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Leading fashion educators speak out on remote teaching Part 1

By Jackie Mallon

May 18, 2020


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.

Read part 2 of this series by clicking here >>

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.

Rebecca Fabrizio, an MFA student at the Academy of Art university

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