an extent that can become obnoxious for their busy industry friends. The part-time fashion educator’s core skill set encompasses pattern-cutting, sewing, embroidery, illustration, mixed media, the latest CAD software, photography, and the history of fashion, but they are expected to be articulate on topics including, but not limited to, goat farming in Mongolia, Secessionist architecture, French new wave cinema, social justice issues, Washi papermaking, Himalayan crafts, biochemistry, who’s exhibiting at Frieze and headlining at Coachella. As the fall 2020 semester kicks off, their salaries are the only unchanging element of their jobs.
An unprecedented time in fashion education
If they weren’t teaching summer classes, these educators were tirelessly participating in workshops, training sessions, Q + A senates and town halls in readiness for the first entire semester of remote instruction. They were asked to sign up for workshops with titles like “Synchronous and asynchronous engagement.” Adapting curricula is probably the easiest part of going remote, but building out content to infuse an online course with the energy of New York City and the aesthetic associated with an expensive fashion product is more challenging. Professors teaching “hands- on” subjects such as fashion illustration or sewing are creating videos to build a reference library of techniques demonstrations for students to access outside of scheduled class time. If spring was about scrambling to adapt, fall is being rolled out as a slickly produced template for the future of education.
Maintaining quality of education is the key focus of institutions, but the mental health of educators is a less common discussion. Instructors themselves who might have offered an excess of office hours appointments or loosened their after-hours availability during spring, out of concern for their students, are vowing to be more protective of their time this semester. This is an unprecedented time in education across the board: some schools are being hit with lawsuits for moving to remote teaching while others are fending off this fate by extending liability waivers for students to sign if they are undertaking in-person instruction. North Carolina State University and University of Notre Dame are just two higher education institutions that have had to make a u-turn, suspending in-person instruction due to Covid clusters on-campus. This will surely prey on the minds of professors teaching senior year thesis collection who are tasked with a hybrid of remote and in-person instruction. Modified plastic face shields are being explored as alternatives to cloth masks to aid oral communication.
Schools have generally ignored the wave of demands for reduced tuition that arose in spring and continued throughout the summer from both parents and students who believe remote learning constitutes a diminished experience. Some institutions have even increased tuition citing the extra financial burden of moving the program online and investment in technology and software licensing. Educators are first in the line of fire of any resentment regarding tuition. Attacking an instructor during end of semester’s student reviews can be a shortsighted way for a student to retaliate if they, or their parents, feel they are not getting their money’s worth at this time when family budgets are rocked by unemployment or failing businesses.
Under normal circumstances the hustle of being an NYC-based part-time fashion professor is not for the faint-hearted. But this fall semester brings the challenges to a whole new level.
Fashion editor Jackie Mallon is also an educator and author of Silk for the Feed Dogs, a novel set in the international fashion industry.