A message to students from Professor Hélène Frichot, Director of the Bachelor of Design

Helene message

As the recently appointed Director of the Bachelor of Design, and Professor of Architecture and Philosophy, I want to take the opportunity to reach out to you, the collective student body composing the Bachelor of Design, and applaud your incredible work meeting the educational challenges thrown up by the current global pandemic.

It’s certainly been a tough year so far, and now we are half-way through Semester One 2020, and there is more to come. Many of you will have hardly had the chance to get to know your colleagues and teachers before we “pivoted” to online teaching: Welcome to the virtual campus, it’s an experiment and a new experience for each and every one of us!

I want to assure you all that, behind the scenes, furious work is being undertaken directed at how we can best support your experience as undergraduate students, your engagement with your teachers and peers, your ongoing learning, and your well-being. We are fortunate because even before the current crisis descended upon us – one of many you will no doubt have to confront during your lifetimes – the University of Melbourne, and our Vice-Chancellor, Duncan Maskell, had already placed student experience at the heart of our endeavours as an institution of higher education (see the Student Life white paper here).

I want to acknowledge that it can be a daunting experience discovering yourself lodged within the massive workings of an institution of higher education for the first time. Having succeeded in securing a place here, you may well be experiencing the weight on your shoulders of great expectations. After all, you are being asked to greet adulthood at the same time as demonstrating your capacity for independent learning; you are being asked to manage the best balance of a social life with self-motivated study. And now the bar has been raised higher, and you are expected to succeed in all this and more as you grapple with social distancing, lack of access to many of the resources the campus has to offer, and a mediated distance from your peers and your teachers. Especially for those commencing university for the first time, it’s a lot to take on!

What’s worth remembering, and what gives me courage, is that an institution is only as strong as the people who collectively hold it together, each one making their contribution, each being prepared to undertake the work of making the institution something that functions as an equitable place where novel discoveries and creative projects are possible when we work together. What did you learn today about the world around you, and about your own capacity to engage in it? How do you make the best of these strange days of COVID-19? How do you balance time for relaxation and reflective retreat with the tasks and assignments you have to get done?

As you might have noticed above, I follow two disciplines, architecture and philosophy, and between them I have collected some handy tools and tactics I can draw on for coping with what is confronting us today. For instance, it’s a curious fact that so many philosophers and thinkers use the simple act of taking a walk as a means working out a problem that is troubling them. Something I have noticed over the past several weeks are the numbers of people – alone, in pairs, and in small family groups – taking what one of my friends calls an ‘iso-walk.’ This is what the essayist Rebecca Solnit calls “Wanderlust”, and if nothing else, it offers up different perspectives on our local neighbourhoods, alerting us to things we might have previously overlooked, as the smallest details take on significance. Walking is a spatio-temporal process that does not look for an outcome but enjoys its own rhythm of movement. I’ve been encouraged by a gentle slowing down and re-focussing that seems to be taking place, which makes me wonder about the immense pressure to perform we usually place ourselves under.

As design students dedicated to working through creative and critical acts of design, the pressure to perform, I know, can feel immense. In a recent article I wrote for Places Journal, worth checking out as they are collecting what they call “Fieldnotes on Pandemic Teaching”, I struggle with the propensity of design to focus on product over process, at the risk of forgetting the messy process of learning. I wondered aloud whether there is more to be gained in the evidence left behind following a concerted struggle, especially where the struggle is collaboratively shared with peers. Rather than compete over respective grades, hatch plans together, collaborate, share your concerns and what you have learnt. Remember too that the university listens to what you have to say. You hold the collective power to contribute to meaningful institutional change, because you are at the heart of this institution and what we do. All of which is to say, none of us get to the end of the struggle, we all take part in a process of life-long learning undertaken together, a great and unfolding adventure in ideas. So, take pleasure where you can in the struggle, make the pedagogical exercises you undertake meaningful to you, make them matter, and see how they speak to the world.

Now, below, I just want to alert you to a number of pragmatic messages that have been communicated via various channels. In particular, look out for our Dean Julie Willis’s regularly updated communiqué. Here you can find out about good news concerning accommodating changes being made to measuring your Weighted Average Mark (WAM) applying for special consideration in times of COVID-19, and other accommodations being made to help you, including ways you can help yourselves by staying in contact with each other.