One of the biggest challenges I have as an educator in interior design is to prepare all of my students for success in an industry with no shortage of inherent biases. Interior design has a narrow funnel to success, and plenty of people on the margins face challenges being successful in this industry. Black design is judged on white terms. Queer design is judged in terms of its opposition to “normal” design. And although design may appropriate the “other” for the sake of trend, the fundamental aesthetics of taste we teach remained tuned to the same narrow standards of beauty that have reigned for the last 100 years.
I received an excellent interior design education but the subtext of every experience I had taught me to tune my work to certain aesthetic standards, and to present myself as fitting the “normal” expectations of how a designer presents, in order to be accepted. Now, as a values-driven educator, I’m focused on giving all my students the tools and confidence to succeed on their own terms—and to help create a cohort of professionals who are curious, engaged, and passionate. It’s not just about teaching skills and knowledge—it’s helping them become the kind of humans they want to be when they graduate.
My job is teaching—it’s an active verb
When we switched to emergency online instruction, I was worried about how to ensure equity in a virtual learning environment. For many students, their top concerns shifted from their assignments and marks to the challenges of everyday life in a global pandemic. Some faced the difficulty of balancing childcare with coursework. Some had returned home and were sharing a workspace and an Internet connection with remote-worker parents and remote-learner siblings. Many were worried about health and safety outside of their homes. I realized that if there was a moment in time where they would feel that online learning could work for them, it might influence the rest of their careers, so I focused on creating strong and equitable learning experiences for them.
The same value-driven approach that helped me widen the funnel to success in a traditional classroom also helped me widen the funnel to success in an online environment. I chose a 100 percent asynchronous course design to maximize scheduling flexibility and household Internet sharing for my students. I pre-recorded lecture videos and used Top Hat to distribute the lecture slides and weekly homework assignments, and gain insight on their understanding of the course materials. My students really appreciated the ability to balance their personal life challenges with their education.
The key to success of this transition to online was creating a virtual learning environment that brought the face-to-face relationships students had in class. It helped them feel a sense of belonging and ownership of their education even though many things were happening outside of their control. And it helped me ensure an equitable learning experience for everyone.
As we progress this academic term with students whom we have never met in person (and who have likely never met each other), there are a number of tips I want to share that helped me finish last semester with human connection in mind.
1. Create community for and by students: Community is the key to establishing and retaining student engagement. Community does not mean that instructors are investing all the energy at the center of the conversation—creating community for students is where you step out of the room and they can create community without you. This is especially important for students at the margin—you need to create opportunities for an inclusive community before they fall through the cracks.
2. Meet students where they are: As educators, we need to focus on providing value for students rather than catering to our own preferences. We have to anticipate their needs before problems arise, not wait for complaints and then respond to their wants. Meeting them where they are does not mean that is where we stay; it means working alongside them as they try, fail, and try again on the path to excellence. It’s about getting down into the trenches and pulling out what drives them, and not judging those drivers. Help them make the connection between their goals and how your teaching meets those objectives. Whether they want to be social-media famous or prefer to be a behind-the-scenes data wizard, validate their goals and help them individually understand why what you are teaching matters—and how it will get them to where they want to go.
3. Create intentional moments for them to get on the soapbox: Give them the opportunity to talk about who they are and what matters to them. Let them share via their preferred modality. This could be in real time through video chatting, pre-recorded video, or in writing. Then respond in kind to let them know you hear them.
4. Enable intellectual matchmaking: Help them see that no matter who they are or why they’re taking your course, there is another student who is just like them. During the first week of class, I give an assignment that asks students to tell me why they want to study interior design. This gets posted to a class discussion board, and they are then assigned 10 student assignments to review and identify micro-themes they share in common. This tends to foster a lot of conversation that lays the groundwork for future collaboration and group study.
5. Let them become barnacles on your whale: Let them hover at the edge of your virtual door knowing they are welcome to come in whenever they want. Run extended office hours over live video, open up a professional version of Facebook or other social media, even try to give Snapchat or TikTok a go. Create opportunities for human connection that fosters interest and engagement.
6. Create interdependency with intentional communities: It takes community to be a successful learner. To create an environment where people are never challenged to succeed in, is a community failing to give them the basic life skills that will make them successful. Create opportunities that require students to overcome cultural, language, and skill barriers, with major projects that ask them to be dependent on—and learn from—each other.
My goal is to develop students who are proactive, resilient, and enthusiastic about their work. It’s all hard work, for me and for them, but the result is the kind of professional we all want on our team. It’s a bonus when I can also make some headway in dismantling the institutionalized biases of my profession by improving equity and access in my courses. Improving inclusivity through community means that students are more likely to stick with this major beyond my one class. We can create a whole new generation of professionals with greater diversity in thinking, and in talent, which raises the bar for our entire profession.
Lindsay Tan is a design ecologist and associate professor at Auburn University where she serves as program coordinator for the institution’s nationally ranked interior design program. She believes that the core point of her job is to create students who are proactive, resilient, and enthusiastic about their work, that it’s not about skills and knowledge but rather about what kind of human her students want to be when they graduate.