Designing Amidst a Pandemic

In a recent Medium post transcribed here, USF Professor in Design, Rachel Beth Egenhoefer, relays a message to her students on her Fall 2020 syallabus: Living Learning Designing through Multiple Pandemics.

Dear Students enrolled in my Design courses this Fall,

It’s a scary, exciting and crucial time for us to learn remotely. I cannot think of a more exciting time to be teaching my courses and I can not wait to begin sharing ideas this Fall.

For those who are enrolled in Sustainable Systems in Design… I developed this course ten years ago at The University of San Francisco. I intentionally use the term “systems” in this course title because we will focus on systems thinking as related to design. This course is not about making posters or products or slogans that will save us from climate change (because they won’t). The climate crisis is a wicked problem that will require mass change on many levels from behaviors to organizations to legislation to mindsets to a radical paradigm shift, and designers play an important role in all of that. During the first week of shelter-in-place last March I remember Zooming with other Environmental Studies professors and the first question we pondered was “where are we in the system — what kind of mass paradigm shift is about to happen?” Certainly in the last four months alone, we have seen huge changes in all directions around the world amidst multiple global pandemics. It is an exciting, scary, and crucial time to be tackling questions and solutions related to environmental justice.

For those who are enrolled in Design Activism… This is a course I developed in the days immediately following the 2016 election. Working with the McCarthy Center at USF, I created a new course in Design and Community Engaged Learning to address the current cultural and political climate that then launched the following academic year. For the past three years I’ve worked with students and community partners to create real-world projects impacting the San Francisco community, and on activist works using design as a tool for social change. Here we are approaching Fall 2020, on the cusp of another election year, amidst multiple global pandemics. I can not think of a more urgent and necessary time to be engaged in this work and this class.

If you have not yet seen the updated schedule or email from the Design program, our classes will be held remotely for Fall 2020. I made this decision after thinking about the health and safety of each of you, as well as our larger collective communities. It is all of our responsibility to keep each other safe. If possible, I may arrange for optional in-person meetings later in the semester (likely outdoors). Whether you are in San Francisco or choose to stay in some other location, you will be able to actively participate and complete the course wherever you are. Practically speaking you should plan to be “online” either in Zoom or discussion boards or Google Docs or some other means during our regularly scheduled class time. You should also plan to do readings, writing, project work, and meet with classmates outside of class time just like you otherwise would.

While I’ve taught both of these courses many times, they’ve always changed each semester — and this time there will certainly be a lot of change. I’ve been spending the summer retooling courses to be taught remotely, testing out new technologies and tools, thinking about asynchronous and synchronous ways of engaging with you all. At the same time, I am actively engaging in new resources that address not only the COVID-19 crisis but also the cultural reckoning of systematic racism in our country. Environmental justice is racial justice is gender justice is healthcare justice is social justice. We see this in front of our very eyes more dramatically than ever before. Design is deeply connected to all of them. I feel it would be irresponsible of me, as a design educator to not actively address current events in my courses and am actively working to diversify my syllabi.

With all this in mind, I have some idea of how the semester will go, but in all honesty, I don’t know yet what readings we’ll read, or what assignment prompts we will discuss, in part because I don’t think some of them have come out yet. Between COVID-19, racial justice protests, and the upcoming election — there’s so much that’s bound to happen in Fall 2020 that directly relates to how we think about designing sustainably, design activism, and community engaged design. So while we will be remote, I’m so excited to tackle these topics with you as we live and design through history together.

Finally, I want to acknowledge that we find ourselves in traumatic times. This is not college as usual just moved online. We are in crisis. For those that have had me as a professor before, you know that I work hard to foster community in the classroom. This will be even more important in our virtual classroom. I hope that our class will become a place for you to process complex questions in a supportive environment. We are people first and need to take care of each other, or else we can not learn and design effectively. The Design community at USF has always been a family of sorts, and we must remain one.

If you have any questions about this course or other things related to the Fall 2020 semester, please feel free to reach out.

See more examples from Design Activism here .

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