I am very grateful that I have chosen a thesis topic that I live and breathe every day. I think about what is appropriate, who I want to be received as, how comfortable I want to be every morning when I get up and get ready to leave the house. I go into the bathroom and wash my face and dry myself off on my plush white towels. I draw back the curtains on my window to reveal the light. Even before I get out of bed I am experiencing the feelings of my blankets and pillows against my body, my face, my skin. In almost every moment of my life I am engaging with a textile artifact and, whether or not I am aware of it, I am processing feelings in regards to it. And I thank myself daily for making my obsession with one of the most essential components of life (feelings and textiles) into my project as I wade through piles of research and my ongoing practice but writing a thesis sure doesn’t pay the rent, at least not yet. And so I teach.
It is not unusual for a masters student to teach while they are writing their thesis but it doesn’t mean that it is easy. Ideally, as in my daily life, anything I teach would have relevance to my thesis but this is not necessarily the case since the classes I teach are largely based on the needs of the institution.
Previously I have taught at SFU and Emily Carr. I taught a course called Make Change Studio with my good friend (and now director of the fashion program at La Salle and previous ECUAD masters grad) Emily Smith. The course ran over 3 semesters and was a business and design course based on the wicked problem of textile sustainability. The first year it was run in partnership with SFU and ECUAD but SFU took it on solo the second year I was involved. The first semester was about looking into the problem of textile sustainability, the second semster students experiment with business solution ideas and the MVP process (minimum viable product), culminating in the third semester where they work in groups to create launch ready business complete with pitch decks, revenue projections, financial spreadsheets, funding options, and business plans. It was such an intense course that could have been run as a full program there was so much content.
The course I taught at Emily Carr University next was a Fibershed Field School containing three cohorts which all focused on different aspects of our local fiber base and resources: Reciprocity, Regeneration and Warping and weaving. Reciprocity worked with textile experts, indigenous peoples and ways of thinking as well as indigenous and invasive plants and animals. Regeneration made fish skin leather with food waste and attempted to create a new tannin for commercial use with apple pumice left over from pre-consumer juice production. And finally Warping and Weaving worked with a local commercial weaver to create blanket designs and business strategies for mid-scale local production operations.
Unfortunately Covid hit mid Make Change Studio and we were in lockdown for the Fibreshed Fieldschool which made both classes a lot more complicated but nonetheless relevant. Each course produced a body of work at the end that will outlive the class. The first Make Change Studio resulted in an event in which we gathered local experts and interested people to come up with ways we can facilitate sustainability. The second year the program ran the students looked at early education in textile sustainability and created a book for children roughly aged 7 which they published. The Fibershed field school published a book of the work of all the students participating in the class. They were all incredible, well documented experiences.
In designing these courses we took on students with varying levels of knowledge around both textiles and sustainability and packed on the information. We coupled this with relevant speakers, hands on making events and a lot of discussion. I noticed at the beginning of each of these courses, each semester , students would express their desire for answers to sustainability. They seemed to expect a solution, and they wanted it now! This I found the most interesting because the situation is so complex and as we pull on any one strand of the problem attempting to fix it we create third order, unanticipated consequences down the road that we now have to work with. Ultimately this would be the first lesson in every class.
Like my students, many of us assume we can just design better things which will solve all our problems. But creating more efficiency and sustainability in textiles which is currently our dominant approach to solving the problem doesn’t seem to be making a dent. According to all statistics, although we have placed much more emphasis and investment into the area of ‘greening’ the production of clothing and other textile products we seem to take those efficiencies and continue to create and thus dispose of more, not less. Effectively the products we are making more sustainably have become a mechanism of the machine to sell more having the opposite consequence intended.
The big question remains, how do we create real lasting change? (Welcome to my Thesis).
All of this was previous to starting my masters program and was actually a large part of my inspiration to go back to school. So what have I been teaching since then? The first semester at ECUAD I TA’d (teaching assisted) a class called Clothing Disruption by Helen Day-Fraser. I loved her style of teaching, holding ambiguity in the class right up until the end, disrupting the traditional ways of learning and really putting emphasis on student creativity. I was really inspired by their projects and noted so much variety in what they worked on and presented. It embodied the themes presented very well. I also had a chance to learn in a week long intensive course on CLO3D, a new computer drafting platform with the intention I would be able to teach it to the class but it was discovered by all involved that the program takes much more than a week to get comfortable with.
