Drafting a Studio Brief
A brief isn’t just a short note on the objectives, methodology and grading weightage of a studio. Neither is it a manifesto to be read aloud in an echo chamber. It is an invitation to young learners to discover through doing and playing. It is an encouragement for placing faith in one’s own curiosity & pursuit of joy. It is a commitment to creating a safe space for being vulnerable – a state essential to learning. It is a reminder that the learner is a person who has the right to know the route that we are likely to take in the dark, digressive and demanding journey of creativity.
Creativity does not relent to institutionalization easily. While without structure, creativity could very well subvert the agenda of an institution, it could stagnate and even die if caged within too many regulations. However, if we qualify institutions as custodians of quality and qualifications, we cannot avoid the question of the evaluation of an institution’s qualification. It would not suffice to create or ascribe the institution to an external regulator. We will not have to look far to see how regulations can be hoodwinked with mere fulfilment of formalities and without actually bettering oneself in quality.
Regulating mechanisms need to be within – voluntary, participatory and across hierarchies. With respect to educational institutions – notwithstanding the departmental specializations of administration, education and maintenance – all stakeholders and contributors need to participate as frequently and regularly as possible in processes of creating and sustaining their common vocabulary, identity and ethos.
Neither of the three – vocabulary, identity or ethos – is a pre-given static entity. We may begin with borrowed bearings, but soon and for sure we have to chart out our own directions since every institution is a community made up of individuals and each individual is unique. Each of us is responsible towards nurturing the self while contributing to the ecosystem that we draw from and thus the ecosystem and the self both stay replenished and not end up in the strife of one at the cost of another.
No matter how old one is, one can break the chain of judgement and choose to give: love, space, time, benefit of doubt or whatever you think is easiest for you to give as a beginning. Judgement only takes away: love, space, time and most importantly the sense of self-worth. Can we begin by claiming our sense of self-worth; not with a vengeance, but with kindness? Can we commit to a restoration of the balance of giving, taking and sharing? It seems nearly impossible to forget the trials, tribulations and trauma of childhood, which only keep compounding with added experiences, and its is much more difficult to forgive those whom we hold responsible for that. Perhaps the first step is to find someone to trust and tell them about what we feel what we went through. Accept and acknowledge for ourselves that it did happen, get over the denial and maybe also get over the past. See that we are alive in spite of what happened and that we have the power to give. If you find it difficult to trust someone, can you start by listening to an other and be a guardian to their pain? If you begin to trust yourself with another’s vulnerabilities, it may then open up the possibility of bearing your own vulnerability. Any which way a beginning has to be made.
Conversations are a good starting point for relationships – whether intimate or institutional. Conversations are not small talk, neither demand impressive oratory or narrative skills nor require debating or proving of points. Conversations are open, honest and digressive; almost a thinking aloud; except that someone else is listening to your thoughts and feelings, besides your defensive patterns and coping mechanisms. You are not alone. You’re being heard not just by yourself but another with their own unique life, feelings and perspectives. Conversations carry a lot of listening, silence and stillness. Conversations are good for vulnerability and without vulnerability there cannot be a conversation.
Conversations can contribute substantially to the ever-evolving vocabulary, identity and ethos of an institution. Besides being more meaningful than diktats and decree can never manage to be, conversations can be the antidote to the caging & codification that regulations and formal documentation have a tendency to precipitate into. Conversations can help us see an idea, principle, method, request, instruction, silence, aggression or image in person only to realize that they are not what it seemed like in the email or WhatsApp.
While everyone dreads a ‘meeting’, it is inevitable that we meet, see each other in person and talk about things that matter. There’s considerable introspection required from the leadership and an equal amount of courage from the team to breathe life into the dead rubber that meetings have become. We need to create numerous opportunities for diverse conversations: one-on-one, in small groups, in large groups, across hierarchies, across departments, across apparent boundaries, on important matters, on not-so-important matters and, frequently, without any matter. Team members who always choose to avoid meeting others in person on the pretext of being very busy are likely to be caught up in the vicious trap of feeling lonely and wanting to be alone. Workaholism is after all an addictive avoidance of emotional distress. Work is one of the most convenient excuses and unfortunately also socially acceptable. With numerous informal opportunities of practicing conversations, it may become easier to say, ‘I don’t know…’, ‘I am struggling here…’ and ‘Can you please help me?’
Syllabi and Curricula
It appears normal to look up to industry and its regulators to provide curricula – the pedagogical framework – to institutions. How far off the mark will I be to mention that while the regulator can be swayed by the industry, the industry appears only to seek CAD-monkeys and pay only peanuts? Even if I were off the mark, what have we learnt from the past nine months: suffering recurrent lashes of widespread illness and ill-planned and ill-implemented lock downs? Has the industry been able to decelerate the spiraling down economy, let alone reversing or even pausing it? The industry cannot and should not be expected to do that because it is not an isolated omnipotent entity. It is comprised of people like you and me and others. Yet we pretend that it is a homogeneous monolith. If there is anything that can save us from widespread disease it is diversity. A pedagogical framework has to be necessarily diverse so that the industry, rather than dictating to it, can learn from it and we are spared the rampant sprouting of placement cells in the name of educational institutions. Yes, jobs are important, but if you still think they are the most important thing then you have learnt nothing from the pandemic; and there are only going to be more of such ‘natural calamities‘ as we head towards irreversible man-made climate change.