Currently I am teaching what I would call “the easiest” classes I have taught which makes them no less time consuming. They are easy because they aren’t ambiguous like the other classes I have taught. There are formal outcomes and right and wrong answers here. The classes I am teaching are Costuming for Film and Theater and Current Designers at La Salle. They are fun and graphically appealing. The presentations are long and content heavy. Both happen to be studded with lots of clips and videos and there are heaps of resources online. I think I spend more time on each of these classes per week getting ready to teach than any previous class.
But what have I learned about teaching textiles? I have learned that it is really hard to keep people caring about sustainability throughout a period of time. I find it interesting that none of my students have appeared to change their buying habits or disposal habits. I am eagerly awaiting my REB (Research Ethics Board) approval so that I can interview previous students and see if I am wrong about this. In all my efforts to promote sustainability, mending, making, and less waste I don’t see much effective change.
I have been contacted by students of my Make Change Studio class over the years since I have taught it and many have described businesses they are starting based on the content I taught but none of them seem to incorporate any aspects of circularity or sustainability. So clearly I had an impact on how to create a compelling business strategy but not how to create a business with the commitment to zero waste. Though we may not be capable of a completely closed loop business yet I don’t even see a real significant attempt to do so at all.
Yesterday I watched a YouTube video called The New Feudalism, an interview by Anand Giridharadas with INET President Rob Johnson about the global elite being in control of so much money and power now making the decisions for who gets funding and for what via their large endowments and donations. It questions who they are to be making such impactful decisions on our behalf and points out that it is the same people who are making these decisions that are responsible for some of the worst things that are taking place on the planet today referencing behaviors such as Mark Zuckerberg’s influence on the most recent presidential election via Facebook. Johnson points out that the new trend is to be, “doing well while doing good” and calls out the fallacy of thinking one can take hedonistic levels of wealth from others, most often in questionably ethical pursuits, and can then be seen as the saviors of society giving back their gifts of financial aid. It seems so obvious but it is a harsh reality to digest. Even I want to idealize making excessive wealth while giving back to the world. Don’t we all deserve to have a safety net? Beautiful homes? Lavish vacations? And anything our heart desires? Can’t 8 billion plus people have it all????
Maybe this explains my students inability to combine profit and philanthropy. If the guys at the very very very top can’t do it in spite of what they seem to think is a lot of effort how can we?
But there are other things I have learned. Although I learned it about myself a long time ago I feel that one can’t effective learn unless they are engaged and this means they have to find some reason to be interested in the content they are digesting. In class I try to do this by making the experience more hands on. Though not always possible and not everyone’s cup of tea I have found tremendous enthusiasm for making while learning with most of my students. It really changes the dynamics of the social environment as well as the learning outcomes.
I also feel like in todays internet age we can find almost anything we need online so my job certanly can’t be to give all the answers the internet can. I feel my job is to find the enthusiasm for learning the content which is different with every student and then to resource them properly so they know how to do it on their own. To do this I am constantly sharing how I came to the conclusions I came to in hopes they could put the content together themselves down the road.
My Current Designer class has been a surprise for my thesis too. It has been heavily informing my thoughts on nostalgia for my thesis and given me new insight into color, trends and consumer behaviours, and what the purpose is of new designers using design elements of their predecessors in their designs as are relevant to the individual brands.
Ultimately putting a course together is not all that dissimilar from putting a thesis together. One first has to come up with learning outcomes. Then take a look at the time line and be realistic about what can be accomplished in the allotted time. Ask what needs to be learned in order to achieve the desired outcome and begin to break it down by the allotted time. With every course I teach I have assumptions based on my previous experiences which form the dominant body of my class but in every case there is always research to add in addition to assumptions. Sometimes this is used to bolster my content or reinforce it with statistics and other people’s work. Sometimes it is to provide resources and other people’s work. Sometimes it is to clarify what I am discussing. And often it is because in creating the content for a course it leads me to questions I don’t have the answer to so I have to go back and research before I can share it with others. The biggest difference is that the research portion takes a much bigger role in my thesis as does my studio practice but the framework and approach is nonetheless quite similar.
Come to think of it, it’s much like writing a business plan as well.