Creative pedagogy does not follow textbooks for the simple reason that to be creative requires synthesis of diversity and disparity. Textbooks, on the other hand, contain information categorized into subjects. Since for most of us ‘seeing is believing‘ the categories and text books become watertight and also creativity-proof. It is therefore necessary for institutions of creative education to maintain critical distance from textbooks and syllabi.
However, the fallout of syllabi and curricula being Greek and Latin – quite literally – for most institutions of education in creative fields, particularly the absence of specific course outlines, is the evident decline in quality of education while institutions have been mushrooming even without rains. The pioneers – who straddled both practice and academia – walked in and out of studios without explicit course structure and material. Perhaps they were preoccupied with their creative calling day in and out, through seasons and over years to have embodied myriad methods and manners to not only pursue their curiosity but also encourage students to pursue their own. For the numerous followers, however, only seeing was believing and they saw that the master simply walks in and out of the studio without explicit course structure and content and he peaks volumes while everyone listens in rapt attention. Their wisdom was palpable but their propelling desire to pursue curiosities and the embodied methods from years of training was not evident to the followers. Traditional societies mandate individuals to behave as per prescribed hierarchies and rules. Although modernization challenges all dimensions of traditions, it doesn’t have the same impact across all. Economic opportunities maybe more easily accessible, particularly with urbanization; social structures, however, are far less relenting. Playing prescribed roles allows little scope for conversations and hardly any for questioning. The followers – who are not pioneers as they are not inherently modern – tend to fall back on the perceived societal modalities of communication & exchange. So, in addition to the convenience of walking in & out of the studio without explicit agenda, we also have preordained authority protecting the teacher from the young learners’ anxieties and exuberance. Following decades of such practices we are at a precarious situation where education itself is a lucrative industry that recruits young graduates trained in a craft – any which way that might be – but not trained in teaching the craft and with little aptitude for teaching itself.
Reviews vs Juries
Many design and architecture institutes perhaps also take pride in the tradition of juries that they follow as a method of assessing students’ work in the middle or at the end of a term. A panel of practitioners is invited for an open review of students’ works. Against the backdrop of the convenience and authority that I just referred to, the jury ends up being a demolition squad nitpicking ’what is not there’ and tearing a student’s sense of self worth to shreds. Why is it called a jury? Why are they pronouncing any judgement in a learning environment where the faculty doesn’t tire offering lipservice to ‘learning from mistakes’? How can there be a 30 minute session of judgement on a unique individual’s processes that run into weeks and their predispositions that run into years?
The crescendo of mid-term and term-end reviews also requires some diffusion. As if it were not enough that a student drilled for nearly two decades in learning by rote is almost everyday expected to take the leap of faith into the abyss of creativity while simultaneously churning out functional designs, mid-sem and final juries promise more trauma. Placing too much emphasis on the final reviews also leads to heightened performance pressure, inadequate conversation, piling up of work for the 11th hour, susceptibility to shortcuts such as plagiarism, outsourcing etc., weakened participation in regular studio sessions, consequently poor peer engagement and so on.
Weekly reviews can help avoid most of the troubles enumerated above. If you think that’s too much, have at least a monthly review to equip students with the skills to engage in public presentations and open critique with reduced anxieties.
Pepper the term schedule with generous amounts of peer reviews. Smartphones and social media are simultaneously filling in the holes and accelerating our dissipating social fabric. We are turning into islands. While we look up to our mentors for lessons and learn a considerable amount by mentoring those who look up to us, we learn the most from engagements with peers – our contemporaries who share our language and milieu but, at the same time, can offer their own unique perspectives. In spite of the proliferation of private stakeholders and skyrocketing cost of education, institutions can still offer the necessary democratic space to nurture and amplify diverse voices and cultures. Encouraging peer engagements is an important ingredient in this recipe.
Faculty need to engage in continual conversations among themselves, with students and with invited observers to keep chiselling their individual agenda and contribute to the institutional vocabulary, identity and ethos. If you are only interested in occupying the seat and taking home the paycheque, you will soon be replaced by AI. You have to take responsibility of yourself and your growth, only then will there be a chance of taking responsibility of a young learner’s growth and earning their respect. Fear and preordained authority breed just that, not respect nor regard. Design & creativity are essentially dependent on individuality and its reconciliation with the social context. If this dichotomy goes missing from the processes, the resultant objectives only require & serve formulae and not people.
Before any discernible meaningful exchange can take place between you and the student you need to be equally invested in your own emotional well-being as well as that of the students. Even good mechanics are emotionally connected to the cars they repair; we engage with young people and they need care and not repair. To be good at a craft we need to be truly curious about it so we can figure things out. To be able to teach, we should be capable of inculcating methods of sustaining curiosity such that students learn to figure out.
Over the past decade that I have been working with creativity, emotions and pedagogy, I have frequently encountered despondency in students: asking in unspoken words, ‘What’s the point in all this?’ ‘Whom do I show what I have discovered about myself?’ ‘Who is interested in what I have created?’ There seems to be a lot missing – the idea of home, intimacy in relationships, the notion of the other, a definition of purpose – which can disorient the sense of self. I do not wish to untangle the problem from the complex mess that our society is in as a result of tearing away from traditions, disintegrating family structures, still prevalent banking model of education, stubborn caste structures and so on and so forth. However, I do wish to replace my faith, as the builders of this young nation did several decades ago, in modern institutions. The institution could be the new community necessary for the individual to work for and with in order to define purpose and discover the notion of the other, the idea of home and a sense of self.
Since the institution has been accorded the custodianship of quality and qualification, it has to establish a system of evaluation. Whether or not one identifies with the institution as a community, one has to commit to certain methods of assessment. Any method of evaluation is a closed system since it’s very purpose is to affect exclusivity. It has to limit the number of parameters to a generic few, which are comprehensive and adaptable across varying contexts of assessment. If the system is open, assessment is not possible and if the parameters are too many, it is confusing for all involved.
The evaluation system includes the following:
Assessment Criteria: parameters by which students’ works will be evaluated
Assessment Rubric: description of varying grades ascribed to works corresponding to the varying degree of their quality
Assessment Type: methods by which assessment will be carried out as presentations, submissions, tests etc.
Assessment Deliverables: definition of tasks exercises design outputs where corresponding assessment criteria will be sought
Assessment Weightage: the proportioning of grades across deliverables, criteria and types of assessments
It is the institution’s prerogative whether to apply a common evaluating system across all its departments, or across all years within a department, or to have autonomous studios each with their own evaluation system. In any of the scenarios the evaluation system and the course outline (or the brief) of a particular studio go hand-in-hand. The course structure, exercises, tasks & projects, deliverables, criteria, review & assessment schedule & type and weightage, all need to be correlated to each other to create the brief – a document that maps the intended journey of the studio. My architectural education happened during a time when none of the terms I’ve just used were familiar to us – the students; but that was also the time which was not exhausted by incessant distractions from smart phones and social media. Our relationships to research & knowledge, practice & academia and space & time have been altered drastically over the past two decades. While technology can assist us in a big way in our pursuits, it can also become the biggest distraction if we are not clear about the purpose of its application. Every generation feels that they did much better than the ‘kids today‘. While I neither support nor contest this notion, I do confess that ‘kids today’ seem to be doing much more and are highly and diversely talented. So besides the institutional requirement of evaluation, I advocate drafting comprehensive briefs also in the interest of clarity for students on what, why and how we intend to do and learn things.
Checks & Benefits
The brief helps a student to grasp the course objectives and not work for appeasement of or validation from the faculty. It also helps to manage their own expectations from this. Contrary to popular belief, structuring the term by allocating exercise & project duration and scheduling reviews does not amount to rigidity. In fact, it allows for flexibility to know what is getting impacted due to unanticipated situations so we can make specific amends rather than getting overwhelmed by circumstances and the anxiety of the ever-unknown future.
Tutors are also apprehensive about committing to detailed briefs so that they are not held accountable if it’s not implemented in totality, to the letter. If the scenario were to reach such a low, then there are likely to be many other things that a tutor will have to worry about than just the brief gone adrift. Stating the obvious, high-handiness and complacency both need to be avoided in the studio, particularly by the tutors.
Not committing to a schedule and assessment criteria amounts to keeping students in the dark and always guessing instead of being able to make informed choices. Perhaps the most important benefit of a comprehensive brief is to make the ambitious leaps of the studio – which they ought to be –discernible to both faculty and students in the form of processes comprised of steps and stages.
A comprehensive brief may carry the following components:
Objectives: primary, secondary and even tertiary agenda of the studio
Structure: Tasks, Design Project & Review Schedule
Evaluation System: Assessment Criteria, Rubric, Type, Deliverables & Weightage
References: Reading & Media List & Links
Ethics & Protocols: Common rules, etiquette and procedures to be followed during the course of the studio
Tutors: Profile in terms of relevance of professional work to the studio and other interests
The brief needs to be leaner-centric. It should be succinct in structure & content, graphically inviting & engaging, simple yet purposeful in language.
Few important questions to ask oneself while structuring the studio and drafting the brief are:
- How does it encourage iterations?
- How does it facilitate peer engagements?
- How does it help you find what you are seeking as a tutor?
Yet again, continual conversations (not monologues) with students are indispensable in running a studio even if the briefs are comprehensive & succinct.